Quarantine Diaries Days 58, 65, 72, 79, 86, and 93: The Great Fall

This post is the fourth in a series about church in the time of the pandemic. You can find the first, second, and third posts here, here, and here.

May 10: Today is Mother’s Day. After breakfast in bed, my husband asks me if I want to watch church. He had the whole day planned, including alternate variations to take into account me watching church or not. “Do whatever ever you want,” he says, and I can tell he means it. It wasn’t always this easy for us. He used to assume that special occasions were an automatic guaranteed day off from church. He was the opposite of other lapsed Catholics. He’d go to church with me any old Sunday, but Christmas was better spent at home and Easter and and Mother’s Day were for brunch brunch. He couldn’t imagine that I might want to mark significant days in the year in community, with a bit of ritual. I couldn’t fathom why he thought it was okay to make grand plans about how we’d spend our Sundays without at least giving me, his wife and the religious one, besides, a say in the matter. Things changed when our daughter developed her own relationship with the church. She expected and wanted to go every Sunday and didn’t understand days off just because. I signed her up for the Christmas Pageant and the Children’s Choir with performances all throughout the Easter season and on Mother’s Day too. I became a regular church lady and my husband joined us for every special occasion. Obviously our daughter would not be signing with the Children’s Choir this year. All the practices and performances after Ash Wednesday were scrapped when church went virtual. THe Mother’s Day service, like every other service since March 15 would be streamed live to my Chromebook. The choir would sing through my tethered bluetooth speaker. I’d be stranded in pajamas on a chair floating in the sea of LEGO that had overtaken our living room floor the last two months. (Neither my husband nor I had the heart or nerve to clean it up, take away the one thing stopping our daughter from going mad with boredom.) This is not the Mother’s Day service I want, but my husband asks if I wanted to watch because he knows that virtual church has been my lifeline. He knows I liked watching the number of viewers tick up in the left corner of the screen, seeing names pop up in the chat box from all over the country, and listening to the pastor weave the Jesus story around COVID, around racism, around all the death and destruction in our times. I think maybe he likes it, too. Religion is doing the only thing it can do in a supposedly enlightened society–giving me connection and meaning. I don’t remember the sermon that day, or the songs the choir sang, or the postcards from home. Whatever the pastor said pales against the beautiful day my family gave me. Not going doesn’t feel like a choice, though. Church is still my bulwark against isolation and despair.

May 17: Today started badly. Nobody wanted to go outside in the rain so I skip my morning walk but arguing about it is enough to make us late for children’s chapel on Zoom. My daughter doesn’t want to do it but I make her anyway, drag the little green chair–overstuffed with the white dots and her name embroidered on the back, a gift from her Texas grandparents when she turned one that she still uses today–over to the tablet, and go to sign her in. “Please wait, the meeting host will let you in soon.” This is typical and it makes sense to use a waiting room for meetings with kids, but the message irks me. We’re already late. How long is the host going to let us languish in the waiting room while my daughter misses out on questionable but, to my mind, critical approximations of human interaction? Ten of the meeting’s scheduled twenty minutes, apparently. I send a nice enough note to the teacher–“Hi ___, can you let us into the meeting please?” but I am livid. “I can’t believe this. Leaving kids out a church meeting. Do they know how that feels?” I have a history of turning on religion, of throwing churches under the bus when they fail to live up to the impossibly high ideals they set for themselves (and I, like an idiot, believe), but I haven’t breathed a bad word against my new church, not to myself, not on this blog, and definitely not in front of my daughter. Until now. Now I am spitting venom. “This is absolutely the most careless, thoughtless, heartless way to treat people. If they can’t let everybody into the meeting, they shouldn’t have it.” My daughter cuts me off. “They’re probably just having technical difficulties, mama.” Oh, shit. I guess I have some work to do if I don’t want to pass my religious baggage on to my daughter. A few minutes later, my daughter’s face pops up on the screen, one square alongside a dozen or so others containing confused kids and parents. The teacher is frazzled. “I’m so sorry. There was a global Zoom outage. We’ve been trying to let people in for fifteen minutes.” She reads a quick story and then sends everybody off so we can show up on time for the main service. Worship that day is led by the Northern Illinois Conference Bishop and Cabinet. I don’t begrudge our local pastors a break, but seeing all those strangers in strange buildings singing the hymns, saying the Lord’s prayer, and the preaching the word leaves me cold. Before service ends, the children’s ministry has sent an email apologizing profusely for the issues with Zoom. The church sends another email later that day. Of course, the damage is done, most of it by me.

