Pandemic Thoughts

Waiting for rescue.  For many years now, I’ve been hoping for it.  It goes back to my first professional job at Nashotah House, perhaps earlier.  Particularly late in the game, I found myself wondering when I might be rescued from that difficult situation.  The teaching and research I loved, but the context was brutal.  The hoped for salvation never came.  Since those days the wishes have swung around to a steady job in a field I love.  One for which I trained.  The feeling arises particularly on weekends.  Often busier than even workdays, I nevertheless sense an almost gothic freedom to them, and Monday rolls around again reminding me that salvation never came.  Things are still the same.  Now, I don’t just sit around waiting for rescue.  I throw out all kinds of lines.  I shout and squirm and try to make myself known.  The ocean is large, however, and my voice is small.  

Perhaps this sense is a natural outgrowth of being raised in a religion that emphasized personal salvation.  The sudden conversion experience.  It was easy to believe things could change rapidly for the better.  Science, particularly uniformitarianism, tells us that the same slow processes always hold.  Solomon was right after all—there’s nothing new under the sun.  At least nothing that we couldn’t see coming for a good, long time.  Out here the horizon stretches ever so far in every direction.  Religions realize the problems with this sameness.  They give us sacred times and sacred spaces.  (The latter of which, however, the pandemic has forced online.)

Rescues that evolve can take many years to reach effective strength.  As a child I recall anticipating the rescue of adult respectability.  When I grew up people would listen to me because I was an adult.  For a brief while that was the case when I stood in the classroom and some students came because they wanted to learn.  I learned from them, and they, I hope, learned from me.  Perhaps this situation arises less among those raised in stable, middle-class families.  Perhaps they don’t sense the constant wolf pacing outside the door.  Maybe salvation is primarily for the poor.  Whoever it’s for and whencever it comes, the feeling has been with me for decades.  Rescue, it seems, is a construct we badly need.  At least on a philosophical level.  The pandemic has leveled our concept of time to a stifling sameness.  I’m prepared.  I’ve been waiting for rescue for as long as I can remember.  Then Monday rolls around again.


Year Book

I have to confess that I’ve had trouble letting go of the holidays this year.  Actually, that’s kind of normal.  The let down from “sacred time” (however that may be understood) to “ordinary time” is often a rough transition.  Anthony Aveni discusses this, among other things, in his short study, The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays.  Not a deep history, but a thoughtful consideration of the seasons of our celebrations, the book informs and entertains.  There are surprisingly few books that cover the holidays, despite their centrality to modern life.  What person in business doesn’t look forward to the third quarter?  Who doesn’t anticipate a little time off work, punctuated throughout the year?  Aveni is one of the few general purpose books that you can go to for background on several seasonal holidays.

Aveni is somewhat of a polymath, being both an astronomer and an anthropologist.  He clearly has a special interest in first nations studies as well, as The Book of the Year occasionally dips into the rituals of Latin America.  A number of holiday traditions are explored here, leaving the reader wanting more.  I find the question of why we celebrate the way that we do a fascinating one.  Many of our customs have unexpected roots and many of them were transformed along the way by the church.  An unusually high number boast recent developments that we tend to think of as foundational to their essence.  The holidays as we grew up with them likely stay in our minds as the default way they should be.  Interestingly, bringing them into continuity with ancient customs reveals a steady evolution, mostly from sacred to commercial.

Since I wrote a book (unpublished) about the holidays several years ago (and have read a number of the same), I’ve always dug into books like this whenever I can find them.  Holidays are the heartbeat of the year.  Many of us look for something to help pace us in the reckless spinning vortex that we call capitalism.  Our lives are all interconnected, and the holidays also have subtle intricacies as well.  As they wind down, they tend to point both back to the previous red-letter day and forward to the next one.  Aveni doesn’t cover political holidays very much.  He does mention Martin Luther King Day, the next federally recognized day of rest.  As Aveni points out, the end of the Christmas season can stretch as far as Candlemas, so I guess we still have a few weeks to go before it’s all officially over, in sacred time.


