Last week, as I was considering how, when and where to go about figuratively hiding my head in the sand, I realized that, for the moment at least, I was already in a place of relative sanctuary. The house was quiet. I had refrained from checking the news online or on TV. My mother’s Washington Post was still baking in our oven (a half hour at 200 degrees, an anti-covid precaution we adopted in March). Kiko was snoozing in his bed after our walk. From the window adjacent to the table that has become my desk in the former playroom (now that my husband has taken over our home office), there was a swirl of constant motion as birds flocked to the feeder in the side yard. The morning had been foggy and overcast, but now the sun was breaking through.
The early afternoon light created a golden glow on the thick carpet of pine straw, and the scene was suddenly idyllic, like something from an old-fashioned children’s book. There were so many birds. The usual little ones–the chickadees, tufted titmice, sparrows and house finches, a downy woodpecker–were fluttering about. A couple of nuthatches were plummeting headfirst down the pine tree trunk. A pair of wrens engaged in loud, excited communication. Similar chatter from humans would be annoying, but from these compact, spunky birds, it was charming. Several cardinals perched in a row atop the fence, stately and dignified. Was that a hermit thrush? I think so. A red-bellied woodpecker and a bluejay took turns swooping in dramatically, wings extended, briefly scattering the smaller birds. A family of doves foraged patiently on the ground. They mingled contentedly with the squirrels and chipmunks, apparently unperturbed when the furry ones scampered in circles and popped up, as though spring-loaded. The bobtail squirrel was among the group, as confident as ever. I first noticed this particular squirrel in the spring. He clearly once had a tail, but all that remains is a bit of uneven fur, as from a bad haircut. I hate to ponder what sort of traumatic and painful event he must have suffered in the past. But he’s notably bouncy, and his fellow critters don’t seem to treat him any differently.
A view toward our front yard showed a spectacular blaze of orange and red as the tri-lobed leaves of the sassafras tree caught the light.
Atop the frame of our old swing set, next to an intensely red Virginia creeper vine, a bluebird couple eyed the ground for worms.
Despite the ugliness and outright evil that currently afflicts so many human aspects of our world, the beauty of the season, and of the natural world, remains. At least for a while. Serenity, if pursued, can still be attained. At least for brief periods.
And hope still remains. Every time the sun’s rays stream unexpectedly through a bank of leaden clouds and turn the autumn colors incandescent, I know this is true. I know it every time I see the bobtail squirrel bound lightly across the yard, able and undaunted.
Let’s keep hope alive.
Vote, if you haven’t yet done so. Vote as though your serenity depends upon it.
Is anyone else yearning for a safe place to hide from the ongoing malaise that is 2020? There is so much from which to seek refuge: covid-related illness, anxiety, depression and deaths (221,000 as of today in the U.S. and 1,126,000 worldwide). There are the ongoing climate disasters, including fires, floods, droughts, scorching heat, and even plagues of locusts. Tornadoes, derechos of intense ferocity, and so many hurricanes that we’ve started through the alphabet again for storm names. Then there is all the conflict, free-floating anger and polarization. Extreme economic disparity. Drastically contrasting perspectives on issues of race and class. Weighing heavily on my heart and those of my immediate family is the mind-boggling range of opinions among fellow humans on some of life’s essential questions. On the meaning of decency and morality, on American ideals and what our country stands for, on what it means to call oneself a Christian, what it means to love one’s neighbor. Even on the meaning of truth itself. How can there be such pronounced and heated disagreement? How can some view such questions merely as issues of politics?
But wait. There’s more. Or is it just my dreary outlook that makes me see the world as a meaner, sadder, more dangerous place than usual in other ways, as well? Is it that the high points that typically offset the to-be-expected bad stuff are rarer these days?
I’m not sure. But among my interconnected circles of friends, sudden, non-covid related severe illnesses and frightening medical diagnoses seem to be popping up with alarming frequency. For some, it’s that health conditions, previously under control, have taken a sharp turn for the worse. What was expected to be a short hospital visit turns, on a dime, into hospice care. Or the typically healthy member of a couple, the long-time caregiver for a chronically suffering spouse, abruptly falls ill and succumbs. A friend’s husband complained of back pain, and three weeks later, he was dead. Another friend, the beautiful image of health and fitness, simply did not wake up one recent morning. A promising high school senior in our neighborhood took his own life on a lovely June afternoon. The sign in front of our church frequently honors the memory of another brother or sister “called home.” Never before have I been so constantly aware of the wispy, gossamer-thread fragility that separates life from death. And never before has this earthly realm seemed so inhospitable.
