As We Knew It: A Challenge to Dream

This is the third in a series of essays about the COVID-19 pandemic as it relates to UU congregations and religious exploration.

“The Church has Left the Building” – May 2020

“On Reopening and the Least of These” – July 2021

Brave is a hand-me-down suit from terrified as hell.

Andrea Gibson (they/them), American Poet

The church we knew and loved before COVID is gone, and it is not coming back.

Now I know that this is the last thing anyone wants to hear, most of all from a religious professional, and I’m so sorry to be the one to say it.

Now breathe.

Now grieve.

My Goddess, we have so much to grieve. 

It has been over six hundred days since some of us have worshipped in person together.

So much has happened since then. How many people have died in the last 606 days? How many people have been born? 

Every single one of us has had at least one pandemic birthday. What was that like? 

Whose birthday did you mourn missing the most?

Do you think you’ll ever be able to eat cake that someone blows all over again?

Do you think you’ll ever want to?

We need to grieve that. We need to grieve time that we have missed, the joyful, ordinary moments stolen from so many of us over the last two years, the things that will never be the same.

And in the ongoing stress replacing those precious everyday moments, so many of us haven’t had time to grieve or even time to begin processing what the last two years have done to us and to our communities.

I have said so many times since March 2020 and will say so many more – we have lived, are still living, through a large-scale, long-term traumatic event. How much or how little it has personally impacted us depends largely on a few things – our support systems, our resources, and our privilege. 

Those with the least support, resources, and privilege are those who have been and will continue to be the most impacted, the most traumatized, by this pandemic. These are the people for whom it never stopped, for whom help never came or was too little too late, and for whom the struggle is far from over – even as they witness their communities sprinting frantically ahead of them in pursuit of a return to “normal”; all while some of us are left wondering how we can even begin to repair the financial, emotional, and physical damage the last two years have brought.

I personally have no doubt that the stress of parenting while also working remotely (especially solo parenting through the first 13 months) during the pandemic has already taken time off of my life. I went to my doctor this summer to treat the physical symptoms of burnout and found not only had my cortisol (stress hormone) levels become alarmingly high, but my reproductive hormones had essentially shut themselves down – a widely documented physiological response to chronic stress, often associated with war, famine, or other extreme circumstances.

I am not alone. So many of us were stretching ourselves too thin and doing too much before the pandemic and now, after nearly two years of survival mode and crunch time, it is going to take a lot of intention and care to heal. We can’t jump right back into “normal” – so little is the same as it was the last time we lived in that world.

It is said that it takes three months of intense healing work to fully process one year of trauma. By that count, we as a collective have at least five months of pausing, grieving, and healing to do before we can get back to anything else – much less the “normal” that wasn’t even really working in the first place. 

Several weeks ago, as I began writing down the thoughts that would become this message, I had to pause to cry. I cried because after months of being too stressed out and tired to write, the words had finally begun flowing, the Muse I’d been missing moved through me and one by one the ideas I had been ruminating on and their solutions illuminated like fireworks in my mind. Finally, I understood the fullness of the message I was trying to send and was willing and able to let the Muse carry me to it – 

and just then, my five year old came into the bedroom where I was working and began loudly and incessantly demanding my attention. 

I do not blame them. 

I had been working all day and had worked most of the day before. I was in a Zoom meeting before I even said good morning to them that day.  My spouse had been on-duty parenting while I worked. I planned to take over when they left for their shift that evening, hoping that our child will have an easy bedtime and be asleep by my 8:00 UU Parenting Circle Zoom. If I played my cards right, they may even be asleep in time for me to find a chalice lighting and reading before the meeting instead of picking up the closest book on hand and hoping Godde would help me open it to a page with something appropriate. 

She always does. That’s the closest I get to formal spiritual practice most days, though. Who has the time?

Knowing that the rest of my day, and an untold number of coming weeks, would be filled with more moments like this, I had to stop and cry. I cried because over 600 days, however many work weeks, of this absolutely impractical and impossible living at work situation have left me without any emotional or mental reserves to call on, because writing is the only thing I typically do for myself, because I do not blame my child for wanting my attention but I fear they will see my frustration with our situation as frustration with them, and because in that moment I became too overwhelmed by the ever-present Mom Guilt to continue writing, but I was too upset over not getting to write that I couldn’t shift to be present with my child instead.

