Holiday Complex

Now that we’re in the midst of a complex of Judeo-Christian holidays (Passover, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, as well as other spring rites), I’ve been thinking of obligations.  I’ve had people introduce themselves to me as “Chri-easters.”  This isn’t a new form of religion, but rather a way of indicating that they attend services on Christmas and Easter only.  For others of us it’s never been so easy.  I was raised with the stern belief that Sundays in church were a matter of absolute obligation.  Serious illness was the only reason to miss.  If you were traveling (which was rare for us, being not terribly affluent), you found a local church to attend.  Never mind that you’ll look like strangers and won’t know how it’s done (unless you’re in one of the “liturgical” denominations, where variations are minimal).  Every Sunday was an obligation.

The minister at our church has been offering virtual holy week services.  The idea haunts me.  You see, back in Nashotah House days the sternness of days of obligation was palpable.  Yes, you had to attend chapel twice daily, but there were still days of obligation.  At this time of year we’d have had long rehearsals already for “the Great Three Days.”  Forsaking family and fellowship, we’d be forced to be together for long hours while the dreary events of two millennia ago were replayed.  Of course they were reinterpreted as well.  Made more Episcopalian—even a crucifixion should be done properly and in good order.  Knowing they had to get to their own churches on Sunday, students were kept up until about two a.m. for the Great Vigil and First Mass of Easter.  Obligation, not love, drove all this.

Coronavirus has us separated, of course.  Some of us are daily seeking coping techniques to help us get through a crisis that throws off schedules and sets new priorities.  To have someone suggest in the midst of all this that we could “come to church” (virtually) transports me to those fearful days of obligation.  As a teen I sought them out.  I’d ask to be driven to a different town on Good Friday so that I could spend it in church, hoping to be in connection with the tragic events.  I’d curse the sunshine when I stepped back out after three p.m., if it was shining.  This was supposed to be a dark and dreary day.  Nature, however, had its own ideas.  Spring was in full swing.  It was time to be thinking about life, not death.

Prophetic Breakfast

The irony doesn’t escape me—and why does irony always try to do that, anyway?—that Ezekiel 4:9 is about famine.  I’ve posted about the breakfast cereals from Food for Life (yet more irony, from Corona, California) before, but during this time of shortages at the local grocery stores, famine is an apt topic.  I don’t mean to underplay famine.  Death by starvation is something nobody should have to face, but looking ahead, who knows?  The reason I was eating Ezekiel 4:9 is that my usual cereal brand was sold out.  Empty shelves and the prophet seem symbolic, don’t you think?  The box quotes the verse as a kind of health-food recipe, but the point was, in context, that this was not something you’d normally want to eat.  This was food for hard times.

Ezekiel, you see, lived through the collapse of his own society.  In his case it wasn’t because of a virus, but imperial ambition.  The Babylonian Empire under Nebuchadnezzar was expanding and Judah was in the way.  The city was captured and Ezekiel, a priest, was exiled.  His symbolic action of eating poor food was to show people they ought to plan on this as “the new normal.”  Even now we hear people saying, “when things get back to normal…” but I also wonder if that will happen.  Collapse can occur slowly.  The thing about reading history is that we see centuries compressed into a few hundred pages.  Things take time.  Like restocking toilet paper.  Meanwhile empires crumble.

The Babylonian Empire didn’t last long.  Oh, it was long enough to mean some people knew nothing else, but looking back we can see that it held sway for decades rather than centuries.  In the middle of his book, Ezekiel changes his tune.  Once the temple is destroyed, when the worst has happened, he starts looking for a better future.  Many people have been under serious strain since November 2016.  Anxiety levels have been consistently high for damaging lengths of time.  I suspect the book of Revelation hasn’t been so well thumbed for decades.  The seventies were also apocalyptic times, as I recall.  Although we’re living through history, we each do it on the ground.  We experience it in our own little lives.  These seismic shifts can’t help but impact us.  It helps me to act like some things are normal.  I still get out of bed early.  I stumble into the kitchen and fumble on the light.  I settle down for breakfast with a prophet and wait.