I see my mood reflected in the behavior of the creatures around me. When I find my elderly dog curled up and surrounded by stuffed animals in our daughter’s shaggy beanbag chair, I tiptoe away quietly. I hope his old bones are finding the comfort and consolation they need. I wish I could join him, but he wouldn’t allow it. My perfect pandemic dog is a social distance snuggler, unless there’s a chance of thunder.
When I discovered a tiny frog sheltering in a bright yellow chrysanthemum on our front porch steps, I tried not to disturb the little fellow. As I spotted him beneath a bloom while watering the plant, he opened one eye cautiously but remained perfectly still. I checked again later, quietly, and saw that he appeared to be asleep again. I hope he was able to enjoy his leafy nest for as long as he liked. And when I see the blue-tailed skinks basking on the warm flagstone of our patio, I tread lightly. These little lizards need their place in the sun, just as we all do.
As this year remains mired in the messy muck of tragedy, I long to cocoon myself in a cozy refuge. To hibernate for as long as necessary. At least until mid-November. And dream of emerging into the light of a more hopeful world.
The Ramones said it well:
Nothing to do, nowhere to go, oh
Bam-bam-bambam bambam-bam-bambam, I wanna be sedated.
With the passing of the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg last Friday, this world has lost a tenacious and tireless advocate in the cause of justice for all. The second woman elected to the Supreme Court, she served for twenty-seven years, rarely missing a day despite recurring cancer treatments in later life. Last week she lay in state at the U.S. Capitol, the first woman, and the first person of Jewish faith, to do so.
The woman who would become known as the Notorious RBG was born Joan Ruth Bader in working class Flatbush Brooklyn in 1933. Her father, a furrier, had come to the U.S. from Russia at thirteen. Her mother was born in America to parents who had recently emigrated from Austria. She was the second of the couple’s two children. Her older sister Marilyn died of meningitis at age six, when Ruth was just over a year old. Once she reached school age, there were several girls named Joan in her elementary school class, and it was decided that she would use her middle name.
Ruth’s mother, Celia, was a powerful influence on her only surviving daughter. Celia was highly intelligent, inquisitive, and hard working. She graduated from high school at age fifteen, but limited resources prevented her from enrolling in college. Instead, she went to work at a garment factory to help pay for her brother’s education at Cornell. Celia was determined that Ruth pursue the educational path that had been denied her. She secretly put aside money each week in a college fund. Happily, Ruth, like her mother, excelled academically. Celia was diagnosed with cervical cancer when Ruth started high school. Surgeries and radiation treatments prolonged her life for four years, but she died the day before her daughter’s graduation. Ruth was valedictorian of her class, but she missed Commencement to mourn at home with her father. Celia’s college fund had grown to $8,000 by that time, but Ruth gave most of it to her father. She didn’t need it for her education, because she’d earned a full scholarship to Cornell.
At the university, Ruth Bader met fellow student Martin Ginsburg, whom she described as “the only young man I dated who cared that I had a brain.” Outgoing, jovial, and the life of the party, Marty was a foil to Ruth’s more serious, quiet personality. They married in 1954, shortly after graduation. Marty was drafted into the Army, and their first child, Jane, was born before long. After two years in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, they moved back east, and both enrolled in Harvard Law School. Ruth was one of nine women out of a class of five hundred. Coping with adversity and maintaining an academic focus while dealing with the illness of a loved one were skills that Ruth had mastered as a girl. They came in handy during her early married life when Marty was diagnosed with cancer. Ruth managed, somehow, to maintain excellence in her demanding studies, help her husband stay afloat with his, all the while caring for him and their daughter.