Manifest Duty

As slaves to Mammon our celebrations are frequently curtailed.  In agricultural culture, winter was a time when fields couldn’t be cultivated (at least in northern climes) and thus the twelve days of Christmas could be relaxed without much consequence.  The history of this holiday complex is fascinating, and while many of us have been back to work for a few days already, today, Epiphany, is the “official” end of the season.  Twelfth Night, in some traditions yesterday and in others today, was a day of celebration, the twelfth day of Christmas.  Ancient pre-Christmas holidays such as Saturnalia lasted several days.  Today’s business world frequently gives a Scrooge-like single day off and many of us spend our hard-earned vacation days to fill out the week that is inevitably slow at work otherwise.

In Christianity, until recent times, Epiphany was a bigger holiday than Christmas.  Of the two it was the original day for gift-giving,  That makes sense in the commemoration of the visit of the magi that Epiphany represents.  They were the first givers of Christmas gifts.  Since Jesus was Jewish the idea of a manifestation, or epiphany, to the gentiles became an important marker.  Magi are styled as Zoroastrians from Persia.  The story occurs only in the gospel of Matthew and clearly wasn’t intended to coincide with the arrival of shepherds and angels.  As the Epiphany story grew to include Christmas it also encompassed many of the shadowy events of Jesus’ early years.  His questioning of the teachers in the temple was a kind of epiphany, as was his baptism.  All these things came together during a fallow time and were sufficient reason to take it easy for twelve days between the end of December and the beginning of January.

Some of our employers have expressed surprise that things continue to run fairly smoothly with workers reporting remotely.  These same people also seem surprised that people come back from several days off refreshed.  I suspect that they are also astonished at how well their computers work after being rebooted.  Time off is sacred time.  Whether we dress it up with elaborate stories of kings, wise men, sages, or magicians traveling great distances to see a baby in a foreign nation or whether we make it the day when one cousin baptized another, Epiphany grew into a major feast in medieval times.  Today it’s just another work day.  And with it the end of another holiday season will need to last us until near the end of yet another year.


Non-sacred Time

It’s difficult to say goodbye to the holiday season (although, according to its origins it’s not over yet!).  While the church still recognizes a couple more days until Epiphany—which until recent times was more important than Christmas—the secular “work world” is back to usual after New Year’s Day.  2021 started with a bonus, giving us a long weekend as well.  In any case, getting back to normal time is always a difficult transition.  For those of us who spent many years in academia, the holidays began about mid-December, and in my case, stretched fairly well into January.  Now, using a combination of vacation days and floating holidays, I’m able to set up a mini semester break of a couple of weeks.  Although I have trouble sleeping in, I was still able to spend the days with family and not worrying about business.

There is a difference in the quality of time off.  Some, I suspect, are eager to get back to work.  For me this first Monday back is difficult to face.  Some would argue that the difference in time quality is merely a subjective projection.  There is nothing scientifically changed from the last two weeks to the reality of the first Monday back.  This is one of those places where religion steps in as the more understanding boss (such instances are rare, so appreciate them while you can!).  Sacred time is taken very seriously by any number of religious traditions.  Even our beloved weekends have a basis in religious observance.  Holidays, even in a secular setting, are opportunities to recharge.  For me the spring semester was something I never dreaded.  We’ve allowed capitalism to take precedence over sacred time.

The problem with ordinary time is its mundanity.  Looking back, I’d been anticipating the holiday season with its time off for well over a month.  A full twelfth of the year.  To help with the transition, with my family I spent some weekend time cobbling together a personalized Modern Mrs. Darcy reading challenge.  Knowing I have good books in the future helps immensely, although I have much less time to read when work takes up much of my waking time.  Even that new start can’t be scientifically measured.  It’s something unique to human minds.  January begins with endings.  No matter how difficult 2020 may have been, at least it ended with a relaxing couple of weeks with family and no pressures to sit in front of a computer screen for over nine hours a day.  There will be more holidays ahead, and each one of them will be sacred time.


