Today I write with a group of friends for Spiritual Journey Thursday.
The word restore has been on my mind these days. More or less as a question: When will society, the economy, the country, the health of the globe be restored to pre-COVID-19 conditions? And what will that restoration look like? How changed or different will everything be?
I think on this a lot, as is there is a lot of time to think.
Naturally a well-known line from the Psalms also comes to mind: He restores my soul. It speaks of peace and confidence, of a daily trust. I watch the news, the frenzy of those in the medical profession, pleading on behalf of us all; the government having to count the cost of a shut-down economy as weighed against the life and well-being of its citizens; and everyone worried about having enough resources for coping. They’re all waging a mighty battle against an insatiable, tenacious, invisible pathogen.
While the rest of us watch from a distance, sheltered. Protected. Trusting that the decisions made for us will preserve us, restore us.
We wait in the stillness.
It brings the preceding line of Psalm 23 to mind: He leads me beside still waters.
I could make an analogy of a stormy, violent sea for the government, the medical field, and the stock market, in contrast to the majority of us waiting at home, by the still waters … but a story resurfaced in my memory instead.
Long ago, when I was about seven, I attended a church service where an older girl was baptized. She was perhaps twelve or so, a sweet and affectionate girl well-known and loved by the congregation. It was an exciting morning for the church … except that as this girl entered the baptistry, she was sobbing.
“I can’t do it,” she bawled. ” I can’t …”
Even as a seven-year-old, I knew she’d chosen to be baptized. She’d walked the aisle some weeks before and professed her faith. I knew the pastor made new members, including children, attend a series of classes to understand the tenets of the faith and the ordnance of baptism. I didn’t understand it all myself, not yet, but I knew this girl, garbed in a white robe, hovering at the steps leading down into the water, crying, wanted to act on her faith. I’d never seen anyone react this way to being baptized: Why’s she so scared?
I look back now and wonder: Was she simply afraid of water? Had she never gone swimming in a pool, as I had?
The water wasn’t deep. It wasn’t cold; it was heated to be comfortably warm. It wasn’t waves crashing on the shore, no dangerous undertow, just clear, still water.
Our pastor, a humble, middle-aged man, a former Navy pilot in WWII and a Bible scholar, stood in his own robe of white at the center of the baptistry. He reached out his hand: “It’s all right, Dear Heart. See, I’m here. It’s safe. You know I’m going to hold onto you.” When she stayed rooted to the steps, clinging to the hidden rail, our pastor waded over, put his arm around her, and led her into the pool.
He held her for a moment. We heard him whisper: “Are you ready?”
Loud sobs, but a nod of her little head.
He raised his hand heavenward:
“I baptize you, little sister, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit …”
She went under and just as quickly, he raised her back up.
“I DID IT!” she shouted, hair plastered to her head, wet face shining. “I DID IT!”
If ever there was a vision of radiant joy, that’s it.
The entire congregation wept, even seven-year-old me.
The tears return even now, remembering.
He leads me beside still waters. Sometimes through still waters. When we cannot see the bottom. When we’d really rather not descend into them, when we don’t want to get wet at all, when we fear not so much immersion but submersion: How long will we be under? Can we last?
He restores my soul. It is a matter of trust that, somehow, all will be well, that we will be raised back up, we will be led safely through.
For now, we wait in the stillness like water lilies … which, in the Tamil poetic tradition, happens to symbolize the grief of separation.
On the placid surface
rest the blooms
in waters still.
Their unseen roots
to the earth
And so we float
this strange baptism
to one another
by unseen roots
while time stands still.
Today, in my mind, in my heart, the word restore echoes over and over and over like a prayer.
A friend wanted to know if my family would like some face masks.
She is making them.
She sent us pictures of the fabric—she has bolts of it—for us to choose the prints.
Yesterday she and her husband pulled up in our driveway to drop off the masks. My husband and I went out to meet our friends, offering our thanks only in words, no hand-grasps or hugs … a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing … a few weeks back, we were all sitting around the dining room table here in the house, laughing and telling stories after a lasagna dinner. It seems long ago.
When will we be able to do so comfortably, again?