Marty made a complete recovery, graduated, and took a job at a New York law firm. Another year of law school remained for Ruth, so she transferred to Columbia and continued her studies. She made Law Review at both Harvard and Columbia. In 1959, despite graduating first in her class (she tied with a male student), and the glowing recommendations she received from her professors, she found it difficult to find employment. She’d had a summer job at one of New York’s premier law firms, but no permanent offer was forthcoming after graduation, from that firm or the other twelve with which she interviewed. After several rejections for clerkships, also because of her gender, she attained a position as a law clerk at the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York. Facing the fact that the doors of major law firms remained closed to women through the 1960s and 70s, Ruth’s career path turned toward teaching. She taught first at Rutgers and then at Columbia, where she became the first woman to earn tenure.
Along with her academic responsibilities, Ginsburg began to litigate gender discrimination cases referred to her by the American Civil Liberties Union. She co-founded the ACLU Women’s Rights Project in 1972, which was created with the goal of removing impediments toward equal opportunity, such as those she had experienced herself. During the 1970s, she argued six pivotal gender equality cases before the Supreme Court. She won five. One of these involved a male plaintiff, a widower who had not been awarded the Social Security benefits to which a widow was entitled. One of Ginsburg’s most fiercely held convictions was that neither women, nor men, should be held to narrow, confining gender stereotypes. Her husband agreed, and their loving fifty-six year marriage was marked by the sharing of household duties and the raising of their two children. (Their son, James, was born in 1965.) When President Jimmy Carter appointed Ruth to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1980, Marty quit his prestigious and highly paid job as a tax lawyer in New York to become a professor at Georgetown University Law School. Marty, by all accounts, was Ruth’s most dedicated supporter and ardent cheerleader.
When President Bill Clinton nominated Ginsburg to the Supreme Court in 1993, she was easily confirmed by the Senate, in those less partisan days, by a vote of 96-3. During her nearly three-decades long tenure at the high court, she became known for her powerfully and beautifully worded dissents, which Justice Ginsburg regarded as “appealing to the intelligence of a future day.” With the passage of time, the minority opinion (as, for example, in the cases of slavery, civil and voting rights), is likely to become the prevailing one. In the words of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”*
Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt’s eulogy at Friday’s memorial service for Justice Ginsburg focused on a phrase from the Torah featured in a framed artwork in the judge’s chambers. One of the core tenets of Judaism, from Deuteronomy 16: 20, it reads: “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” The repetition of the word “justice” emphasizes its significance. The verse makes clear for Jews that one cannot be in right relationship with God while mistreating fellow humans, including the widow, the orphan, the servant, the immigrant, the least and the lost. For the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her life’s goal and guiding light was the meticulous perseverance, step by step, case by case, in the pursuit of justice, justice, for all people. May her legacy live on. And may the “intelligence of that future day” be quick in coming.
*King’s words condense and paraphrase a passage written in an 1853 sermon by the Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker.
Many thanks to my friend, the Reverend Dawn-Marie, for providing the beautiful photos documenting the honoring of Justice Ginsburg in Washington, D.C on September 25.
Who had a good summer? Who had a good summer? This boy! He’s such a good boy, isn’t he? Yes, he’s a good boy.
Imagine the above spoken in “puppy talk,” that silly-sounding person-to-dog gibberish. The goofy cadences, the redundancy of needless repetition. I fall into it sometimes, and Kiko either turns away in embarrassment, or looks at me with an even greater degree of condescension than usual.
But if my dog were able to answer the question, he’d probably agree that he did, in fact, have a good summer. A very pleasant summer. If anyone’s life was improved by the unusual circumstances of the pandemic, it’s likely the beloved companion dogs whose humans’ activities have been so drastically curtailed.
It was Kiko’s good fortune that Covid numbers spiked here in Virginia during the final week of July, so that Massachusetts wouldn’t let us in without a negative test result or a two-week quarantine period. Until that point, we’d been planning on our annual Cape Cod vacation, even though much of what we enjoyed most about it would no longer be possible. Instead, at our daughter’s suggestion, we bought a ten-foot inflatable pool, set it up on our back patio and reminded ourselves of the long and painful drive we were avoiding. With sunshine and a big pitcher of margaritas, we almost felt like we were on vacation.
