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

Remembering a Tremendous Man: BJ Johnson

BJ Johnson

If you have ever been to one of the Flynn “high holidays” – like Piemas or Mocksgiving you’ve definitely met BJ. He was always punctual (if not early!) and lingered late into the nights, when we all diliquesced into the couch and began rumbling as much as talking, with shadows and silences stretching long. Some nights, BJ would wrap up an evening by running a game of Werewolf for us. “Close your eyes” he’d intone. “Werewolves, open your eyes and acknowledge each other.” There were long conversations on video game art, obscure 1980s cartoons, comic books and toy design. BJ was truly among his own in these gatherings, and deeply beloved by the folks there.

I learned this year that BJ had a special “Mocksgiving shirt”. He was sad that he thought it would need to be retired after this year.

BJ was also renowned in our local circles for incredible Halloween costumes. We’ve all been frantically searching our archives for the year he came as the king from Katamari Damacy, or my personal favorite, the year he was “Tremendous” with a tiny city glued on his shoes and a hat made up of clouds. He was endlessly creative and had the artistic chops to pull his crazy designs off – even if they weren’t always comfortable.

BJ c. 2003

We learned this weekend of BJ’s death, and it comes as a great shock and sorrow to us all. It doesn’t seem possible that I’ll never get to chat with him in the kitchen while I prep, or hear the latest news from Saxonburg. I have gotten the last ever BJ-drawn Christmas card (this year’s was Santa wearing goggles flying on a giant eagle). The world is a poorer, sadder place for not having him in it. There will be a hole in my table and my heart for as long as I continue to set the feast.

This last Mocksgiving

The family is holding services at 11 a.m. Saturday January 26th 2020 at Saxonburg Memorial Church, 100 W. Main St., Saxonburg PA. BJ was a devoted and faithful member of that congregation, and the family has asked that instead of flowers, memorials be sent to the church.

For folks who may not be able to make it to Pennsylvania, we’ll be doing a few things locally here in Boston. We’re tying down a date to have a memorial meal in Waltham (his home while he lived up here).

This is now scheduled:
BJ Johnson Memorial Brunch
Saturday, Feb. 1st, 1:30 PM – 3:00 PM
In a Pickle Restaurant
265 Moody St.
Waltham, MA
(Please let me know if you’re coming so I can notify you if there are any last minute changes.)

We will also take some time during the upcoming Piemas to remember our missing pie-companion and celebrate his life. In his last email to me he said, “May these occasions long be afforded for us all to gather and enjoy the friendships we’ve been blessed with.” We were certainly blessed to have his friendship.

His Christmas Cards were always a highlight

Like that star of the waning summer

We found our way through the Port of Pireus across a short, quiet stretch of water to the island of Aegina. After a perilous taxi ride (no roller coaster has ever terrified me that thoroughly), we arrived in a quiet, pine-shaded compound, with limestone grottos and placid Mediterranean blue waters.After a moment of deep appreciation for the view, we sunscreened up and climbed in. The water was intoxicating in our near private bay, warm and clear and calm.A ten minute walk brings us to the tiny town of Aegina Marina, which is sadly reduced from the days of Adam’s youth, and where ambitious and long abandoned buildings stand as archaeological ruins from the ’80s.As the daylight waned, I spotted a path up the pine slope along our grotto. I resolved to see where it led. The answer was boring (a hotel), but there was this enchanting rock, almost made got by the sun, where I sat for an hour to watch the sun fall beyond the bay and behind the mountains.In the gloaming, I returned to fetch my youngest son, and we watched the light disappear in the West to be to replaced by the great swath of stars. The Milky Way cut a path from Athens towards Africa. Jupiter was bright at our feet, with Scorpio perilous under the tread of that wanderer. It was gorgeous, and glorious and I spent an hour on that warm rock with a cool breeze and the sound of gentle surf below. There are precious moments in life, and that was one.Tomorrow, more swimming. We plan on spending the entire day at the beach. But today? Was perfect.

Down from the mountaintop

Hike more, worry less – my motto for the week

Sabbaticals that don’t come to a planned end are usually called “retirement” – and that’s a milestone I’m still years or decades from. So it turns out that tomorrow I have to pack up from this cabin and go home and resume the mantle of daily living. (And for the few of you who have inquired as to the availability of this cabin, here’s the AirBNB listing. Weekends in August look pretty full, but September is wiiiiiide open.) This period of rest has been exactly what I needed, and even largely what I planned. I have been somewhat surprised at how much I want to be out hiking. Only one day of this entire week have I failed to lace up my hiking boots. It’s been less reading than I thought. This may actually have something to do with the chairs in this otherwise lovely cabin not being incredibly comfortable for lounging in. I have written more blog posts, got halfway through a ghost story (sorry!), but my mostly-finished novel is completely untouched. I think that the process of editing feels too much like work and too little like exploration.

