Brenda currently lives in Stoneham MA, but grew up in Mineral WA. She is surrounded by men, with two sons, one husband and two boy cats. She plays trumpet at church, cans farmshare produce and works in software.
My tiny, rural home county of Lewis County (approx the size of Connecticut with approx the population of Somerville MA) made the national news this week. The Governor of Washington has made masks mandatory to attempt to slow or stop the crashing wave of Coronavirus infections. In response to this legal edict, the Sheriff (you know, the hand of the law) for the county got on a bullhorn (maskless) and advised people that the choice of whether to follow the law was theirs. His exact words, repeated more than once, were “Don’t be a sheep”.
As someone who loves people in Lewis County, and worries about their safety and well being, I have a lot of thoughts about this medically, socially etc. But the thing that really struck me was how profoundly un-Christian this advice is.
You see, throughout the Bible – and especially Jesus’ words – he over and over again talks about his people as sheep. There are incredibly clear stories that came immediately to mind, putting God’s beloved in the role of sheep. The first is, of course, the parable of the Wandering Sheep (Matthew 18:10-14) “If a man owns a hundred sheep … In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.”
Of course, we have Jesus as the Good Shepherd (John 10) “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. … Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. … I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
If you’re Catholic, you should care a lot about being a sheep, because of John 21:15 when Jesus, THREE TIMES, asks Peter for one thing, “Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me? He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” This is part of the story that establishes Peter (Simon = Peter if you’re confused) as the Pope. The Pope to this day carries a stylized shepherd’s crook.
The last story comes as a warning (Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus has just explained that in the end, we will be judged on whether we have fed the hungry, given water to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger and visited the prisoner. (I often wonder why religious rights folks haven’t been fighting restrictions against prison visits harder – or at all – for infringing their religious duties). But the end is an apocalyptic scene, where at the judgement day …
“All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. … Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
So take a longer thought. If you are a Christian, should you want to be a sheep? Or should you fight against being a sheep? Will you be led, and guided, by the law, medicine and the need to care for others? Or would you rather be an individualistic goat, wandering in your own free, will not caring who you harm? And if the latter – how do you square that with being a Christian?
Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.
My family believes in two concepts that are not very common in our modern American parlance. The first is calling. The concept is generally that if you pay attention and are open (and obedient), you may discover a purpose divinely intended for you. You have the choice, in those circumstances, to either embrace the call and follow where it leads, or reject it and follow where you will. (Well, unless you’re Jonah. Then you’re just stuck.) The second thing is related. Christians believe that ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven, the Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost, or paraclete, or spirit, or dove, or tongues of flame, or what you will call it) came to us and landed upon God’s people and changed them. And we believe the Spirit is with us today. It is the Spirit, in our theology, that sends us those calls we may or may not ignore.
In my family, we believe the Holy Spirit is perilous, and that calling is both real and usually profoundly inconvenient. As an example – my parents spent 4 years as missionaries in the Congo in Africa, where I was born. When they came back to the states, my mom went on a speaking circuit talking about the mission and the work. The little old ladies would swoon and tell her, with a three year old me on her hip, that she was so NOBLE. She’d always reply that if she was really noble she’d teach middle school. Well, my mom retired a few years ago from a 20+ year career as a middle school teacher. She’d often advise us children, “Never say what’d you’d do if you were noble!” Inside that joke is a belief – being open to hearing what God asks of you leads to you doing those things, even if you don’t want to. Don’t pray for God’s guidance unless you’re actually willing to take it, or like Jonah you might find yourself in Ninevah, pouting.
My own greatest calling was an anti-call. My junior year of college it occurred to me that I might have to do something for a living after college, and that reading medieval literature was not actually a job. (Even less a job when you don’t read Latin.) I had been given a grant for that summer, $3000, to do a cool internship or something. This was well before internships were the expected route for every college graduate. I’d spent the prior two summers waiting tables and working temporary jobs. I applied to a bunch of internships. I was really excited for NPR (form letter rejection), and also submitted to be a summer volunteer with the PCUSA, applying the hard work I’d done on my Spanish as a missionary. I got a call from the PCUSA asking me, “How’s your Portuguese?” and found myself headed to Mozambique, instead of to South America.
This felt like call. I had been very faithful in service of my small church community. My understanding of faith was only enriched by looking at 2000 years of how differently we’d approached the same God and scriptures. My gifts were so clearly useful to a church: I’m musical, I write well, I speak well, I’m pretty organized I care about people deeply. To me, this was clearly the beginning of a call which would likely end up with me pastoring a church. I prepped my besotted fiancee that this was a possibility. He was behind it all the way. And then I took the (at the time) world’s longest commercial flight from JFK to Johannesburg to start a summer of mission.