Of course, our dog doesn’t fully appreciate the unexpected blessings that came his way this summer. He doesn’t realize how narrowly he avoided the usual period of solitary confinement at the animal hospital. Instead of facing long hours in a cell and a few circumscribed outings in a featureless enclosed area, he remained free to pursue his favorite activities, without interruption, on his home turf. Kiko maintained his role as canine king of the castle grounds, languidly roaming the outdoor spaces between our house and my mother’s, napping in the sun, napping in the shade. There were so many delightful choices: the baking heat of the deck, the coziness of dusty mulch beds, the cool flagstone beneath the hydrangeas, or the sofa on the screened porch. Occasionally he’d jump up to chase a chipmunk or squirrel. More often, though, the little furry ones, like the mice in an old Tom & Jerry cartoon, tiptoed behind and around him as he snoozed. Sometimes he’d disappear on very hot humid afternoons. I’d find him around dinner time in a deep, coma-like sleep in his bed in the chill of my mother’s family room. Often Mama wouldn’t even realize he was there. Evenings were his to spend watching the fox and deer as they made their neighborhood rounds. On the rare occasions when Kiko sought company, one of his pack members was always around. Always.
He’s clearly noticed that his people are ever-present. On a recent afternoon, Kiko was curled up on my bed. I opened my closet door and took out a casual (a very casual) dress on a hanger. He looked at me with a sudden, heightened interest. He stretched, shook vigorously and leapt onto the floor. Was I, perhaps, going out? Maybe in the car? Whoo hooo! Count him in! One of the things we love most about dogs is that they have no fashion sense; they don’t care how, or even if, their humans dress. My husband gently suggested, the other day, that I consider wearing something a little less lived in than the extra-comfy dog-walking gear that has become my standard, all-purpose wardrobe. It’s been about six months since I’ve dressed up. I’ve even realized, on occasion, that I’ve worn some distressed item of clothing inside out all day long. No one has noticed. Certainly not Kiko. But he’s evidently observed that a change of clothes involving a search through a mound on a chair has no impact on him. But the now rare opening of the closet door followed by the emergence of a hanging garment–that offers a hint of promise. One of the drawbacks of such constant human presence is that it offers far fewer opportunities for car rides.
Now that summer has officially ended and school has begun, the pandemic has granted Kiko yet another gift. Because classes are being conducted exclusively online, there are no buses to roar menacingly past our windows. This time last year I wrote about my dog quaking with fear in the early mornings when the bright flashing lights atop the school buses suggested the approach of a terrible storm. See here. Unlike the rest of us, he has one fewer trauma to grapple with. Kiko greeted every dawn last fall as though it might be the end of the world. Now it’s just us humans who wonder if that’s the case.
School began again here in Northern Virginia this week. It’s the strangest “Back to School” ever, with all classes taught remotely. Last year I wrote about the poignancy of those “First Day” pictures that flood social media sites every fall. (See here.) The current photos have a different sort of heart-wrenching quality about them. Gone are the signs of jittery anxiety about bus-riding, lunch in the cafeteria, fitting in socially, and spending hours away from home. Largely vanished, too, is that hopeful excitement that comes with a new adventure and the opportunity for a fresh start. This school year drags with it a melancholy unease, heavy with the loss of what should have been. There will be no fun school-sponsored group events, no band, orchestra or choral concerts, no in-person drama productions, at least for months, and no fall sports. But without a doubt, there will be the ongoing annoyances of Internet and WiFi outages, tech complications, and occasional widespread system failures. Frequent parental intervention will be required, a serious problem for working moms and dads. There is the issue of space, especially in smaller households, the difficulty arising from an entire family working and schooling at home. And then, when things are progressing as intended, there is the dull sameness of hours sitting in front of a screen staring at a Zoom gallery.
For college kids, the situation isn’t much different. Our daughter’s spring break last March slid into online classes at home. After a summer that involved unprecedented amounts of time with her family and too little with friends, she began her fourth year again at home. The University of Virginia encouraged students not to return to grounds until after Labor Day. Now she’s once again in Charlottesville, in the apartment she shares with three friends. It’s not the final college year they had anticipated, that’s for sure.
This new school year feels anything but new. It’s already tired, burdened by the same frustrations we experienced in spring and summer. Is it really September? Does it matter? The months have ticked by with alarming speed, yet each day is much like any other.