All Been Ready

As the pandemic stretches on and getting things in stores—or even from Amazon—isn’t assured, my thoughts go back to Larry Norman.  Specifically to his song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.”  Made famous for many by its use in the 1972 rapture film A Thief in the Night, the song recounts the state of those “left behind” when a piece of bread could be exchanged for a bag of gold.  The lyrics are haunting in their sincerity.  Here in Pennsylvania, as in neighboring New York, non-essential businesses have closed, per order of the governors.  Periodic forays to the grocery store show the empty shelves of panic buying.  Norman’s song rings in my ears.  Only this isn’t a biblical plague.  We’re just acting like it.

No doubt technology has been of great use in keeping us aware.  I do wonder, however, at how panics seem to come more quickly now.  Slowing down manufacturing will have a knock-on effect for things down the road, of course.  Right now we’re all wondering how we’re going to get through yet another day just sitting in the house.  Meanwhile the lawn is beginning to grow and I’m going to have to get out there with the push mower soon.  I’d been planning on shopping for a better one this year, but plans seem to have suddenly pooled at my feet.  What is essential travel anyway?  Does it count a trip to the big box hardware store to buy a reel mower?  Should I even bother about the lawn when there’s no toilet paper within a fifty-mile radius?  I wish we’d all been ready.

The funny thing about all this is how it makes us focus on the here and now.  While we’re waiting for things to “get back to normal” we’re being told nobody knows how long this might last and we should plan to hunker down for some time.  The International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (being held in Australia this year) was cancelled.  Many of us in the discipline have had our lives revolving around the Annual Meeting in November for all of our adulthood.  If that meeting’s cancelled how will we even know when Thanksgiving comes?  Can it even come without the crowds at the Macy’s parade?  Best not to look too far ahead, I guess.  The rapture is a fictional construct, but the effects of a pandemic are eerily similar.  I do wish all of us had been ready.

For Illustration Purposes

With the non-essential stores closed, my daughter asked me the other day “does that mean bookstores?”  Sadly, yes.  More weekends than not I spend some time in a bookstore.  Fortunately we are well stocked for an apocalypse, book wise.  Lately I’ve been on a kick of reading short stories.  I’ve certainly written enough of them to fill a book or two, and it’s nice to start something you can finish in one sitting.  I just finished reading, or perhaps re-reading Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man.  I say “perhaps re-reading” because I know I read many of the stories in the edition of the book I bought as a tween.  Some of the tales I didn’t recall at all, making me think I was reading selectively in those days.  That’s the nice thing about story collections: you don’t have to worry about continuity.

That having been said, the conceit of the illustrated man himself is that of a framing device.  His tattooed body is the canvas on which all of these tales are painted.  A surprising number of them are religious in theme.  Many of them take place on Mars.  Rockets are ubiquitous.  As a child I hadn’t realized that many of Bradbury’s stories were published in the late forties and in the fifties.  They still felt futuristic to me, having grown up in a small town with very little exposure to technological developments.  Reading many of the tales as an adult, I was surprised at how much they influenced my own fiction writing style.  I must’ve read a lot more of them when I was younger than I recall.

My tweenage years were long enough ago now that memories slip into one another.  I can’t remember when this or that happened, especially as regards reading.  When did I first read about the incessant rain on Venus?  Or about the writers living on Mars dying out as their books are destroyed?  Looking back over my own fictional work I see Bradbury’s fingerprints everywhere.  Bradbury couldn’t afford to attend college, so he did what he knew—he wrote.  Of course, back in those days publishers and agents weren’t dealing with the volume they face these days.  The internet has made writers of us all.  And I have to admit that some of the stories in The Illustrated Man disappointed me.  They didn’t reach the level of either depth or insight that I had recalled.  Overall, however, the impression was good, if nostalgic.  As the days become a long series of interconnected hours of sitting in the house, it’s a real gift to have short stories to punctuate the days.