My friends, if you believe in call, you must believe in not-call. The complete absence of call, or clarity that this is NOT what God demands of you. Without the not-call, there can be no valid call. And never has anyone been so not-called as I was that summer. It didn’t destroy my faith (or even, I think, harm it that much?) but it was so the opposite of being invited and encouraged to pursue a career in the church that I never even looked at seminary. I focused on my half-hobby of writing web pages, and it’s been 20 years of technology since then.
It’s been a quiet few decades for call as I’ve gone from maiden to matron. The last 20 years, I’ve been a faithful and loving member of a small congregation, giving of what skills and time I have to serve God there. I’ve been a deacon, an elder on session (our governing board) for like 15 years. I taught Sunday School. I co-ran the youth group. I served on worship committee, christian education, hospitality, membership, stewardship, personnel and nominating committees. I’ve run the web presence, and restacked the web site twice. After our beloved pastor retired, I not only took on the Christmas Pageant, I also led the mission study taskforce as our interim pastor died of a brain tumor, and our pastor search after a long time in the wilderness.
My children were baptized in the church. I’ve vowed to other children as they were baptized. My roots there are broad and deep and filled with love.
If you’d asked me, I would have told you that my funeral would be held there.
And then I was called, by the Holy Spirit, to leave. I was, am, deeply confused. Faithfulness is part of who I am. I love my church and congregation deeply. I have sacrificed much for this group of people. I have washed dishes and windows, and watched the children grow. I have preached sermons of encouragement and vulnerability. I do not understand how or why I am called away from the people I love. Like Jonah, I fought it for a long time, not believing that I could possibly be called to do anything as stupid and drastic as breaking up with a beloved congregation. What for? Why was I not being called TO something?
Truly, I don’t know. I can’t even tell you how I know it was being called, other than it seemed to be something outside my own volition and consistent and unmistakable.
I’m not sure why. I have some theories. These last few years I poured an unsustainable amount of me into the work of the church. I knew it was a burnout rate, but I did it anyway in love. But this year, I reached the end of myself. There was no more to give, and I was incapable of resting in pews while I watched my friends overworked. There is the sense of a breaking point reached, and I reached mine. Again, it was not my faith that was destroyed. But rather, how I express my faith HAD to change or it might in fact be sacrificed on the twin altars of duty and habit.
So I made a decision. I sat with it. I talked to a few people. (There are remarkably few resources on how to break up with your church with love.) I prayed. I sat some more. I spent months thinking, praying, and wondering if this could be right. And then, after Easter, I shared my decision with session. Since then, I’ve been gradually mailing my bewildered friends notes explaining myself, as best I could. On Pentecost, I hiked a mountain – a place I’ve often found close to God – instead of wearing red and singing hymns of discipleship and the Holy Spirit and tongues of flame.
I don’t know what comes next. I think that rest is a part of it. Part of God’s promise and commandment to us – both – is that we may and must rest. I will pray, and read the Bible, and sing hymns. I will climb mountains. I will visit other congregations and worship as a stranger. (Zoom is actually great for this…) And I will listen for that still small voice, and for it to call me to something, finally.
tl;dr – I’m looking for penpals, or people who would be interested in getting a letter from me! No promises.
June 16 2020 update – I’ll be happy to accept folks who want to be penpals indefinitely! I’m very much enjoying sharing correspondence, so don’t worry that it’s too late!
The older I get, and the longer we live in the digital era, the more I realize that I was born in the waning phases of another civilization. When I was a girl, methods of communication were different. I was thinking about this, as we’re all trapped without libraries right now. Adam and I have approximately 12 big tupperware tubs of books in our basement at the moment, because he’s in the process of building bookshelves for our hallway. In addition to those tubs, we have books in every room of the house: fancy books, cookbooks, gaming books, paperback novels, kids books, comic books. I confess, I bought two books just today.
Growing up, entertainment was much scarcer. 13 channels on tv. VHS tapes. Your parents bookshelves – and the library. Plus the radio. (Folks – I’m talking so long ago this was before you could get NPR in Washington State.) Trust me, I knew what time Paul Harvey would be on, and waited for it. If this had happened then, we would have both been better prepared for the boredom, and also had many fewer resources for dealing with it. I had read every even slightly interesting book in my parents bookshelves (blech – regency romances and naval sea battle fiction!) My sister and I had read through our classroom libraries (much less a thing), our school libraries, our town library (the librarian was very shirty and didn’t believe we could possibly be reading as much as we took out) and made monthly trips to our regional library.
