The longest year

Few of us have failed to notice the anniversary of the time when our world screeched to a halt, and we entered a time like none living had ever experienced before. Like so many, I know the day my world changed. I was supposed to go to Del’s funeral (now rescheduled to be virtual), but flying to Seattle for a gathering of a couple hundred wise old men seemed like a bad idea. So honoring his outdoor memories, I went hiking instead. The morning was normal. But as we got flashes of signal, we watched the NBA cancel the season and the stock market fall hard and fast. A nurse with her daughter took our picture at the summit, and we wondered if we should, you know, be worried? We had pizza and beer at a great restaurant on our way home (with the nurse and her daughter). By the time I got home, we got word that school was cancelled for two weeks and no one was going back to the office for now.

The day the world changed

You know the rest. We worked from home. The kids played SO MANY VIDEO GAMES. I watched the Great British Baking show and was inspired to bake all the things. Strange things became scarce. Yes, flour and toilet paper, but fencing was hard to get and bicycles and snowshoes are still unobtanium. I had reflected, in the before times, on how impossible it seemed that my life might ever slow enough (this side of senility) to have quiet and boredom and leisure for activities. But I played through “Breath of the Wild” on the bed with my kids by my side. I read books. I exercised. I had social Zoom calls on top of hours and hours of work video conferences.

With the warming of the year and the dropping of infection rates, it seemed possible the worst might be over. If the trends stayed good, if we stayed careful, this might be unlocking. We went camping, had backyard fires, hiked, ate in outdoor seating and felt downright Mediterranean. How odd it is, but I feel nostalgic for the freedom and folks of the summer of 2020.

Backyard fires: a staple of the social life

And then there was the catastrophe of the holidays. Watching it coming, we locked down hard again in November, removing those little eases we’d added over the summer. I sent Christmas card after Christmas card, in the darkest part of year and pandemic, exhorting hope and the inevitable waning of winter and plague. I wrote those words mostly for myself. In the cold stillness of winter, two of my uncles died. They did not die of COVID, but it prevented me from reconnecting with my family and introducing my children to a bevy of aunts, uncles and cousins they haven’t seen in years. I find myself wondering if COVID will fragment my extended family, like an iceberg breaking apart on its way to melting.

Now in this year mark, I am caught on the juxtaposition between hope and vast weariness. The hope is clear: we have multiple vaccines. They are extremely effective. The ability to manufacture and distribute them is improving. I will be vaccinated this year. My parents and mother-in-law are already in progress. The children will eventually go to school wearing pants. I will eventually go to an office. There will be a resumption of a new life that includes people and places. At the same time, I am so direly weary of everything it is safe to do where I am. My creativity to “make things fun” is entirely sapped. I love reading, and watching funny tv shows, and going on hikes in the Fells, and making dinners and writing letters to distant friends. I’ve come to love watercolors, and the bleed of the first stroke against wet paper. I like sleeping in and playing video games. But it seems like all these activities have been so overused that they hardly register. My husband brings me breakfast in bed every morning for a year now, but I swear I can hear “I Got You Babe” to the infinitely familiar sound of heavy-laden feet on the stairs.

Every morning for a year

Still, I hold the gift of this moment. So many have lost so much, that it is hard to both reflect on the deep and difficult challenges of the year. “I still have a job and a home” we tell ourselves. “No one I love has died of COVID … yet” we barely dare say aloud. We know better than to think we are uniquely struggling. But it also seems unwisely unkind to turn this into a “count your blessings” moment. But in all our lives, there have been dire challenges and there have been little blossoms of delight that could never have grown in the thick forests of our lives as they were.

For me, it has been fascinating to learn what I would do if I weren’t so damn busy all the time. The truth is, I am still exhausted. But it’s a different exhausted. I’ve laid down almost everything that was optional (my life has had some particular challenges), and I still do not want to tackle the items in my email inbox. I’m waiting to see if I start to recover. If I resume having “brilliant” ideas and kicking things off and volunteering for things. Or if perhaps that time in my life has now past, if not for good then for longer than a year. I am also quite surprised by what has filled the rooms of my mind dedicated to those things I long for. I would have said, before, books and music and cooking. I have read a lot. I have played almost no music (perhaps because there are always 3 other people in the house? Or maybe because I am good enough at music that improving seems daunting, especially with no audience to play for?). I am ready to not cook again for like several months. Or a week. Whatever.