Friends and mountains

My loneliness/extroversion techniques have been interesting. I have spent several days entirely by myself. Physically. But I am struck by the generosity and kindness of my friends in having not one, but two people make the drive all the way up here to go hiking with me – on hikes I would otherwise have had the good sense to pass up doing alone. Those were two excellent days for me. There may be a better way to have deep and meaningful conversations with people than hiking, but I have yet to find it. Conversation flows as breath ebbs and views wax on the horizon. I loved the hikes, but I also loved the chance to go really deep into conversation with people I deeply like and admire.

Wooded summit

And as Anthony cogently observed “I thought you were going up to the mountains for solitude, but you’re all over social media.” There is a constant dialogue in my head with … you? But in the tumult of work that’s usually with my colleagues. And so often I find that I have little interesting to say, or my interesting thoughts are still nascent and unformed. It takes time and space to take the germ of a thought and grow it into any kind of meaningful expression. And time and space are notably lacking in my usual daily life. But I definitely countered the aloneness by writing, and reaching out on social media. Perhaps I would find it less enjoyable if I actually was really alone. I am brought back to an era – I am the last of this era – where I used to write actual letters and then get responses in the mail. I think that worked almost as well, if more slowly. No one writes me letters anymore, and I write few to the remnants of generations past who do not “Facebook”.

First peak of the week!

When I first came, that first night, I wrote down my intentions for the journey: both those things I did and did not want to do. I also set some goals for myself, which were really permission to do what it was I needed and wanted. Here were my goals:

1) To truly rest and recharge
Admirably accomplished, I think. I fell into conversation at a trail head with some passing cyclists and they actually commented on how well rested, clear eyed and happy I seemed.

2) To understand myself and my desires, wants and needs better
I think this is definitely a B+ or better. I learned some interesting things about myself, with time and space. I also importantly reinforced things that I have previously believed, but had become separated from – like my passion for hiking. It’s a little divorced from reality, though, since who I am without obligations, family or work is not at all who I actually am. There is always work to be done here.

3) To sit down and recall a slower pace of life
Again perhaps a B+. When I wrote this, I imagined a reptilian torpor stealing over me where a whole day or two would languidly pass and I’d barely note their passing. Instead, I laced my shoes and went hiking. I think that reveals not failure, but who I really am. That said, today I spent almost a full hour sitting on a rock in a river doing absolutely nothing. I noted every charming, unexpected, delightful aspect of that creek – seeing things nearly an hour in that I’d failed to see in the previous many minutes. I don’t think I could have sat so still so long at the beginning of the week.

4) To write, especially fiction
I wrote, but it was mostly connectional and not fiction. I have no idea what it would take for me to actually write the fiction.

5) To hike, and use my body in joyful motion
Nailed it. This is pretty much what I did.

6) To reacquaint myself with nature and become friendly with mountains again
Speaking to that journey of self-discovery, it was interesting to watch me orient myself in place and history. I read up on geological formations and historic notes. I stared at maps. I learned the names of the peaks I could see. I went to as many New Hampshires as I could reach: biker bar, art gallery, 7-11, microbrewery, rugged trail, townie trail, literal castle, unpretentious state park, BBQ joint, etc. To the watching eye, you could almost see me laying down the filaments of roots to see where they might thrive and where they would be crowded out. You do not come to love nature in the abstract, but must love it in the most concrete. I like mountains, but I love Chocorua. I like rivers, but that stretch of unnamed river I dwelt in (perhaps the Chocorua?) for a long hour I knew and loved. I like trees, but I know the beech silhouetted against the darkening sky has one branch that has been stripped of a foot’s worth of leaves. To reconnect with nature in the abstract, I found I had to get very close to very concrete parts of it and introduce myself.

To do list

I recognize keenly how very, very fortunate I am that I was able to take this time, this distance and this week. There are so many aspects of lucky: the supportive husband, the older children, the resources to book a nice place for 10 days in high summer. But I wish that all of us could have these times and moments set aside to know ourselves and our surroundings.

Contemplation

The place I’m renting is for sale ($400k if you’re interested, with a two family plus the cabin). The house next door is also for sale, with the same gorgeous view and slightly less stuff going on and also $256k. I might possibly have called a realtor to take a look. The house, well, it’s not for me. And I know what I’m really doing is wishing I could stay in the easy-ness of this week, and look out on mountains that heal my heart. But it’s time to go back, hug my beloved family and take up the yoke of my labors again.

Victorious