In another example, I know how to navigate with a map. I know how to get unlost if you’ve gotten lost (lots of practice with my sister). I have driven across country with a Road Atlas and a AAA Triptik, the route highlighted by the patient woman at the counter who put it together from vast drawers that spanned the whole country.
But the one I’m thinking about today is the letter. I LOVED writing letters. I recently got some of my boxes of letters from my parents (they’re trying to clean out our crap) and there are so many of them. Half of the people whose letters I saved I don’t even remember. I’d pick up pen pals wherever I went. I ran into an exchange student from Indonesia while I was at summer camp (he was just visiting the campus) and we wrote to each other for YEARS. I wrote to my uncle. (All his letters were on yellow legal paper. Half the fun for me was my extensive stationery collection.) I wrote to whatever guy I was dating at the time. I wrote to the concertmaster of my orchestra. I wrote notes in code to the other girls in my class, cleverly folded to make their own envelope. I wrote to my grandmother. I wrote to the paper. Heck – my very first job in college was “email correspondent” to write letters in this new fangled technology. (I made the job up. It worked.) And I loved it. I think, looking back, that I was writing as many as 3 – 4 letters a week.
And I loved it. I loved finding and buying stationery, and picking just the right notes for the recipient. I loved the 19th century air of sitting at my desk “tackling my correspondence”. (I’ve always had a weakness for paperwork which is simply inexplicable.) Sometimes I’d steal my mom’s carbon paper (I AM SO OLD) and experiment with it. I loved going down to the post office and selecting stamps, saying with the sagacity of a fourteen year old that “pretty stamps are the same price as boring ones”. I remember when stamps went from 22c to 25C (it hurt my budget) and from there to 29c. Of course, the very best part was getting a nice, thick letter back in the mail, full of news and notables, or maybe stickers, or drawings. You just never knew, until you opened it.
I held on to mail for a very long time. As a young adult I bought about a billion rubber stamps with which to make cards to send out. Over time, it’s gotten harder (and more expensive) to buy stationery. You no longer find packs of colorful or saccharine or coffee-themed paper and letters in every drug store and bookshop as you once did. You only find single (expensive!!!) cards and a handful of increasingly lame packets of thank you notes.
I’ve never fully stopped sending letters. Sending a letter to everyone I know is a huge part of my sacred Christmas rite. But I’ve somewhat run out of people to send general letters to. But here we are, in this strange time, where we harken back a bit to those earlier eras. I’ve discovered the best way for me to pay attention in Very Important Business meetings is to … color. So I’ve been coloring in pieces of art, and stamps. And then during social Zoom calls, I’ve been crafting them into note cards. And on beautiful evenings and weekend days, I’m sitting in my back yard or my front porch and writing letters.
I’m working through my Christmas card list, and sending notes to folks as inspiration strikes. But even that list hasn’t kept up with the making of new friends. So here’s the offer – if you’d be interested in getting a letter from me, send me an email at brenda@tiltedworld (dot com) with your address. I make no promises that a letter will actually be forthcoming. If you get one and are moved to write me back, I’d love that! But you’re under no obligation, either.
It seems like every few months we’re broken-hearted by the treatment of our black brothers and sisters. I am thinking about George Floyd today, and I think about Ahmaud Arbery every time I lace up my running shoes. I’m still haunted by Tamir Rice’s death, as I look at my own boy stalk through the neighborhood with his NERF armaments.
It’s so hard not to wish these were aberrations – rare and unexpected events. But they’re not. There is no reason or excuse other than that we have created a system that does not value human lives as equal.
The only, small hope in this is that human systems are created by humans, and can be changed by humans.
Keep working, friends, until all people are as valued by the systems and habits of our society as you are.
Back in February, in another age of this world, a bunch of boys were playing in the back yard on an unseasonably warm day when “a strong wind” knocked a segment of our 12 year old crappy vinyl fence out, snapping the connectors and boards both. After a conversation on how I don’t mind accidents but I object to lies, I actually felt a flush of relief. The vinyl fence was of the kind that looks good juuuuuust long enough to sell the house, and not a second longer. There were many broken boards. The whole thing was dingy with mildew and mold. And I’ve always hated it. So this was an excellent opportunity to replace it with something I would like better.
