From the Good for the Soul File: Pens, Connection, and Pandemic

From the Good for the Soul File: A couple of years ago, a group from the congregation I served invited me to come up for a day of their service trip at a global distribution center. In my time there, we packed clothes for newborns and infants, we organized storage rooms, a few of us fixed up bicycles, and others repaired sewing machines. And we heard stories of items that had been given locally and others that would travel all the way across the world.

In our last hours there, I wandered in around the massive warehouse, stunned by the laundry detergent, by the paper towels, by the sponges, and by the buckets, waiting to be gathered into flood kits. But it was when I stumbled upon pallet boxes full of things like pencils, pens, and erasers that my heart could fully realize the deep interconnection of our world. Standing over this vat of pens, my heart softened within me.

Numerous blue and black pens scattered in a large bin, bundled in groups of three and held together with rubber bands. The entire frame is filled with them so that their numbers overwhlem.
Photo by Me.

Maybe it was because these were the same kind of pens my fifth grade schoolteacher had put on our supply lists for us to use in our letter-writing units. Those were the first pens I’d been able to use in school, the first pens I’d ever owned myself, and so a bit of their magic may have resurfaced as a gift from my 10 year old self. Maybe it was because they were the pens I used when I waited tables. Maybe it was because, like a sentimental writer-type, I knew the potential of a good pen, and I was overcome with gratitude that this feeling could be sensed all over the world by the arrival of something so very simple into one’s life.

Over time, I have learned that our lives are defined by the way that we understand our connection to each other and our world, by whether we believe ourselves to be interconnected beyond distinctions…or not. In my life, I have moved through many understandings of my connection to the world–some more generous than others. Every day, I do this strange thing where I try to sit and remember my deep interconnection to all things, the smallness of this. The responsibility of this. Most days, that’s not easy. But when I saw the pens, it was.

Right now, we are recognizing our connection to each other on a deeply human level–there is a virus that has mutated to be especially adept at connecting to human proteins and thus at making us sick, even to the point of death. Nobody is immune (that we know of), nobody is above this. Suddenly, the deep interconnectedness of the human community is made visible by its vulnerability. The question is, what will we do with this awareness?

The options we’ve been employing a lot of the time seem crude: to treat one another as competition, as a money-making opportunity, as an enemy, or as something to be feared. They’re how we operate so much of the time. But they seem hollow and ridiculous in the face of such clearly mapped interconnection. Because that’s what contagion is–a map of connection. Maybe of something undesirable, but it is clearly a map of connection. And I wonder, and I think you are wondering too, what other options there might be for such a clear case for our shared humanity.

The option I like best, but the more vulnerable one, is to whisper hope and connection to each other in whatever way we can. Because whether we want to be or not, whether we’re ready or not, we are in this thing together. And we have the opportunity to learn that not only are we in a pandemic together, we are in all of life together. We are connected. And that this connection comes with the responsibility to bear one another up, to offer those tangible and intangible reminders that we are not alone. That (to borrow from Sondheim), no one is alone.

In a time when “quarantine” and “isolation” have become normal words in our daily vocabularies, I also wonder if there’s room for “connection” and “hope.” Look for it. Share it. In only the ways you can. Do the thing that you know how to do best to make those around you feel seen, loved, known. That we have to do this from a little bit of distance only offers us the opportunity for creativity. I do not have to hug you to let you know that I care. What else might there be?

At that distribution center, I realized that donating a pack of pens, unpacking them and bundling them together in threes, gathering them together to be sent to schoolchildren across the world was a gesture of belief in connection. Not just for the people who gave or received the pens. But even for a woman who happened across them gathered together, waiting to be sent.

So I ask, what gesture will you make? And if you’re not sure, start with yourself: what gesture of hope and connection do you need? Then ask for it. Or make it for someone else and see what happens.

Much love to you all. Know that my heart holds you close, and that I wish for you peace.

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