My first drawings in July

But the art took me entirely by surprise. In retrospect, I can kind of see where it came from. The longing to make something beautiful, distinct and individual. The love of colors. The obsession with paper and pens. But I have spent forty(cough) years knowing that I was TERRIBLE at art and couldn’t even draw a compelling stick figure. This is true, by the way. But in the vaccuum of time and life, on a run, I was inspired to think, “I wonder how much I could improve if I tried”. And then I ordered pencils and paper and a book from Amazon. And on a July morning I sat down to draw my first picture. It was terrible. But it has been such a great consolation. My eyes are seeing things differently. When my mind wanders, it is to colors and shapes and picking apart the problems of “how do I” and “I wonder if”. I’ve gone from uncertain and fumbling, to practiced. And for the person who loves people – when I post my art (good, bad and indifferent) my friends without fail comment on what they like, what they see. They connect with me. Recently, I’ve gotten to a point where people would even accept a picture for their wall, and it feels a little bit like it did when I could feed them, and place a delicious meal made with my hands in front of them and invite them to eat until satiated.

Last week’s artistic production

In this year, I have come to know my home and neighborhood with a passionate intimacy not available to the commuter. Every view from every window, every house on every stroll that emerges from my door is known and observed. I have spent hours with cats on my laps, pushing my hands off the keyboard with their assertive love. I have named the rabbits that live in my back yard and eat the flowers. There has been a rootedness, and space never before known.

As the uncertainties of our path out of pandemic begin to clear, and the road can be seen further ahead, we consider what it is we will do when we are vaccinated, when our friends are too. We think about how wondrous strange (and scary?) it will be to sit at table with people we have hardly seen in a year and have upcoming vacations to talk about. But I have come to this conclusion: we will never return to where we were before. Time never flows back, but usually we are in the boat being pulled along. Now we have walked along these half-frozen shores, and we will re-embark in a strange land that looks something like the one we left, but also entirely different. There will, for example, be 800k fewer Americans than there would have been (the half million who have died so far, and the 300k babies who were not born this year). There will be masks. There will be the work from home. There will be a long shadow of fear and caution. There will be relationships set adrift, and ones set on fire by the anger of the “you’re paranoid and living in fear” vs. the “you are irresponsible for yourself and society”.

To green days and better luck

So here’s to the memory of what we have sacrificed, lost and had taken from us. Here’s to the small consolations we’ve gained in the darkness. And here’s to a coming of spring, a new day, and a world ready to be reborn.

A farewell to 2020

In the gap between Christmas and New Years, I had planned on finding the words – an angle – from which to reflect on the remarkable year that has just passed. At the center of it, regardless of angle, stands the spikey ball image which has become so familiar to us of a virus, crowned in thorns, which has transformed our lives, our deaths, our relationships and even our wardrobes. It has come as a destructive force, wreaking havoc, loss of life and health, creation of fear, division of peoples, cessation of normal living and so much more. But as with all destructions, it has also created space for new things, previously unimaginable amidst the crowded ecosystem of our lives. A tree has crashed in the forest of our days, destroying all it hit, but opening a light in the canopy for a new thing to grow, too.

To focus solely on either side feels wrong, and dishonest. We risk despair if all we see is what has been lost, damaged, destroyed. It seems ungrateful to the small gifts of the year, suddenly so precious, to cast them aside against the greater weight of tragedy. But to talk about the gifts of such a disruption, without also sitting with the grieving and unemployed, seems like a wicked use of good luck and privilege.

By any measure, 2020 was the hardest and most difficult year of my life. I am an extroverted adventurer, who revels in novelty and people and treasures relationships above all. I bounce between the desire to be with people and doing things to the need to be quietly alone with myself. I have held on to as much as I can, but there are friends whose silence fills my heart. There are the people I did not meet this year, and have not come to know. And while there are no gatherings, there is also no solitude. This would have made me cranky if it were my only trial, but that is hardly the case.

I have also had an extremely serious, extraordinarily time consuming, heart-hurting challenge within my family this summer. It’s not for speaking of in a forum that is Google-searchable, but many of you know (and if you’re dying to, drop me a note and I’ll tell you). For the vast part of this year, desperate fear has overshadowed any chance of peace or joy. At times, I could not even see hope from where I stood. It felt like the air I was breathing was increasingly stale, and as though I might at some point run out of oxygen and smother altogether. I am very happy to report that from the depths of that fear, we have gotten a breath of fresh air. Hope has returned, even amidst the hours a week we need to spend doing hard work to nurture and sustain it. I hold my hope and joy lightly – knowing that it is fragile – and treasure the lightness of my heart in this moment.

These twin challenges: the darkness in my life, and the crushing weight of pandemic, have been so much. But they are not all the sorrows. Starting with November of 2019, it has been a season of loss for me. My godfather died. My cousin died. My friend’s son was paralyzed, and in hospital for six months. My friend BJ died. I broke up with my church. At work, I worked crazy hours under crazy pressures to launch three medical devices in a matter of months (and am still working under intense pressure). My plum tree died. My uncle died. And on New Year’s night, just as the year turned, a mother of a friend of mine – a woman I know and will miss – died of COVID. It has been a year of aching.

