In July 1986, I moved from Cincinnati to Silicon Valley. Michael and I had been engaged for three months. Since the bulk of our courtship had been conducted through letters and phone calls, we decided to actually date for a few months before planning our wedding. On a late September afternoon, I walked along Escuela Avenue toward downtown Mountain View. I was homesick. The thrill of being in a new place had worn thin; I was tired of adapting. Instead of a cool fall day, it was over ninety degrees. Instead of a shower of red maple leaves, I walked past rows of palm trees. I turned the corner onto Villa Street, trudging past Chiquita and up Mariposa Avenue. As I crossed an intersection a block away from El Camino Real, I found myself hating the Spanish street names, the palm trees, the fact that I couldn’t walk through a grocery store without seeing men shopping in the middle of the day (why aren’t they at work?) and hearing five different languages. In Ohio, women ruled daylight shopping, men worked regular hours, everyone spoke English and streets were given proper names like Oak and Maple. In Ohio, things made sense.
(I probably needed a snack and a nap.)
When your world is turned upside down, it’s easy to blame the obvious without uncovering the true causes of your pain. In Ohio, there was a homogeneity to life I missed in the multicultural Bay Area. In Ohio, I had left my family, dear friends, a church community I loved, wooded trails I roamed without fear and a job where I felt valued. At that point, I could’ve let my resentment fester toward the “un-American” (at least my view of America) aspects of Bay Area culture. I could’ve kept my anger on the surface and never looked further to what was really going on. In truth, I actually liked palm trees and warm weather and the variety of cultures. Michael had offered to move to Cincinnati but I chose to make the transition.
After two months of daily togetherness, however, the realities of my choices were beginning to sink in. I was feeling the loss of all I had left, beginning to encounter the challenges of marriage and building a new life. My worldview was expanding; for someone who thrives on control, this is a very uncomfortable experience.
Little did I know on that day that I was only on the cusp of more transition, that I had yet to learn the meaning of stress. Within the next 18 months, there would be several more address changes, job changes, cross-country wedding planning, first mortgage, first pregnancy……the unmatched agony of stillbirth. Two young people trying to hang on to their year-old marriage, grieving dysfunctionally. Clinical depression, unspeakable loneliness, a loss of faith in their small god of easy answers, not yet recognizing the actual presence of a God bigger than they knew who quietly held them.
Today I awakened to a phone call from a dear cousin. Age-mates, we were best buddies as children and still enjoy time together. Our children are close in age as well. When I heard her sobs, my first thought was “someone’s died.” But the last name I expected to hear was that of her youngest son. His 30th birthday is tomorrow. Thirty years ago, she celebrated her 30th birthday with his birth. They were together to celebrate their shared birthday. A heart attack at 29. No drugs or alcohol involved, no foul play, no immediate signs of Covid. He had overcome much in his young life. Was doing well, active. They were supposed to go on a bike ride together, then a Zoom call with his brother in New Zealand. His parents are in shock, traumatized.
In a year of unprecedented disaster, this one shakes me to the core. I feel raw. As my cousin described cradling her son’s head, whispering her love, above a body growing cold, I was taken back to holding my own son, my own whispers. Covid death statistics lose meaning as numbers, but to imagine 200,000 Americans (almost a million people worldwide so far this year) whispering goodbye to sons and daughters, to parents and grandparents …. Even non-Covid-related deaths, from heart attacks and cancer and car accidents, are affected by pandemic restrictions on funerals and travel, border closures and hospital access.
We are a world in transition, a world in grief. We are raw. We feel the loss of what we’ve left behind. We feel the loss of the freedom we once enjoyed to ignore dire words of warning. Some of the things we’ve experienced this year we could never have anticipated. Others we chose not to acknowledge; perhaps some are still making that choice.
There is a lot of anger in grief. It’s easy to hate the messenger, the latest upset in the news. It’s easy to hate street signs. It’s harder to acknowledge what’s going on inside.
Between the pandemic and politics, our nation’s stress fractures have been revealed. In my life, stress has been an unwelcome companion. Similar to this year, there was about a decade when it seemed one momentous crisis after another came crashing in — the rise and fall of finances, special-needs children, my parents’ unexpected deaths within the same year. Some of the crises proceeded from my own inability to acknowledge my limitations as I tried to continue living up to my own impossibly high standards – a perfect wife, perfect parent, perfect Christian, perfect home school teacher, etc. (perfectly exhausting). I ignored all the warning signs of stress fracturing and ended up with serious health issues. It has taken another decade to begin to repair all the metabolic damage.
Some of us only learn the hard way.