I remember an article I read last year about how much uninterrupted work time working mothers have gotten during the pandemic. On average, for every three hours of “work,” a working mother could expect to be interrupted for at least 30 minutes of it. That would explain why it feels like it takes two days to do what I used to be able to in four hours.

This is fucking impossible.

So many other parents and caregivers, especially mothers, continue to be put in the impossible position of trying to hold everything together while, as the song goes, “the world around us unravels.” We are pressured to squeeze into roles and expectations that no longer fit us, that no longer fit the society we live in and are raising our children in. Even before the pandemic, we were held to an impossible standard.

So let’s go back to my first statement: The church, as we knew it, does not exist anymore, and it should never come back.

Why is that?

Because people like me, people who assume the role and mantle of motherhood, used to be largely responsible for making it happen, and we don’t have time for that shit anymore.

Wait, what?

Let me try that a little more pastorally.

Something I’ve experienced frequently in my work as a religious educator is the expectation that the parents and caregivers of children in Religious Education/Exploration (RE) are and should be largely responsible for making up the RE volunteer pool. While I was always thrilled to have parents and caregivers regularly volunteer pre-COVID, even then it was not always a realistic expectation of them considering the demands of modern family life.

As so many of us are learning in our journeys towards practicing anti-racism, sometimes the systems we exist within are relics of days long-passed. Sometimes outdated expectations are so baked into our infrastructure that it takes a great deal of courage, intention, and skill to perceive them and make adjustments when needed.

I certainly understand that. Humans are creatures of habit and oftentimes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a fine rule to live by. But how do we know when something is “broke,” and if not “broke,” perhaps simply no longer useful, or no longer relevant to the world we live in today? 

My aunt has a gorgeous antique rotary phone that belonged to my late great-grandmother. It is beautiful and can still make calls – but it is no good for text messages and my grandfather can’t connect his hearing aids to it to make using it for calls more accessible. It is a lovely phone, functionally and aesthetically, and it is cherished because it belonged to an ancestor, but that doesn’t mean we have to keep using a piece of technology that is inaccessible and difficult to use. Using an iPhone instead of this antique doesn’t make the antique less special or its role in history less significant, it just means it’s not the best tool for the job anymore.

So what is the point I’m actually trying to make?

The first Sunday School class at the Unitarian Fellowship that would one day become the congregation I serve was held in 1953. This was eight years post-World War II during the height of the Baby Boom. Many of the jobs done by women during the war had gone to the returning men, and white women could not even open a bank account in their own names until the 1960’s. Though I expect UU’s have always been a bit ahead of the progressive curve, we can probably safely assume that at the time the church was founded, the business of Sunday School fell largely to the women of the congregation, as caretaking roles still so often do.

So when I hear again and again that the parents used to run the RE program, I can’t help but wonder if it was mostly parents or mostly mothers. I can’t help but wonder if our program and programs in so many other congregations was built upon an expectation of and sense of entitlement to an unlimited supply of unpaid labor – just like our country.

That labor pool does not exist anymore. 

Regardless of gender, most parents and caregivers in the congregation I serve have at least one full-time job and many of them have a collection of part-time positions and contracts that add up to regular 60+ hour workweeks. Student loan payments, low and stagnant wages, and increasing costs of living often make these working arrangements necessary for a family’s financial sustainability. To put it simply, the way things used to be doesn’t always work for today’s families – and they deserve a chance to build systems and organizations that do work for them.

As religious professionals, sometimes it feels as if we’re endlessly spinning our wheels trying to figure out why we can’t recruit and retain more volunteers, why church attendance is down, why we’re not attracting more new members. Especially as we’re coming out of the pandemic and beginning to be in community again, it can feel like a personal or professional failure to be lacking the people power needed to make our ministries happen. Understandably, we and our congregations are aching to be among the familiar and the comfortable again after such a long period of uncertainty and discomfort.

However, perhaps this deep discomfort, this rushed and unsettled feeling, doesn’t need to be fixed – only experienced and explored. White supremacy culture tells us that everything is urgent – it is up to us to decide if we agree.

We who are white in this predominantly white denomination have a duty to continuously check ourselves for biases and to pay special attention to our comfort. 