In the alternative reality of our Covid world, time has become slippery, looping and uncertain. I’m reminded of the red plastic cassette recorder I enjoyed as kid. My closest friends and I used it to tape variety shows modeled on The Carol Burnette Show and soap opera parodies (Another World in Hay City). Our talent for comedy, if little appreciated by a wider audience, kept us in stitches. I can see my finger on the rewind button, hear the whir of fast forward, the loud sudden clunk of the stop. I recall the baffling emptiness when an expected song or bit of dialogue had somehow disappeared. Sometimes we hit the wrong button and accidentally recorded over a prized skit or hilarious duet. Since March, 2020 has moved with a similarly lurching, erratic randomness. Some aspects of life that we cherish most have simply been erased. Many people are grieving lost loved ones. As I write, nearly 192,000 Americans have died from the novel coronavirus. Sometimes it feels as though a cloud of semi-mourning shadows the entire country. We plod along, uncertainly. And we keep ending up where we started, in a place we never wanted to be.
Happy “Back to School”? Not particularly. Not this year.
This week our nation honors Congressman John Lewis, who died on July 17 at the age of eighty. I’m fortunate to have grown up hearing Lewis’s distinctive voice. I remember him as an Atlanta City Councilman. My childhood home is in Georgia’s 5th district, which he represented in Congress for over thirty years. His eventful life, by accounts, was truly purpose-driven. Born to former sharecroppers who saved enough to buy their own small farm in Troy, Alabama, he was the third of ten children. A serious, thoughtful boy who thrived on learning, he began his public speaking career in early childhood, preaching to the chickens. He loved books, when he could get them. The county public library was off limits to people of color. He attended local segregated schools. Higher education seemed hopelessly out of reach until he learned about American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville. The Seminary offered free tuition, in exchange for campus work, to black students planning to become ministers. After graduating from the Seminary, Lewis enrolled in Fisk College to pursue a degree in religion and philosophy. Although ordained as a Baptist minister, he had begun to feel a powerful call toward a path of activism in civil rights. Throughout his life, he preached his strong faith with actions as well as words. The chickens’ loss was a gain for Americans and people all over the globe.
Lewis was among the young black men, neatly dressed in suits and ties, who dared to enter all-white Nashville diners and sit at lunch counters politely requesting to be served. Freedom Rides on buses throughout the South followed. As the Chairman of the Nonviolent Student Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he became a leader of the student civil rights movement. Before long, Lewis was working closely with nationally known Black leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. At twenty-three, he was the youngest speaker at the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King delivered his “I have a dream” speech.
Lewis’ s unswerving commitment to nonviolent activism got him repeatedly arrested and often beaten, a few times nearly killed. Ironic, isn’t it, that peaceful protest, which requires vast stores of self-discipline, tends to ignite such frenzied brutality in those challenged by it? On March 7, 1965, Lewis and Hosea Williams led a group of six hundred, in what was intended to be a fifty-mile march from Selma, Alabama to the capitol in Montgomery in a demand for voting reform. The Civil Rights Act, which President Johnson had signed into law in 1964, addressed some forms of discrimination but did not touch on unfair voting practices. Throughout much of the Deep South, poll taxes and spurious “literacy tests” were used to suppress the black vote. The efforts of Lewis and the SNCC to register blacks to vote in Alabama was sparking increasing hostility from law enforcement and white segregationists. At the crest of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, on what came to be known as Bloody Sunday, Lewis and Williams saw a fearsome human barricade of state troopers and police awaiting them. It’s notable that the name of the bridge, so prominently displayed, honors a Confederate General and former Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. The marchers continued to approach, quietly and orderly in a long narrow column, until they were about fifty feet away. Law enforcement warned them to turn back and disperse. The group, with Lewis and Williams still at the front, stood their ground. Williams asked to “have a word,” but the police were finished talking. After a few minutes, the officers put on their gas masks and advanced toward the protestors, pushing them back. The group resisted the urge to defend themselves. Many were knocked to the ground, beaten with clubs and sprayed with tear gas. Lewis’s skull was cracked by a policeman’s billy club.
Nonviolent protest served its purpose that day. Most Americans reacted with shock and anger when the images of police attacking unarmed marchers quickly appeared on televisions and in newspapers. Public demand for serious voting reform gained ground. The Voting Rights Act was signed into law just a few months later.
Today, at our nation’s capitol, the public is paying final respects to John Lewis. On Saturday, July 25, his flag-draped coffin, born by a horse-drawn caisson, crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the last time. For many years, there has been talk of renaming the bridge for Lewis, a son of Alabama whose determination to “get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and redeem the soul of America” yielded fruit on Bloody Sunday and throughout the span of his eight decades on earth.