But that is not all the story. The bleakness above would be unsurvivable. But in the midst of it all, there have been consolations great and small. My loving husband has brought me breakfast in bed every morning of this pandemic. I am so fortunate in the company with which I have been trapped!! Our cats have draped themselves over us as loving scarves – Data is sitting on my knees at this very moment. We have been keen participants in the changing of the season, with no blossom or scarlet leaf escaping our rapt notice. There has been less hiking and camping than I would wish (almost all my camping trips got messed up this summer), but still I have seen the summits of: Field, Tom, Moosilauke, the Tripyramids, Chocorua, the Moats, Owl’s Head, Flume, Liberty, Willey and Moriah. I ran and hiked and walked closer to home, in the familiar paths of the Fells and streets of Stoneham. The Greenway for which we fought so hard is filled with families and art.

All summer, Adam and I would share a fresh and crisp salad under the shade of my dying plum tree at lunch, watching the rabbit we dubbed “Hawk Food” menace our plantings. We gardened and mulched and trimmed. I took up, for the first time in my life, the pencil and brush and learned the very basics of drawing and watercolors, giving my mind some new ways of thinking and new thoughts for having. The art has been a great consolation to me, not because it is good but because it is both new and deeply satisfying. We have baked and cooked through over a hundred pounds of flour, with bread and cinnamon rolls and pies and cakes and all manner of delicious recipes not possible to pull off while you’re commuting. We hung out as a family in the attic on Saturday mornings, playing Breath of the Wild on our Switches as the snow fell. We replaced all our windows, built new bookshelves, renovated our living room and took long baths in the bathtub. We bought a new car, had it be a lemon, and replaced it. (Ok, that might belong in the “bad things” list.)

Finally, in many ways we have been so very lucky. None of us in my family – immediate or extended or pod – has gotten COVID or even been all that close to it. For all the people who have died, so many have remained safe and well. Adam and I have kept our jobs, and have been able to safely work from home since March – with no pressure to return to an office until summer or fall. Our children are of an age where they can handle most of the remote schooling without detailed hourly supervision from us, and we can work as we need. Our home is safe and comfortable and our wifi is very good. We have been lucky to be in a pod with dear friends with similar risk tolerances, kids the same age, and enjoyable company. We have enough rooms in our house that all of us can be on virtual meetings and close a door and not be crammed together.

And this to me has been 2020: sorrow, fear, joy, wonder, fortune, misfortune, loss, gains – all together under the broad shock of great disruption. It has both been the sameness of the days, melding undifferentiated into each other, and the vast changes which have gone from inconceivable to normal to inevitable as the long weeks have turned into months.

I do not know what 2021 will bring. There is ahead of us possibly the most dire 6 – 8 weeks of the whole pandemic, where disease and death are rolling across our country unbridled. The first symptoms from Christmas exposures are showing now for those who will be dead by Valentine’s Day. But racing towards us like a rescuing angel is the work of exhausted but dedicated scientists, medical professionals, lab workers, project managers, FDA regulators (absolute heroes – you have no idea how much work they have had to do this year), pharmacists, doctors, nurses and other nameless but hard working folks who have spent this year of their lives to buy us a way out of this. We have three vaccines at maturity and more on the way. Behind them are antivirals and therapeutic treatments, to rescue those who fall ill. I have hope that by spring we may start to see the tide turn, that this summer outside may be close to normal, and that by fall we will all be finding our places back in a world remade, but ready for the next chapter.

However, if 2021 has taught us anything, it is that we simply do not know. We must stand ready with hands to help and hearts open. We must look to protect the most vulnerable among us, whose list of blessings is so short and list of trials is so long. We must treasure those things which are good, and support the fight against the things which cause harm. And if on the way we can climb mountains and paint pictures, then so much the better.

Puissance of the storm

Excerpted from my journal yesterday, during the nor’easter

Today a nor’easter is pounding Boston. It’s currently wild winds and sideways rains, but every time I look the thermometer has lost a little more ground to winter. By tonight, the rain will become snow and tomorrow we’ll all awaken to the “beep beep beep” of the plows backing up. I’m sitting in my car, heaters on full bore, in a spot in Nahant where the untamed eastern waters pound mercilessly against fragile-looking causeways. With the cancellation of Thanksgiving plans, the arrival of bad weather, the dramatic worsening of the pandemic and the tumult of managing home and work, I feel like I have not gone anywhere or done anything in months – that I only look out of the same windows of the same rooms every day. Now, I like the windows and rooms, but a phrase that comes to mind is “A change is as good as a rest”. But in the same vein, I feel exhausted by the unrelenting sameness of this pandemic life. So I took to the road, in the midst of the storm, to see what different views there might be.