Time Off

Perhaps you’ve noticed it too.  Time away from work has an utterly different feel from time on the job.  Those rare individuals who really love their professions probably feel differently about it, but a timid free spirit since childhood, I’ve always noticed a difference.  And it has become more pronounced as time’s gone on.  Recently I cashed in a vacation day near a national holiday (Memorial Day) so that I could drive across the state to see my mother without feeling utterly wiped out from a twelve-hour drive on a regular weekend.  As I slipped back into work mode on Tuesday the change was palpable.  Time was no longer my own.  I tend to work well over eight hours daily—the telecommuter must prove his/her worth—and something about the quality of the time itself was decidedly unlike that of the previous four days (two of which had been spent driving).

That quality, of which we’re not encouraged to speak, is the feeling of freedom.  More precisely, auto-determination.  Okay, I’ve read enough philosophy to know this is just an illusion, but work with me here.  Few and exceptionally fortunate are those who find careers they love.  What the rest of us love is time off work.  Time when we can decide what to do.  How long to sleep.  When to cut the grass rather than waiting until the bell rings at 5 p.m. and the inevitable afternoon rain begins.  Perhaps best of all is going to bed knowing that the next day you don’t have to get up and report for duty.  I’m not dissing employment here, I’m just noticing something.  What I’m reaching toward is a concept of sacred time.  Unstructured time in which creative types thrive.

Early in life the concept of summer was instilled in my soft and malleable psyche.  It said once May was over you have three months to do whatever before facing regimentation again.  I grew to appreciate this schedule.  To love it, in fact.  It was part of why I decided higher education was the best vocational fit for someone of my particular disposition.  Every year when June rolls around I still feel it, like a migratory bird.  The reality, however, is the quality of time changes on Monday morning.  It slows down and feels more like sandpaper than silk.  I can see there’s a holiday just a month away, if I can only reach it.  And it is, perhaps with a dose of unintentional irony, call Independence Day.


Indie Bookstore Day

Although a year can seem like a long sentence, holidays are the punctuation marks that help us make sense of and organize it. Ordinary time, such as time at work, or commuting, can be endlessly tedious. Holidays, some personal, some local, others national or international, help us break up the time. Give us something to look forward to. My pity goes out to those religions that recognize no holidays and face time with a grim, Presbyterian determination to get to judgment day. The rest of us like to celebrate once in a while. So what’s today? It’s Independent Bookstore Day! Anyone who reads more than a post or two on this blog knows that I’m a lover of books. I first started taking solace in reading when things were difficult in my younger years, and reading has never let me down. In fact, I’ve often told myself that I could put up with just about any job as long as I could write.

It’s because of being in publishing that I learned about Independent Bookstore Day. Yes, it’s a promotional holiday, but it’s also a genuine celebration. As the outside world daily reminds us, those of us who read are a minority. The realistic author knows that the reading public is a small fraction of the whole. The number of people, percentage-wise, who spend their money on books is minuscule compared to those who fling their lucre elsewhere. But those of us who read appreciate the depth and reflection of each other. We may read different things, but we read. And that’s why I don’t mind going to an indie bookstore today and buying something.

One of the simple pleasures in life—call it a punctuation mark, a comma maybe—is being surrounded by unfamiliar books. Oh, I often worry what happens when we decide to move; we have lots of books at home. The last time the movers actually complained in our hearing that we had too many boxes of books. Talk about me at the bar afterwards, but don’t castigate my simple pleasures to my face, please. Books are the rare opportunity to commune with others on a deep level. How often have you put down a book and felt that you knew the author? Their soul was revealed in their writing and you had touched it. Just being in a bookstore is cause for celebration. If you have no plans for today, why not make your way to your local indie? Stand up and be counted as the literate resistance. It’s our silent Bastille Day, after all.