Proceeding 17-108

This is important!  Please share it.  If you don’t like sharing blog posts please at least share this link: https://www.fcc.gov/ecfs/filings/express.  During this time of international crisis, American politicians have decided to discuss making the internet free again.  But because a certain political party doesn’t want this, they are doing it in an obscure way.  Since many people are working remotely and their livelihoods depend on internet connectivity, the FCC is accepting public comments on Proceeding 17-108, whether to restore internet neutrality or not.  The form will take you only two minutes to fill out but you’ll need “Proceeding 17-108” and your zip code plus four.  And you’ll need to hit “enter” after filling in your name.  The very form seems designed to discourage public input.  This is not a joke.

I had sincerely hoped that the COVID-19 crisis would bring out the best in the GOP.  It hasn’t yet.  Hearing the recorded comments of people like Mitch McConnell on how the Republican Party really doesn’t want to offer any stimulus packages but realizes that the economy will grind to a halt without them, my faith in the human spirit tanked.  Not only that, but now that internet neutrality, which is the very way life goes on for many of us, is back open for public input, Ajit Pai is doing his best to make sure people don’t know about it.  Please take just a moment to go to the FCC website and make your voice heard.  And please share this.  If you’re reading this post, remember, you’re using the internet.

Maybe it’s just living life “under the dome” that makes me feel this is so important.  Right now my entire family is working remotely.  Our house looks like a computer lab.  Big Cable, since the end of net neutrality, has been allowed to drop users into “slow lanes” on the web, unless they are supporting causes those companies want.  This has ended up wasting a lot of time for those of us who rely on the net for our daily bread.  You can make your voice heard.  This crisis is the opportunity to say something.  Please do.  In the best of all possible worlds, or even in a pretty good world, governments would listen to the will of the governed.  We’ve been caught in a loop where the governed are exploited for personal gain.  The coronavirus has led to the rare chance to make your voice heard.  Tell the FCC what you think.  And please share the link.

Green Dilemma

It’s a dilemma.  I face it every year.  I don’t have green to wear and it’s St. Patrick’s Day.  For your average run-of-the-mill citizen, this might not be an issue—but I do have an Irish heritage (in part), and so it’s a heartfelt concern.  The reason I don’t have green has less to do with fashion (consider the source!) than with my clothing purchasing practices.  First of all, I like to make my clothes last.  Fabrics can be quite durable.  They aren’t mechanical and therefore don’t break down often.  I don’t live a rough-and-tumble life, so tears aren’t really a problem.  The end result is that I keep my clothes as long as they’re functional.  When they begin to wear out I go to the store and examine the clearance racks until I find something in my size.  That means color selection is often a matter of very limited options.

Once in a great while I have landed something green.  I still remember a green shirt I had in college.  It served me well for more than four St. Patrick’s Days.  It long ago succumbed to overuse, however, because I wore it on other days as well.  And let’s face it, when I make one of those infrequent trips to the clothiers’ shops, this particular holiday’s not on my mind.  Unless, of course, I go shopping in March.  Back when I lived in Boston it was easy to get your Irish on.  I bought a bright green silky (I don’t know if it was real silk) tie with white shamrocks on it.  It was probably down at Faneuil Hall.  It had been a bit outlandish to wear to work in New York City, though.  Indeed, at work staid dress was by far the most common code.  Consequently it hung unused in my closet for years.

When we moved a couple summers back, I noticed my green tie had faded to bronze.  I thought it went the other way around.  In any case, my last truly green clothing article was no longer green.  Yes, it still has shamrocks, but I’d feel even more ridiculous trying to rock a bronze tie and pass myself off as Irish.  It won’t even pass for gold.  Of course, I work from home.  I’ve practiced social distancing long before it was a trend or a government mandate, whichever it is.  The only people to see my lack of green would be my wife and daughter, and perhaps a Jehovah’s Witnesses that might stop by.  But still, even minor celebrations are anticipated at times such as this.  Although I won’t be going out today I’ll probably be spending some time in my closet and reflecting on the true heritage of my Irish forebears.

