Yesterday, I went for coffee with a woman from my church. Before the pandemic, we went out to lunch regularly – she’s always on top of the local food scene and knows which restaurant to try. We’ve missed that. So we went for coffee yesterday, at Bean Traders – my favorite local shop where I have held “coffee hours” weekly for the last five years. After a year of surviving take-out only service, they finally put a few picnic tables out on the sidewalk, and we drank our coffee and ate our pie AT THE COFFEE SHOP.
I have missed coffee shops so much. SO MUCH. It was glorious to sit, sip, and chat while the chatter of other coffee drinkers floated around us.
But it was also 4pm. And, over the course of the last year, my caffeine consumption has plummeted. I used to drink the occasional afternoon cup, maybe once a week. And two cups in the morning was my standard. I also drank far more soft drinks than I do now. But these days, I am on a solid 1.5 cup coffee regimen, carefully crafted in my at home french press each morning while the dog patiently waits for me to fill her food bowl.
And so, that 4pm JOLT of coffee shop brew totally shocked my system. At 10pm, when I am usually sliding into dreamland, I was wide awake, buying books online. At 1:30am, the dog had a reverse sneezing fit and woke me up. She fell back asleep quick, but I tossed and turned and prayed about all manner of life minutiae until well after 3. I am tired this morning, and I even feel a tiny bit *hungover* from that caffeine trauma to my system.
Way back in March of last year, when everything went sideways, my logical and forward-thinking congregational leadership decided that we would gather for worship online until there were fewer than ten active cases of COVID-19 in our county. Plenty of people scoffed at us for being unreasonable, even people in positions of authority over us. But our leadership was clear: we will not allow our worship gatherings to hurt our congregation or our community.
A couple of months ago, we revised our original benchmark, understanding that maybe fewer than ten cases would never happen. We decided to keep meeting online until at least June, and to re-evaluate over the summer.
But for the last year, I have monitored the county’s active infection numbers every morning. They were in the dozens, then the hundreds, then, for a while this winter, surged into the thousands. Things are trending really well here, and over the last couple of weeks the number of active cases has plummeted into the double digits instead of the quadruple. On Friday, the number was 23 active cases in the county. Yesterday morning, the stat was -33. Yes, *negative* thirty-three cases.
That negative number means, of course, that more people were released from the period of active infection than tested positive in the last day’s tally. And we know that actual cases are between 5-10 times higher than the reported number, depending on local rates of testing. People in Durham County are still contracting COVID-19, but the numbers are way, way down.
Which means, right, that we should be jumping for joy, swarming back into our building, following the science and snapping back to normal. Right? Right?
Some people in my congregation are SO READY to do all that. Others are…not. We’ve got a survey in the field right now to gauge just how many are ready to return to in-person gathering. We will, as we decided, re-evaluate our practices in light of the science and our collective comfort level.
But I’ll tell you what: I am NOT ready to snap back. Just like the caffeine wreaking havoc on my body after a year of severely restricting my relationship to it, this push to jump back into previous patterns is tearing me up.
Part of that is my natural inclination to move slow and resist change. I know that, and I know that there are lots of other, perfectly valid and understandable ways to encounter and navigate the world.
But another part of it is this: for over a year, we have been negotiating the possibility that we might inadvertently infect, harm or even kill others with our BREATH. Again, not everyone reacted to that possibility the same way, but my reaction was straight up terror. I was not afraid for myself, for the most part, but utterly terrified that I would be the vector that infected and caused irreparable harm to others. Just by breathing in proximity to them.
That kind of terror doesn’t just stop existing with the flip of a switch, or an announcement from the CDC, or the supremely encouraging negative statistic on the chart I’ve checked every day for the last year. That kind of terror will take weeks, or months, or – most likely – years to leech its way out of our systems.
I don’t feel frozen – which is one kind of trauma response. I can feel my internal weights and measures shifting as the scientific realities settle into my vaccinated sinews. I can feel my hackles slowly, slowly, sloooooowly coming down. I am trying to allow space for the terror to make itself known in safer ways than before – to say, out loud, that for over a year I have been terrified of killing someone just by breathing on them, to let that horrific truth exist, unvarnished, in my awareness.
And also: the pandemic is still raging. Vaccines are not available globally. Variants are still killing 13,000 people every day. Durham County’s stats might be in the negative this morning, but this is an international community, and people in Durham are losing loved ones in India, Brazil, and all over Europe. In the US, our vaccine distribution has not been equitable, and it is still the case that privileged white people – who were already less likely to contract or die from COVID – are more likely to have had access to the vaccine.
“Follow the science” has become a refrain for how to act in a pandemic. But humans aren’t always logically inclined. Terror and trauma don’t follow scientific trends. So, I am trying to give myself some time and space, to allow my very mushy brain to sort itself out a bit in this push to move from survival to full-speed-ahead. I hope you will do the same.