Mourning the Magnolias

The magnolias are blooming in Central Park but the streets are empty of their audience.

I have a lot of friends who, like me, were lucky enough to leave NYC when things started to get ugly. But I have a lot of friends who stayed. Because they didn’t know – none of us knew – what this would turn into. Or they didn’t have a place to go. Or they had to stay for work because their jobs aren’t the kind that can fit into a screen.

One of those friends sent me a picture of the magnolias on her way to the grocery store and all I could do was cry.

Because the sidewalk was bare where there should be a parade of picture takers. Because all around that tree the city, my city, is suffering. Because she was given the gift of those flowers. Because she thought to send her picture to me. Because the mask over her face probably blocked out the scent of flowers blooming on a March afternoon. Because flowers in a photo smell like nothing.

I’ve had so many conversations this week through my ever-attached devices that all seem to follow the same pattern. We marvel at all that is going on. We joke about how we’re stringing these hours together. We scratch the surface of all the loss we’re feeling and inevitably try to buoy ourselves again with gratitude.

At least we’re healthy.”
At least we have food.
At least we have more time to read, or rest, or clean, or whatever.

Then we hang up and promise to talk soon and feel about the same as we did before. A little more connected, a little more seen, a little more expanded from the walls around us. But mostly the same. Still here, scared, confused, amazed, thankful, fearful, alone, awake.

We just can’t size this thing. We don’t know how to understand it or how to consume its magnitude when we only experience it in tiny specs. The country is changing as we know it and we are looking for toilet paper. The economy is in a tailspin and we are wearing the same pants we wore yesterday. The world is stunned with suffering and we are watching it happen through two-inch screens.

I am one small, silly life and in my circle alone I have friends who’ve cancelled their wedding, missed a fertility appointment they’d prepped and prayed for, lost their jobs, or lost loved ones they aren’t able to bury. I have friends who are doctors and nurses who are seeing this all firsthand. Friends who are sad for the world but loving the extra downtime with their families. Friends who are alone in tiny NYC apartments and can’t stop crying. Friends who are baking and making art and taking extra-long walks with their dog because what else is there to do.

I am devastated. I am grieving over all of this and then I am working my day job. I am drinking hot water with lemon. I am reading a book before bed. I am crying out to God to have mercy on us. I am ordering facewash online because when I left New York I didn’t know I’d be gone for such a long time.

And it all just feels so damn disconnected. How can I check my email when Rome is burning? How can I enjoy a movie when I’m terrified that my dad might get sick? How can I drink coffee in the quiet of the morning when my city is a warzone? How can I FaceTime my friends when the ripple effects of all of this just go on and on and on?

How can any of us?

And yet, we do. We still have taste buds and need haircuts and crave connection and curse when we hit our shin on the nightstand even in the midst of a global, unprecedented pandemic. We mourn with the world collectively, connectedly and yet we encounter this loss in such specific, individual ways.

My heart hurts the way that your heart hurts the way that China’s hearts hurt and yet each of our versions of lament, of awareness, of experience of this is a snowflake, a thumbprint.

It’s so big and so small and it’s all at the same time.

I read an article this week that helped me find some words that wouldn’t surface. The author called what we’re all feeling “anticipatory grief”. A kind of grief that comes from uncertainty. “Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety.”

I’ve thought a lot about grief this year. I’ve staggered between its stages as I’ve dealt with a loss of my own in my very broken, human way. As I look around me, it seems the world staggers now too. We’re in denial, we’re angry, we’re depressed, we bargain, we accept, we repeat.

The author goes on to say this:
I’ve been honored that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s family has given me permission to add a sixth stage to grief: Meaning. I had talked to Elisabeth quite a bit about what came after acceptance. I did not want to stop at acceptance when I experienced some personal grief. I wanted meaning in those darkest hours. And I do believe we find light in those times. Even now people are realizing they can connect through technology. They are not as remote as they thought. They are realizing they can use their phones for long conversations. They’re appreciating walks. I believe we will continue to find meaning now and when this is over.
I love this sentiment; I just want to spin it a little. To add meaning as a sixth stage of grief seems to imply that the first five are less meaningful, or worse, that they’re meaningless.

In my personal journey with grief I’ve found a lot of meaning within the various stages. There’s something beautiful about a righteous anger against a break in God’s design. There’s something important in bargaining for a different version of the life you have because you’re forced to realize what you’re willing to give up. There’s something meaningful in the drunken stupor of sadness that carries you in and around and through these stages in whatever order they come.

Maybe instead, it’s a matter of seeking out that meaning as we go. Maybe it’s feeling the freedom to be wherever you are and let other people be wherever they are and not feel this constant pressure to understand it or make sense of it or ping pong back and forth between heaviness and hope.

We don’t have to keep pulling ourselves up out of our sadness with platitudes and Christian coffee mug phrases if we believe there is meaning in our grief. And we don’t have to feel guilty for enjoying a little extra margin in our day if we believe there is meaning in choosing gratitude amidst chaos.

Maybe we can simply look to this world, in this unsizeable, extraordinary, terrifying season – we can look to the macro and the micro of it all, our overwhelm and the gift of quiet, our collective, anticipatory grief and the thumbprint of our individual experience – and be reminded of the One who is just as unsizeable, just as extraordinary, just as present and unknowable as all of this and then some.

He is greater. He is bigger than this. He hears our collective cries and sees every individual tear.

He is present, He is not gone, He has not left the lonely to fend for themselves.

He is the author of meaning. He is the healer of grief. He is constant amidst change.

He is the giver of margin, of lemon water, of connection, of safety.

He is the One who makes the magnolias bloom in Central Park.

And He is with us, even in this.

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