Scaling the Rock of Disappointment: Tales of Coronavirus Setbacks

“What do you do when disappointment comes? When it weighs on you like a rock, you can either let it press you down until you become discouraged, even devastated, or you can use it as a stepping-stone to better things.”– Joyce Meyer

Yesterday, while on my walk, the word “Disappointment” was dropped into my head and heart as if by some Divine force. Sometimes, that’s how my life works, God lays a bread crumb trail to where I’m needed. I followed the crumbs to Facebook, where I asked people to share their experiences of disappointment. Nearly twenty hours later, I am still getting pings on Messenger, and the stories have brought me to tears.

I’ll start with mine.

I have, for two consecutive years, been interviewing to work with the Disney Corporation in a department so perfectly suited to my talents, training, and experience that it might have been created specifically for me: to host in the student field trip program at Disneyland in Anaheim. Last year, I got so close to a job offer that I put myself on a waiting list for a spot at a long-term camping resort just a couple of miles from the park, and, in an attempt to put manifestation to work for a dream, I wrote a blog post that I never got to publish to announce my new position:

“And so here I am. I am about to leave for Anaheim, where I will spend my days with student groups, taking everything I have learned about teaching and classroom management as well as all the skills I honed running the School Days program at Texas Renaissance  Festival to walk alongside them in the most magical place I know. I will get to share my love of theatre and my love of Mickey Mouse. I don’t know if this will be a forever career or a seasonal one, but I have spent enough time among seasonal festival business people to have no fear of the unknown.”

It is only slightly comforting to know that the coronavirus would have halted the dream. Had I gotten the job and toodled my tiny camper to Cali only to be sent home like all the frontline Disney employees were in April, the knowledge that I had gotten the offer, that I had done the work for a couple of months, that I would have a place waiting for me when the virus had run its course, does not dampen the tremendous sense of disappointment.

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It is likely that this year I would have gotten an offer in September. No more. The parks are barely functioning, schools are unlikely to open as normal this fall. Budgets on both ends of this equation are stripped to their bare minimums. I may be able to postpone this dream for one more year, perhaps September of 2021 will bring me an offer.  But damn, it has been excruciating to examine that dream, then stash it in the box on my highest closet shelf, a  clear plastic bin full of Mickey ears, souvenir pins, and my name tag from the Disney leadership summit I attended in 2018.

Disappointment.

A dear friend of our family, a young woman I held when she was just three days old, graduated from high school this June. We had watched all her posts of spinning flags in her school’s corps, her photos of banquets in pretty gowns, her braces on, then her gleaming, perfect smile when the braces came off. She didn’t get her prom, her graduation was weird. I had a hoodie custom made for her to wear at her university this fall, but her family is not even sure what university life will look like- will she get to move into the dorm, attend Fish Camp, pledge a club? Disappointment.

A friend miscarried at 7. 5 weeks, but because of Covid didn’t have access to in-person medical care until her 13th week, when an ultrasound revealed a gestational sac that had stopped growing. With only virtual visits and a revolving door of doctors, her diagnosis was missed, and what was meant to be a Father’s Day announcement of a new baby became instead a D-and-C. Profound, heart-wrenching disappointment.

My friends have lost dream careers, canceled long-awaited family reunions, foregone first-baby showers, and summer camps. They’re scared they’ll lose their aging parents during this awful time when they cannot say goodbye except through a video app on the phone or computer. One is, in fact, watching her mother die and she can’t say goodbye in person. A couple have lost close family members and could not seek the comfort of ritual and family to sustain them in their grief.

One of the strongest women I know wrote:

“This pandemic has caused great grief and managed to unbottle all previous grief. Nowhere to go, no outlet to channel it, it just keeps crashing over and over again.
The riptide has taken me and all I can do is keep calm, hold my breath, get my bearings, and try to swim even with the shore or the wave will win.”

Disappointment.

It starts early in our lives and comes in big packages and small. A birthday party rained out, a cancer surgery unsuccessful. A cake is dry, a parent abuses. Disappointment may be mild, it can be devastating. And we all know that the very worst critique we can receive from a parent, teacher, or boss is, “I’m disappointed in you.”

