Learning to Live: After a Year of Change, Pandemic Continues with Hope for the Future

MAY 02, 2021 07:00 AM

Tuesday, April 13 was an important anniversary. It marked one year and one month since my congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County (UUFCC) “left the building.” On March 13, 2020, my board of trustees, acting with strength, an over-abundance of caution and care, and yes, a little fear of the unknown, voted to close our building. That night, in what was the first of many Zoom meetings, they made the unanimous decision to end all face-to-face gatherings and move our congregation’s interactions into cyber space.

I remember saying to the folks in that meeting, “I don’t ever want to lead a memorial service because someone became infected with COVID-19 in our fellowship building.” They did not want that to happen either. We were not alone. Many of the other houses of worship and religious institutions in State College closed their buildings too. In an instant, they also moved online.

That was over a year ago. A year that changed our lives forever. A year filled with agonizing losses, anguish and grief. A year of waiting, hoping, and having that hope dashed again and again as the number of people dying from COVID-19 continued to rise. It was also a year filled with love, resilience and displays of selflessness that brought us to tears. Remember the apartment dwellers in Italy singing “Happy Birthday” to an elderly woman, from their balconies? Or the photos of nurses holding a cellphone or iPad next to the sick so they could “see” their families? Remember the faces of doctors with deep dark circles under their eyes and red welts on their cheeks and foreheads? Marks left by wearing PPE for hours, days, weeks and months.

The very fabric of our lives felt ripped into shreds. Schools, restaurants, small businesses and offices closed. Working remotely was no longer an option, it became a necessity. Ordinary routines disappeared. This past year has been particularly painful for us clergy folks. Hugs, handshakes, and gentle pats on the shoulder disappeared. The chance to connect with members and friends on Sunday during a service or afterwards over coffee in fellowship hall evaporated. In a matter of days my job, our calling seemed to disappear. In my case, on Thursday morning March 13, 2020 I sat in our gorgeous sanctuary musing about hymns for an upcoming service. By 9 p.m. that night our building was shuttered. In the span of a single day, the usual connections and way of caring — which shaped my career and calling — changed.

Change can offer us beautiful experiences. The change heaped onto our plates by the COVID-19 pandemic did not. So much was lost so quickly it was hard to comprehend. The structure, purpose and meaning of my life felt as though it had evaporated into lonely, thin air. Human contact (and toilet paper) vanished. I no longer had an office, a fellowship to go to. My interactions with others were limited to Zoom gatherings and speaking to them by phone. Texting and email became uber important, in actuality they turned into lifelines. For weeks at a time the only folks I saw in person were my UPS driver, the people who dropped off my grocery delivery and a few neighbors. The loss of human contact was palpable, painful and it took a heavy toll on my mood, relationships, and overall mental and emotional health.

But, I am one of the lucky ones. No matter how bleak things seemed when the pandemic hit, I had a dutiful, kind therapist and family within driving distance. In May 2020 we “bubbled.” By setting firm ground rules we were able to be together (extremely limited contact with others, masking whenever we left the house, hand-washing judiciously, and wiping down everything that entered my daughter’s home). Bubbling gave me hope. My anger diminished and the blues dissipated. I was still sad, and still grieving all that I lost. I still felt anxious about what the future might hold. But, my life was manageable.

You know what? Today I think I am going to be “OK.” I am encouraged about the future and feel a bit lighter. I am walking for pleasure again and love feeling the breeze and sunshine on my face. My family and I are members of the “Shots In Arms” club and we are fully vaccinated. For several months I was not sure about my future, but time, the vaccine and the love of family have pulled me through.

A year later I know that the COVID-19 pandemic is not totally in the rearview window. There are moments, hours and days filled with stress and anxiety ahead for all of us. We will certainly have personal and community wide setbacks. And, we will also move forward.

The Rev. Carol Thomas Cissel is the settled minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County, in State College. This column is coordinated by www.learningtolivewhatsyourstory.org, whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.

This was first printed in the Centre Daily Times on May 2, 2021.