May 24: I’m watching church alone today. I don’t know where my family is. I open my tablet and click the link to in my email to watch the service on YouTube. I see from the timestamp on the video that virtual services were pre-recorded and uploaded seven hours ago and I feel a ripple of resentment and revulsion. I want to slam the laptop shut. It was a battle to get here on time in the first place after a vicious argument in the thirty minutes before children’s chapel. My daughter has stopped changing out of her pajamas in the morning. Today she is wearing one of my old band t-shirts and flashed her underwear to the Sunday School class standing up to answer a question. I didn’t much care and neither did she but I’m not about to force her to watch the main service with me today. I don’t light the candle. I don’t make a coffee or crack a can of LaCroix. I don’t follow along with the worship bulletin. I don’t sing. I don’t close my eyes for prayer. I put my feet up, cross my arms across my chest, and stare up at the ceiling. I look back down and notice my tablet sitting on top of the Sunday Times. I pull out the arts section. Art saved me once before you know, when I was numb to everything else. On January 31, 2016, Day 2 without booze after my last and worst drunk, I took my daughter to the Art Institute. I lingered over Stamford after Brunch before I ever went to my first AA meeting, before I found a church.

May 25: Police in Minneapolis murder George Floyd in cold blood.

May 31: The email from the children’s chapel teacher asks all the kids to wear red for pentecost, which sounds ominous to me. I still don’t really know what pentecost is. This is around the time of year my mind wanders off outside the chapel. I think my daughter said no when I asked if she wanted to watch chapel or maybe I didn’t even offer. I still want to stream the sermon, but can’t get the link to work. I play around with it for a few minutes and give up. It doesn’t matter. We need to make signs for the march.

June 7: I go to church. It’s fine. It’s Trinity Sunday. Mormons don’t believe in the Trinity and I’m still not sure how to think about the more mystical aspects of mainline Christianity. A line from a hymn catches my ear. “Holy, holy, holy…Only Thou are holy.” Oh! I don’t need to be holy? What a relief. It’s hard to sit still today. I want to busy myself with cleaning but I make myself sit. My legs jiggle against my chair. My hands fidget for the paper, my pen. I wonder why I want to be a Christian if I don’t believe it, if I don’t need Christianity to be good. I guess I want a mind full of stories, a life full of people. I’m not getting that from the screen.

June 14: I don’t know what we do today, but I know we don’t go to church. I won’t stream another service for the rest of the summer.

Quarantine Diary Days 37, 44, and 51: Slippery Slopes

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

April 19: For the first month of shelter in place Sundays were the high point of every week, the mountain crest after last week’s long slog up, the top of the roller coaster before next week’s long slide down. With Easter, it felt like we were really building up to something. After that highest high point, this second Sunday in Easter is something of a let down. It is an effort to locate and name the good, but I do it anyway, because it’s good for me. D won’t walk with me before church, so she misses the crow cawing way up in a tall tree, the flash of robin red, the calico cat creeping in plain sight in front of a row of houses along church street, and the chance to wave at neighbors out walking with their dog. It’s hard to hear them behind their masks all the way across the street but the connection is there. I take many deep breaths. D does watch virtual church with me and she sees the bright side in the viewer count rising in the corner of the screen. People are logging in from all over the country and this is exciting. “People can watch church even when they’re out of town!” The church is trying something new, a virtual fellowship hour after the service is over. I make up my second coffee of the day and click the Zoom link eager to see some familiar faces, parched for conversation. The host lets me in and almost immediately kicks me into a breakout room. Hey, I know these people! There is a man from the parenting class I attended my second year with the church, the father of a hilarious little girl a few years younger than my D, who recently relocated to Colorado. There is also the pastor herself. We talk and talk even though the system is glitchy and our husbands and daughters keep wandering in and out of the frame. Actually, it’s hard to have this conversation in the middle of my living room. My daughter is annoyed that I am still staring at a screen and keeps asking questions about what we’re talking about. When we get kicked back into the main group I see my chance but it is with resignation that I drop out of the chat.