I called a fence company, who said they could get it up in two weeks.
Then the world fell apart. They actually did the estimate that first week we were home, and I thought how convenient it was to be here for the appointment. Granted, it was at 7:30 am so it was actually Adam who was awake for it, but usually he’d be on his way to work by then. In the suddenly collapsed world of the stay-at-home order, I spotted an opportunity to let Grey stretch his wings a bit. “Go ahead and practice your graffiti* on the fence!” I blithely invited. “They’re coming to take it down next week. But remember to keep it appropriate!”
You are all smarter than I am. You all see where this is going.
So for the last two months (which were, lest I need to remind you, approximately 5 years a piece) every time I sat in my back yard or looked out my window I was greeted by orange and black graffiti spelling out things that were juuuuuust this side of the “mom is going to make you repaint the fence line” and only if you accept the explanations for what that _really_ spells/means mom. This has been a thorn in my side, a pebble in my shoe and a hair shirt for me ever since.
To my great joy and after only about a thousand urgent texts following up on the status of my fence, whatever unexpected supply chain backup was holding my fence hostage was resolved. And through the beautiful middle days of this week, the old graffiti fence came down and strong men with post hole diggers and cement bags put a new one in for me. And so I woke up on the gorgeous May morning with a backyard ready to be made into a summer escape.
I understand why the previous owners put up a privacy fence on top of the nearly 12 foot wall they installed to keep the house from sliding down the hill. The wall cost over $100k and was the motivation for them to sell the barely occupied house. But they were private people, with heavy blinds on every window. So a privacy fence on the tiny plot of land – no bigger than a squash court – kept wind and prying eyes both out. But behind our house is a glorious series of unbuildable back yards with lovely trees and grasses and wildlife. Part of what I love about this house is this borrowed view.
And I decided on a fence that would keep us from falling off the wall, but allow us to gaze out at the small piece of nature available to us. And I love it. I have big plans for what to do next: with all the extra light now available, I spent today planting lilacs as a hedge against our neighbor. Maybe I’ll put a fruiting bush in on the other side. I’ve already gotten citronella torches ready against in the fence for fiery nights. I found a great new spot for the chairs and table. There will be bulbs and phlox and clemantis – a riot of color and fragrance and peace waiting for me whenever the weather is fine.
This time spent at home – always at home – has amplified everything about all the places we live. Was it small before? Now you feel the smallness every day, ten times a day. Was the view lovely? Now you cling to that view with the ardent gaze of a lover on a honeymoon marking every small shift in aspect or trick of light. Our lot of land is small, our view is beautiful. I am grateful because small is so so so much more than none.
Last night I sat in the warmth of the night before the storm, gazing out at the view through my new fence. For a minute, it almost felt like camping. From where I sat, I could see six different groups out enjoying the fine evening. The intermix of not-quite-intelligible conversations felt so much like what it’s like at a campground in the evening. And I have noticed that everyone in my safe suburban neighborhood is also tending to their homes. Sheds have been installed, mulch delivered, garden boxes constructed, yards mowed, trees planted.
I know that this time is not like this for everyone. There are many people working long hours and living in cramped and unsafe conditions. But from my borrowed view, I can see everyone settling into what it is they have, and taking the gift of time to pour themselves into their homes in a touchback to another time. People are baking, and sewing for need. They are gardening. They are sitting in back yards they have manicured themselves and watching the breezes sweep away the warmth and herald the lightening. And we are all in awe of how much more we can see now that we’re standing still.
*Stoneham is home to a fantastic graffiti tunnel, with exceptional and high quality art work. Grey admires this and wishes to emulate it – not to vandalize stuff.
The world has been different now for about 7 weeks. I remember clearly that last pizza and beer I had, after climbing off a mountain with a friend, as the last day of the world as it was. The next day, with school cancelled, was he first day of the world as it currently is. I read online a statement that Coronavirus completely destroys some folks, while leaving others almost completely unscathed. I am so aware that I am in that latter category. My job remains secure (if requiring plenty of time from me). My home is full of food. My children are well (if at risk of becoming inert elements in front of their computers). My family is all still healthy. So far, I’ve escaped even serious inconvenience.
