Sludge seasons

Stuckness. That feeling I’m sure we’ve all experienced in the stretching COVID season.

In a meeting on Thursday, a Sydney colleague commented: “Just when I thought we were getting beyond this, it’s back”. The Melburnians on screen didn’t need to say a word. We know too well what a ticket on the emotional rollercoaster called lockdown buys.

“I feel like I’m stuck in sludge,” my colleague said.

Suddenly I’d left the amusement park and her imagery took me to a wastewater treatment plant. Many years ago I did a short PR stint at a water and sewerage government body and take it from me, there’s nothing pretty about a treatment plant.

These last few days I’ve been thinking about sludge!

By definition, sludge is a residual. It’s a by-product of a sewage treatment process. As I went for a walk yesterday, I was reflecting on the personal, residual impact of COVID over the past 16 months.

We all live with such residue – physically, emotionally and spiritually. We’ve all been dealing with our share of sludge.

Now reflecting on this residue isn’t an invitation to a pity party. But it can be a helpful self-awareness exercise as we take stock of our lives and emotional health. 

I’ve journeyed through four lockdowns, started a new job at the beginning of the first, worked and led in the midst of uncertainty. There has been the raw pain of a border closure when my mum died, much learning about my lack of control in life, understanding the reality of ambiguous grief and knowing all too well travel cancellation processes. I’ve also promised myself to never to use that “un” word again in COVID copy! 

Yes I get sludge! I get stuckness! I’m sure you do too.

I have checked in with a psychologist a number of times over the past six months to help address some of the residue and grief. I’m checking in again this week, timely, given my current health challenges. 

Some of you reading this post will have experienced far more pain than me, including the loss of a loved one with COVID, the inability to visit family overseas or the loss of employment or your business.  

And if you’re like me, there are also those little things – that normally, on their own, are quite manageable. But carry them on your back with everything else and there are days when your legs seem to sink more.

So what do we do when stuck in sludge? When we’re deep in the mire?

We can look down.

Yes we can just look down. But I’ve learnt that doesn’t help much. Momentarily self-pity can feel good, but it can quickly get you in its grip. 

The more I have looked down over the past year, the more I have simply seen sludge. And the more I look down, the more the sludge hardens before my eyes. That’s what sludge is supposed to do. And hardening only leads to stuckness.

We can look around.

There are a number of new certainties in life in 2021. Border closures being one. Uber Eats on weekends at our place is another, which our kids are keen to perpetuate beyond any lockdown.  

And you only need to be breathing to find someone in your world feeling just as or more stuck than you.

Feeling tired and stretched, fighting a cold [not COVID] and school holiday plans thrown into chaos, my Sydney-based colleague was among friends, as she pulled back the curtain on some of her feelings. 

This season fosters opportunity to grow in vulnerability, strengthen trusting, authentic relationships and enjoy the benefits of genuine community. On top of this, there is a myriad of ways we can keeping reaching out, with a hand of care, to others caught in the mire.

Over the past few days I have benefited from an extended chat with a trusted mentor over a few long blacks in the city. I’ve cherished community over Japanese with two great Melbourne mates and I’ve had a number of messages from local and Newy friends checking in on my health. And Megan’s on a road trip, longer than expected as she avoids red zones, so plenty of opportunities to chat. 

It’s good for me to pause and not take any of these experiences for granted. Further, it’s good to reciprocate the blessing of community and encouragement.

As we look around, let’s also take time to specifically remember those living on their own. The pandemic, particularly lockdowns, are a tough gig for those who don’t have others in their home. Practical acts of kindness make such a difference.

And let’s not be slow in reaching out for professional support. I’m thankful for a professional listening ear and someone to help me ponder sludge-breaking strategies. Maybe the best thing you could do this week is stop trying to get unstuck all on your own.

We can look up! 

Many, many times over the past 16 months as I have been out walking, or as I have been reading or journaling I have found myself intentionally, physically looking up. I did it again just then.

No, I don’t need to physically look up to find God in my life, but I love the beautiful and powerful imagery that is captured in the Psalms, in the Old Testament Scriptures.

Psalm 120 to Psalm 134 are known as “Ascent Psalms”. They were the songs sung by families and friends travelling together to religious festivals in Jerusalem. As they ascended the road to the Jerusalem, they affirmed their hope and faith together as they literally looked up to their destination.

I like the short footnote written at the beginning of each of these songs: “A song for pilgrims ascending to Jerusalem.”

As a weary “pilgrim” I have turned to these songs many times over the past 16 months, as I have navigated the pandemic pathway.

My Sydney colleague did just that on Thursday. Having pondered her stuckness, suddenly she invited us to look up with her as she echoed these ancient words.

“I look up to the mountains – does my help come from there?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not let you stumble; the one who watches over you will not slumber. The Lord watches over you … The Lord stands beside you … The Lord keeps watch over you as you come and go.”

As she finished reading there was silence on the Zoom meet. I sensed we were all breathing in those words of hope and comfort afresh.

My mind went to the last phrase in the passage above – “as you come and go”.

I come and go all the time. I ride the rollercoaster. Some todays I walk freely. Some days I feel stuck. Some days I can smell the roses, others the sludge! I know the mountains. I know the valleys. I know sheer delight. I know the mud and the mire.

At times, I can be drawn too much to the sludge. Thankfully, I can look around and see so many others on the journey with me. And as good as that is, my fellow pandemic pilgrims are all human just like me – they know stuckness. 

So, thank God, I can keep looking up! Thank God for hope, strength, joy and peace. Thank God I am never let in the sludge alone. 

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