There is so much pressure in my life, I struggle to hold the center. I try to do the things – fresh air, exercise, sunlight, good food, good sleep, new hobbies. I do ok at them. But I am really struggling to enjoy things. I feel dry and dessicated. I take little pleasure, even in things I should love. I feel fragile and overwhelmed. I claw back at moments of peace and contentment, fragile as they are, where I can find them. But I am very bad at both failing and quitting, so I fall back on my skills of striving and persisting, and pray they are enough to see me through.

The waves are indominable in their crashing. They don’t last forever, but while they last they take no pauses. They do not step back, take a deep breath, regroup and then start again, as we beasts do. They come without weariness or rest. Woe to the beast who much ply such waters, and match the frenetic pace of nature with frail body and failing breath. Here’s to the birds and beasts and humanfolk who hold tight through stormy waves for the coming stillness, warmth and sunlit days that do surely follow.

The car is rocking in the buffeting winds and I, who usually sit all day, have been sitting all day. The veil of darkness will drop in the coming hour, to be followed quickly by the veil of lacy snow. I must return to my accustomed windows and rooms and resume the weekend mantle of mother and wife. I hope my endurance is greater than the storm’s.

Strength for Today, Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.

Great is Thy Faithfulness

I planted bulbs today. It might be possible to plant bulbs and not wax philosophical, but I’ve never pulled off such a feat. There are few acts of faith quite like the planting of a bulb. Here, in the waning of the year, when the last brilliant burst of color paints our hills and views before the monochrome eternity of winter overtakes us, I knelt in the fading sun and dug into the mulch and compost I had laid down this summer. Even at the moment of digging, I was building on what I had already begun – the beds I had laid out, the depth of the soil loose over the hard rocks. And with the light slanting so strongly as to throw shadows at noon, I buried the bulbs and covered them – and it was as though they had never been there.

Purple and gold here

When my work was complete, the world LOOKED the same as it had before, or maybe even worse. A detritus of bulb-papers covered the ground, and the mulch and soil were irrevocably mixed. The casual observer might think nothing at all had changed. And so it will remain for the rest of the year, and well into the following. We will pass Halloween, and the election, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years. We will walk into whatever 2021 holds for us, and work well into the year. And then there will be a day where the dirty snow has receded and the warmest part of the garden, where the sun falls first, will show the first sign of my labors with a small, green glimmer. What happens next varies greatly on the year. If we get a warm spell, then maybe the bulbs race towards maturity, exploding into color and brilliance. In a cold dark spring, they’ll linger long at every phase, inching towards blossoms that they’ll hold onto with extended awe. The patches of color will spread and change as the colder, darker parts of the garden finally bask in light and warmth. And my spring self will be grateful to my fall self for her foresight and altruistic gift to the future.

Planting

These are hard times for pretty much everyone. My family is going through big challenges, and we’re not alone in that. The world is in the wearying clutch of pandemic, shut off from each other. Conflict and tumult are the order of the day. Anger and fear have become the only emotions we feed, with every news story, tweet, and interaction telling us that we should be both afraid of what is happening, and angry that it has happened. There are few – and failing – sources of hope, of joy or even of fun. It can feel irresponsible and impossible in such dire times as these dark autumn days to be cheerful, optimistic, hopeful, joyful or even just content. Those emotions feel frail – difficult to create and easy to destroy. We are in a winter of our souls, with the emotional monochrome of that fear and anger. And it doesn’t seem possible that the frail sun will ever break through the clouds or be able to melt the implacable ice of division, or that we will ever again stand bare-armed in the sun among fragrant flowers.

But there are seasons in most things. Just because this is winter, it does not mean that winter is the only truth, or the only way we will ever experience life. I don’t know whether this is the beginning of a longer season (I have been thinking a lot of Gregory of Tours – for whom my son was named – who watched the curtain close on the civilization of Rome with a lonely dread), or if we are in March and the days are already lengthening. Or perhaps we’re in February, with much left to come but none of it worse than we’ve already lived through. But I do know that we are not fools to hold on to hope.

And so we plant bulbs, knowing that we will not see flowers for a long time. We plant bulbs, knowing we are mortal but not knowing what day our mortality awaits us. We improve the soil, which will be planted with seeds of some generation of flowers to come. We create loveliness, and do not squander the loveliness left to us by the loving anticipation of the past.

Do not despair friends. The things you fear may truly be real. But they have not yet come to pass. And there is still strength in you, to either prevent those things or endure them. In this season, we strive for enough strength for today to create that bright hope, which will bloom if not tomorrow – then soon.