But even so, the days have been hard. I find that every Monday is worse than the last, attempting to marshall my resources to teach my children, do my job, keep the house, cook the dinner, maintain my relationships. I almost didn’t make it through last Monday, and I am staring at dread with tomorrow morning. (I have a plan. It includes wearing a dress and makeup, in a desperate attempt to channel my inner professional.) A walk in the forest involves people edging to the side of the path, as though you might be carrying some awful, transmissible disease. The main street is full of signs either optimistically promising better days to come, or saying “Temporaly closed” (sic) – a sign becoming faded in the strengthening sunlight. Life is feeling harder every day, as supplies of TP and flour dwindle, and the walls of my home crush me.
Still, there is the great blessing of New England. This has been a long, cold, rainy spring. It seems like those are particularly common after mild winters. We’ve had our fair share of spring snow and rain and sleet and misery. We’ve had weeks where it didn’t break 50. It’s been a great boon to our amphibian population, as every creek and rill and vernal pool is full to the brim of cold water.
But this weekend, oh!! This weekend was the glorious weekend of spring that doesn’t come just once a year in New England, it comes perhaps once a decade. The skies were blue, the sun was strong. The colors were all new-formed, as though God himself had just dreampt them up. Every color imaginable is suddenly bursting forth into joyous profusion, looking new washed and newly painted on the world. We are at just the tipping point between daffodil and forsythia, into tulip and, well, everything. Even the houses look jollier in the bright sun, which portends warmth and freedom and backyards in a way that is utterly and inescapably charming to all those of us who have been practically housebound since October. There seem to be few consolations in this newly-isolate world, but oh. Spring in New England is still one of them.
Not being a fool, I early resolved that my plan for this weekend was to spend as much of it as was humanly possible outdoors. Given that it’s nearly 11 and I’m still by a backyard fire, I declare said plan fulsomely accomplished. Usually weekends like this would be subject to the whim of the calendar: had I already committed myself? Was it to something outdoorsy? But yesterday I woke to a clean slate of a plan, and (after the delicious breakfast prepared for my by my incredibly loving husband) I started with a five mile run along the bike way that I played a small part in ensuring was here for us, now, when we need it most. The Aberjona and Sweetwater were both running high along their banks, and the trail was crowded with folks enjoying the finest weather we’ve seen in six months. Most of them, including me, were wearing masks.
In glorious fashion, the day unfolded with sleepy hammock naps, letters to friends, and meals shared with my beloved family. I have always said that I cannot relax at home, because there is too much to do. But honestly, most of it has now been done so for the first time in ever so long, I find myself able to just … be. Here. In this 10th of an acre that is my homestead. I spent the whole day happy. I definitely interrogated myself several times over this. The world is in tumult. So many have died. So many have suffered. There is more to come. How dare, HOW DARE I be happy? It isn’t fair that I be happy when so many are caught in sorrow, grief, fear and distress. That is all, unarguably, true. But the thing I’ve wanted to tell you, across many failed blog posts, is that your suffering does not reduce the suffering of others. So if you have a choice between suffering and not suffering, do not suffer.
I have been struck by the poem, “The Peace of Wild Things” since it arrived as the answer to an advent Google search I initiated looking for poems of peace. It is strong enough that many of the lines can speak to you. But the ones that have slayed me – stopped me in my tracks – during this pandemic period are:
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
On this most beautiful day of spring, I find myself challenged by the question: will I tax this day to neutrality by forethought of grief (or by focus on the unfairness of my joy?)? Or will I let go. Will I come into the peace of the wild things and take this moment as it is, built on a complex scaffold but for a moment, full of joy? I think of the baby bunny who has taken residence under my porch, and who nibbles on dandylions in my back yard. Do I see that creature as a pestilence-spreading eater of bulbs, destined to destroy gardens before falling prey to the hawks and foxes that prowl my suburban neighborhood? Or do I just enjoy the meek cuteness of its ears, now, when it is a baby and before its destiny is fulfilled for food or procreation? Do I look towards all the consequences of rabbit-incarnate, or do I just smile across baby-bunny.
For the bunny, my decision does not matter (assuming I am unwilling to poison his bulb-eating self). This Coney will live to be a great big jackrabbit, or it will fall food to yet wilder animals. It is not in my power to control. But what I can control is my joy of it, in this moment. I can choose to sit in companionable silence with my little Lagomorpha. Or I can choose to tax my life with the forethought of grief.
So I decided, in this one shining weekend, to enjoy it. To nap in a hammock tied to my dying plum tree, and not look at the blight. To build a fire of the wood I have and not consider the shortage at the hardware store. To serve communion to my husband from the glasses my father brought from Ethiopia more than fifty years ago, and not wonder when I would sit in a pew again to receive communion in a sanctuary. To look at bleeding heart with a full and joyful heart, and not wonder how soon it will be before my heart bleeds. To meet with my friends through the miracle of technology, and not wait until we can be together again in truth.
