Holy Week – Holy Zoom Transformation

Queen of Virtual MeetingsIn less than four weeks, my allergy to virtual meetings seems to be recovering. I noticed at the end of the Holy Thursday Zoom service that my fever had broken. I wasn’t rushing to click the Leave Meeting button; I was suspended in the moment, sitting quietly with my fellow Zoomers as the final image of the bare altar was projected onto the screen.

After decades of exhausting corporate collaboration across far too many time-zones and cultures, I really didn’t care if I ever participated in a Zoom, Webex, Skype or any other flavor of cool connectivity tool ever again. When I retired I took off my “Queen of Virtual Meetings” crown – yes, that was my nickname! I was done with that.

And then along came the Coronavirus, and self-isolation and “Stay At Home” orders. My beautiful retired world switched to Zoom overnight. I felt like I was right back at work and not happy about.

But this Holy Thursday Zoom service was a pivotal moment. It mirrored my 4-stage transformation over the past 4 weeks of social distancing. This is my more sober variation on Jimmy Kimmel’s 5-stages of the Coronavirus.

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I started out the appointed hour Thursday evening feeling rushed. This was an imposition on the well worn groove of our new evening sequence of activities. I pull myself away from that cozy, dull routine to power-up, login, put on headset, connect audio & video. By the time I’ve reconnected three times due to dropped internet and cursing AT&T, I’m feeling irritated as well as imposed upon. As others join and I try to assist them in finding the video, or the Chat, or getting them to show their face instead of the ceiling or feet. It’s like teaching someone to drive blind. Now I’m frustrated too. What am I doing here?

That describes my Week One in isolation with Zoom. Not these meetings again?  I just want to be with people face-to-face. I’m feeling imposed upon, irritated and annoyed at having regressed to living my days out in online bubbles.

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As everyone gets connected, the smiles, laughter and sense of joy start to percolate through the bumpy start. Most are happier to see each other, to reconnect, than they are worried about any earthly technical nuisances. That has a calming effect on me. I can see the value in this. Look at their faces. Nevertheless, I’m still hovering around the edges trying to push for more efficient tool usage. Getting everyone to use this feature, or that feature. Pushing for deeper functionality usage rather than deeper connections. These are, after all, the same thing for a techy.

That describes my Week Two in isolation with Zoom. The annoyed expert and even more annoying know-it-all. Once pressed into service, wanting it to be technically flawless and technically exquisite.

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Then the service starts, someone else takes control. My “co-hosting” role is removed – both literally and figuratively. They’ve created new ways to transform this corporate tool into an experience that might also touch our hearts. I trust these leaders, so I sit back and watch. All the while carefully taking note, ready to catch them if they fall, willing them to succeed.

That describes my Week Three in isolation with Zoom. No longer “Queen of Virtual Meetings” , it’s like being past president on a committee. You feel like you still have a stake in the success of the outcome. You’re torn about no longer being in charge; partly relieved and partly missing being in the center of all the action. Overall you’re happy to be on the sidelines.

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Then the service moves into the meditation of Jesus washing out feet (since we’re not doing virtual feet washing) and I’m transported. I’m no longer in a Zoom call in 2020 during a pandemic, rather I’m at the Last Supper with Jesus over 2,000 years ago. I’m fully engaged in the service, immersed in this bubble of time and space. I’m connected to my spiritual community a way that feels even more proximate, more tangible and more real than sitting next to each other in the pews at church. It’s unexpected. How did they do this?

This experience transcends technology. I’m stunned. I’m deeply moved.

That describes my Week Four in isolation with Zoom. The corporateness has evaporated. These Zoom calls have lost their straight-jacket dimension. They’ve gone from life-draining to life-giving. It’s a tectonic shift.

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Zoom is no longer about a corporate technology – I am indeed done with that. Rather, it’s become a rich, multi-dimensional life-line. I’m grateful. I’m finally onboard!

Happy Easter!

[Special recognition to Rev. David Wantland, Roger Hutchison, and Dustin Jesudason for their creative re-imagining of our Holy Week at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in this time of social distancing. It’s been powerful and memorable!]

Cleaning wipe-out, dropped Zooms and mixed messages from on high

exhausted from cleaningI’m plopping down at my writing desk completely exhausted from a spurt of housework. I had this idea that I could give the downstairs a quick once-over in an hour or so after lunch. I’ve never been wowed by the speed or thoroughness of my housekeeper, so I knew I could knock this out in no time flat.  You know where this is going … it’s not even that big of a space, but it took almost 3 hrs. and has left me pooped. So much for me thinking I’m pretty fit and snappy. What a baby. Clearly I have been under-appreciating my housekeeper. All future oversights on her part — if she can ever return — are already forgiven. I could write a whole long, drawn-out epistle on what else I learned about how hard her job is, but the bottom line is a newfound respect for Maria.

