Some people have an inner mechanism, like a filtering system, that enables them to see the world more joyfully. It is more than being able to focus on the silver linings; it is more like a universal translator that helps them automatically interpret challenges as opportunities and detours as excursions into unknown, and most likely adventurous, territory. I don’t know whether these people are more often born with such a guidance system or whether they develop it over time, but I definitely recognize them when we meet. Kori McKinney Wilson is one of these people. The great covid pandemic of 2020 had nothing on her ability to reclaim a brand new version of order from chaos. Please enjoy her story.
Toward the end of January, 2020, Kori and her family of five joined their extended family for a big cruise vacation. The group numbered fifteen people in total, and it was their first such adventure together. They had lots of fun and were only barely aware of corona virus news updates, thinking at that time it was akin to SARS and not likely to be a problem in the Unites States.
Several weeks later, the news was accelerating. Kori remembers huddling at her seventeen year old daughter’s soccer game, irritated by the cold early spring weather. Noting her mood toward the weather would almost haunt her later, because soon enough she would be yearning for gatherings with friends and strangers, no matter the weather.
Kori is a dental hygienist by trade. On a Thursday afternoon in late March, 2020, as the office was emptying for the weekend, her boss told everyone to expect to shut down for a few weeks, but that they were waiting for more clear direction from the American Dental Association as well as Oklahoma leadership. Just hours later, they received word that the state was strongly encouraging shut downs but that the final decisions were up to each office. Kori’s dental office decided to close for at least two weeks, through April ninth. She remembers the pandemic feeling real at the end of those first two weeks. They were ultimately closed for a full seven weeks.
The first week of lockdown coincided with her kids’ spring break. Luke, Kaley, and Brennan were in the fourth, tenth, and eleventh grades last year, and skipping spring break led to skipping sports and friends and part time work, too. The Wilson family is a tight knit group, though, so under their parents’ leadership everyone managed to sink in and enjoy it all. They were especially thankful that the weather improved, as it allowed for family hikes at the Wichita Mountains and other outings. Kori also started a daily ritual of drinking her coffee outside on the patio, often urging her husband of 23 years to join her, and this was just the beginning of her beautiful intentionality during pandemic.
The Wilsons’ initial shopping trip for lockdown happened during their second week at home, when Kori realized it was all going to last much longer than anyone expected. She is not a saver or collector by nature; she tends to only keep on hand what they will need immediately and doesn’t mind shopping in small, frequent bursts. This new environment required a 180 degree turnaround in strategy to meet her family’s needs. Even then, she was cautious of buying too much of anything at once, worried that other people would be unable to find enough. She settled on about a three week supply of groceries and goods, leaning on an actual written inventory of everything in their pantry and deep freeze. She wrote a specific plan of what they would eat and shopped accordingly. They stuck to this plan for several weeks, exhausting the bottom of the meat supply even to experiment with rabbit meat gifted from a farming friend, and were able to make just small weekly shopping trips to add to their creative non perishable menu.
Happily, Kori’s enthusiastic and comprehensive menu plan was well received. Much to her delight, the kids even approved of ham hocks and split pea soup! Her family of five sat down for a home cooked dinner every single evening for six weeks solid, and they loved it. Additionally, the kids were enlisted to help cook and found themselves on a wonderful learning curve in the kitchen. Over time, their Dad Mike included grilling lessons, too.
Kori described their sudden glut of time at home like the most wonderful kind of culture shock. They were so used to a busy sports schedule and hectic, overlapping social calendar, all of which was fulfilling, but this was a welcome pace. They all not only loved each other; they liked each other. They enjoyed each other’s company and really hunkered down with a sense of affection and adventure.
When it became evident that the kids would have quite a bit of extra time at their disposal for the foreseeable future, Kori seized the chance to amplify their life experiences and supplement their curriculum. She brainstormed a series of home-centered projects that did more than fill the time; they helped her children chase after learning experiences they could never indulge in at school. The list included meal prep, woodworking and painting, gardening, and physical fitness and leadership. They also took time to learn more deeply about social issues, taking cues from so many weighty current events last year and fantastic docu-series available online. She saw the “finality” of her older kids growing up but also the glittering opportunities of being together now.