What would you do differently, if you chose not to tax your heart in forethought of grief? What joy is there for you in the time, in this moment? In an era of grief, doubt, uncertainty and loss, where is it possible for you to find peace?
Back in the old days, two months ago, I used to joke about our 19th century skills. Both Adam and I have them, and have cultivated them. In this current crisis, the 19th & 20th century skills are much in demand. I don’t know a sewer who has not turned their sewing machine to pumping out as many masks as materials permit. All of us are finding ourselves more responsible for feeding ourselves and planning meals around what’s available, what needs to be used & what our children will actually eat. Suddenly we all find ourselves responsible for a much less specialized lifestyle: we must care for and teach our own children, clean our houses, prepare our meals, plan our exercise, tend our gardens and mend our small breakages without turning to the experts we have so often employed for those purposes. The fortunate folks must do that while ALSO maintaining their own specialized expertise. I think a lot about the people who are suddenly and scarily unemployed – and hope that is a very temporary condition.
I found myself thinking of this as Adam and I pursue some of our 19th century interests in support of the life we are now living. As you all likely know by now, I’ve been baking like a fiend, as has Adam. We (ok, Adam) started a wild-caught sourdough, and we’ve made doughnuts, loaves and loaves of bread (Adam), garlic knots (twice), dinner rolls, lemon poppyseed pound cake, hot cross buns, sourdough cinnamon rolls (twice), vegan chocolate banana bread muffins, and truly awful sponge cake. I’ve learned things in the process, like how not to make sponge cake, what autolyzing is (and when to use it) and the differences and uses of active dry and instant yeast. I still have much to learn, especially about how not to be spherical if I eat all this stuff.
Adam has also been toying with new skills. He’s been studying the craft of cocktail making (not helping with the ol’ waistline) and learning about muddling, mixing, shaking and stirring, as well as the balance of tastes.
But into this mix of working full time (or more), trying to raise and teach our children, tending to all the household needs, and pursuing fattening hobbies, we’ve added one more. Last year, we refinished the floor in our hallway, ridding ourselves of the five bookcases that lived there (which were hand me downs twenty years ago) and moving many boxes of books to the basement. The plan was to build bookcases to reclaim our library-hallway. And the time to do that work has finally arrived.
One of the many things I love about my husband is the seriousness with which he tackles learning new things. Right now, next to his desk, you can find a sheet which shows his experiments making boules (round bread loaves) and seeing which combination of techniques and ingredients leads to what outcomes in terms of crumb, density, flavor etc. He also has planned out the attack for the book cases (which are also intended to hold the cat litter boxes in an inobtrusive way) carefully; with lists, measurements, drawings and calculations. It’s really a joy to watch him tackle it, and dig in with all the seriousness and skill he brings to everything.
We all are learning lots about the folks we are confined with during this Corona-era. This joy and thoroughness in learning isn’t a new thing I’ve learned about my husband, but it is one I am reminded how much I love.
“To be sane in a mad time
is bad for the brain, worse
for the heart. The world
is a holy vision, had we clarity
to see it – a clarity that men
depend on men to make.”
– The Mad Farmer Manifesto: The First Amendment
Right now, I should be in Terminal A in Logan. Perhaps I would be traversing that long tunnel, lit by colored lights and sped by moving walkways, with man’s triumph over gravity taking off and landing overhead – the sky a checkerboard of contrails. Maybe I’d be stopping at the Starbucks at the end of the long staircase up to the gates. I’d be with Adam. Grey and Thane would be in flight already, headed to Atlanta. It was to be the first time that Grey counted as “accompaniment” and I wouldn’t have to pay extra to fling them into the loving arms of a grandparent. Adam and I would be looking towards an ancient land. Tomorrow morning, bleary eyed, we would land in Rome to celebrate the twenty years we have been married.
But. I will not stand in the Forum Sunday, drinking in espresso and diesel fumes in equal measure. We will not explore the catacombs or marvel at the rococo splendor of the Vatican. We will not see works by Michelangelo and eat pasta made by strong-armed old women, decanting wine and prayers with equal familiarity. Instead, we mark a time increasingly trackless, as we enter our fifth week spent in our homes, morally isolated, masked, in a world we would not have recognized even two months ago. We’re growing weary of gazing at the world through the windows – of our homes, our computers, our televisions. Every vista is framed in by the constraints of the virus.