All Is Bright

As a Christmas present to myself I finished my third book yesterday. I’ll be posting details once the title is finalized. And “third” is only an approximation. I wrote another non-fiction book before this one which I decided not to send to publishers. That “fourth” book joins the six completed but unpublished novels resting on my hard-drive. Writing, for some of us, is a way of life. Not a way to make a living, mind you, but a way of life nevertheless. Literacy is a gift too often taken for granted. It’s easy to forget that the rapid scientific and technological progress that we’ve made has only come about since the invention of the now nearly defunct printing press with moveable type.

Among the first books printed was the Gutenberg Bible. This was a book of progress, as difficult to believe as that may be. You see, the Bible wasn’t always a means to enslave. It was once a tool of liberation. As I try to steer my thoughts from politicization this holy day, I can nevertheless not neglect to reflect on how Holy Writ has been weaponized. We’re warned to keep Christ in Christmas although we know the story isn’t history. Scripture becomes a blunt object of superiority and supersessionism. We sometimes forget that sacred time is a gift, no matter what anyone believes. Literature has built this world for us—some sacred, some secular. Our proper response ought to be celebration.

I now awake on Christmas morning—from long habit—at a time I would’ve thought a boon as a child. In the pre-dawn stillness of 4:00 a.m., sleeping in for me, I think about the great gift of quiet time. This is my writing time. Book three is done, and books four and five are already in the works. For those of us who write as readily as we respirate, this morning stillness is a gift. Time to compose, arrange thoughts that will only be scattered in the coming busyness of the day. The means are quite different than those employed by Johannes Gutenberg, and the results will be read by far fewer people. None of that really matters, however. Today is a holy day because it involves writing. Angels, shepherds, and wise men may come later with the stories we tell of how this day began, but remember they are stories. And no gift should be taken for granted. Not even the unbroken silence of 4:00 a.m.


Retrograde Motion

How wondrous it feels, after a winter of dark skies, to see dawn beginning to break even before I crawl onto the bus in the morning. Almost pagan in my desire for the longer days, I anticipate this every year after standing in the dark since October. Then everything changes. Darkness falls again. I’m inexplicably weary, despite the sleep of a weekend. It’s Daylight Saving Time. Every year I wonder at this inane wartime madness that we keep going, despite its lack of applicability in an electronic age. Employers, I should think, with an eye toward efficiency, would lead the charge to end changing clocks twice a year to yawning employees and the inevitable depression of taking a step back into darkness. It will be another month before the sun again appears at my bus stop. Meanwhile, it will be light when I’m getting ready for bed in the evening. Perhaps I’m the only one who thinks about this. Religion, however, has always held time sacred.

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Quite apart from “sacred time”—holidays and festivals—religions have always been about the appropriate use of time. Counterintuitively, they suggest the rushing about we do to make money, to ensure our material well-being, might be misplaced. There might be a better use of the allotment that we’re given on this earth. Time to ponder. Call it prayer or meditation, studies show that it is good for us to spare some of our time for quiet reflection. Every second counts. And time sets the very patterns of our lives. Bodies know when to awake and when to eat. Until we go and shift the entire calendar on them.

Daylight Saving Time was a wartime measure to ensure the most efficient production of arms. Now, in days with lights blazing constantly, telecommuting, and farming being done largely by automation, we still religiously keep to this barbaric ritual. Eyes heavy with sleep, I stand in the utter darkness again, wondering when I might see some glimmer of light. It will only come when I’m ensconced in my windowless cubicle. It is so dispiriting. I, for one, would gladly forfeit a mere extra hour’s sleep in the autumn, just to keep progress going in the spring. Instead, I follow the crowd as we waste an hour that becomes five, six, ten, or twenty as we try to readjust our bodies to rising an hour earlier. For those of us up before four a.m., it is a sacrifice indeed. All I really crave is to allow the light continue to grow.