Are we comfortable because we are confident we have created genuinely safe and equitable spaces for all people, or are we comfortable because our privilege is allowing us to ignore when others are not? Or are we privileged enough to expect our comfort to be prioritized and accommodated for? Is the policy or procedure being discussed the most important discussion on the table, or are we using policy and procedure as a means to have control over something while simultaneously avoiding uncomfortable, deep, transformative relationships and conversations?

When we experience discomfort, we must ask ourselves why we are uncomfortable and if our discomfort is the most important part of the situation.

White supremacy culture emboldens those of us with white skin privilege to believe that our anxieties, discomforts, and opinions must always be addressed, and urgently. However, when we assess a situation based only on the scope of our own experience (ex. “Wow! I’m really uncomfortable with these 8th Principle/anti-racism discussions, and that discomfort is demanding all of my attention.”) we might stop when it gets uncomfortable and miss out on the opportunity to see what the most important part of the situation really is. (Spoiler alert: The most important part is almost never white feelings.)

However, if we’re willing to simply be with our discomfort, the situation can become something educational and transformative, such as: “Wow, it’s uncomfortable for me to learn this. I have a lot of huge feelings about it, and I’m not sure how best to work through and express them. If I sit with them for a moment, though, I can set them aside a bit and wonder how my reaction might feel to BIPOC community members? How can I breathe through this and center their experience rather than my own so we can all grow and heal together?” (Spoiler alert: the most important part is almost always relationship and centering the lived experiences of those directly impacted, especially when they embody marginalized identities.)

It takes an incredible amount of courage to do the latter, but I wouldn’t still be doing this work if I didn’t know for a fact it is possible.

We absolutely can – and must – build the world we dream of, and that’s why I’m not content to just go back to how things used to be without seriously considering how they could be made better. We are a denomination full of dreamers – let’s dream, let’s brainstorm, and let’s come up with and come back to something better than the systems we inherited.

It’s ok that the old ways don’t always fit anymore. It doesn’t mean we failed, and it doesn’t mean the ones who established them were wrong. It just means we’re ready to try something newMy great-grandmother’s antique phone is still cherished, even though we don’t use it for phone calls anymore.

Brene Brown, renowned shame and vulnerability researcher, posits that courage is impossible without vulnerability. It is incredibly uncomfortable to sit in this liminal space, to know somewhere deep inside that something we love will never be quite the same. 

It hurts. It sucks. It is so profoundly uncomfortable that all we want to do is anything that we think will make it better.

I know that my first reaction to that type of scenario is usually to hold on harder, to resist change, to kick my legs and wail in vain, “No! It ain’t broke and I ain’t fixin’ it!” – all the while knowing damn well that change is the only thing constant in life – whether or not I want it.

Again, I am left wondering about the time when the congregation I serve was just starting. I wonder if that time felt kind of the same as it does now. I imagine it felt similar in some ways – the great relief of a long-term crisis ending and entering a period of rebuilding. I expect, much like now, people were just glad it was over and they could move on – but was there time to mourn not only the dead, but the life Women had a chance to taste while the men were away? 

Did everything go back to the way it was before, and across the country, did the Rosie the Riveters who had built ships and supported the war effort from the homefront quietly slip back into their aprons and begin planning Tupperware parties? (I read a fascinating article recently detailing how Tupperware parties and home sales were created as a more “acceptable” alternative for women who wanted to work after the war.)

I wonder what would be different if instead of ushering women back into the domestic sphere, to Sunday School classrooms, and “pink collar” jobs after WW2, our society had taken a collective deep breath. Of course everyone was tired and ready for things to move along – I just wonder if, in the frantic shuffle to return to “normal,” anyone paused to ask if “normal” was good enough to go back to, or if we should dare to dream a little bigger. Perhaps we have that chance now.

We need not contort and shrink ourselves to fit into expectations, roles, and structures that no longer suit us – we must be courageous enough to imagine what exists beyond the realities we are familiar with, even if they have served us well in the past. As a living tradition, our work will never be done – but that is no reason not to try.

Our children have been incredibly brave and resilient the last two years. It pained us adults to be distant, to have our whole worlds change, to not know what was going to happen next – our children and youth experienced all of that too, just largely without the benefit of being included in the decisions being made about how their lives would change. Our children and youth have displayed the type of valor, courage, and resilience in the face of uncertainty often associated with veterans, survivors, first-responders – and with Mothering.

May we follow their example by allowing ourselves to dream and to choose vulnerable courage in the face of change – even, and especially, when it is uncomfortable.

May it be so.

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