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Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

Disappointment is something we humans must wrestle with, though thankfully, not constantly. Even in a challenging, dark life, there are glorious moments when we get the part we auditioned for, when healthy babies are born, when the movies we’ve anticipated are as good as we’d hoped. Medical tests come back with favorable results, apologies are offered and accepted, the sun shines on the wedding day; simple kindnesses like bread shared or a letter received bring just a glimmer of joy.

I have learned that the best way to overcome disappointment is first, acknowledge that it’s there. We can’t deal with what we’re too afraid or ashamed to name. Share the burden of it with a friend. Let them share with you as well.

Next, we look inward, which requires a commitment to gentle but honest self-examination. I used to believe in rigorous, unflinching self-examination, but that only led to being hypercritical of myself, unforgiving and unwilling to grant grace for my own failures. To grow in grace, to be honest about my own disappointments, to acknowledge when I have disappointed others, I listen. I seek wisdom from those who are living lives that shine, sometimes in the form of conversations with trusted mentors, frequently in podcasts, constantly in books.

Spend time in fresh air. For me, this is to walk or ride my bicycle or, when rheumatoid arthritis is wracking, to sit. To settle among birds, dragonflies, and breeze is healing. I do not know that there is a way to live in spiritual or mental health unless one gets outside. When I am among the trees and grass, I have my best ideas, I lay plans and untangle the knots in my thinking. And I am, thank all that is good and wholesome, not mindlessly scrolling the swamp that Facebook can become.

Express the disappointment, if it lives in the shadows and crevices of your heart, it will fester. I write. Every day, every morning. I write by hand, two to three pages. It is a practice that has become as necessary as air. I used to think it was my daily orange juice that got me going in the morning; I know for many folks, it’s their first cup of coffee. But for me, spending thirty minutes writing before I dive into my day has been life-changing. The words are uncensored and inelegant, a nearly-illegible scrawl. I ponder and process feminine spirituality, I list things I am grateful for, I articulate dreams, I unpack the worries that are plaguing me. I have been sleeping better since I began this writing practice, I think it’s vital.

To look outward, though, that is the final stepping stone to lay on our path to healing and mental health. We can’t look outward in a way that compares our own suffering or disappointments to others’, on that path exists only bitterness or pride; there will always be someone who has it better and someone who has it worse. Our disappointment is ours, and it is valid. No, what I mean by “looking outward” is simply this: look for ways to serve, to heal. Write letters. Call a lonely friend or elder person who lives alone. Sew masks and distribute them to the less fortunate. Listen to the stories of the unheard. Deliver meals. Discover your gift then ply it to plug joy back into the connected race that is all of us. Set your sights on the restoration of the soul of humanity.

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Photo by Nacho Juárez on Pexels.com

These actions serve to nourish and defend against the sharpest nettles of disappointment. They are stones that can be stacked, one beside and above the other, to forge a path that leads us out of today’s disappointment and ahead to tomorrow’s blessing. It’s hard to see sometimes. But stillness followed by service can be a gorgeous way forward. The inimitable Marilyn Monroe once said, “Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.” I love that. Our world is falling apart. Perhaps we will build something better, both in a global sense and a deeply personal one.

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A Life Gone Spectacularly Awry

Have you ever watched the Netflix show “Nailed It!”? It is a burst of silly joy! If you don’t know the show, average folks attempt to recreate beautiful desserts, the sort of unicorn cakes and emoji cupcakes seen on Pinterest; you want to take them to your office holiday party or serve them at your child’s birthday to impress the other moms. These poor intrepid souls are not successful, except in the sense of simply having fun. Their decorations go spectacularly awry, their frosting discolored and fondant misshapen, but it’s convivial fun. The stakes are not, after all, life-and-death.

But right about now, our very existence feels like the stakes couldn’t be higher. It truly is life-and-death.

My fingernails, which are certainly not life-and-death (bear with me), look like garbage: the polish, a pastel pink, is uneven and ridged, bright turquoise peeks through; the shellac I couldn’t soak off, so I tried to just polish over it. The cuticles are either torn or calloused, their edges jagged.

It’s metaphorical. On day 33 of quarantine, my nails are indicative of my life right now. Serrated. Spread too thin. Easily broken. Mottled and ugly.

