The Joy Amidst the Sorrow

What if it took a global pandemic to find work-life balance? And what does that mean when it’s over?

These days I wake up without an alarm, usually sometime around 7 a.m., often to the quiet chatter of our kids playing somewhere in the house. I lie in bed for a few minutes collecting my senses, looking outside at the emerging dawn, the tender, pregnant buds on every tree, the muted birdsong, quiet streets.

Within a few minutes, I remember: there’s a pandemic.

It’s a bit like grieving a death, really. You wake up, and for a few precious moments your brain pulses about, hopscotching from one synapse to the next until suddenly it lands upon the bruised one, the lightning-trigger that drops your stomach. Each morning is a little easier than the previous one. That’s what endurance does for you. How quick the new normal.

Our family doesn’t so much start the day on schedule as it sort of emerges into one. The last few weeks have been a fluid adjustment. Eventually, we find breakfast. We clear the table. I go to work, and Kelly and the kids begin their schoolwork.

I am still considered an essential employee at the college; I come to my office, which is in an old house, quiet the alarm panel, and keep the door locked behind me. I make a cup of coffee or walk into town to fetch one.

I am the only one reporting to my office. I turn on more lights than I should for only one person. I turn on music.

There are a handful of things in a fundraising shop that have to be done in person, mostly having to do with finances. Folks still mail us checks, so at some point I’ll wander over to the mail room to see what’s there. Our business office is still a paper-run concern, so there are forms and requisitions and approvals to be signed and sent over.

These days I start a list each morning, checking things off as I finish them. Nothing is too small. Coffee. Check.

The beginning of all this, that week when our state and country snapped to and treated COVID-19 with utter seriousness, was probably the most stressful ten day period of my career. I carried around knots in my belly almost every day.

At work, we struggled to make sense of what had happened since the day before. We made plans, uncertain of whether or not they would still be applicable by the next morning. We looked for help from state and national leadership; we needed cover to make the decisions we thought we ought to make. We listened, sometimes frustrated, helpless, on conference calls.

Across town, at the Boys & Girls Club, where I volunteer as a board member, the staff was hard at work trying to figure out how to keep things going. We are heavily grant-funded, and early on, we weren’t sure whether our funding would continue without having students physically present.

The Club does so much for young people in our community–everything from academic support to drug/gang prevention skills to self-care–and it attends to some very vulnerable kids. It’s a safe place for them, a place to go when there’s nobody home, or when home isn’t a good place.

Without grant support, though, everything would have to go away. I’m currently serving as the board chair, and I was terrified that the entire operation would suffer critically on my watch, and I was powerless to do anything about it.

Eventually, we learned the grant would continue–thank you, God–and so far we’ve only suffered a few scrapes. But we aren’t out of the woods yet.

All around us, there is hurt. When I walk downtown, every shop has some version of a handmade sign posted to the empty sidewalks. Closed. Take-out only. Shop our online store. Hope to see you in May. Some are hand-lettered, others printed in haste, but block after block, they appear like haunted children, staring from inside the windows.

I try to do my part, ordering lunch or dinner from restaurants we frequented until weeks ago, picking up supplies from the wine store. It is quietly devastating to walk into a cafe on a Thursday evening, one that would normally be filled with a hundred patrons, to only be greeted by the cook, a single waitress, and a handful of plastic grocery bags containing the meager orders for the night.

This empty town, my heart.

Months ago, I had joked that we must be realizing “Peak Statesville.” Our little southern city has a bustling downtown district, fully occupied, complete with restaurants for every occasion, a fantastic coffee shop, two breweries, a wine store, boutiques, cigar shops, a bakery. The town that in my high school days was rundown and empty had found its Easter resurrection. Normally when I leave for home in the evenings, downtown is filling up with folks.

Monday night, on my way home, I saw a single car.

This is all good, my Mom reminds me, when I called her. She has spent her career in assisted living, where everyone now is terrified of an outbreak. She comforts and cares for the terribly fragile in this pandemic, the delicate population that cannot beg us enough to be more careful. This is what the world needs from us right now.

In my mind, I focus on the memories of streets swollen with friends, laughter, embracing.

We are okay–my family and I, that is, for the moment. That is an enormous privilege, one that I cannot neglect to acknowledge, and one that brings me a sense of guilt. Some of my friends, and others close by, are feeling a lot less than okay. I see them. I sense their ache.

But one of the more remarkable parts on the privileged side of this entire experience is that the tempo of my life suddenly changed for the better.

The frenetic pace of my job and the business of grad school work often kept me wound up tight. I struggled to sleep. There were days when I would kiss the kids goodbye Monday morning as they went off to school and not have any time to really talk to them until Wednesday supper. I worried we were becoming strangers sharing the same roof.

Today I darted home for lunch and made a sandwich in my kitchen while they were playing in the next room. We can ride bikes in the evenings because there’s no reason to go to bed early. We can watch movies, or play games, or read books together. Everyone has complained that the month of March lasted a decade–and I get that–but my goodness at the time we’ve had to share.

The other night the kids played in the back yard, and I took a book out onto the deck. The air was warm for springtime, the pollen count bearable, and I read while they ran about, playing fetch with the dog, as the sun set fire to the sky. The trees slow-danced with an inky breeze, their limbs gently waving. An early chorus of frogs rose from the creek bottom across the road.

Eventually I put down my book, flipped on the flood lights so the kids could see awhile longer, and watched the stars shimmer into place, our brood calling out to one another in the twilight, their little voices echoing about the neighborhood.

It filled me then: this restful, quiet joy amidst the sorrow. This bizarre reality has in a sense been like an absurd genie, one that grants us wishes we’ve never been brave enough to ask for. I’ve been granted time and space. My brain feels more creative than it has in months. Maybe years. My patience with the children, my longing for my wife, the tenderness I feel for my friends–every sense is heightened. I see purpose in my work, but in the new reality it takes a different place.

My work and my life have balanced.

It is troubling to feel the weight of this new equilibrium juxtaposed with the dizziness others are feeling. I feel great, even if it’s a guilty great, even if it’s only for now.

It feels uncomfortable to admit, but I sort of want it to stay like this–minus the death, of course, and the economic free fall, of course. Of course. But I like how it feels right now, even if I worry about saying as much out loud. Maybe that’s the workaholic Stockholm syndrome kicking in. The old normal still stalks the horizon, and when the universe rights itself, will it capsize this warm and cozy raft I’m clinging to?

As my friend Gray pointed out to me earlier today, we have very little control in all of this. Maybe you’ve run through that course, too, when–much like grief–we attempt to bargain our way out of this.

Acceptance, then, looks better every day. It sure felt good sitting on my deck the other night, a cold drink, a book, and the tender glory of kids running through the dark, just the same as you and me.


Three Squared


Why can’t colleges use endowment funds to fill budget gaps?


  1. Dee Ham

    enjoyed your message… and it was… for me it was to accept things and to protect things…We will get past all of this .. It will not be quick but it will , I believe, improve all of our lives for the better. You are going to be closer to your family than ever before. We did zoom the other night with all the Grandkids and it was awesome..NOT the same as being there for a hug but now in the future the hug will mean even more…God Bless you … and your family.

  2. Clay Crouch

    Thanks for sharing your hope with us. Stay well and safe, my friend.

  3. Linda

    James I loved this. You have always been able to focus on the positive.

  4. Bill Green

    Bravo, James. You boiled down a lot that’s been roiling in my brain through these crazy times. Thanks for the thoughts and for continuing your commitment to the college and the Club, where the needs just continue to grow.

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