Quarantine Diary Days 27 and 30: Live Streaming the Resurrection

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This post is the second in a series about church in the time of pandemic. You can find the first post here.

April 9: Holy week has been a holy hell. School’s out for spring break and I took the week off work so we could take a family trip that, absurdly, we thought might still happen as recently as a few weeks ago. A road trip across state lines was, unsurprisingly, not in the cards. Instead of cozying up by a fire in a cabin in the smoky mountains we are getting on each other’s last nerves in our townhouse in the suburbs. Tonight I am making dinner. Husband is working out. D is making art in her room. We all need our space. I stream the Maundy Thursday service while I chop vegetables. Pastor Grace is standing in front of an altar dedicated to the COVID-19 relief effort–holy water, hand sanitizer, gloves, and masks–reading from a list of names of over 1,000 healthcare workers who paid the ultimate sacrifice serving on the front lines. I am glad that D is upstairs so I don’t have to explain, though I wish she were here to repeat the Lord’s Prayer with me after each batch of names. It moves me to hear her recite by heart at six a prayer I learned in church basements in my thirties, that I still fumble when left to my own devices. Pastor Grace blows out the candle on the altar and moves to a chair in the corner of the sanctuary. From her place in the dark she tells us that the last thing Jesus did before he died was sing a hymn. Like me before I leave D to face the nightmares she’s been having every night.  

April 12: We don’t do the bunny in our house, but we wake up on Easter Sunday to three baskets, the one that husband put together for D and the two that D made for each of us. Lately, D is trying to figure out where she fits into our family. As the only kid in the house, she doesn’t appreciate the difference between kids and adults. She sincerely believes we’re all on the same level and doesn’t understand why we get to stay up late while she goes to bed early, why we share a bed and she has to sleep alone, or that sometimes we are just pretending to give her a say because we always have the last word. Sometimes her confusion on this point works to our advantage, like on holidays when she spoils us with as many gifts as we give to her, our beloved one and only. My basket is stuffed with a polaroid picture of the two of us, a paper airplane, a homemade card, a sticker sheet, drawings of our family, and hand-crafted bird’s nest with plastic eggs. Her basket is stuffed with candy, and she is thrilled. She mainlines jelly beans on our walk around the neighborhood, which we spend peering at people’s windows looking for the paper eggs that the church sent around for kids to hang for a drive-by socially distanced egg hunt. Back at home, D and I pull chairs up to our altar at home to watch the virtual Easter service, while husband busies himself making Focaccia in the kitchen. He’s been on a sourdough bender like everyone else, but Focaccia is our Easter tradition. We’re running low on yeast, but had the good fortune to find some self-rising flour. On the screen, the choir pulls out all the stops, singing complicated arrangements from the safety of their own homes. D and I count the Hallelujahs, which have been locked in a box for the forty days of Lent. This week was dark, but we went into it knowing it would have a happy ending, and today we get the good news–death is conquered, man is free, or will be, when we finally get a vaccine. In the meantime, we are trying to be an Easter people which, in my mind, has nothing at all to do with what happens after we die and everything to do with how we live now–without fear, loving our neighbors, and working for something better than what we have. 

Quarantine Diary Days 2, 9, 16, and 23: One Month of Virtual Church

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March 15: I tentatively click the link that the church sent around, wondering what I’m going to see. It’s a live video, streaming on Facebook. Hundreds of people are watching. I see so many names I recognize popping up in the chat box. D and I wave and thumbs up the families we know. D goes crazy with the reaction buttons, but she is indiscriminate, and sends dozens of hearts and smileys and frownies and even rage faces floating up and off the screen. Pastor Grace is preaching into an iPhone and is almost impossible to hear. Brian, the music director, is playing the piano at home and his phone is doing something weird to music. It actually sounds demonic. I don’t turn it off, though. I watch all the way to the end and can’t wait to see what they come up with next week.