They tackled woodworking projects which Mom designed. Dad taught them to use power tools safely, they did the building themselves, and they sanded and painted their finished products.
They all learned to cook full family meals, and Brennan especially discovered a new level of appreciation for the planning and effort that feat requires. They posted their weekly menu to Facebook and enjoyed both encouragements along the way as well as an incoming flood of recipe suggestions, things they “just have to try.” Kori is flirting with the idea of printing the recipes they tried into a “Quarantine Meals” family scrapbook for the kids.
They designed a raised garden bed and did all the studying to understand ecosystems, carbon emission, photosynthesis, and more, before growing their own vegetables. They hauled dirt, propagated their own seeds, and tended everything. This project turned out to be one of Kori’s personal favorites, “because everybody was involved in it,” and she expects to continue growing a garden together every year.
To keep everyone physically active in the great vacuum of team sports, Kori enlisted the older two kids to design a five-week fitness regimen for everyone. The whole family joined in all the workouts! “It was good for them,” she said cheerfully. Kori and Mike were pleased to discover that while the kids outdid them in all other activities, they had more stamina with the jump rope than the younger generation, ha!
The more I heard about their ongoing adventures, the more I see how much of a gift this entire year has been for their family. She may have jokingly called it “Jesus Take the Wheel Home School by Kori,” but that implies desperation she just does not seem to possess. The rhythm and momentum she kept was clearly joyful. Indulgent. Life-affirming.
Her husband Mike works for the FAA and had already been keeping remote office hours, so having a full house was a small adjustment for him during work hours. But overall the family thrived. They also had no problem wearing masks on the few occasions they left the house. Kori’s perspective on masks as a dental hygienist means she wore them almost by instinct, even before they were mandated. She did express compassion for people who maybe found masks too uncomfortable to wear outdoors in the heat of Oklahoma summer.
The more Kori and I chatted, the less I was surprised to hear that she didn’t really have a stress snack. It almost sounded like a foreign concept to her when I asked about it! She expressed with total believability that she has “felt lucky and healthy together, content.” No need for stress snacks.
Managing school in the midst of a pandemic was challenging, but Kori’s kids all rose to the occasion, as did the Moore school system where they attend. Brennan and Kaley, then junior and sophomore, found solo, home based academics easier in some ways. They are both naturally good self managers, and the school administration had established a grades freeze that prevented anyone’s average form slipping too far (not that they needed that insurance). The work they did from home was almost optional, but they still did it, allowing Kori to take a more passive approach with supervising them. It all served to condition them both for this school year. Kori was excited to share that Brennan and Kaley have now plunged into concurrent enrollment at the nearby community college and Brennan has earned a two year scholarship. Congratulations!
Luke, in fourth grade when pandemic hit, also benefitted from the insurance of a grades freeze but was more enmeshed in a structured curriculum than his older siblings. The teachers worked hard to quickly produce thick packets for six weeks’ worth of learning at a time. They also coordinated weekly Zoom meetings, both required and optional. It was a lot for a ten year old to manage, but he had all the help he needed at home and has done well every step of the way.
Kori is thankful for how the schools responded to the time crunch, the safety concerns, and the unique challenges the kids faced last year. This year, she is impressed by the investments being made for air filtration, the detailed efforts everyone continues to make to keep kids in pods and at a reasonable physical distance, and more. All three kids are back in the classroom now, they feel safe, and they are happy to be with their friends at least a little bit.