Our lives have gone spectacularly awry, like recipes ruined by too much salt, budgets blown by loss of income, book drafts lost in an unexpected power outage. If we’re lucky, we are healthy, our loved ones are safe, and we are only contending with isolation and collective worry. If we’re not, we’re burying loved ones from afar or waiting for financial ramifications that may change the very course of our lives. Perhaps enforced enclosure has revealed fault lines in marriages; now it is known that divorce is imminent. Schoolwork that was always a struggle becomes a seemingly, or truly, insurmountable task. Hell, even the daily mundane is beginning to feel impossible. The relentless pile of dirty dishes and laundry to be folded has morphed from annoying to cataclysmic.

On day 25, I had a complete mental and emotional breakdown. I stopped talking, curled in my bed whimpering, sleeping, or pretending to read Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. I considered ways to end my life. My husband was, of course, worried. He’s seen this a couple of times before, Generalized Anxiety Disorder is a real bitch. I felt guilty for struggling but compelled to stick it out: the crowded, noisy house and the nagging worry that’s resting deep in my soul like, well, like a virus that’s just waiting to be fully awakened.

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I believed I needed permission to leave because I know deep in my bones that my quarantine experience is a walk in the park compared to so many others. My husband gave me that permission I felt I needed to run away into isolation for a couple of days; I am fortunate to have a place where I can escape, a tiny Vintage Cruiser camper, it’s my nest; decorated completely in Mary Poppins themed art and bedding, parked in the woods at one of the festivals where I work, it’s as close as this middle-aged lady with blown knees is ever going to get to treehouse living.

When I left my house, I had only sparkling water. I had stopped eating the day before; A 2:00 sandwich had been my last sustenance before the meltdown. And when I lost it, I had decided I would simply stop eating. It was the only way I thought I could exert control over what was beginning to feel like an existence of lethargic chaos. My husband had fetched TexMex from a local restaurant and it smelled so, so good. But I stubbornly resisted, snug in my blankets, crying in the dark. The next morning I threw clean underwear, a toothbrush, and both laptops in a bag, grabbed all the LaCroix Pina Fraise from the pantry, and lit out.

After a two hour drive and a journaling session, I felt ready to eat, no longer compelled to starve myself as a method of control. But of course, I had packed no food;  a trek into the nearest town was required. I took my place in the line to enter the grocery store, observing that every single person around me, in line, in the store, everyone was wearing a mask. I screwed up the courage to ask if I had crossed into a county that required them, as my home county did not. A very kind lady walked me to her car and let me grab a mask out of a box she had from her job. I meticulously pinched my fingers together so that I wouldn’t touch anything but the mask I would wear, as careful as a game of Operation when I was a kid. The grocery store experience was hushed and surreal, my first time in a grocery store since lockdowns and quarantines and masks became de rigueur.

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Back in camp, I walked and picked wildflowers. I studied. I slept and ate Pepperidge Farm Verona cookies. And most importantly, the thing I needed: I settled down. I  returned home in better shape; hugged husband, daughters, grandbabies. Realigned my expectations.

I will not presume to make light of Covid isolation. I gratefully acknowledge that my situation is safe. The boat I find myself in amid this storm is sufficient to weather it, at least for now. Others are not so lucky. But I do believe that for each one of us, we must look inward to discover what is awry in our current situation, breathe deeply, speak our truth to those we’re sharing space with, and let them help us. Then we must, in turn, help each other. Those in our homes, our neighborhoods, our extended families and strangers alike.

It is our collective spiritual practice, really. Beyond the hymns, rituals, pews, and flurry of activity so prevalent in our churches, separate from twelve-step fellowships and large-scale charity galas, it will be quiet service and relentless attention to the needs of our own spirits and the souls of those around us that will sustain us. If you find yourself lonely today, find the courage to reach out. Send a text. Facetime a beloved friend. Call a trusted family member. If you find yourself at peace, content and hopeful, look for someone who needs you. I have faith that our lives can transform from spectacularly awry to profoundly beautiful, if only we seek connection. Blessings, fellow humans.

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Distillation: A Quarantine Meditation

Day 28.

When stay-at-home orders came down from local and state governments, when all three of my places of employment closed their doors for the time being, when I drove eerily deserted highways across the country to bring my 31-year-old daughter home from California, when I stood still while a nurse took my temperature before allowing me to climb the stairs to my orthopedist’s office, I clung to my hope for normalcy.