March 22: I heed the pastor’s call to prepare a space for worship. I clear off the long ottoman that is actually a storage space–filled with all the DVDs and CDs that my husband not only refuses to give away, but inexplicably keeps buying–and set up an altar. My altar includes: a Bible, a King James Version that I bought earlier this year to replace the Joseph Smith translation that I used from 1993, which is when I was baptized into the Mormon church, to 2015, which is when I left; a notebook and pen; a tablet for streaming the services; and a candle shaped like an owl. The prelude music sounds better, or at least not evil, but I still have to lean in close to the tablet to hear the sermon. I rustle up a portable bluetooth speaker that we use for camping and picnics–miraculously, it’s still charged–and suddenly I have ears to hear.

March 29: D signs into virtual children’s chapel and when her little face pops up on the screen with all the other kids waving eagerly I think it doesn’t matter that she’s not baptized. I print out activity sheets to keep her attention during the main service, connect-the-dots to make a candle, color a shepherd, find all the words in Psalm 23. If we were at church, Pastor Grace would call the children to gather at her feet and tell them stories about Kenya, show them pictures, remind them that they are mpendwa (beloved), and bless them with a prayer. We are not at church, but Pastor Grace still brings the children in, calls them close to the screen, shows off the stuffed bears she brought into the sanctuary, reads a story, and closes with a prayer. After church, I sit down with my daughter for Sunday School at home. I note the irony. All last year I resisted volunteering to teach the kids at church because I don’t like preparing lessons and I’m reluctant to give up the company of other adults, even for a week. Now D still wants to go to Sunday School, and I’m the only one who’s going to make it happen. We make a sign to hang on our front door, a heart with a rainbow of hearts inside, all decreasing in size. We declare in Sharpie that we are a First Church Family and I think it doesn’t matter that we can’t see our friends, pass the peace or set foot inside the building. It doesn’t matter that we aren’t technically members of this church. I have never felt more connected.

April 5: Holy week is here, right in the middle of what Trump warned would be “a hell of a bad two weeks.” That’s what he said. “Lots of death.” The virus is supposed to peak in Illinois later this month, which means that people are dying and more people are going to die. The CDC says we’re supposed to wear masks now, though of course we don’t have any. We were saving them for the front line workers. The governor says don’t go out, stay at home, so that’s what we do. At home, we eat sourdough pancakes for breakfast and listen to the Palm Sunday sermon. Did you know that the message of Hosannah is “God, Save Us!”? After church, D and I dump all the clean laundry on the floor, a motley carpet for Jesus. We trace palm leaves onto paper and tape them onto straws and wave them back and forth as we parade around the neighborhood, singing Hosannah. It’s cold and D is afraid the virus is everywhere, so we run home quickly and stay put. We dwell in the shelter of the most high.

Quarantine Diary Day 94: What Even Is This?

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Something about my quarantine diary has been nagging at me. I keep worrying that the day counts are slightly off. I don’t write every day and my entries aren’t always chronological, so it wouldn’t be obvious if my entries were off by a few days. Hell, I could be off by weeks and nobody would know. The piecemeal nature of the response in the U.S. means you don’t know when I went into lockdown mode, and human nature means that you don’t care about the minutiae of my life. I pulled out my calendar this morning to count up from March 14 anyway and confirmed my suspicions. My count was off, but only by one day. It was bound to happen, especially since fudged the numbers on purpose once or twice. What can I say? I wanted to write about my daughter’s birthday on on Day 40, and I needed the heft of a godly history behind me. I know you get it.

Lately, something else has been bugging me, too. The failure of leadership from the federal government and the resulting state-by-state, town-by-town, person-by-person reaction to the pandemic means that you don’t know what quarantine means to me. What am I even doing over here? Quarantine diary was never a wholly accurate moniker, but it’s starting to feel strained now. For the last two weeks, my daughter has been playing outside with neighbor kids without strict regard to social distancing. This weekend, I met up with friends and went for an early maskless run. I’ve been sheltering-in-place for 94 days, but what does that even mean? I mean, I’ve been trying to tell you what it means to me, but I can’t tell you everything.

What else haven’t I told you? How often I cry. How much it hurts.

What kind of diary is this anyway? I bend the timeline to my will but am compelled to fact-check myself later. I play fast and loose with people, places, and things but find it imperative that I communicate my innermost thoughts, feelings, and desires so accurately and absolutely as to leave no room for possibility that I will be misunderstood.

