During my daily exercise outings, I sometimes feel the need to shun the sidewalks for wide, welcoming alleys. One of my favorites passes between wood-fenced backyards and a parking lot shared by a church and synagogue. At one end, just as the concrete curves north and meets up with the sidewalk, is a rectangular raised garden.
When spring evolves into summer, shoots that are on one day unidentifiable are on the next suddenly recognizable: Tomatoes. Squash. Zinnias and periwinkles. They grow into lush glory, and as I get closer, I find myself anticipating that first tantalizing scent, that first swash of brilliance.
I reveled in those last year as I no doubt will next. And despite all the negatives that 2020 has wrought, by golly that rectangle of hope holds steady, a thought that manifested itself a couple of weeks ago, when the flowers had long since stopped blooming and the last tomato had no doubt been consumed.
As I rounded the corner toward the sidewalk, I saw for the first time the woman whose green-thumb talents I’ve long admired. She was pulling from the dirt what remnants remained. I stopped to tell her how much I loved seeing her garden through the seasons.
She smiled and asked, “When it’s all nice and full?” Yes, I answered.
But as I walked away, I thought that I love how it looks now — a little topsy-turvy, sure — but still filled with beauty and, buried somewhere beneath the sod, with promise.
Nature tends to turn my attention toward life, which it did that day. Of course we all love this very air we breathe when things are rosy. But even when life shows shadows, light still finds a way in.
That’s kind of hard to grasp in this year of soaring deaths from a pandemic whose name we’d never heard 10 months ago. Of surging wildfires in Colorado and California that destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres and killed more wildlife than I can even let myself think about. Of protests and politics that sometimes strained the bonds of family and friendship.
Plus, people keep losing jobs, touching is taboo, social distancing has become the norm … and on and on.
Gratitude through struggle
Yet as we stand under this dark sky with bad news raining all around, we can sense, if we’re very still, an umbrella of optimistic perspective being raised over our heads.
Instead of cursing fires in Colorado that came dangerously close to engulfing their homes, for instance, residents expressed gratitude for the hundreds of firefighters putting their own lives on the line.
A friend whose father-in-law has been seriously ill with COVID-19 not only asks friends to pray for his recovery. She also asks for prayers of gratitude for all he has overcome, and to the health care workers who, as she writes, “rip pieces of themselves off and give love, knowledge and passion to all of us.”
Twice in one day, I was blanketed with life-affirming perspective from people I interviewed for freelance stories. The first was a 23-year-old Washington state woman who, five years ago, was a healthy college freshman. Then she had heart troubles, which led to a stroke, which led to blindness, and eventually to a heart transplant two years ago.
The other was an Austin man in his 50s who’d never had health problems until he had trouble swallowing. Tests showed he not only had a relatively rare esophageal issue; he also had esophageal cancer.
Mercifully, both were treated successfully.
What links these two individuals who will probably never meet each other? Their attitudes and their outlooks.
When I hung up the phone from each conversation, I felt uplifted. Their lives were upended, but each told me how they savor every day, every breath, and how they feel so lucky and so blessed.
In spite of it all, a rosy outlook
For North Dallas High School teacher Christina Herrera, teaching virtually as well as in person has been plenty challenging. Yet she finds strength through her students, many of whom are dealing with way more than anyone — no matter what age — should be facing.
“In the last two months,” says Herrera, whose own son Diego is 13, “I have had five students who have shared their losses with me, or told me a parent is in the hospital, or that their role has changed to head of the household. One young lady lost not only her father, but her grandmother as well. Still, she finds a way to get things done.”
A longtime educator, Herrera knows her connection to her students is more than as a teacher. She’s also their surrogate mother, their counselor, their mentor. Fulfilling those roles virtually has been the hard part, she says.
“But when you see what they’re still doing on their end,” she says, “they’re still showing up. Seeing them experiencing death, new roles, insecurity, and still them being here. That’s what gets me up in the morning.”
Their resiliency, she says, “inspires me to continue.”
As the pandemic trudges on, Herrera has been especially in tune with staying healthy. She lost her mother, her father and her younger sister Jessica to complications from diabetes, a disease she herself has. She also underwent triple bypass surgery several years ago, so she makes a point of riding her bike and eating healthy meals.
“I was getting ready for my first triathlon before COVID and had to do it virtually,” Herrera says. “I can’t wait to sign up for another race. We have to look forward to something, or we won’t move forward physically, mentally, emotionally.”
Keeping it going
Dallas probation officer Brandon Lewis thought he and his wife, Seckita, would be spending 2020 continuing their dream of directing and filming a movie. Instead, they’ve put that on hold. It’s been tough. COVID took the life of Seckita’s aunt, “and that freaked us out and scared us,” Lewis says.
His mother has health issues and has moved into the other half of the duplex that he and Seckita own, one they ordinarily would be renting out. But they’re grateful to be able to keep an eye on her, to have her close by.
“This is what COVID has done,” Lewis says. “It’s made things interesting, made people get creative.”
Through all that’s changing and all that’s unknown, Lewis is learning patience. An avid moviegoer, he’s learning to enjoy watching movies at home. He’s learning that you can set the best of intentions, only to have them waylaid for reasons well beyond your control. And he’s learning that if that happens, you just set others and keep going.
“We try to keep our exercise up and try to stay positive, going out for walks, wearing the masks,” Lewis says. “My wife and I have been more in tune with each other because we have more time to spend together. I’m thankful for the amount of time we have to talk and work out our plan for life. This has made us sit back and reflect on our lives. I appreciate the smaller things. That’s what this has done for me.”
Before he and Seckita got married, they trained for and completed a 5K in New Mexico.
“Many times during that race,” he says, “we wanted to quit, but we didn’t. We did it.”
Getting through this
These days, who doesn’t want to quit, or at least to pull the covers over our heads until 2020 is but a vague memory? We’d all like to sit shoulder to shoulder with fellow parishioners, to see each other’s teeth when we smile, to hug someone without thinking, to shake hands, to share a pizza, to stand in line for a movie we’re excited about seeing.
But for now, we can’t. So we put on our masks and we stand side by side, not quite touching fingertips as we stretch out our arms toward each other. And behind those masks, whether our eyes squint with smiles or with tears, we’re watching out for each other.
Through all that has happened and all that’s to come, we keep scattering seeds — of hope, of faith, of plants — that, come spring or even summer, will yield that first tantalizing scent, that first breathtaking swash of brilliance.