After that appointment, when my doctor and I finally began to discuss full knee replacement and I scheduled yet another MRI, I defied my damaged joint and ventured a Target run just a couple of blocks from the clinic to grab milk, bread, and additional outlet covers so the grandbaby wouldn’t electrocute herself in her home explorations. My usual joy found wandering the home department, perusing throw pillows and baskets and sniffing candles was absent, though. The store was populated by employees who seemed nervous, moms in scrubs shopping before/after a shift at the nearby medical center, and a couple of rambunctious teenaged girls whose loud giggles and rowdy running interrupted the subdued energy of the store. The empty aisles seemed as holy as the aisles of a quiet cathedral, as still as a church awaiting its Sunday congregation. I had a realization.

We are being purified. I am being purified.

When I returned home with my meager purchases, I carried supplies to my laundry room where I was assaulted by scent. My laundry room reeked of the vinegar-soaked rags my intrepid housekeeper had used to wash light switches and doorknobs. The bitter-sweet, pungent aroma knocked me off-kilter, I detest the smell of vinegar; I cleared the washing machine so that I could toss these rags in, eliminate the scent.

We are, like the vinegar, being distilled; our lives heated by pandemic-driven fear and isolation. The fluff of life is seemingly boiled away, evaporating all but the truth of our natures, the honest crux of our lives. My own nature is being revealed as a little sharp, all angles and abrupt retorts. Anxious.

I fell back on a coping mechanism that has almost always served: cleaning. I have pulled weeds and pared down closets, cabinets, garage, linens, even playlists on my iPhone. My Disney playlist is shorter by 33 songs today. And yet… reducing stuff wasn’t quite enough. A different tactic was required.

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In response to the storm around me, after months of neglect, I resumed my meditation practice; my spirit was crying out for grounding.  I turned on a meditation app and spent ten minutes breathing, mind wandering as I struggled to bring focus back to the breath. The practice broke me open, though not all at once, but within an hour, I found myself alone on my sofa, sobbing. Weeping for the shared grief of those who have lost loved ones, for the fear I saw on the faces of those who were required and needed to work, for the loneliness of those who may live alone or who do not find themselves surrounded by love in this time of social distancing. My tears were cleansing, washing my soul much like the vinegar had washed parts of my home. Since those tears were shed, I have been cultivating a sense that both less and more are the pure and healthy way forward. Less stuff. Fewer obligations. More time with the ones we love and feel safe with. More time for story, less time for arguing.

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I don’t have a handy list of activities to keep your kids busy during this weird time. I am not a counselor who can publish lists of coping techniques or a chef with 25 healthy recipes for feeding your family in a time of crisis. I have no interest in creating a quiz that tells you what sort of potato your personality matches, I don’t know how to craft toilet paper or make non-toxic fingerpaint for preschoolers. Thankfully, we have Buzzfeed, Pinterest, and Google for all of those, don’t we? That’s not how my mind works. Not how my spirit rolls. What I can do is offer a meditation, a benediction:

May we be purified.

May our lives be distilled, refined into what is most crucial: love. Love for those on the front lines of fighting this virus, love for those confined with us, love for ourselves.

May gratitude and generosity be the energies that ignite our souls. May we seek ways to support each other: tip delivery personnel generously, contribute where possible to organizations whose work mitigates the damage of a world-wide shutdown, purchase a piece of handwork from an artist who just lost their source of income.

May we grant grace to those who see the world differently from us, understanding that they too are nervous about the future, also understanding that their faith may not leave space for ambiguity or doubt.

May we also grant grace to ourselves, for none of us is going to navigate this situation perfectly. We will each, without a doubt, say something we don’t mean to. I already have.

May we learn to appreciate quiet: quiet streets, quiet parks, quiet homes, quiet spirits; for if we can hold to the beauty of hush when this time of enforced rest is over, we may discover that there is healing, peace, and immeasurable strength in stillness.

May we also remember the beauty of noise: laughter at family dinner tables, chatting in  restaurants, classrooms, or church fellowship halls, excited players, moms, and dads at little league games. School choirs. Outdoor concerts.

May we move forward in soul with a renewed love for our collective humanity.

Stay well, friends.

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