It’s appropriate that Lewis’s final public appearance was a visit to the newly created Black Lives Matter Plaza near Lafayette Square in Washington DC. He was weak from a chemo treatment the day before, but he wanted to see the site of peaceful protests that were sowing the seeds of change. 2020, for all its misery and misfortune, could well be a pivotal juncture in race relations in America. If we take to heart the wise words and courageous actions of the man who came to be known as the “Conscious of the Congress,” perhaps it can indeed be so.
I’ll end with some of Lewis’s own words. As a young man in his 1963 speech at the March on Washington, he urged our nation toward transformation:
Our minds, souls and hearts cannot rest until freedom and justice exist for all people. . .
We must say: Wake up America, wake up!
Throughout his life, Lewis was persistent, and his message consistent. In a commencement speech at Emory University in Atlanta in 2014, the seventy-six year old offered this advice:
We all live in the same house. It doesn’t matter whether we are black or white, Latino, Asian American, straight or gay. We are one people, one family. We all live in the same house. So be bold, be courageous. Stand up! Speak up! Speak out! And find a way to create the beloved community. The beloved world. The world of peace. The world that recognizes the dignity of all human kind. Never become bitter. Never become hostile. Never hate. Live in peace. We are one. One people and one love.
May we honor John Lewis in the most honorable way possible, by following his example. By working toward the good of all Americans. This means avoiding violence. In Lewis’s words, again: When someone calls you everything but a child of God, you keep your cool. You stand with dignity, or you kneel with dignity. It means truly listening to one another. It may mean rethinking long-held convictions and taking actions that we never expected to take. As Lewis has said, When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something, to not be quiet.
Remember that we’re not starting from scratch. We’re building on Lewis’s legacy, a strong foundation of love, peace and hope.
On this 4th of July, bitter divisions are markedly and grievously evident among so-called fellow Americans. Is the Covid-19 pandemic intensifying in our country? Or is it actually winding down? Do some of our methods of governing, policing and even voting exacerbate inequality ? Or is the playing field, in this land of opportunity, truly and gloriously level for all Americans?
More than ever, answers to such questions depend upon our perspective. Our perspective, more than ever, influences where we choose to find our information, and what we perceive as fact or fiction. And where we choose to find our information, in turn, reinforces our perspective. If we associate almost exclusively with those whose opinions echo ours, our perspective is further fortified, and our views increasingly justified.
Have you ever held firmly to a belief, certain without a doubt of the righteousness and correctness of your conviction? And then, perhaps in response to an unexpected observation, or a comment by a friend, or a passage in a book, be prompted to rethink that conviction? And in so doing, to watch the sure foundation develop cracks and crumble to dust?
I’m recently been reconsidering some of my long-held viewpoints. Most of us probably hold fast to some beliefs that need to be reevaluated. Some of the “truths” we espouse may be opinions based on flawed premises. An openness to new ideas implies a willingness to rethink. Changing one’s mind may not be evidence of weakness of will or intellect, but instead, of humility that leads to wisdom. We should be wary of those in leadership positions who claim otherwise. Let’s not be led astray by those who actively seek to magnify rather than diminish the divisions between us.
On July 4th, we celebrate our nation’s founding principles of liberty and justice for all. Shouldn’t we ask ourselves this: Do we really want these ideals to apply to everyone? Or only to ourselves? Is it liberty and justice for all? Or liberty and justice for me? Let’s reexamine our perspectives. Let’s be humble as we try to understand those of others. We can work toward unity while honoring diversity. Our country has done this before. We can do it again.
Oh beautiful, for patriot dream that sees beyond the years
thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God mend thine every flaw,
confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law.
One recent evening, when my husband went to get our dog for his last walk of the day, he found Kiko in his bed by the window, gazing placidly at the fox that typically curls up under the maple tree around dusk.
Kiko and the fox have become accustomed to one another. Lately it’s part of their routine to stare silently at one another as the sun sets. It’s almost as though an invisible thread links each red furry pointy-eared critter to the other, one inside, one outside.
