Perhaps the Pandemic Wasn’t the Problem

America Does Feel Like It’s “Back,” But Was It This Sad Before?

Grace Leuenberger / 7.15.21

“America is back!” they say. “Yes, it is!” I want to cheer in reply while high-fiving the mask-less stranger I pass in the grocery store. In many ways, America does feel like it’s “back” — pools are open, airports are busy, and policies are relaxing. This summer of freedom was what I prayed for, hoped for, yearned for in the restrictive chill of winter. Why then, can I not relax? Why can’t I go along with the rest of America who seems to be freely and happily dancing along to Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA?” I have to admit, it still doesn’t feel like everything is gonna be okay. 

Perhaps the pandemic wasn’t the problem.

Back in January, I wrote about the persistent grief I’ve felt the last few years, and how it continued to evolve, mutate, and manifest itself during the pandemic. January 2021 seemed like an appropriate time to feel grief and write about it — Covid cases were at an all-time high, our government teetered on unstable ground, and springtime still seemed far off. But July? Is July still an appropriate time to grieve, to write yet another essay about grief? The Psalms and psychologists say yes, but Miley Cyrus and her USA say no. 

I’m so over Covid! I’m done talking about it!” I’ve heard countless people say. Most of the time, I feel that way, too. This is why, when someone asks me how I’m doing, I feel the need to put my pandemic-times candor behind me and just say “I’m good!” Most times, I’m not lying; this summer has been good. I ride my bike to the new restaurant in town to meet my friends. I run on the trail at sunrise and passersby do not turn their bodies away from me. My neighbors host me for dinner and we drink the nice wine. In many ways, America does feel like it’s “back,” but I can’t help but ask: was it this sad before? Was *I* this sad before?

I feel like a wet blanket that cannot seem to dry out because the summer conditions are so dang humid. I’m weary of my weariness. It’s become clear that I was one of those people for whom the pandemic was one big cosmic Carpe Diem — my opportunity to work on myself, go to counseling, name my struggles, confront my grief, and emerge from adversity as a person who had “journeyed well.” Now that America is “back,” I am surprised to find that my “pandemic journey” didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. As Emerson writes, “Traveling is a fool’s paradise.” He continues: 

At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.

We have come a long way since March of 2020. Praise God. We are (mostly) inoculated. We get to pack a trunk, embark on the sea, embrace our friends. But as for me, my trunk is still quite heavy. I have woken up in Naples, and my giant has followed me here. I am still burdened by unrelenting self-reliance, still affecting to be intoxicated by sights and suggestions. I am still sad. “Grief is a ghost that can’t be put to rest until its purpose has been fulfilled,” Tish Harrison Warren wrote in Prayer in the Night, a quote I included in my reflection on grief seven months ago. If Warren is correct and grief is really a ghost, maybe that’s why my summer still feels haunted by sadness.

Vaccine or no vaccine, my life and this country is still plagued by pain — a pain that will not go away with another party, another set of plans, or another valiant effort to overcome adversity with the good ol’ American values of perseverance, persistence, and positivity. So while part of me feels greatly compelled to keep drinking the good wine, to throw my hands up as Miley Cyrus instructs me to do, there’s another part of me that feels the sense that my unrelenting grief persists because God still wants to meet me there. Try as I might to flee from pain, God has something so interesting to say about it: “Grace: I feel it, too.” 

“Feeling sadness is the cost of being emotionally alive,” Warren writes. To that I say, I’ve never felt more alive than I do now. And damn it hurts. I agree with Warren; it is costly to be emotionally alive; to live in places and love people that are hurt hurts. America might be back, but it and her people are worse for the wear. Myself included. And yet, in this sadness I feel, the conflicts I cannot resolve, the brokenness that cannot be mended right now — this is where God is, too. “I feel it, too,” he says. 

I recently purchased a print of a piece titled “Beaver Creek” by a Charlottesville-based artist named Christen Yates. I framed it for a friend, inscribing this verse from Isaiah 43:19 below the image: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” 

“Beaver Creek” by Christen Yates

Initially, I chose the verse to honor the beginning of a new season in my friend’s life — a way to remind her that God was present with her in this time. The image shows a refreshing body of water, a lake (I’ve imagined) fed by Beaver Creek. As I was recently packaging up the print, I began to consider where this verse suggests “the way” has been made. The stream is described as having sprung up through the wilderness, in the wasteland. I had, quite literally, not perceived this truth in both the painting or in my own life. This time of persistent grief — this wilderness, this wasteland — was and is how God has and is making all things new. This is not God’s “perhaps” promise — it is a word that is trustworthy and true. “Behold, I am making all things new,” he says. We can believe him. 

In the summer of 2021, I still feel like Samwise Gamgee asking, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” I do not know what comes next for me, for America, for a world that groans and grieves from the pains of the pandemic and the pains of being a person. But I believe that Miley Cyrus is right; I really am gonna be okay, even if I am not okay right now. The saddest things and greatest griefs of these years and all the ones to come will be revealed as a source of healing, an offering of grace. Even here, in the wilderness and wasteland of Summer 2021, God is making a way.