Tough times don’t last, tough people, do. I don’t know who originally coined that phrase, but the message holds true. Whenthe pandemic hit, I was fearful, yes. But I’d also been through something most of my peers hadn’t. I’d faced the loss of a spouse and watched a grandson die. I’d survived that. I trusted I’d survive this, whatever this was. I knew it probably wouldn’t last forever, though it has certainly lasted much longer than I’d anticipated. I also knew people who had faced things much worse than a possible Covid infection. My daughter, for instance, who’d cared for her young son for nearly three years during his cancer treatment and then had to watch him slowly die. You don’t go through things like that without having built up some resilience.
With the success of the vaccines, we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel of this difficult period in our history. But before we jump back into the routine of the normal life that we lived in 2019, it would be a shame not to pause to reflect on what we have learned during this time. The social isolation caused by the pandemic really was an opportunity for a collective pause, and a global self-assessment about who we really are, and what we really want in life.
As a part of this series called “5 Things I Learned From The Social Isolation of the COVID19 Pandemic”, I had the pleasure to interview Mary Potter Kenyon.
Mary Potter Kenyon graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a BA in Psychology. A certified grief counselor and Therapeutic Art coach, Mary works as Program Coordinator at Shalom Spirituality Center. Mary is the author of seven books, including “Called to Be Creative: A Guide to Reigniting Your Creativity,” released during the pandemic in August 2020. Mary founded the annual Hope & Healing Grief retreat and Faith Writers conference in Dubuque, Iowa. She is a public speaker and workshop presenter on creativity, finding hope in grief, and expressive writing for healing.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?
I grew up in a small town in Iowa, the seventh of ten children. Though they never managed to escape poverty, my parents were hard workers, with a strong faith that was the bedrock of their life. Ironically, the parochial school they struggled to send their children to would become my own private hell, where I was bullied mercilessly. Outside of siblings, books were my best friends. It wasn’t unusual for me to read several over a weekend. By the age of ten, my secret dream was to someday write one.
Despite getting married a year after high school and starting a family ten months later, I managed to graduate with a BA in Psychology from the University of Northern Iowa. I took master’s courses in Family Services until I dropped out to care for my own growing family after the birth of my fourth child. For the next twenty-five years, I was a mom at home who did freelance writing and ran various home businesses to contribute to our income. I would say that post-traumatic growth fueled the biggest changes in my life in the last ten years. My mother died on my 51st birthday in 2010. Seventeen months later, I became a widow when my husband unexpectedly died following a heart stent surgery. Four of our eight children were still living at home, the youngest just eight years old. The following year, my young grandson died from cancer he’d been battling for three years.
Those multiple losses prompted me to become more spiritual, determined to live a life that would reflect the best qualities of those I had lost. In the last nine years, I’ve worked as a librarian, a newspaper reporter, and now, a program coordinator at a spirituality center. I’ve taken training to become a certified grief counselor and a Therapeutic Art coach. I’ve signed six book contracts, founded an annual grief retreat, a writer’s conference, and two creativity groups. I’ve discovered a passion and purpose in helping other people.
Are you currently working from home? If so, what has been the biggest adjustment from your previous workplace? Can you please share a story or example?
I was sent home to work in mid-March 2020 but returned to the office six months later, though our building’s doors remained locked to the public for several more months. The biggest adjustment was in pivoting my in-person programming to online. Not only did I have to learn how to host Zoom meetings and programs, but my guest speakers and facilitators also had to as well, so there was a learning curve to be navigated. I ended up modifying programs to fit an online format, not always successfully. For instance, our usual grief retreat would not translate well to pivoting online. Zoom couldn’t accommodate the inevitable tears and accompanying hugs. Our online writer’s conference, on the other hand, was a big hit, garnering registrations from people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to travel to our building, including a man from Nigeria.
What do you miss most about your pre-COVID lifestyle?
I miss the ease in which I could gather with family and friends, without fear of spreading illness. I visited with my adult children several times outdoors last year for socially distanced gatherings, but once cold weather hit, those gatherings ceased. Christmas was difficult. I met my children in the driveway of my son’s house on Christmas Eve to deliver presents and watched them open their gifts the next morning via Zoom.