I suspect a lot of us have been yelling at the street signs this year. It’s easier to blame what triggers our discomfort – differing political or religious views – than to acknowledge our own feelings of confusion, fear, loss and grief. Blame somehow engenders a feeling of power even when everything else is spiraling out of control. (I wonder sometimes if that is why our current president seems to blame others so quickly.)
Blame and critical judgments rarely lead to effective solutions. We cannot force anyone to accept responsibility; that is a choice of will. We can only accept the responsibility that is ours.
We build worlds that create and maintain our illusion of control. Years like this one are a stark reminder of the fragility of that illusion. It is the horrifying realization every young parent experiences – the moment you concede that you cannot possibly protect this child, who has overtaken your heart, from every danger out there. You would gladly give up your own life in exchange if the choice is given. But sometimes, like my cousins are experiencing today, you don’t get that choice.
If today you are grieving a specific loss, or just feeling the cumulative stress from a year of emotional punches, pay attention to what is beneath your immediate emotions. We tend to vent with anger or frustration, either directed outward at others or inward as depression. For some, like me, there may be a retreat into dissociation, a resistance to feeling anything. Negative emotions can get entangled with religious directives or perfectionism, a layer of “should’s” that drive the true feelings even deeper. Give yourself permission to feel whatever is there. Pay attention to the resistance; it helps to highlight where to focus.
Chronic stress can damage our bodies and minds. We can’t control what happens out there, but we can do things to take care of ourselves. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, start with the basics:
Physical choices – getting enough sleep, nutrition, water, fresh air and exercise. If you find resistance there, treat yourself as you would a defiant toddler. Gently and firmly. “I know you don’t want a nap, but we’re just going to lay down here together. I know you’d rather have cookies for dinner, but your body really wants some vegetables.”
Mental choices – limit exposure to social media, news reports or whatever tends to trigger those punches. Again, pay attention to the resistance. Do you feel a NEED to stay informed? Does that come from addiction or from a genuine need for connection? Evolutionarily, we have catapulted from the concerns of a single village to that of the entire planet. Our minds were not designed to carry such a weight.
Emotional choices – we all need to love and be loved. We all need to be heard and affirmed. Especially in this time of sorrow, being there for someone else is one of the greatest gifts you can bestow. Don’t try to fix it, just listen and affirm. If you’re feeling lonely, try reaching out to offer your presence to someone else. If you are the one grieving a significant loss, don’t hesitate to accept offers of help. In either case, choose carefully those you deem to be safe people and spaces. Keep strong boundaries around those who tend to trigger your defensiveness.
In everything, begin with an acknowledgement of where you are. Then think about where you want to be and how to get there. The best path toward enduring change consists of minuscule, incremental steps. Literal baby steps involve a couple of tottering steps, some excitement, followed by a face plant. Managing chronic stress is remarkably similar. If you struggle with all the choices above, trying to fix them all at once will end in facial rug burn. Pick one. One glass of water consistently every day is better than eight glasses one day and none for the next month. Momentum builds with success. Success starts with a ridiculously easy goal achieved consistently.
With the upcoming election, stress is steadily increasing in America. Choose today how to best care for yourself. Ask God to highlight anything in the above lists that might be helpful, either in a sense of invitation or resistance. This isn’t a time for big changes, but one small one may bring hope.
After residing over 30 years within the same five mile area, I can now report how much I enjoy the multicultural aspects of Bay Area living. Authentic ethnic dining and retail options, combined with the fascination of personal stories and variety of cultural experiences, provide numerous opportunities to recognize humanity’s many similarities as well as our differences. Sameness has its comforts, but if I’m honest, it can also be a little boring.
Last year, some of my dear Ohio friends visited us. Dining together at a local salad bar, I remarked that on my previous visit to this particular restaurant, I had noted how cool it was to realize I was the only white face among a variety of Asian, Hispanic and other ethnicities. “And you like that?” my friend asked. His unspoken discomfort evoked a memory of my inner-tantrum walk down now familiar Spanish-named streets. I realized that my friends, and people in a lot of American towns, were perhaps only beginning to experience the blending of cultures that now feels so normal to me. I wanted to assure him that beyond the initial discomfort, there waits a greater appreciation for diversity, a greater love for others, a greater awe of God’s faithfulness and creativity. I wanted to warn him that remaining in the comfort of the familiar – in the fear of change, in only looking back to supposed loss – would cause him to miss the wonders of present and future opportunities. I wanted to say we can trust God to preserve what is essential to our faith and we can also trust Him not to let us stay in mud puddles when He’s offering us the seashore (thank you, CS Lewis). Instead, I just replied, “Yes, I love it.”