The first colors of spring

Twenty years of wedded bliss

Twenty years ago the world was a wildly different place. There were no cell phones (although some people had car phones) – and definitely not smart phones. You couldn’t really take a selfie. We’d just flown through a crisis that we expected to be much worse (Y2K) and 9/11 hadn’t happened yet. It was a peaceful last year of youth, and a gentle entry into adulthood.

I woke up in my own bed in the house I’d then lived in longest (our current house has overtaken it, quite some time ago). I had gotten my Bachelor of Arts in English and Medieval Studies a scant 8 weeks prior, and was ready to join Adam in an apartment in Boston I’d never seen. I wore my mother’s wedding dress, and invited the whole church (all 25 of them) to our wedding. My knee trembled through the entire ceremony, making my bouquet jiggle incessantly. Adam mouthed “I love you” the whole time. Our guests held programs hand stamped and assembled by my family – my grandfather complaining delightfully about his slave labor contributions. We watched my brother in “Once Upon a Mattress” the next day before flying from Seattle to Boston, and then Boston to Athens for our honeymoon.

Last year, we took the boys to Greece. At the time I was like “Drat! I should have saved this for our 20th anniversary instead of our 19th!”. I’m so glad we didn’t. Adam and I had plans for a trip – just the two of us – to Italy this April. Obviously, that did not happen. It is unclear when it will be safe to climb on an airplane and wander across the world. Certainly by our 25th? I hope?

Panos and Gelen now
Same folks, circa 2000. There are exactly 0 pictures with both Adam and I on our honeymoon. This is as close as it gets.

This year has been far from placid and peaceful. Pandemics, violence, unrest, fear, division and murder hornets have crowded headlines we’re increasingly exhausted from reading. We are trapped in our houses looking at a world through screens that only show us horrors and seek to divide us. But I will say this: that girl twenty years ago who gazed over a bouquet of pansies to marry the boy she loved chose very well. Being locked in with someone has shown many people whether they are really compatible or not. I’ve only come to love and respect my husband more as we’ve spent every day, all day together. Not JUST for his elite baking skills (although I am so not complaining) but for his patience, humor, thoughtfulness and service. He’s a remarkable man, and I’m lucky to have married him.

We were so young!

This anniversary snuck up on me. I mean, I had a plan and it was a really good one! Then it got interrupted, and things got complicated, and planning more than a week or two in advance seemed like a loser’s bet. So instead of one great grand gesture of the Amalfi coast, we’re doing a few things. Last night, we made steak for dinner, dressed up, set the table with silver and the dry clean only tablecloth (who DOES that?) and played a Cthulu game during the howling winds of Hurricane Isaias.

After 20 years of marriage

Today the plan is to sneak to the beach after work to catch some epic waves and linger in the heat. And then I have one of those “I’ve always wanted to do this but could never justify the expense” adventures planned for a few weeks from now.

To my beloved Adam – Happy 20th Anniversary!

“How well we pull together, don’t we?”
“So well that I wish we might always pull in the same boat.

Do not tax yourself with forethought of grief

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.

Bleeding heart

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.

Confession: this man has brought me breakfast in bed nearly every day for those 6 weeks

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
of grief.

Resident baby bunny

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.

Communion under a dying plum

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?

Antepandemian Days

Before the flood
There’s an old word, much beloved of the sort of 19th century poets and authors who took great delight in antiquated, obscure vocabulary, that has been much on my mind lately. The word is “antediluvian“. It refers to a time “before the flood” – it speaks to an ancient period both innocent and evil, of near mythical antiquity. HP Lovecraft was a huge fan of the word, and tossed it in like raisins to his descriptions:

All at once I came upon a place where the bed-rock rose stark through the sand and formed a low cliff; and here I saw with joy what seemed to promise further traces of the antediluvian people. – “>The Nameless City by HP Lovecraft

It is hard to know, right now and right here, just how much of an apocalypse this virus truly is. We have certainly, as humans, seen worse. When smallpox ran like a wildfire ahead of European explorers, it wiped out as much as 90% of those who had lived in the place I now call home. The Black Death killed millions. There is no doubt in my mind that we – humans – will be as triumphant long term over this stark moment as we have been over every other difficult and challenging time in our history. And there have been so many – more than even I know.

Still, it’s strange to be in that moment. It’s strange to have been a full adult in both the ante and the post of our pandemiun moment. I already felt like a part of a liminal generation. Born in 1978, I was one of the last to be trained on the prior generation of skills: typing on a typewriter, repairing a lawn mower engine, formatting a memo, writing a letter. I lived and loved in an era before the internet. But I also got my first computer at four, my first internet connection at sixteen, and one of my first jobs was digital. I have driven cross country before GPS, and can navigate with a map. I also love APIs and have written HTML for nearly as long as “markup languages” have existed.