I also miss hugs. As a program coordinator, I was at least guaranteed the occasional hug from people who attended our programs. The daughter who lives with me is the only one of my eight children who refuses to hug, so when I was sent home to work, it felt as though I was banished from all human touch.
The pandemic was really a time for collective self-reflection. What social changes would you like to see as a result of the COVID pandemic?
I’d like to see a Global Awakening, a renewed awareness of the fragility of our earth and each other.
This has also been a time of collective loss. Everyone has lost something or someone during this period, whether it has been a friend or family member, a job, time with grandchildren, or simply a sense of normalcy. We all need healing. If only the awareness of the fragility of human life prompted us to be kinder and gentler towards each other. Sadly, if social media is any indication, there is a lot of anger and division instead.
What if anything, do you think are the unexpected positives of the COVID response? We’d love to hear some stories or examples.
Many of us developed good habits during this time that we should attempt to maintain even as restrictions are lifted. I’ve spent more time outdoors in the last year than I have in recent years, enjoying walks and hikes with my youngest daughter. I planted flowers and purchased my first power tool, to trim bushes in my yard. I’ve heard about people taking up new hobbies or parents saying they spent more time playing board games, biking, or doing crafts with their children.
The skillsets we had to learn to maintain connections are ones we can continue to apply to work and family in the future. My workplace will continue offering some online or hybrid version programs, and my sisters plan to continue virtual visits so we can keep in touch with each other. I’ve sent and received more letters and cards in the mail this past year than in the past five altogether. That’s a lost art I’m happy to revive.
How did you deal with the tedium of being locked up indefinitely during the pandemic? Can you share with us a few things you have done to keep your mood up?
I naturally turned to journal as a coping mechanism. Although I’ve been a writer since 1988, I’ve only been journaling since my husband’s death in 2012. I’ll never forget the sense of panic I experienced in early April 2020 when I filled the last pages of my journal, only to realize I had no new one in the house. I realized the level of anxiety I felt was ridiculous, way out of proportion to the need. I had reams of printer paper, notebooks, and stationery, but for some reason, nothing but a journal would do. I didn’t want just any journal, either, but one appropriate to the situation. I choose my journals carefully, with covers that inspire or encourage me: pictures of beautiful butterflies, a Bible verse, or some other design that speaks to me.
Amazon had deemed books non-essential, so it would be a month before one would arrive by mail. Most of my favorite stores were closed or not yet doing curbside. I called the local independent bookstore, explaining my dilemma. I’m certain the woman who answered the phone sensed my panic; she was so kind. She walked around the store, describing the journals they had in stock. Boho elephant, flower print, solid-colored moleskin. None of those spoke to me. When she marveled over an Alice in Wonderland novel journal, with phrases from the book’s text serving as lines, I initially balked. I’d always hated Alice in Wonderland, the story a little too weird for me.
Then it occurred to me how strange it was for me to be panicking over the lack of a journal, how extraordinarily “weird” the whole pandemic situation was. I told her I’d take it. When the kind saleswoman approached my parked car, I saw she was wearing gloves and a mask. I opened my window, and she tossed the bag through it. We both laughed at the incongruity of the situation. Once home, I opened my new journal, only to discover the illustrated endpaper design included odd-looking trees that were nearly identical to the Coronavirus images I’d seen in the news. It was the perfect journal for the time. I filled it in two months.
The other thing I instinctively turned to was spending time outdoors. Daily walks in my neighborhood became the norm, even though the first two weeks I found myself crying as I walked, tears streaming unchecked down my cheeks. No one observed my distress, other walkers crossing the street as we approached each other. We didn’t yet know how the virus spread. The highlight of my day was when a little boy playing in his yard spotted me walking past on the sidewalk. He began calling out a frantic “Hi! Hi! Hi!” His mother shushed him, but I was thrilled to be acknowledged by another human being, albeit a small one.
By mid-summer, I’d heard that people in Iceland were hugging trees to alleviate loneliness. I decided to try it. I walked across the street to the school and slung my arms around the big oak that stood in front. I felt nothing but embarrassment. A couple of weeks later, when I met my adult children at my son’s house, I found the trees in his woods much more welcoming. I visited them (and my children!) many times during the summer and fall.