When I look at these masks, I see all that they represent. Shields in time of trouble. A friend channeling inertia into something productive, a practical means of battling an unseen enemy. Self-care spreading out like a blanket to cover others. Homemade love. Colorful patterns against the dark backdrop of our days.
These masks are artifacts of our times. Symbols of our story as we live it. And nothing connects humanity as much as story.
As I walked out to the driveway to receive these gifts, my grandmother’s voice echoed from across the years:
You won’t believe it, but where these woods are now used to be houses and farms, up and down this little road … when the Spanish flu came, it hit all but a couple of them … twelve people died in one week … Mama made pots of soup and Papa would carry it to their doors. He wouldn’t go in, of course …
Grandma wouldn’t have had living memory of this. When the influenza pandemic began in January 1918, she was only two. But she knew the stories. If my own memory serves me correctly, as I walked the tiny country cemeteries surrounding her homeplace, listening to her narratives of the people resting there—for she knew all their stories, and how they were connected— there was an unexpected commonality.
A death year. 1917.
That was before the Spanish flu.
Grandma nodded. There was a sickness before: They called it hemorrhagic fever. People would bruise and bleed from their noses and ears and eyes … a lot of people who tried to take care of the sick caught it and died, too …
She was hardly more than a baby then, a girl born and raised in a hard place in hard times, but here she stood, by the weather-worn stones under a cloudless blue sky, telling the stories seven decades later.
Because of story, these events are lodged in my memory a hundred years after they happened.
My father was Grandma’s first child, born during the Great Depression. Flour companies made their sacks with patterns and bright colors so people could make clothes out of them … look at my handmade face masks and tell me they aren’t reminiscent. A second child, my aunt, arrived with the war. Granddaddy moved the family from North Carolina to Virginia; he found work in the shipyard, where production increased to the point of cranking out ships in less than a third of the time it normally took. How can one not compare that to the scramble for mass production of ventilators today …
Grandma said: It was so hot that summer. I was miserable, being pregnant. I’d sit by the upstairs window and watch the iceman delivering blocks of ice to grocers … companies stopped making refrigerators … everything went into the war effort. I just cried. I’d have given anything for some of that ice … then we had ration cards and could only get certain things at certain times … once my sister Jack and her husband pooled their gas ration cards with ours and we all went on a trip to Massachusetts … it was so beautiful and so cool there …
I look at these masks and that is what I see.
The story of overcoming. Of determination. Of resourcefulness in time of scarcity. Of finding a means to be a good neighbor, a good friend, a real and present help in time of need, even if from a safe distance. Sharing so that everyone has enough. Acts of service, gifts of love. Sacrifice.
The road is long With many a winding turn That leads us to who knows where Who knows where …
—”He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” B. Scott/B. Russell
I think this may be my favorite picture of you. For several reasons. I like to see you in such a peaceful setting, walking that country path beside lush green fields, under the blue summer sky. You were walking with a friend, so you weren’t alone. You told me that her puppy followed you—I still can’t believe that’s just a puppy; he’s massive!—and he got tired, so you picked him up and carried him the rest of the way.
That is why I love the photo so much. It captures the essence of who you are.
Quietly bearing your burdens, no matter how heavy. There have been many in these past few years. Ever how burdened you were, ever how twisted and dark the pathbecame, you kept on walking.
No one knows better than I what a long, long road it’s been, from the day you started college to now. Graduation being canceled, just when the end is in sight, feels like a coup de grâce.
It all started off on such a high note, didn’t it? Getting that phone call two weeks after you finished high school, a church looking for a music director. Your childhood dream. I still have your kindergarten “All About Me” book with the prompt ‘When I grow up, I want to be’ … where you drew yourself as a choir director in crayon.You attained it at seventeen, before your formal training even began.
That summer was glorious and brief.
That fall you started college and almost instantly the shadows came.
Your father‘s diagnosis of ocular melanoma, the loss of his eye, the weeks waiting for pathology to reveal no cancer cells had spread.Despite your new job and your courseload, you stepped up to help him readjust.