In the parlance of first year English lit, I tend to think of this diary as being closer to Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography than James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, by which I mean: Could a scholar of my life find some inconsistencies between the way I lived and what I wrote? Probably, but I’d stand by it as memoir even if Oprah herself tried to take me down.

In deep-Mormon vernacular, I’d say that this diary is more like the Doctrine & Covenants than the Book of Mormon, by which I mean: Look at this extraordinary life I lived, the people I’ve known, the things I’ve built. You will know my history. Can I prove I talked to God? Probably not, but you can’t disprove it either.

In my heart of hearts, I believe this diary is more like the Bible than anything else, which is to say: I’ve got a lot of fear, a lot of love, and a lot of nerve.

I am Eve in the Garden, the Woman at the Well, the Boy in the Grove. I am the Finger pointing at the Moon.

Quarantine Diary: Day 40

Pastor Grace says 40 is no ordinary number. In the Bible, 40 is less a measure of time than it is a clue that God is up to something. 40 years in the wilderness before the Jews reached the promised land. Nothing but manna to eat. 40 days on Mount Sinai for Moses to come down with the Law. 40 days and 40 nights in the Judean desert before Jesus began his public ministry. Temptation under every rock. No food at all. 40 days with his disciples after throwing open the doors of death. 40 days before being restored to God.

40 days is a really long time. It is time enough to be lost and found, time enough to be tested and tried, time enough to come to an understanding, time enough to prepare and come out the other side.

When the men who wrote the Bible tell us something lasted 40 minutes, days, or years, they are telling us that God is behind whatever happened next.

And so it is that 40 days into quarantine, we are celebrating a birth. Seven years ago, I pulled my daughter into the world. Seven is a God number, too, it turns out. I didn’t learn that from Pastor Grace, or the Bible, but from Frank Black singing This monkey’s gone to heaven.

My daughter is my promised land but my waiting was not 40 years of wilderness. In the most literal of ways, I didn’t have to wait at all. I had her at 27. She was conceived the first month we tried. Still, her coming to us was not as easy as all that. The idea of a daughter was seven years in the making, conceived in New Orleans as her dad and I sheltered-in-place during a hurricane. “What if I get pregnant?” I whispered. We were children ourselves, only 20 years old. “We’ll have a baby and we’ll name her Dylan.” We did wander after that. We had to. We crossed religious differences that spread like a chasm to find a land hospitable to us both, to the believer and the skeptic alike, a place that would be safe for our interfaith family. Eventually, we found a way.
Dylan turns seven today.

The second wandering came after Dylan was born. We waited two years after she was born and then tried for four more to have another that never came. This makes people sad. “I’m so sorry,” they say. “I know you wanted another baby. At one point that might have been the case, but I am so far removed from that wanting it’s hard to know if it was really mine. What I know now: every passing month and year shined a light on the gold I already had. Dylan is everything I could ever want in a kid. Any heartbreak I have is for not being able to give her a sibling. Luckily for all of us, she never wanted one, and still doesn’t, even after a 40 days of being the only kid in quarantine.

Every year, but especially this year, I’ve been anticipating Dylan’s birthday like it was my own. The anticipation is ingrained. I didn’t wait to have Dylan but she made me wait to have her, through 30 hours of labor, eight days after she was due. That long week before she decided to join us on this plane of existence was its own kind of probationary period. We were prepared for an April 15 delivery. I’d had my hospital bag packed since Braxton Hicks kicked in around week 35. I’d taken the week off of work. My husband had checked our little dog into a very fancy overnight kennel. There was nothing left to do except wait and walk and wonder what life would be like on the other side.

I’m not waiting anymore, not for a miracle, not for a sign. For me, the miracle happened seven years ago, after 30 hours of labor, eight days after she was due. The miracle is every day I’ve spent with her since.