Aside from what we said above, what has been the source of your greatest pain, discomfort, or suffering during this time? How did you cope with it?
The loneliness I’ve experienced since my husband’s death in 2012 was heightened dramatically during the pandemic. I’d already left behind a support system of my adult children, siblings, and a Bible study group that felt like family when I’d moved an hour away for a job in June 2018. Initially, during the lockdown, the only person I saw was my 16-year-old daughter, who refused to discuss the virus or much of anything else. She spent the majority of each day alone in her room. One particularly difficult day, when I wasn’t sure I could cope, I called my doctor, who prescribed an anti-anxiety medication. I’ll never forget my oldest son driving the hour to my house just to sit with me, waiting for my panic to recede after I took one of the pills. I wasn’t used to taking medication for anxiety and was fearful of the effects. That bottle of thirty tablets has lasted well over a year. Just knowing it was there was all I needed most days.
Okay, wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Learned From The Social Isolation of the COVID19 Pandemic? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Tough times don’t last, tough people, do. I don’t know who originally coined that phrase, but the message holds true. Whenthe pandemic hit, I was fearful, yes. But I’d also been through something most of my peers hadn’t. I’d faced the loss of a spouse and watched a grandson die. I’d survived that. I trusted I’d survive this, whatever this was. I knew it probably wouldn’t last forever, though it has certainly lasted much longer than I’d anticipated. I also knew people who had faced things much worse than a possible Covid infection. My daughter, for instance, who’d cared for her young son for nearly three years during his cancer treatment and then had to watch him slowly die. You don’t go through things like that without having built up some resilience.
- There are a lot of good people out there. Listening to the nightly news, you might think we live in an ugly world filled with racism, poverty, greed, hatred, and injustice. While those things do exist in our imperfect world, something like the pandemic also brings out the good in people. There were women like my sister Joan sewing masks late into the night, neighbors helping neighbors, people in the street or leaning out windows to cheer frontline workers, nurses risking their own life to hold the hand of someone dying alone.
- We need each other. On a personal level, I’ve seen how crucial human connection is to my wellbeing. I can’t wait to hug people again! I learned to connect via Zoom, something I probably wouldn’t have done without the pandemic. My sisters and I, one who lives in Florida, began a weekly group chat via Zoom during the lockdown, and it was great to reconnect. We’re still doing them a year later, though not weekly. It’s so easy to lose touch with people we care about, even family. I also wrote more letters, reaching out to people to let them know I was thinking about them.
- Good things can come from bad. I found healing in my son’s woods when I hugged the trees. When I began hiking in wooded areas with my non-hugging daughter, I discovered something else. The girl who hid in her room and refused to talk began talking on those hikes. Now, we talk all the time. I don’t know if we would have taken hikes or gotten that close outside of the pandemic.
- We can make it mean something. Often the only thing we can control when faced with a difficult event or experience is how we’ll respond to it. We can flail and fail, or progress and prosper. We can choose to grow and change, for the better, from tough situations. What a waste this time will have been if we don’t choose to become better people because of it. Do we really want to return to the old “normal,” or do we want a new, and better normal?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you during the pandemic?
“Feed your fears and your faith will starve. Feed your faith, and your fears will.”—Max Lucado
This quote from author Max Lucado really hit home for me early on during the pandemic when anxiety and fear threatened to take hold. I am a world-class worrier but worrying about the pandemic wasn’t going to change anything. I knew I had to take charge and banish the anxiety or it would take over my life and thoughts. I still had a job I was responsible for, a teen daughter who looked to me for reassurance. I didn’t have the luxury of falling apart. I immediately turned to the Max Lucado books I had on my shelves and began watching his YouTube videos. Why? Because his words had helped me through one of the toughest periods of my life in 2012, after the loss of my spouse. Also, as a program coordinator at a spirituality center, one of the things I could do in my modified role was to write and record weekly morning meditations for our Facebook followers. Max’s videos became an inspiration for my own. In doing the weekly videos, I fed my own faith.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to meet the man behind the quote I shared above, author and pastor Max Lucado. I’d like to tell him how much his books meant to me after the death of my husband in 2012, how his calming voice in the short videos he did during the pandemic calmed my anxious soul.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.