Making the most of this unexpected journey

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If anyone is wondering how my family’s isolation is going, allow me to set a quick scene. It’s 11:15 p.m. on a Monday and four of my six children are still wide awake, piled onto the couch and settling in to watch a movie: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” Several of them might be wearing the pajamas they wore the night before — and maybe the night before that; who knows? — but none of it matters now, because where the line between clean and dirty laundry used to be “was this worn?” it is now, sadly, “did I spill something on it?”

As of writing this, we’ve been hunkered down for almost four weeks, our family of eight, and the high hopes and grand plans we set in Week 1 have faded. Few projects have gotten done. The schedules we set have been abandoned. It’s been chaos, and one horrible habit has caused the next, like we’ve set up a series of bad-parenting dominoes and are now watching them topple over in a horrific but spectacular fashion. Breakfast has turned into brunch, and lunch — for everybody but the baby and the 3-year-old — has turned into a fend-for-yourself affair at about 2 in the afternoon. Nobody is hungry at the time normal people eat dinner, so we eat late, clean up late, stay up late, lather, rinse, repeat.

All of this has led the four of them, in probably dirty clothes, to start a three-hour movie at 11 p.m. on what is supposed to be a school night — but at least they picked a film that’s fitting for the occasion. Like Bilbo Baggins, we’re all on an unexpected journey.

This pandemic came fast, like a tidal wave that appeared on the horizon one minute, and the next it was crashing ashore and sweeping away all semblance of normalcy — our schools, our workplaces, our churches, our connections to family and friends. For many, there have been agonizing hardships and stresses — job losses, child care concerns, financial stress, loneliness, depression, illness and, for thousands upon thousands, the sudden death of a friend or loved one.

In his essay on Divine Mercy (online April 13), Father Scott Jablonski, a priest of the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, rightly notes, “I think that we can honestly say that whatever we are experiencing right now is, in some mysterious way, a gift of God’s mercy, however severe it might feel in the present moment.” It is a perspective that can only come with faith, and maybe we won’t be able to see it until this particular journey is over.

But along with the sufferings, there have been unexpected joys. I’ve gotten time with my kids that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I’ve gotten to see our baby take first steps and hear first words. I’ve gotten to hold her for hours as she naps, as we’ve got nowhere to go that takes precedence. We’ve taken long walks as a family, put puzzles together, played board games. We’ve laughed a lot and, hopefully, made memories that our kids will tell our grandkids someday.

God has a way of answering our prayers in unexpected ways, and my constant prayer as we spent years rushing from one task to the next — cooking, cleaning, shopping, helping with homework, practices and ballgames, school board meetings, working late — has always been for more time. And now we have it.

There is a scene early in “The Hobbit” where Gandalf tries to convince Bilbo Baggins to join him and a group of dwarves on a quest to reclaim the kingdom of Erebor. Bilbo is more than hesitant, not willing to trade the comfort of his home in the Shire for the risks that await him if he chooses to go. But risks come with rewards, and Gandalf tells him a story of his “Great-Great-Great-Great Uncle Bullroarer” who, while fighting goblins, also happened to invent the game of golf. Accusing him of making up the story, Gandalf replies: “Well, all good stories deserve embellishment. You’ll have a tale or two to tell of your own when you come back.” And Bilbo asks him, “Can you promise that I will come back?” Truthfully, Gandalf responds: “No. And if you do … you will not be the same.”

And, in all likelihood, neither will we, at the end of this unexpected journey.

Scott Warden is managing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.

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