All Saints

I’ve turned the corner into my fourth year with the United Methodist Church, so surely I’ve been in attendence on All Saints’ Day before, but I have no clear memory of it. There is something about a bell, but it’s vague. The church calendar, it seems, takes some time getting used to. Or, more likely, it takes the body longer to acclimate to the pace of Christian life than the mind (wrestling with the new theology from day one) and tongue (learning the new language on the fly). Who knows where my heart is in this transition. Miles ahead or years behind, I’m sure. So today is All Saints’ Sunday and I’m a foreigner to this quality of grief. I’ve lost hardly anyone that wasn’t supposed to go. So I’m quiet in Sunday School, so quiet A asks if I’m okay, but I am more than okay, I feel terrific, just listening and learning from people who know more about death than I. The services are as usual, though the choir director brought saxaphones in for the day, and they are loud and jazzy. The children come back to the group for communion and gather on the steps in front of the sanctuary, which is different. I see D in her shiny winter hat watching Pastor Grace bless and break the bread intently. She serves the children first. I approach the table–it’s an open table, which means it’s okay that I’m not technically a member of this church, okay that the church for whatever stupid pedantic reason does not recognize my Mormon baptism–and take the bread, dip the bread, eat the bread sweet with Welch’s grape juice, walk down the stairs. I find D and we head into the courtyard, join the congregation huddled around the labyrinth. It was cold this morning and still is, but the sun is shining. D’s hat looks like a disco ball. We stand with my friend J and her daughter L in the fluffy hot pink earmuffs. The pastors take turns reading the names out loud, the names of everyone lost from our congregation this year, and it guts me because I knew some of them, but none well enough. I know enough to feel that some of them should be here still. After each name, a clear bell, the silence. The pastors move onto the names of those that the members of our congregation have lost, the parents, and grandparents, and brothers, and sisters, and children, and friends. There are more bells. J weeps. And then we sing in Latin, a three-part round. D learned the words in choir so she sings too. Something about peace. We file inside, upstairs to retrieve the electric tea light all the kids got today from the children’s chapel room upstairs. I try to hug J, but we are both walking, and it’s awkward. We go back downstairs into the Great Hall for fellowship. D brings me a handful of broccoli, “all the broccoli they had” and instead of chiding her, I eat it. We pack sack lunches for the soup kitchen. D and L run to the stage to play. J and I lean against the stage, drinking coffee, talking about her brother, talking about our husbands, talkimg about our kids. We are all saints.

Take Me Home

You don’t grow up Christian in America without hearing a thing or twenty about the “straight and narrow” path. As a rebellious Mormon, I loathed this concept. I could imagine nothing more dreary and oppressive than a life spent following a road laid out by someone else, following orders, moving forever forward while looking longingly at the roads less travelled. 

As a perfectionist who never could manage to live up to that trait, I hated the concept equally but for a different reason. A narrow path offered too many opportunities to fall off. I’d never make it, so better to never bother stepping on, better to pretend I never wanted anything to do with your stupid straight road anyway. 

A few months after I stopped attending the Mormon church, I started hearing the phrase crop up in recovery meetings, usually from old timers describing how the path of sobriety narrows the longer they’re on it. This scared me. Had I stepped into a way of living that was going to end up feeling as oppressive as Mormonism?

Today, more than a year into this life, I found some clarity around this concept. The straight and narrow path isn’t the one laid down and blessed by the church. It’s the path that carries each of us forward. Once you’ve found purpose and direction, it becomes increasingly intolerable to live in a manner that is inconsistent with those things. Your mind and body and soul won’t tolerate straying for long. It’s too painful. When my mind wanders to relapse, my chest tightens. When I entertain the notion of going back to the old way of living for much longer than that, my cells start screaming apart. It’s not freedom; it’s chaos. The narrowing of the path is the price we pay for finding it. The cost of learning how to live is that you can’t stop doing it.

My road doesn’t pass through the same valleys as yours. Mine is a highway through the middle of the US. The road is mostly well-paved paved but it cuts a dusty path through the desert and winds through a few mountain towns.  

Our roads don’t take us through the same cities or countries or churches. Some roads don’t have a church on them at all. They are all long, though, and I suspect that our maps are all the same. Do unto others. Love your neighbor. Lose yourself. And I’ll be damned if we don’t all end up in the same place.