On the heels of his healing came Ma-Ma’s stroke, the beginning of her slow decline over the rest of that year. She knew how much you loved her. She treasured every minute with you; she savored every long phone call you made from the time you were little. She couldn’t keep from crying whenever you played the piano and sang—remember how she organized for you to come play at her nursing home, near the last?I will never forget her wet, shining face. She was inordinately proud of you. She loved you fiercely.
How grateful I am that you and your dad were there, holding her hands, when she died.
And so you bore her loss on top of an unexpected one.
I know you’re marking the date. Three years ago today, the accident that took your friend. Your little childhood playmate who sang with you in preschool choir, your high school band mate, the organizer of the Sunday-nights-at-Bojangles gatherings. As I write, I hear her pure, high voice echoing in the church to your harmony and piano accompaniment. Her going left all of us reeling—a swift, severe, deep cut to the heart, a knotty scar we’ll bear forever. And yet you play on. You still sing. You stand by her family in their remembrances, your presence the only comfort that’s in your power to give. She would be graduating, too, this spring … but no one is graduating this spring …
It’s one of the hardest things in life, losing people, and not only to death. People will come and go because they choose to, no matter how much we wish they’d stay. You endured this, too, with uncommon grace, never lashing out, just walking on with your invisible pain. I knew it was there. I could feel the weight of it.
Seems we were due a respite, and if there was one, it was those few weeks of vacation last summer before your dad’s heart attack. You and I had just come home from walking when the officer arrived in the driveway to say your dad’s truck had run off the road and hit a tree, it might have been a medical event, maybe a seizure, no, he wasn’t sure what condition your father was in, EMS was working on him when he left, and did we have a way to get to the hospital? With your big brother too distraught to drive, you did it. Calmly, carefully, you drove us to the emergency room where the nurse met us at the door. You were beside me when she ushered us to the little room where the doctor met us to say your father had been resuscitated and was being prepped for heart surgery.
You were there with me that first night of sleeping on the waiting room chairs, not knowing what tomorrow would bring. You were there with me throughout that long week of his hospitalization, until your dad came home, battered, bruised, trying to recover his memory. You got his prescriptions so that I wouldn’t have to leave him … and when I took him back to the ER with chest pains a couple of weeks later, you met us there. Another hospital stay. Another heart surgery. Two more weeks of sleeping in the hospital. Do you remember the surreality of it all? How we felt like it would never end, like we were caught in the web of the wrong story, a movie with a terrible plot twist we didn’t see coming? How could this be?
Somehow you managed to keep your studies up, only leaving for your classes and your church services, making the music and leading the worship for others.
So here we are, at last. Your dad, recovered and restored … able to drive me back and forth to work with my broken foot … until this tiny pathogen bent on world domination closed the schools. Here you are, completing your final weeks of college online, being denied the walk to receive the reward of all your labors …it is unthinkable.
I think about the whole of your young adult life. How your road has been so long, with many a winding turn, through many a dark shadow. I watched how you went around, through, or over every obstacle on this arduous journey. You’ve endured what might have caused others to quit college, others who might have actually enjoyed their studies; I know you never loved the “game” of school and that for you it’s been a test of endurance, in itself. But the end is in sight—despite a pandemic. A plague. Who’d have ever believed, in our time …
You have come this far, bearing every heavy load. You’ve carried on. Often you, the baby of the family, carried the rest of us. You’ve fought internal battles for your own wellness more than anyone else knows; in this spiritual war, you’ve earned a Medal of Honor for exceptional valor. I know it and God knows it, Son. I stand in awe of your heart, full of love and mercy, so self-sacrificial, so willing to lighten others’ burdens as your own grew heavier. Like carrying a giant puppy during a long walk on a hot summer’s day, because it got tired.
That is why I love this picture. It is your story.
There are no words for how much I love you.
Keep walking, Son. Carry on.You are strong.
I am stronger because of you. Soon my foot will be well enough to walk with you again.
When we come through this present ominous shadow, college will be over, we’ll find ourselves in a whole new chapter in our lives, and we’ll celebrate all of it. Just a little farther along … I know that in your quiet way, you’ve already made your peace with it. I can almost hear you singing:
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun And I say it’s all right...
We went anyway, my husband and I, on this dark Sunday.
Sanctuary silence. Stillness. Social distance.