And now I am at the full flower of my prime right at the moment where the world looks to reshape itself. There is a clear before, and there is a developing hereafter. The day of demarcation is bright in my mind. To me, the world pivoted as fast as it has ever done on March 12. I took a day that was intended to be Del’s funeral and spending it instead hiking in the White Mountains (a choice I think he would have fully approved of). When I left that morning, the stock market was strong, nothing was closed, and even our decision to cancel the funeral was just because it was being held in a “hot spot”. When we emerged off that mountain, self-consciously mindful of keeping our distance from other hikers, the stock market had the first of a historically awful series of days. My son had stayed home sick (with a bug he would share with me – still not sure if that was Coronavirus or not). And there would be no more days of school this winter. All employees in both my and my husband’s company were to work from home – indefinitely as it turns out. That drive home, we had pizza in a trattoria buried in the mountains and I noted it as an excellent find for later. Now I wonder if it will still be there when later comes.

As one of Generation X, I got to set my expectations for what the world was during the most boring decade in history: the 90s. (If you’re wondering, it definitely FELT like the most boring decade in history.) It was an era after war between nation-states had become irrelevant (or fast and bloodless, if required). Vice Presidentials scuppered promising careers with an inability to correctly spell root vegetables. We were all rudely corrected about how safe, how boring, how predictable the world was on September 11th, 2001 (the day the 90s truly ended).

Since that pizza coming off that hike, I’ve had this passage from Matthew (which I just read this winter) rolling through my mind, about that antediluvian era (although I know of no Biblical translation so obscure as to use the word itself):

As it was in the days of Noah, so will it be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark. And they were oblivious, until the flood came and swept them all away. – Matthew 24:38-39

We have been swept away. Where we will land, on what shore and in what condition, I do not know. I do know that we will continue, and find new ways of being. We will create a postpandemiun society. And it depends on the choices we all make in these days and hours as to whether that society is a joyful one, or one built on fear. Hold on to hope, my friends. There will be a day – sooner than you can believe – where this is all a tale to tell children.

Belief

I have thought a lot about belief. This is an inevitable part about being both a Christian and a person who trusts science and the scientific method to be trustworthy and reliable ways to understand both ourselves and our universe. One of the key questions is – what depends on belief, and what is true outside my believing in it.

There are things that depend on our belief, or where what we (usually collectively) think makes the truth. The stock market is definitely this way. The economy, less so, but still reliant on “confidence”. In the recent democratic primaries, you could see how some candidates (namely Elizabeth Warren) did poorly because “everyone” who wanted to vote for her had heard that she couldn’t win. So they didn’t. So she didn’t. (Not to say that she would otherwise have had a majority, but it’s hard to tell.) Money is one of those things that actually relies 100% on belief. If all of us suddenly stopped thinking that those little slips of paper (or worse, the digital markers that represent slips of paper which don’t actually exist) weren’t worth anything – they wouldn’t be. This has happened before. Bitcoin, which is valuable because we think it is, is another excellent example of this.

Then there are those things which care not a whit for whether we believe in them or not. Gravity. Death. Spring. Pandemic viruses. Global climate change.

Finally, there are those things where we as people are unsure how much our beliefs matter. God is a big one there. Does God exist without our believing in an almighty? I believe in a God whose existence does not rely on my belief – by my belief does not make that truth. The truth of God is there whether I believe in God or not. Health is another. Our mindset and beliefs definitely matter to our health, but they are a piece, not the whole. Belief in a treatment (or lack thereof) may enhance or inhibit effectiveness, but it does not create it.

This gap between things that are entirely made up of belief (the stock market) and things which do not give a damn what we believe (viruses) is the great chasm we find ourselves in today – where we have people applying the practices of belief to the indomitable forces of truth, and shocked and dismayed (and disbelieving) to find those forces ineffective. It seems as though the practiced response of our leadership is to try to reshape reality by belief. That actually works, to some extent, on a capitalist market. It is deeply counterproductive to something like a pandemic, where action must follow belief, which must follow (instead of attempt to create) truth.

I believe we humans are in for a hard year. I believe we will face challenges which our ancestors faced before us, but for which we are greatly out of practice – it having been over a hundred years since the last global pandemic. I believe humanity itself will overcome this hard, difficult moment. I believe many of us will lose people we love in the process, or ourselves be lost. But the point, my friends, is that the virus is untouchable by my belief. The only thing about my belief – or lack thereof – that matters is how it shapes my actions. And so I will work and do those things which are difficult to bend the curve towards the well being of humanity and the survival of my fellows, as much as my small ability allows. And I believe that matters, very much.


Thane is doing much better today. His fever is gone, and his energy is back. (That’s a mixed blessing.) He’s still coughing, and has added phleghmy to his repertoire, which gives me hope that this is rhino, not coronavirus.