April 26: Pastor Grace says that God makes us family and today I feel agitated with mine. They are not doing what I want them to do. I want them to sit quietly and listen to the sermon or, if that’s too much to ask, I want them to quietly do the things I want them to do: read the paper, do the crossword, draw a picture, make sourdough. Instead my husband is sleeping on the couch and my daughter is hunched over on the floor, still in her sleep clothes, building with LEGO. I am annoyed, as though rest and play are not perfect Sabbath activities. I thought D wasn’t paying attention during Children’s Chapel before church but when Pastor Jane asked what water is for, D piped up, “Oh, I know!” and clambered over to the laptop to unmute herself. “Water is important because you get baptized in it.” I am surprised that baptism is on her radar, since she’s not baptized herself. I am surprised she’s been paying attention. Back to the sermon, Pastor Grace says that the church was born during shelter-in-place, that it found its voice during lockdown. She talks about Thomas like doubt is a good thing. D chimes in to chant “Hear our prayer” while I tune out. I am anxious because the day is unplanned. I have no Sunday School lesson for D, no art project, no family movie. I am running out of steam, patience, and ideas. At the end of my own rope it seems the only option is to observe Sabbath the way God intended and just let the day unfold.

May 3: I’m watching church alone today. My daughter finally opted out of church altogether and is up in her room listening to stories. My husband is on his bike. In spite of the silence, I can’t hear a word of the sermon because I am fixated on Pastor Grace’s stole. There was a time my mind associated grapes on the vine with kitchy kitchen decor your friend from high school or your coworker’s wife might pick up on a whim from TJ Maxx. My mom had a triptych of bottles and vines hanging over her last kitchen table, I guess because they look vaguely European. She doesn’t even drink wine. No one in my family does. The church is transforming the image, ruining it and then making it better, like it always does, I suppose. The church never knew how to let well enough alone, never let me leave my drinking alone anyway, and now it’s after the symbols too. Jesus labored in the vineyard. The grape is not God’s original fruit, but like all God’s gifts, it comes with a price, a dark side. The vines in the sanctuary aren’t closing around anyone’s neck, or least they aren’t closing around mine. In the church, the grape signifies abundance, fertility, celebration, joy. In the church, the grape is the fruit of my labor and yours. It’s been a long time since I found these things inside a wine bottle and two months since I went looking inside a communion cup. My teeth, my tongue, my sheets are still stained with the contents of both vessels.

May 4: I email a postcard from home for Mary to include in the week’s e-news.

Hello First Church Family. We are missing you and, along with looking for new life, we are looking for signs of you on our many long walks around town. Whenever we see a rainbow in a window or message of hope we wonder out loud if it is from one of you. This week, we noticed that the spiky red buds of a certain shrub near Mason park resemble the illustrated rendering of the coronavirus that’s dominated the visual news media for the last four months. This led daughter D to muse about how funny it would be to see a bush coughing, which led to a conversation about Moses and the burning bush, which led to me telling the story of the Israelites chasing a pillar of fire through the desert, which led to D recalling the tongues of fire flickering over the the heads of Jesus’ disciples, which led to us walking down the street hand-in-hand singing “Carry the Flame.” She didn’t know the words to that song before quarantine, but hearing it during virtual worship every week has seared it into our hearts. We are looking forward to the day we reach the promised land and sing with you in person. It will be a celebration.  

Quarantine Diary Day 114: Surveys

One of the most restorative aspects of our week in the woods was that I took myself completely offline. This was entirely a matter of choice, not necessity. We camped at a major state park with decent cell service, or at least I assume it was decent based on the fact that other folks in our group were texting and streaming music all week, and my husband has probably half a dozen backup portable chargers, including one that is solar powered, so there wasn’t any real reason to conserve battery life. Even so, I turned my phone off the minute we pulled into the site (right after texting my mom “we’re here, we’re safe, love you, byeeeeee”) and left it off all week, only it turning it on once a day or so to snap pictures. I ignored texts. I didn’t check my email. I definitely didn’t look at the news.

On the email front, I didn’t miss much. A dumb Nextdoor post tagged “Crime and Safety” reporting two unmasked shoppers at a random Walgreens in the neighborhood. A bunch of emails about COVID protocols for my kid’s day camp and reminders to turn in outstanding paperwork. A survey from QuitMormon.com about LDS missionaries who got sick from drinking tainted water during their missions. Some political and social justice oriented calls to action. A notice that my dentist is open and I’m way overdue for a cleaning. Informational emails from all the places I’ve been ignoring because they no longer have any relevance to my life: the library, the gym, the running club, the book club, the church, the school. A week’s worth of morning briefings from the New York Times.