Glancing out another window, my husband spotted a less expected wild visitor. A plump and furry raccoon was intently pawing the ground beneath our bird feeder. Since we moved into our house twenty years ago, this is only our second raccoon spotting. My daughter and I dropped what we were doing and joined my husband to watch with interest as the raccoon staked out the territory around the bird feeder and explored available options. For a while, she* continued to use her little hands to sift the earth for sunflower seeds.
Clearly this method wasn’t yielding enough bounty. She ambled over to the pine tree, climbed up unhurriedly, and perched on the stump of a branch below the feeder. Last year’s dry, brown Christmas wreath, (which I hung on the stump in January when it was still green) almost caused her to lose her footing. After regaining her balance, she took her time to assess the situation. She appeared to consider a leap onto the feeder, but evidently decided against it. Another approach was in order.
Up until this point, the raccoon had appeared to be a slightly clumsy, slow-moving creature, an unlikely athlete. As she grasped the branch from which the feeder hangs, this all changed. Suddenly, she was the picture of fluffy agility, using all four feet to make her way easily, upside down, along the branch.
Once within reach of the feeder, she curled her white hind paws around the branch and suspended herself vertically, in the manner of a trapeze artist at the circus. She grasped the feeder with one front paw and used the other to fish out seed from an opening. She hung on like this for quite some time. The squirrels that routinely attempt to outsmart our supposedly squirrel-proof bird feeder are far less successful.
The raccoon then flipped gracefully and dropped lightly to the ground, where she continued feeding on the seed she’d spilled from the feeder.
And soon she began the process again.
In our focus on the raccoon, we failed to notice that Kiko’s attention had been roused. He’d emerged from his bed and left the room. At first we thought he might have retreated upstairs for the night, as he often does just before it’s time for the last walk. But no. He’d pushed open the kitchen door to the screened porch, plunged through his doggie door and dashed out into the side yard. By the time we arrived, he was at the base of the pine tree, looking up at the raccoon high above him in the branches. See, I can still hunt, he seemed to be saying, as he looked at us, even more condescendingly than usual. And he, like the raccoon, can be surprisingly quick on his feet, should the need arise.
Seven years ago, Kiko had a brief encounter with a raccoon that also ended with the fuzzy masked visitor peering down at him from a tree. (See this post here from November 2013.) I wondered then if that would be the start of more frequent raccoon sightings. It was not. Will it be the case now? We’ve seen the memes promoting the raccoon as the perfect Covid-19 mascot: it’s a mask-wearing hand-washer, and the letters of racoon can be rearranged to spell corona. Our visitor returned the next evening, around the same time, and went through the same feeding process. We haven’t seen her since, but I’ll continue to look for her around dusk.
We could use the distraction. During the past four months, our family has rarely left the house. We’ve had no guests. No friends inside the house. (And therefore we’ve abandoned all but the most minimal efforts toward tidying up. The surrounding clutter encroaches daily. Chaos looms.) It sure would be pleasant to be able to count on visits from such a charming acquaintance. One who abides by the pandemic rules of social distancing, entertains us briefly with acrobatic feats, never expects to come in, and then quietly disappears. Unfortunately, it will be a while before we can expect to enjoy the company of any other kind of visitor.
*I’ve recently realized that I tend to refer to most animals I see in nature with male pronouns. I know our most frequent fox visitor is a male because he lifts his leg to pee. I have no evidence of gender for this raccoon, but I’ve decided to go against my instinct and refer to it as “she.”
Debate, often heated, continues on the subject of if, when and how churches should open during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Such talk is misleading.
If you typically attend a church that now refers to itself as “closed,” you may not really have been attending church at all.
Because churches, the real ones, have never “closed.” While congregations have not been gathering in their accustomed sanctuaries, the true and vital work of the church continues.
Let me speak for my own United Methodist church.
Communal worship has moved online. On the first Sunday of the lockdown, our minister simply delivered her sermon live on Facebook. Thanks to teamwork and tech-savvy volunteers, the quality and richness of our services, now accessible on YouTube from our website, improve week by week. Those lacking computer access may call the church office and listen to a recording of the sermon. Small group studies and fellowship for adults, youth and children continue on Zoom and by phone. Attendance at Church Council, Staff-Parish and other committee meetings has never been higher, thanks to Zoom and the lack of any other place to go. We can’t get together physically with our church family, but we’re looking out for one another. Volunteers quickly mobilized to run essential errands for the elderly and the sick. We exchange emails, texts, phone calls and handwritten notes. We certainly miss welcoming any newcomers who might drop by. It’s therefore crucial that we use our online resources to share the hope and joy that comes with knowing Christ.