This all has started to feel almost…. normal. There are mornings I wake up, and don’t think I’m late for the bus. There are days I do not leave the house, and do not mark that I have not left. There are even cheerful days and hours now, where within the inscribed circle of my life I am pleased and even energetic. But every time I find my feet, an aftershock ripples through and reminds me how uncertain and unstable everything really is right now. Layoffs among my friends. Plans for returns two years out. Closings. Deaths. Intubations. Work shifted, changed, urgent or deprioritized. Rumor of pending shortages, as the people who make things and grow food also look through their windows at untended fields and idle factories. My daily ritual is looking at the numbers and ages of those who have died today in Massachusetts from the virus. Yesterday there was an entire page of deaths of people in their 80s, and a second almost as long of people in their 90s.
I’ve tried not to mark what I’ve missed. I delete the calendar entries, trying to forget what has been lost. Del’s funeral, and the beer I planned with my surviving cousins to remember the one who died this fall. Piemas. I have so many pie fillings in the freezer, marked for that date. My children do not like pie. And we were going to remember BJ there. My husband did a “virtual gaming convention” last week, and I kept thinking I heard him over the speaker – where he most assuredly would have been had his heart not given out. I had finagled traveling to Dublin for training. I’d never been to Dublin. Two concerts: Brandy Clark and the Wailin’ Jenny’s. My son had shown astonishing proactivity in signing up for an MIT educational course, which made me proud and hopeful. His 8th grade graduation and dance are added to the pile of “unknown but unlikely”. And we are the lucky ones – we don’t have a senior, or a wedding, or a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Or worse, a farewell and funeral denied and delayed.
Last week, I was talking to my sister and telling her my idea for one of those online quizzes, of your “lasts”. Last in person concert. Last flight. Last conference. Last meal in a restaurant. Last hike. Last night in a hotel. Last road trip. Last in person church service. I’ve held these lasts in my head. Some of them I knew were lasts – the last hike and last meal. But most were unmarked, and felt like part of the relentless pressure of life, piling on event after event and journey upon journey. I did wish that I could step off that relentless track – just for a little bit. I’m trying to be grateful for what is, at very least, a break.
And there are some consolations. I think few of us would prefer this life to our prior one. But I have spent more time with my husband and children than I ever would have, in any other circumstance. There has been more space for thoughts, despite work which swells to eat my extra hours. I’ve had breakfast in bed every morning for a month. I have cleaned things that I always meant to get to “someday soon”. I have watched every single slight move of spring with the hungry eyes of a hawk looking for their prey to clear cover. Have the forsythia and daffodils and hyacinths ever had so appreciative an audience? Have they ever lingered so long? And I am taking great comfort in art – old and new. My gaze has lingered over the watercolors on my walls, painting detail and adventures into their broad strokes. My mind has lingered on poetry, with the extra space resonating words and phrases with unusual meaning. My ears have sought new songs and new singers. And although I am not with my friends, we talk. Via group chats, 1:1s, video calls, yelling from windows – even as we are distanced we still reach out to each other.
There is no chance that we will emerge from this time unchanged. It is not an option. We cannot go back to being who we were, or living the way we did. Even if the world were miraculously the same, we are inexorably changed. What will we be, when we have been transfigured? How will we grow, with the snow on our blossoms? Will we be destroyed, or made stronger? Will we ever be so busy again we cannot see the spring around us? Will we be able to take thing so for granted? We are in a crucible, and our civilization is being melted. We can only hope – and work – to make sure that when we are recast, we are recast to be the best version of humanity we can possibly be.
My 14 year old son Grey was given an assignment to write a song about a disaster. He picked the Mumford and Sons Dustbowl Dance for music, and the current pandemic. For those not up on the latest meme culture, here’s some background on his use of “Karen,” as a generic type of person and not an individual. – Brenda
A young lad sits inside of his room
He lies on his floor, attends a class in a Zoom
There’s no one outside and no one to play
He eats food and he sleeps, that’s all of his day
I have been stuck in my house since Winter’s last breath
And my sleep schedule makes me feel like death
I have read and ran and writhed in fatigue
Played so many games, I’m the best in my league
So hurry and quicken o’ science worldwide
Corona’s the thing you need to confront, not hide
Steal my parties and steal my time!
I’m going insane from staying inside
Please I ask all y’all far and wide
Quarantine, then we can shift the tide
Karens, you idiots, look at this place!