Adam: Bane of oriental bittersweet

Adam and I got some outside time doing one of those things that I daydream about having time to do. I walk or run the Greenway often, and see the trash on the sides and oriental bittersweet devouring trees and wish I had a trashbag and a pair of clippers. So today we went with a trashbag and a pair of clippers and launched a brief battle in what must clearly be a much longer war.

New art since yesterday

Tomorrow, we all start to figure out how to lead more balanced lives with work, some kind of education, exercise etc. in these new times.

Spring – which comes with or without our believing it

Days when the world changes

Today, I was supposed to be in Washington State with my parents and siblings, remembering a man who meant so very much to me. There were going to be hundreds of scouts – old and young. I was going to play my trumpet. The former governor of Washington was rumored to be planned to attend – he was one of Del’s scouts.

I still dressed up for Pi Day

Instead, I’m in my attic, brushing off a dusty blog. I have not run an errand, bought a taco, or hung out with a neighbor today – and it may be some time before I do. A few weeks ago, my parents were here and we planned to see each other soon. Now, we will not. It’s time for some serious social distancing.

Thursday, I took the day off work and went for a winter hike. The snowpack on the trails was still favorable and firm, but the bright March light and warmer March air made it a pleasure to hike up and down the various mountains. But just as we left cell service, I got a text from my husband. “I kept Thane home from school. He has a fever and cough.”

This art counts as social distancing – there was a bunch of new stuff today

That night, still sore and stinky from the hike, wondering if I should send Grey in for the last half-day of school to pick up their things and his brother’s chromebook, I paged Thane’s pediatrician to see what the recommendation was. Dry cough and fever. Now. Surely there was some list I should add him to, some registration. Maybe testing. His doctor called back right away, sounding deeply unhappy. Did he have contact with someone from Biogen? If not, there is no testing. No lists. No records. Nothing to do but treat symptoms and be smart. So we have no idea if Thane has a cold, or something much more dire. Shortly after the call with the doctor, we learned there was a presumptive positive case for a kid in our town schools. We have to assume the worst, for the sake of everyone. So we’re even more isolated than the standard isolation – wondering if we’re going to get sick next. Two weeks is a very, very long time to wait. THERE IS NO TESTING for people who have all the symptoms and live in a community where the virus is.

This time is giving us a chance to catch up on little chores

So far, Thane is fine. His fever mostly broke last night. The cough is painful, and he has a sore throat, but it hasn’t slowed him down very much. So far, the rest of us are also fine. I went on a great run today. We went for a hike – the Middlesex Fells were PACKED – I’ve never seen so many cars – but there was plenty of room for all of us in the gracious, greening forest.

It’s such an odd thing, to watch the world change in twinkling. I’ve been watching Coronavirus very closely (slightly obsessively) since it escaped from the first rings of quarantine. I actually called the “work from home” instructions to the day – two weeks ago. Just watching the litany of cancellations – one after the other – flooding through my email is astonishing. Our 20th anniversary trip to Italy this April vacation is not happening. Del’s funeral will likely be in the fall (if at all). I had to move Piemas (to the Saturday closest to 6-28, Tau Day!). Church will be empty tomorrow – we will worship digitally. Everything is shutting down, shuttering. But the sidewalks are vibrant with people out and about on a beautiful day, seeing each other from a safe distance, enjoying exercise and health and sunlight from suddenly luxuriously (dauntingly?) empty schedules.

I met this handsome guy on my run today

I’ve now exceeded my prediction powers. School will definitely resume in the fall. But how much of the spring do we lose? The planned 2 weeks? Six, like in Washington State? All to year? College tours are cancelled. Proms are cancelled. We face this long, quiet uncertain period of being only with family, and going only to places disinfected by sunlight. There’s a hope to that – a slowing and quieting that our society is so deficient in. But there is also fear. Am I ready to nurse my family and friends, if needed? Who will nurse me? Just how crazy will we all go locked in a house together? What about those who are locked in much worse situations than we are?

I take comfort in this: we are kinder to each other than anyone expected. We are resourceful, and thoughtful. And we will come through this wiser than we went in. I only hope the wisdom is not too hard-earned.

From the archives: What Happens When You Don’t Know?

I blogged for a long time before I switched to WordPress. I did an incomplete job of moving my writing from one platform (Livejournal) to another – partially because it was very manual. But a friend asked about my beliefs regarding the soul the other day, and I was reminded of this sermon I gave. I was surprised, checking the archives, that this one fell in the gap between platforms. Rereading it, I feel like it stands the test of time. This was originally published on 7/17/2007 after the first of two miscarriages, and before my second son was successfully brought into this world.