Limited socializing last year affected the entire family. They took quarantining seriously and were judicious about the few times they did choose to see people in small gatherings or outdoors, maybe occasionally regretting a choice based on what they learned after the fact about other people’s exposure, etc. The same dilemmas many of us have faced. The kids missed their friends. It was perhaps hardest on Brennan, who is normally always on the go. Kaley coped with the solitude a little better, slipping “into her element,” at least for the first month. She is an avid reader and is good at setting a variety of goals for herself, so she made good use of the hours and days. Luke, the youngest, was at that perfect age to truly enjoy the whole family being home together. By the end of summer, Kori said, he was ready to see his friends again.
Mike and Kori missed their friends, too, and they simply craved time with a variety of loved ones. They have close couples-friends who had to be extraordinarily careful because of the vulnerable, elderly family members in their care. The Wilsons also have friends with whom they had one get together last May but not since, and that feels especially strange because those people only live ten minutes away. Mike’s best friend lives next door, and their relationship has had to adjust. Kori had reconnected with friends from school and had fun with her best friend, a memorable girls’ day in Midtown OKC, visiting Factory Obscura and more, just before shut downs. Last summer was supposed to be their summer of fun. They all had such “grandiose plans,” as Kori called them, “then the world shut down.”
I noticed a strong sense of steady confidence as Kori described all of these meaningful friendships and the outings they skipped. She never once called it a loss, only described it as a kind of pause. Like she and Mike had perspective from the beginning that the time apart was temporary. I find that absolutely stunning, in the best way. So many of us have marinated in grief ahead of time you know?
The Wilsons’ efforts to stay healthy paid off. They all stayed covid-free until later this March, when their oldest son tested positive for the virus as he was being admitted for knee surgery. His symptoms were minor and allergy like, and thankfully they resolved quickly; but Kori made him quarantine for a few days, in his bedroom away from the family. He couldn’t believe that, ha! When he felt good enough to go out again, he drove himself to get tested. He was virus free again, and yes, his knee surgery was successful.
One of the most fruitful learning adventures they took together might have been the ongoing discussions about politics, social issues, and history. Among other things, Kori pressed her oldest two children to watch RGB and learn more about Thurgood Marshall. They explored complex social and racial issues and generally reinforced an open family dialog about difficult topics. She talked to me about how she and Mike wanted their kids to learn to use their own voices. They “liked to be on the same page, but you can come to your own opinions.” They worked all year, using current events in the news, to teach the kids to have an ever widening world view. “Your experience isn’t everyone’s experience,” they tried to reinforce. It felt like something much better than tolerance; it felt to me like grassroots love for your neighbors, both seen and unseen.
Kori and I spoke on the phone one year and two weeks after the cancelled spring break that started it all. Mike has not returned to the FFA building yet, but Kori has been back at the dentist’s office for several months, and the kids are now back at school. Everyone is healthy and happy, on their way to being fully vaccinated, and living life fully in this chapter.
I asked what new habits and rhythms might carry over into post-pandemic life. There is a family consensus that life is returning to normal, getting busier in good ways, but Kori was happy to share that they are still enjoying movie and game nights. Maybe not as many as during pandemic, but they had gotten a little burned out on those anyway, ha! Still, they are definitely enjoying more than before. They make time for each other now and realize how precious and genuinely fun it is. The kids continue to request family dinners, too, sometimes including Brennan’s new girlfriend. They have all come full circle back to soccer games, part time jobs, and some socializing.
For such a beautiful, life filled year, I felt wistful on Kori’s behalf, noticing that it was mostly over. I asked her, will she miss it? “No…” she answered softly. I could hear the honest, wide eyed shrug in her voice. “I am grateful for the moment, you know? Life changes. That was an opportunity, that’s what made it special. We all walked away with something.” She went on to reinforce the specialness of their year in pandemic without ever sounding overly sentimental, just happy and nourished.
Wow. This stranger on the phone summoned choking tears into my throat.
Her projects and seize the day attitude gave me energy. Her sincerity about accepting sudden blessings gave me peace. Everything is temporary. The hard, the wonderful, the beautiful, the disappointing. And what is true for one family does not take away from what is true for another.
“Our family is in a good state of mind.”
~Kori McKinney Wilson