A Father’s Words to Far Off Children
March 20, 2020 – David R. Weiss
About two years ago both of my youngest children moved from here out to California. Ben, along with his wife, Jess, moved to Sacramento where she took a position in HR with Pepsi. He continues to work for a Minneapolis firm that specializes in digital archiving—work that he does from a multi-monitor virtual desktop in their home. Just a couple months after their move, Susanna joined them in California, beginning her Ph.D. work in chemistry at Berkeley, about 90 miles from Sacramento.
As a father, it’s been a gift to know that even as they are further from me than ever before, at least they’re a reasonable car drive or train ride from each other. One way I’ve dealt with the distance between us is to establish a discipline of writing them each monthly letters—typed up and sent by snail mail. No mere notes, I’m using them to collect and share family memories: legacy letters. This month, however, I decided to write “into” the pandemic. When I mailed this, Susanna was already under a shelter-in-place order, but Ben and Jess (in Sacramento) were not yet. That changed last night, a day or two before my letter will even reach them.
Although the monthly letters are usually quite similar, I write one to each of them, tweaking it to match their lives. They are, after all, personal letters to my children. This one, though, might offer some words of wisdom to others, so I am sharing a “blended” version here. I make no great claims to wisdom, but I will say that I love them with my whole heart and if there is wisdom here, it is due in large part to that love.
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Dear Susanna & Ben—
I’m writing to you today from a changed world. Everything we took for granted about the future has now called our bluff, and we are left wondering whether “normal” was just a childhood fancy we didn’t realize we’d have to outgrow. And here we are.
Your life will be different from this moment forward—demarcated into pre-pandemic and post-pandemic eras. It’s true that 9/11 changed many things. But this pandemic is so much more far-reaching. From one end of the globe to another, aviation, health services, human services, economies, athletic schedules, education, societies, families will all be stretched right up to … and sometimes past … the breaking point. I expect that, far from being a single month of awkward inconvenience, this season of severe dislocation is likely to last for months—perhaps many months … perhaps into next year. Who knows how your education, post-grad job prospects, your current work job—or Jess’s—will be impacted. In many ways this pandemic reveals how essential sound science and chemistry as well as computer networks and basic retail services are in our society. On the other hand, our economy—across the globe—is going to be deeply hurt. Most notions of “progress” will be seriously staggered. (And some of them should be!)
But not all. And that’s what I want to write a few words about this month.
Of course, you “know” all this already. It’s how you were raised. But the path from childhood into adulthood is winding and sometimes treacherous. And there are many pressures along the way that encourage you to forget or trade in these deeper learnings for “shinier” but less life-giving values. So please read these words carefully. There is so little I can do from so far away to keep you safe or whole as this pandemic settles in and re-defines our lives. But I can offer you these words about how you might still make “progress” while it seems like everything except the pandemic is on “pause.”
(1) You are enough. No matter what tomorrow brings, you are already enough today. If the world never returns to normal, you are enough. And you have gifts right now to bring to the world as it is today and as it might become. Rest in your enough-ness.
(2) Now is the time to practice kindness to yourself and to others. Feelings of loneliness, uncertainty, isolation, and anxiety may run deep. Hold them as gently as you would a grieving friend. They are real and trustworthy—not all there is, but nonetheless worth your acceptance and comfort. Those you live with, and others in your circle of family and friends, will have waves of the same. Show as much comfort and empathy as you can. Being present in these raw moments is how we build authentic bonds strong enough to hold us together. Margaret Mead regarded evidence of a healed femur as the first sign of “civilization”—because it indicated a people willing to care for those who could not care for themselves. That was the birth of kindness. Keep it alive.
(3) You are unique. Kindness is a generic good you can be universally generous with. But you also are blessed with an abundance of ways that you are uniquely you. In this time of upheaval-dislocation-forced-seclusion, settle into the selves you treasure. Pick up your violin (or hurdy-gurdy) now and again. Relish your baking and cooking skills. Keep up your food shelf work (assuming it stays up). Read. Walk. Journal. Frederick Buechner says (and I agree), vocation is that place where your own deep gladness meets the world’s deep need, then use this disruptive pause in your life to take stock of your deep joys—surely chemistry or IT/library/archiving work is among them, too—and spend some time asking how that gladness might meet the world’s deep needs tomorrow … and, yes, already today.
(4) Each moment has untold depth to it … and community comes in many forms. If, in fact, our lives are severely disrupted for a year or longer, the days might begin to seem interminably long. So fashion a rhythm that makes them (insofar as possible) life-giving instead. Be active (outdoors whenever possible) at least a bit each and every day. Make a habit of setting aside some time for daily (and sometimes deep) conversation with Kerry/Jess about life itself. (The types of conversation you’ve always “meaning” to have, but are often too busy to have—have them now.) Set up a rhythm of video chats with friends and with family. Against the uncertainty of in-person social contacts, weave a virtual network that links you deeply to others. And don’t be afraid of the quiet. Sometimes the stillness itself brings gifts. Let your cats, Luna, Porter, Penny, and Puck remind you that even the pandemic does not reach everywhere. I hear the birds singing outside our window each morning as though the spring is coming right on time. They are oblivious to the anxiety that greets ME when I wake. Yet their singing reminds me that the seasons WILL come; life WILL move forward (even if very differently for us); and that nature’s capacity for simple joy knows no bounds.
(5) Learning always matters. The future course of your education or career may well be altered as this pandemic sends ripples through universities and workplaces across the country—who knows how those ripples will reach you. But nothing you have ever learned or done is wasted. It all becomes part of you—even the forgotten bits leave traces in your psyche or echoes in your habits. So don’t despair over this disruption. What you’ve learned and done—and why—become even more important now. So find ways to keep your mind nimble even while other things are on hold. Everything you know and learn and do adds to the whole of who you are. Already enough. Always becoming more.
(6) Joy is a renewable resource—and one that has infinite variety. There will come days when you wish life could return to pre-pandemic days. It won’t. EVER. Someday we’ll reach the far side and land a different shore. But there’s no going back. Still, even now, there is joy to be had. Laughter at whimsy. Awe at beauty. Wonder at deep friendships. The taste of good food. Joy at community experienced in new ways under new challenges. And these things are not fixed or limited resources. No matter how many months this journey takes, there will always be the possibility of joy … today … and again tomorrow. Even under new constraints. Always welcome joy.
(7) Lastly, justice lies in the arc of the universe waiting for you to bend it. This pandemic will reveal (even further) the way that inequities in our society can be deadly. Far from “weeding out” the weakest among us, it will exact its toll primarily on those most exploited. Those whose lives are made weak by the dys-values of greed and power and “progress.” Pay attention to what is revealed here. Because part of your vocation is to figure out how your deep gladness can help bend the arc toward justice. Doing that, more than any other “progress” you make, will place your life in the great river of Meaning and Purpose. That’s where you want to end up.
… until next month, from St. Paul out to Berkeley and Sacramento, wrapping around the moon along the way, I love you. Dad
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at email@example.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.