One of the first things I did when I came back to town was respond to two surveys sitting in my inbox about the possibility of returning to school and church in the fall. (I ignored the missionary health survey because I never served a mission.)

On the news front, I didn’t bother trying to catch up on what happened while we were away. I’m sure I missed a lot in the details, but the headlines were the same: it’s the end of the world as we know it.

Now that I’ve been back in the world long enough to remember that we’re still living in a deadly pandemic and to appreciate, perhaps for the first time, that it’s getting worse instead of better, I’m realizing that responding to the surveys when I was still high off the forest and family and friends might have been a huge mistake! I may have been a little, um, overly enthusiastic and, ah, unreasonably optimistic in my responses.

Consider the survey from the church, which was geared toward gauging interest in the following proposal for returning to in-person worship in the fall:

  • A shortened 30 minute worship service for 50 people;
  • Congregants would register beforehand, sanitize hands before and after worship, wear face masks, and maintain physical distance, including assigned seating;
  • Family members would sit together and children would stay with their parents;
  • No singing, communion, coffee, or fellowship hour; and
  • No sunday School for children or adults.

I skimmed through the limitations and didn’t even pause before checking the box to indicate “YES, I would be interested in attending in-person worship as outlined above.” Was I interested? Of course, I was interested. I was more than interested, I was desperate to get back to church. I thought we would be gathering for outdoor services back in June and here we are in July still meeting virtually. I would have checked the box a thousand times.

Having established my definite interest in attending in-person worship, I moved on to the next, and last, question in the survey: For those interested, are you willing to provide assistance ushering or reading? Again, I didn’t hesitate. Ushering? I’ve never ushered before, but sure, no problem, yes please, let me see my people. Reading? Again, I’ve never read from the pulpit before, but only because the church has never asked me. This, truly, is an oversight on their part; I am an impressive orator. I’d rather speak than read someone else’s words (even, ahem, God’s), but at this point, I’m as desperate to be of service as I am to interact with other people. Please just let me be useful.

A week after hitting submit, a week spent confronting the reality that life is not going back to normal in the fall (a reality that I am fully aware that people who are capable of taking life more than 24 hours at a time have probably already accepted), I’m feeling decidedly less charitable. If I had to check a box now, it would be the one that says, Oh shit, what did I do and can I take it back? If I could write my own survey and send it back to the church, it would look like this.

Parishioner’s Return to In-Person Worship Questionnaire:

  • Will ushers be permitted to maintain six feet of distance, hold their breath, and cross their fingers while welcoming people to church?
  • Will the people being ushed understand that I do not want to be anywhere near them?
  • Will readers be permitted to wear a mask at the pulpit?
  • Is there a mask that covers my mouth and nose and also hides the terror in my eyes?
  • If I volunteer, who will sit with my daughter–i.e., make sure she doesn’t wander out of our designated pew/holding pen and threaten the lives of the other brave and/or desperate churchgoers?
  • Are we worried about spreading the virus via the biblical floods of tears I am almost certainly going to cry from trying to pretend that this facade is anything close to what I want it to be?
  • Is church without singing, communion, fellowship, and coffee really church?
  • Is it worth taking my daughter if she hates it?
  • Do I have to go?
  • Do I want to go?
  • Does it even matter?

The survey from the school district was longer and more complicated and my responses were more nuanced. Suffice it to say that I indicated a strong preference for returning to in-person school five days a week for many reasons, including that my kid is the kind of kid who will likely struggle with a schedule that involves a mix of days in school and days out of school, and that I have serious concerns about the mental health implications of another year of entirely remote learning. Obviously, as a concerned citizen who tries to pull my head out of my own ass the sand at least occasionally, I’m second guessing the wisdom of that option now. Even if the risks to children seem low, I get that we can’t gamble with their lives, plus I don’t want staff to die! I don’t even want them to get sick! I only thought I had COVID for a couple of days, and it was terrible!

If I could redo the survey and send it back to the district it would look like this:

P.S. I’m sorry everything I want is bad.

P.P.S. Just tell me what the hell to do.

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.