Perhaps St. Pat shops like I do?

Running with Scissors

I suspect that, like many, I’ve come to see the coronavirus as an indictment of political foolishness.  Electing unqualified officials feels like all fun and games until a crisis emerges and the leadership has no idea what to do.  The Trump administration announced itself as anti-science and began breaking down the carefully built institutions that made our way of life possible.  His fans cheered.  Now they’re huddled in their bunkers with their stockpiled Purelle and toilet paper and Fox News on 24/7.  It’s a good thing that a stable genius is in charge.  He’s trying to get Germany to move production of the most promising vaccine to the land of his anti-vaccers, something Germany’s reluctant to do because 45 has a reputation internationally.  It seems he’s made America infectious again.

As those of us with brain stems try to find some way to comfort those we know and love, we keep coming back to the fact that this kind of pandemic is new in the internet-linked world.  No matter what you try to do right now you have to assess whether it involves meeting other people, potentially infected, and whether it’s worth the risk.  I had to go to a grocery store and Target over the weekend.  I’ve never seen so many empty shelves before.  This is what panic looks like.  The difference is that even W., who will never be considered among the smartest of presidents, recognized that institutions are there for a reason.  America’s greatness grew slowly by building on what’d gone before.  Tearing everything down in a narcissistic tantrum and claiming all we need to do is adore our autocrat, we now see how great this country has become.  Greatly afraid, that is.

Coronavirus closed schools more effectively than Betsy DeVos.  Businesses are reeling as the businessman president fumbles with facts and figures he can’t understand and can’t admit that science is real because, well, global warming and all that.  Internationally people are looking for solid leadership and finding that the autocrats they’ve elected have no idea what to do.  Self-aggrandizement is no basis for leadership.  The Republican senate had their chance just two months ago, but they were banking on their personal bank accounts, it seems.  Even in the face of this crisis Mitch McConnell persists on insisting it’a all a game.  As a child raised in a Republican home I was taught never to run with scissors.  But then, I had all my vaccines.  Mad dictator’s disease hadn’t yet been released upon the world.

Virtual Church

All the way back in seminary my friends and I used to joke about virtual church.  What made it so funny was that the idea seemed ridiculous.  The very raison d’être for church (which essentially means “gathering”) was, well, gathering.  We joshed about putting a communion card into an ATM and getting bread and wine.  Little did we know we’d live to see virtual church become a reality.  While I prefer not to tip my hand as to my affiliation (I began doing this when teaching at secular schools, for if a professor of religion is being academic about their specialization their affiliation should have no bearing on the class) I confess I am the member of a religious community.  That community has become virtual, as of today.

This isn’t a permanent thing.  Unless coronavirus is a permanent thing.  As I spoke with my clergy person about it, I wondered how many people would attend virtual services.  Sermons would need to be stellar.  Who would hear if I tried to sing hymns (this is not a pretty thing, take my word for it)?  My laptop doesn’t even have a disc slot into which I could insert my offering.  Churches, synagogues, mosques—they’re about community.  What does community feel like when you’re sitting there in your pajamas, at least on the part that the webcam doesn’t pick up?  Does the minister see you in virtual church?  Have I, like number 6, been reduced to a numeral?  I suspect the current crisis is going to be a real test for faith communities.  Meeting together would make us all feel like snake-handlers now.

The funny thing was, back in seminary it was a joke.  At Boston University School of Theology in the late 1980s we knew that churches weren’t really growing.  Some megas had started and we now see them following the mushroom cloud to its dissipation stage.  As little as we meant it, we could see devices creeping into the mix.  I did not use a computer until after seminary.  Funnily enough, thinking back to the pre-1990s, we survived without cell phones.  If you were going to church you were going. To. Church.  These days of pandemic in the pews will be a real test of the preacher’s power.  For Episcopalians the mediating of grace had to be done in person.  I remember watching worriedly as the priest, clearly with a sniffle, was the first one to take a sip from the community chalice before holding it out for others to drink.  We wondered about efficacy of ATMs dispensing consecrated hosts.  It was only a joke, then; really it was.