Before that, I spent most of the morning in Zoom calls that kept dropping and cutting in-and-out. It would seem that our WIFI is not tolerating three of us on concurrent Zooms, and I, for some inexplicable reason, drew the short straw when bandwidth was being apportioned by our router.

This is  all very tedious. I thought I had left this virtual life behind me when I retired. Now, I’m back in the thick of it trying to help newbies find the link to the meeting room, then the Mute button, then the Chat button, and more. Everyone’s device is slightly different and we don’t all speak the same technical language. It’s hard work, but everyone is so patient and determined, I’m inspired to persist too. Each call brings progress and excited oohs and aahs as we learns new skills and tricks.

There aren’t many spring chicks in my various groups, so it’s miraculous how well people are figuring it out. In the 7am bible study we were even successful in marking up the Whiteboard displaying Psalm 1 with hearts and arrows to indicate which verses touched us most. At the beginning of the call, we all checked in by having 24 of us write a couple of sentences into the Chat window simultaneously. This tool is perfect for us, as we actually would all like to talk at the same time. Now we can!

Pslam 1 Whiteboard

Between two of the Zoom calls, I went out for a run on the Bayou near the house and happened to catch on the radio Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo giving a briefing on the “stay-at-home” order to go into effect at midnight tonight. I feel like the vultures are circling. What an impressive 29-year old woman, wow — I’m thankful for strong, clear-thinking young leadership in Houston. Then, when I walk back into the house, I notice a new notification in my news feed from the White House announcing that the President “would love to have the country opened up and raring to go by Easter”. I can sense a fight brewing. Uncertainty is piling on top of uncertainty.

Maybe I need to go back to my cleaning. The whole of the upstairs awaits my attention. There’s nothing like hard physical work to quieten the mind and bring your whole self to rest.

A Collage of Sisterhood

Coronavirus Zoom - no names-no SylviaOne of the joys of retiring from corporate life was the absolute stop to crack-of-dawn conference calls. Stressing over getting the right link, password, sound setup and all the rest vanished overnight.  It was like casting off a straight jacket – I could breath again.

These days, early morning gatherings are relaxed, in person, and casual affairs. Even our 7am bible study is easy come easy go. No assignments, status reports or deliverables. Just show up, be present and contribute or not, it doesn’t matter.

That was all true, until this week when the virus closed the doors to these precious get-togethers. My heart sank. It never occurred to me to suggest any kind of virtual replacement. And that’s coming from the former “Queen of Virtual Meetings” – you know what I’m talking about, if you ever worked with me. Online meetings for me are synonymous with an oppressiveness that I can’t seem to shake.

So when one of our bible study group suggested setting up a virtual meeting, I wasn’t thrilled. Really, will these things chase me beyond the grave? But, I knew I had to reveal my ability to make this happen. Privately, I stepped into it with a sense of dread and heavy obligation. Publicly, I promised I could get them all connected and we could test the waters to see how they liked it. I was sure this would be a one-time thing.

The night before, I went to bed with a higher level of anxiety than usual – I recognized that old feeling, and it was not good. Will they all be able to connect? Will I be able to explain it? I don’t even know this new tool very well myself, so how can I figure out all the quirky issues that will surely arise? Will we collapse in a heap of dropped links, echoing sound feedback, barking dogs, and such? This would be a great time for God to show up in a big way!

Tuesday 6:45am arrives and I am ready at my desk with my headset on and click Start Meeting. The first participant arrives with her video turned off. After some cajoling she is persuaded to reveal herself lying in bed in jammies and no make-up. I’m looking equally elegant. We are more real and more vulnerable to each other already. Maybe this will be different than I thought.

Then another arrives and she pops up sitting on her couch with a cat slinking behind her in a dark quiet room. Then another and another. There are no technical issues. Everyone hops in and gets connected. It’s nothing short of miraculous. Within a few minutes, there’s a collage of 17 beautiful sisters on my screen. We see dogs in laps, PJs, glasses instead of contacts, coffee cups, no makeup, just our unmasked selves. Our leader starts us out with a prayer and we skip around the collage checking in with everyone.

We share fears, small joys, concerns for self and others, challenges and needs. There are words of comfort and empathy. There are tears and laughter. There is tenderness and listening. We are present to each other in a new way.

The distances dissolve. We are knit together in an unexpected sisterhood in this beautiful collage on the screen in front of me. 

God truly did show up in a very big way!

I’m looking forward to doing this again next week.

Amen.