the care and feeding of the soul in a time of pandemic

For years, I have endeavored to make December—Advent—all about the soul. It’s going to be busy, but that doesn’t mean it has to be harried. Advent is a time to turn inward and till and fertilize and basically make my heart fertile ground for the presence of God.

This search for stillness has been part of my “brand.” I even wrote a book about it.

It’s been tougher than usual for me to find that sense of quiet, of inner stillness, this year. Promoting a debut novel is, well–wow, that’s all. Meanwhile, The Next Book sits in the wings, taunting me, tantalizingly close to a first draft but refusing to toe the line. Two submissions in a row, my critique partners have said, “uh-uh.”

To be clear: they’re right, and I don’t resent it. (I think I figured out my fix this morning.) But it does mean slowing, stopping on the shoulder of the interstate and climbing a proverbial mountain to get the view from the high place–and then repeating a long stretch of highway…again and again and again.

And of course, I have two kids schooling at home. Next week I’ll have three, one of them the highest-maintenance of all my children.

During Advent, the thing I love to do most is sit alone in the darkness, wrapped in a blanket, and write or sit quietly, thinking and praying, by the light of the Christmas tree, with my Christmas playlist on the computer. If I can distill my ideal of Advent down to a single image, that’s it.

But I don’t get to do that this year, because I’m never alone. I mean, I carve out a few minutes here and there between 5:30 and 6 a.m. (Or 4:15 and 6, as it was this morning. Warning: midday nap ahead.) But basically, I’m in the presence of others at all times these days.

One of my kids takes up a ton of space: itchy with boredom, bopping up and down the stairs, talking and laughing loudly on class zooms, constantly negotiating for some other space than the one he has.

Another of my kids might never come out of his room except to eat, but that means constantly weighing when it’s time to stage an intervention, versus stepping back and letting said kid grow into healthy independence. The mental exertion required for that sort of parenting is more taxing than the other.

I love my family and I have reflected on my Catholic blog a couple times about how there are surprising blessings hidden in this pandemic time. My relationships with my children are shifting in subtle but beautiful ways.

Even so, I’m accustomed to having the house to myself most days, and the ability to use it to fill my soul. During the good weather this year, I made time to go out biking or hiking. But now that the weather’s turned unfriendly, the slow, stifling weight of being always around other people, responsible for other people, is draining me.

We haven’t given much attention to this side effect of the pandemic. Isolation from friends and extended family? Yes. The difficulty of discerning where to draw the line? For sure. The complex calculations that ensue when one person in a family gets exposed, and every time a new person goes down, the quarantine clock starts over for everyone else? Mm-hm.

But this strain, the feeling that your soul is slowly starving–no. When your soul needs one particular thing, and that thing simply can’t be had, what do you do? For me, it’s solitude and the ability to be still. For others it’s company and companionship. It’s nobody’s fault. It just is.

How do we fill that great, gaping emptiness?

The facile answers to that question are insufficient. I’m not looking for those. Or any answers, really, because I think actually, there aren’t any. It’s just an invitation to reflect on what that thing is we’re missing, the thing the pandemic has taken from us—to recognize it, to own it, and to lift it up and maybe even offer it up. Maybe that’s the way I make my heart fertile ground this year.