It has been years since the old stereo console in my grandmother’s front room worked. Years since anyone even looked at it as anything other than a convenient place to prop the family pictures that litter her front room with memories that at 95 only she recalls. And I am not sure what prompted it, but last week when we were helping her with some chores around the house, we wandered into the front room, opened the top, and dusted off the old record player.
“It doesn’t work,” she said.
“It’s not plugged in,” I responded, exasperated as you can only be after trying to teach a nonagenarian how to boot up a computer so she can try to see the pictures her grandchildren are posting on social media.
It took moments to plug the console in, finesse a couple of levers and drop the needle on an old record of jazz hits from the 60’s, one that my grandparents used to dance to in their front room. And suddenly I could see them, in the feel of the late afternoon and the sound of static as the needle slid sibilantly across the vinyl. My grandfather, gone for more than a decade, and my grandmother, now old and frail, dancing in the winter light like ghosts in my mind’s eye.
This year has been a year of ghosts. A year of the wavering visions of plans that had been made—broken, of people we love—disappeared, of the dependable become unreliable and undone as we retreated to our homes and computer screens with the hopes that something like normal will return tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that—by next month. By the next birthday. By Christmas. By spring.
It seems a little like the entire world just…stopped.
But that’s not true, is it? Not really. It simply…changed. The focus of how we lived and how we saw ourselves shifted.
We like to tell ourselves the stories of dramatic times—the tragedies and terrors, and the things that go bump in the night. But along with the shift in how we are living our lives—in the places we could go and the people we could see and the things we could do came a change in the stories we told. Not that a global pandemic is not dramatic enough for good storytelling. It makes for excellent material in a narrative. It feels cinematic in scope. But put aside the fear and anxiety. The unknown. The isolation. These are all very real things, but in the early days of the pandemic they were not the stories that I was drawn to. Instead I started to see the unexpected ways people were trying to connect over a sudden distance.
The groceries left on doorsteps. The masks sewn by the dozens and hundreds and thousands. The telephone calls ‘to check in.’ Dinners made and eaten. Toilet paper passed around the neighborhood ‘just in case.’ Students texting each other and homework groups meeting over zoom. Although there was uncertainty and negativity and all that comes from confronting the unknown, there were countless moments of grace as well.
We live in a world in need of light. Of small, slow moments of contemplation. Of the opportunities to reach out and lift another that are sometimes missed in the bustle of busy that wraps us up and carries us from day to day with no time to stop, no time to think, and no time to reach out to one another. Until suddenly it doesn’t. And you have the time to notice what has been there all along.
This is what I am seeing around me now, as we have been forced to slow down a little. To focus—like a magnifying glass. I am noticing powerful moments of human connection. Networks of caring. Communities built on communication.
This week Texas froze. A sudden polar vortex reached all the way south, into states unprepared for winter, and it sounds like the beginning of a joke, like it might even be funny, except that it isn’t. And once again, I became aware of the small moments that many of us overlook. And since the stories we tell are a mirror of who we are, what we value, and who we want to be, take a moment and notice those small things for a moment with me.
The PTA calling trees that were put into effect to check on students and their families.
The neighborhood pool opened for people with frozen pipes to use for water to flush toilets.
The community that showed up en masse to mop the water out of a church where the pipes had burst, cleaning up for others even as their own water froze.
The lists of groceries posted on Facebook for anyone who needed a little extra.
The people who opened up their homes to delivery drivers and babysitters and neighbors with no power so that everyone could stay warm.
The outdoor wood furniture that was chopped up and donated to people with wood burning fireplaces to keep the cold at bay.
The grocery store that when the power went out and the customers could not pay, simply opened their doors and told shoppers to take what they had.
There has been so much of loss in the past year. Loss of loved ones. Loss of time. Loss of experiences with one another. There has been pain and suffering and weeping.
(Isn’t there always a but?) But there is also light, and in these stories we see that we are the light. We are the ones who can reach across the distance. We are the ones who can stand up and stand out, and dust ourselves off and get to work, stopping long enough to bind up the wounds of our bruised world. To offer a helping hand and a smile. To plug ourselves in and see all the small and miraculous things happening every single day. Or simply to notice the feel of a slow afternoon, with music floating through the air, as all our ghosts dance slowly by.