Commentary: Leaning into the New Normal of Social Distancing

The current crisis can help us feel closer to our family and our neighbors. It also exposes the gaps and deficits where we can do better.

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The other night Matt Coe and I looked at each other and acknowledged we’re entering a new phase of parenting and, perhaps, marriage.

The coronavirus — COVID-19 — is the new container for our lives. Along with much of the country, we are taking seriously the call to stay home, to isolate, to wait for the virus to slow.

I work remotely and Matt is a teacher, homebound along with our children. We don’t take for granted how fortunate we are to have everything we need to face the new normal with minor inconveniences. Millions of other families aren’t so lucky.

There are many hours in the day I’ve never experienced consecutively with my little family. The eight or nine hours our children spent at school will now be spent in the confines of our home. The many hours we spent out in the community — at stores, at church, at events — will also be folded into new routines around the house and our neighborhood.

 

(Photo courtesy of Whitney Kimball Coe)

So far, we’ve watched a lot of movies (Frozen II is now streaming on Disney+), cleaned out closets, erected a tent on the porch, organized the Tupperware cabinet (only a few missing lids), practiced piano, read many books, scattered seeds from wildflower packets, and somehow used only the typical amount of toilet paper.

In the thin places between these hours, we are experiencing highs and lows, moments of great clarity and communion, and moments of desperation. In these early days of distancing, I feel like I’m dancing with the Holy Spirit, in both the light and dark places.

In line with moments of clarity, I’ve realized that COVID-19 is shining a light on the things that are good and healthy in our world. I’ve been astonished by and grateful for the abundance of free online learning activities, story times, and craft videos, many of them provided on the fly by local people and organizations, like E.G. Fisher Public Library, Pam Thigpen, The Arts Center, the Athens-McMinn Family YMCA and Athens City Schools teachers.

I’m moved by texts and phone calls with friends and neighbors and the tender ways grocery store clerks are trying to meet this moment, stocking and restocking and making time for immunocompromised patrons to shop safely.

The generosity I’m seeing in our little community is reminiscent of the neighborliness we see after natural disasters, like the tornado in 2015. Except this time, loving your neighbor looks a lot like social distancing.

There is grace and beauty in this new container.

In line with moments of desperation, I’m seeing how COVID-19 is also shining a light on things that are broken and in need of repair.

We are a country that never sleeps, a people obsessed with production, performance, and visibility. In moments of quiet and pause, we clamor for opportunities to fill the space with our own products and reflections. It’s in these spaces that our narcissism and distrust find fuel.

We are a nation without comprehensive social safety nets. There are too many underemployed workers, too many Americans without health insurance, too many families without quality childcare options to weather this time of even more scarcity.

Our health care facilities and hospitals are not prepared for this pandemic because we’ve spent years undoing the regulations and centralized sources (like the CDC) that are required for ensuring a coordinated, fluid response.

There is grace and beauty, but there is also brokenness.

In these early days, I’m looking for more encounters with the Holy Spirit, and my hunch is that those will happen when we lean into — and not away from — what is required of us. We must pull back and pause. We must find new ways of staying connected and afloat.

All these hours we’ve put toward other things for so long — what if we pour them into reacquainting ourselves with communion and also into learning from what is falling apart?

Whitney Kimball Coe is the coordinator of the National Rural Assembly and director of national programs for the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder. She lives and works in Athens, Tennessee. This article appeared in the Athens Daily Post-Athenian on March 20, 2020.

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