America now reeks of fear and disgrace
So everyone quarantines and anti-vaxxers do not!
How can you claim y’all are safe when you got
A disease and then said essential oils could heal?
Are you sure that the reality you live in is real?
You’ll live in your stupor and die with a flu
Corona has more letters than your IQ!
Steal my parties and steal my time!
I’m going insane from staying inside
Please I ask all y’all far and wide
Quarantine, then we can shift the tide
Steal my parties and steal my time!
I’m going insane from staying inside
Please I ask all y’all far and wide
Quarantine, then we can shift the tide
Yes Doctor, yes, Karen died of COVID 19
There were many more things in life she coulda’ seen
But she brushed off reports of the deathly disease
And now her body rots with fleas.
Holy Week is usually one of my favorite, most distinctive weeks of the year. I did not grow up going to Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services – I’m not sure why that wasn’t part of our faith tradition, but it wasn’t. For a generally cheerful person, I’ve always had a soft spot for candelight and minor keys. And Holy Week is full of contemplative music, hard realities and truths that you don’t really want to hear but desperately need to. In a usual Holy Week, I would have been at church Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday & Good Friday (and probably practiced trumpet for Easter at all of them!)
This year is, of course, different. This year, there was no sitting in a darkening sanctuary listening to the 7 Last Words of Christ and watching the light in the parking lot flicker, as I have every single year for two decades. There were no Taize pleadings to Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom”. The days and weeks have begun to blur together in a sameness only relieved by the gradual, gorgeous unfolding of spring.
But even in a normal Holy Week, there is always this Saturday. Today was actually bright and fair, with brisk winds and waxing sunlight, budding trees, vibrant forsythia and the burgeoning promise of a world soon to bloom. There was little dark about it, other than the day’s statistics on the number of dead mowed down by this novel virus. But today, in the liturgical calendar, is the worst day. Worse, maybe even than Good Friday. In the Easter story, today is the day after Jesus died, while his body lay unprepared in a tomb that wasn’t his. It was the day when the disciples and the women woke up – if they slept at all that night – to a world where hopes had turned to ashes. This day abounded in the bitterness of betrayal: Judas’s betrayal (another unburied body). The betrayal of all the plans. They MUST have thought on this day that Jesus could not possibly be who they hoped he was. He was dead, and the Messiah had not yet brought liberation to the people of Israel. They must have felt sick – how much of what he had taught was true and reliable? How much of their sacrifice had been worthwhile? Had they thrown their lives away on just another pretender? And … what exactly was going to happen next? Were they going to follow him to a criminal’s execution? Would anyone be left to be the son to Mary?
Of all the many dark days whose story is painted in the Bible, this Sabbath might be the very darkest. Hope was irrevocably lost. The worst had well and truly happened. The body was cold. More was likely on the way.
It feels a bit like that now, in this pandemic time. All through January and February, watching the headlines, I thought that this virus would burn itself out or be contained, just like SARs or MERs were – or stay distantly awful like Ebola. Like the apostles – or even Jesus himself in Gethsemane – I hoped that this would once again pass us by. But here we are, locked in our homes, in fear and in shock that our world can be so abruptly transfigured. Fear crawls on the back of astonishment, worrying us about how much worse this will become. Will it be my parents who die? Or me? Will I still have a job? Will this be the next great depression? Of all the people I know and love, who will die and be counted in the daily statistics tallied at 3 pm by the governor? When will I venture onto Facebook and learn that I will never again see someone? Or worse, when will that phone call come through that isn’t just a “How are you doing?”
We are in the deep darkness of the Saturday after Good Friday, friends.
But. There would be no Christianity and no Christians if the story really ended as badly as it appears to – if there were no chapters after “So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.” There was real loss on that Saturday. Judas. Jesus as a living man. Mary never again held her son. The world was never the same again. But in this dark hour, let us remember the Easter story, that out of this darkest of days arose a new hope, so powerful as to reshape the entire world for the next 2000 years. Even death was not the end to this story, as it will not be the end to ours.
Tomorrow, when we rise to pancakes and baskets, we may feel like our cries of “He is Risen” are hollow. Like Easter itself is diminished under our collective grief and fear. But that’s just the thing about Easter, my friends. Without Good Friday and Holy Saturday, it’s just a confection – full of sugar and without sustaining substance. The power comes when we have despaired, and sat with our grief. Then we can truly become part of a world made new, in ways that we could not even imagine possible on Palm Sunday.