Perhaps most importantly, our missions continue. Throughout his ministry, Jesus emphasized the sacred importance of feeding the poor and sharing our material wealth. Before his betrayal and arrest, Jesus told his disciple Simon Peter three times: If you love me, take care of my sheep (John 21:15-17). We’re trying. Our Administrator and Director of Christian Education is at the church every weekday morning, just as she was before the pandemic. Among her duties, she deals with a wide variety of requests for financial assistance. The Covid-19 crisis has made such needs more desperate. Our funds are limited, but we do what we can. We no longer meet in person with the elementary school children we mentored in our Homework Club. But through an ongoing collection, we’re providing some support to their families, many of whom have been adversely affected by the pandemic. And as always, of the money we pledge to the church, a substantial portion goes to both local and global needs.
Following the guidelines established by our bishop, we’re beginning to consider the process, not of “opening,” but of moving toward in-person worship. For the well-being of our congregation and those with whom they interact, we will take things slowly. We will not return to our sanctuary with boasts that God will protect us, or bold declarations of “If God says it’s my time, it’s my time.” When I hear such claims, I think, It’s not only about you. ‘Your time’ may not be your mother’s, or your father’s, or your friend’s time. Our church members do not speak of feeling victimized by our county and state government’s banning of in-person worship during the pandemic. I’ve heard no one in our congregation wondering why churches have been “closed” but grocery and liquor stores remain open. I cannot remember a time when I sat shoulder to shoulder with other patrons for an hour or more, singing and being sung to, while doing my grocery or liquor shopping. A friendly, crowded sanctuary is simply an ideal environment for the exchange of germs.
Later this month, our congregation will bid goodbye to our dear friend and current pastor of eight years without being able to meet together. We will welcome a new minister in the same way. For the next couple of months, at the very least, there will be no after-church receptions, no pot lucks, no hugs or shaking of hands. But we will continue to care for one another. We will continue to feed the sheep. And we will persist in reaching out to those seeking answers to life’s difficult questions during these especially difficult days.
As if the Covid-19 pandemic were not sufficient trial by fire for our nation, the situation has become considerably more painful in the last week. The Memorial Day murder of George Floyd, the most recent in a series of deaths of black Americans at the hands of police or self-deputized white citizens, has served as a tipping point. The brutal death of this unarmed, handcuffed man took place in public view, in daylight, on a Minneapolis street. While one police officer slowly asphyxiated Mr. Floyd, his knee pressing into his neck, three others watched and did nothing, despite pleas from bystanders. And despite the repeated words of Mr. Floyd: I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. What atrocities might such police commit in the shadows, when no one is looking, one shudders to imagine. Spurred on by righteous and justifiable anger, protests are occurring from coast to coast. Most are intended as peaceful, yet a large crowd is a volatile, fragile corporate entity, easily hijacked by those of malicious intent. And there are always some small-minded people who seize on a crisis for their own personal gain. Our nation may be more angst-ridden, enraged and polarized than in any period in recent memory.
For nearly twenty years, the United Methodist Church has used this phrase in our outreach material: Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors. Precisely because we love one another, our doors must be temporarily closed, yet our hearts and minds are open, as always. We will not allow the message of God’s grace to shelter quietly, hidden away and gathering dust. Neither will we brandish a Bible, unopened and unread, at best like a symbol, at worst like a weapon, while speaking and acting in an absolutely unchristlike manner. Instead, we will double down on our efforts to extend an invitation to all to open the holy text and learn about the teachings of Jesus, who came to be Immanuel, which means God with us.
And God is with us and among us, even though some say he is absent. Isn’t it up to churches, in these days of closed doors, to open our hearts and minds even more generously to our hurting world? To show what it means to walk humbly with our God and to live in love? To lead the way towards healing and unity?
If you’re looking for a trusted and efficient organization that helps the most vulnerable in this and any crisis, consider donating to the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).100% of your donation will go to your intended mission project. See https://advance.umcor.org/.