Travel Ban

I’m not at home.  I know in the current crisis that sounds like heresy, but I can honestly say that getting out of the usual routine where COVID-19 is all you hear about feels right.  More and more organizations are instituting work from home policies—many of them mandatory.  I’ve worked from home for going on two years now.  You need to get out a bit.  I know travel isn’t recommended, but I’m really not afraid to die.  Besides, I put a box of latex gloves in the car and when we stopped for a restroom break, wore them until they could be safely removed.  Exposed surfaces in the rest area were being continually wiped down.  Don’t get me wrong—for an introvert like me working at home is fine.  It’s just the idea of feeling like this virus is some zombie apocalypse happening just outside my door that I needed to dispel.

When I told a friend I was no longer going to be commuting on a regular basis he said if it were him he’d only ever buy sweatpants again.  Now that my reality is life with my wife being the only person I regularly see, I’m beginning to realize just how much our clothes purchases are for impressing others.  My haberdashery is akin to that of Henry David Thoreau; I wear clothes until they’re no longer functional.  They can be badly out of date but they still work.  The fashion industry is built on pride.  To put it in the words of my old friend Qohelet, vanity.  We want others to see what we’re wearing.  If we’re still donning last year’s gay apparel we’re not playing the game.  Never mind those of us whose wardrobes could be carbon-dated.  The pandemic can be revealing.

So I’m away from home for what is really the first time in months.  I had to stop in the grocery store for a few things.  Only one person I saw was wearing a mask, but I was wearing prophylactics, so who’s going to cast the first stone?  Many shelves were bare.  The CDC has become our new gospel provider.  I’m limiting my outside exposure.  Driving door to door, greeting no-one along the way (that actually is the gospel, but substitute the walking for the driving part).  I know when this weekend’s over I’ll be back to my cloistered existence as the rest of the world tries to get used to the loneliness of the sweatpants crowd.  If you’re one of them take it from me—the rest of the world is still out there.

Die Besuch

It was both sweet and perhaps misguided.  I’ve not written much about the coronavirus because I’ve really had nothing to say on the pandemic.  Also I’m squeamish.  Being a remote worker I spend most of my time alone anyway.  So when the knock came to my door, I wasn’t sure I should answer.  Afraid that some vital bit of information was to be conveyed, I gave in.  Two young ladies stood there and at first I thought they were selling Girl Scout cookies, but one of them had some copies of The Watchtower in a folder and I knew that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had come calling.  I didn’t invite them in.  I don’t mean to be inhospitable, but those who go around knocking on doors might have been exposed to who knows what.  They were here, the older one said, to give good news.

Although she didn’t mention the coronavirus directly, she said people were feeling anxious.  But God—our creator—had promised everything would work out.  She read me Revelation 21.4, about God wiping every tear from our eyes, from an iPad.  I’ve read that verse many times on my own, and, tainted with decades of specialist knowledge, knew a good deal about the context in which it was written.  The Witnesses didn’t stay long.  As they walked away I couldn’t help but think how this current scare has been affecting us all.  We are afraid.  I don’t need any advice when it comes to social distancing (I am an introvert, after all), but there’s a kind of hopelessness afoot.  I don’t read the papers but every headline is about the virus.  The world seems awfully quiet.

This will go down in history, I suspect, as a strange episode.  I feel guilty for conducting normal business, as if there is anything I could do to prevent the disease beyond isolating myself even further.  It’s perhaps the waiting.  Those of us in circumstances where joy is more fleeting than a visit from the Jehovah’s Witnesses often invest huge amounts of time waiting for things to get better.  The news, for example, that a piece has been accepted for publication.  Or that a long wished for promotion has come.  Or that somebody has actually read your book.  Such news is rare indeed and outside a disease rages out of control.  What else beyond missionary zeal would send you to strangers’ doors at such a time as this?  They didn’t even leave any tracts.