Job 39:1-4
Mark 4:35-41

The Book of Job is a story about people trying to understand God’s actions. In the story, the righteous man Job has horrible things happen to him for reasons he doesn’t understand. His friends spend several chapters claiming that they understand how God works, and that Job’s bad luck must be his own fault. Job complains to God, asking why he had such a tough time of it. God never answers that question for Job. Instead, God’s reply (in some of the most beautiful and poetic language that can be found anywhere in the Bible) is to talk about all the things that God understands, has done, and had witnessed that are far beyond Job’s ability to comprehend. Finally, Job accepts that while he might not understand why he was so miserable now, it was ok not to understand as long as his relationship with God was intact.

There is a lot to talk about in the story of Job. Right now I want to point out that it is possible for good people to misunderstand God’s nature, and believe the wrong thing about him.

Christianity has spent a lot of time and energy trying to decide what we believe about God’s nature. Some of the most divisive questions in the Christian church have been about that: Is Jesus both fully human and fully divine? What is the trinity? Is it three different people, or three aspects of the same person?

Belief is important. It can change how we act and what we try to do. If we believe that Jesus died and gave us grace for our sins, we act in hope and try to encourage others to do likewise, instead of falling into the inaction of despair.

But how we believe doesn’t actually change the nature of God. Job’s friends truly and sincerely believed that God was punishing Job for some sin Job had committed. God wasn’t – he had another reason. The conviction of Job’s friends didn’t change God’s nature.

Why is that important?

Sometimes I think that we’ve fallen into the habit of thinking that what we believe makes it true. This is easy to observe in a toddler, and fortunately I have one handy to watch. Grey is convinced that if he says that we are outside at the park often enough, then we actually will be outside at the park. A child can think that believing something makes it true. Adults fall into this sort of trap in much subtler ways. (Author’s note: I didn’t say, but one could argue a certain president of ours is doing this by claiming we’re winning in Iraq.) In some theological questions, where the Bible might not have much to say and there’s no way for us to test to find the answer, perhaps we can be forgiven for thinking that whatever we decide is true is actually true.

But God’s true nature doesn’t change based on what we think, and for that I am grateful.

Why?

Well, what happens when we don’t know what to think?

Most of you know I recently had a miscarriage. I’m hardly unique in this. I was stunned at how many of my sisters in these pews had gone through one or even many miscarriages. (Author’s note: I got three more miscarriage stories after this sermon.) Anyway, in the course of my recovery from this, one of the questions I was asked was whether I had any theological doubts or uncertainties that had been raised by the miscarriage.

There are certainly lots of questions to which I do not know the answer. When does a pregnancy turn into a person with a soul? Was my pregnancy even at that stage? What happens to the souls of children who are never born, if they have souls? When does a person accumulate enough actions and intentions to be judged and forgiven by God? For that matter, just what is heaven really like? On some of these issues, such as the miscarriages, the Bible is nearly silent. On others, such as what heaven is like, it is very mysterious and hard to translate to a concrete vision.

So when I look at my own experience and wonder: was there a child, and if so, what happened to them? It’s a question to which I will never have a concrete answer on this side of salvation. I don’t even know what I believe.

And that’s when I realized the beauty of the unchanging nature of God. I don’t HAVE to know what happened, in order for the right thing to have occurred. This possible child isn’t waiting in some limbo, pending me making up my mind as to what God does with early miscarriages. God has already acted, and if there was a baby with a soul, it is in God’s loving hands. I do not need understand, agree, believe, or consent for God to fulfill his covenant and relationship with this other person. I do not need to understand for the right and proper thing to have happened.

That raises another uncomfortable question, though. What if I don’t like what happened? What if it was something bad instead of something good?

I am at peace there, too, because I have faith. That’s where our other Bible story of the day comes into play. The disciples are in a tight spot, with a boat that may at any moment break apart and drown them all. Jesus is sleeping through what they fear might be his last moments alive. They wake him up. “Hey!” they say. “Don’t you care that we’re all about to die!” I imagine that they’re not saying he should do something, they’re waking him up to tell him to prepare himself for the worst. What can anyone do in the middle of the sea, in a horrible storm? I mean, there are miracles of returning sight to people with milky eyes, and then there’s commanding the very weather to act unnaturally. Doctors can return sight or it might come back on it’s own, but no one can command the weather. But Jesus does, and he comments on their lack of faith.

Well, I do have faith. I believe that God is good, and kind, and loving. If there was a soul in place, I believe that he holds my unborn child in his hands and has carried that child to a good end. I trust in that not only for this Schroedinger’s baby, who may or may not have ever existed as a person, but I also trust it for myself. I believe, in the end, that God loves us and cares for us. And so, when theology goes dark and God’s plan is unknown and unknowable, and we do not know what the right thing is to believe, then have faith friends. For we do know that God is good, and his steadfast love for us endures forever.

Me, then