But still a sermon, for social media.
A few friends, who filmed.
Here’s the preacher
in spite of the scares
here he is
saying our prayers
No hymns, no music, no choir except birdsong beyond the hallowed halls:
I sing because I’m happy I sing because I’m free
An ill wind moaning under the eaves, an unseen person pulling on locked doors:
I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger Traveling through this world below There is no sickness, toil, or danger In that bright land to which I go…
I went to see. Found no one but me. The sky so moody, the day so broody, like forces dark. Sickness makes its mark. It lurks nearby and that is why—no immunity, no community, Day of Prayer, no one there. In the shadow of the steeple, no people; it’s safer to be home. The Vatican says there’ll be no Easter services in Rome.
Penitents without one plea. Lenten lament, mourning this morning.
Morning has broken like the first morning Blackbird has spoken like the first bird Praise for the singing Praise for the morning Praise for them springing fresh from the world
The songbirds sing, the recorder runs, Scripture is spoken.
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Only an interlude of isolation. Will be our preservation.
My husband, the preacher, prays without his congregation.
I bow, and feel a sudden warmth from the stained-glass.
The sun, at last.
Quotations: “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple” nursery rhyme, adapted; John 8:12.
Hymns: His Eye Is on the Sparrow, Wayfaring Stranger, Morning Has Broken
For all the clear memories I have of moments and conversations in years past, I cannot quite recall how this happened two days ago…
Early Sunday morning. Tote bag with Bible and Sunday School lesson, studied and ready to teach. Annotated cantata book for Easter drama practice, ready for first rehearsal and casting. So much to do. So much to think about. Mind full of minutiae to remember. Let me put all this in the car, lest I forget something… wait, the sweet pickles for lunch. I forgot to take them to church with the sandwich stuff for rehearsal. Let me put the jar in my bag. There. Ready…
Opening door. Garage steps, red brick. Car is right there, I will put everything in the backseat floor…
Everything in my hands scatters across the cement floor; I watch the music book and all my papers sliding away with remarkable speed.
I cry out. I don’t know if it’s during that split-second fall, or on impact.
Sharp pain in my right foot… I am only wearing socks, no shoes.
My son, Cadillac Man, is there in an instant. He heard me fall.
I am clutching my foot. It’s bad.
—Mom, is that blood dripping down your bag?
No. Pickle juice … get my Bible out of there.
And get your father.
His father tries to help me up but I can’t stand and he can’t be pulling on me; he is still healing from bypass surgery.
Don’t touch me, I tell them. I don’t know how to move. I have to figure it out.
I crawl back in the house. I take off my sock.
My foot looks intact.
I will try to stand…
My husband and son do not know what to do. It is Sunday morning; one is a pastor, the other, a music director. They each have church services waiting,
Go, I say. I have to figure this out. Maybe it will be better by the time you get back. If not, you can take me to an urgent care. Just go.
I wait until they’re gone to crawl down the hall and, sitting in the floor, change from pajamas to street clothes, for I know I’ll be going somewhere about this foot.
Suddenly everything is exponentially harder than it was.
That’s when I cry.
X-rays reveal that I broke the fifth metatarsal on my right foot. The tech tells me I snapped it and I say yeah, I heard it. Now I am in a boot for six, eight, ten weeks; who knows? These things are slow to heal, says the orthopedist.
And no driving with the boot, she adds.
So now my husband and son must take me to and from work, every day for weeks on end.
—I cannot do this, I say to myself.
But I walk, lopsided, imperfect, maddeningly slow in my Frankenstein boot, out of the office. My husband takes me home.
I watch the countryside whizzing past the passenger window. I know what this is shaping up to be. A hard lesson in dependence, at the least.It’s not like I haven’t lived this before. Seventeen years ago, just after my father died, I broke my foot—the same foot, different bone—while preparing to direct a church play. This second time occurs just after my husband’s brother died. Déjà vu. A curious twist of fate. None curious-er.I am seventeen years older; this is going to be harder.
—Well. It’s just going to have to be one deliberate step at a time.
I love the stillness of the morning, before the dawn, which is presently hours away. I love the silence, the holy hush preceding the coming of the sun. My family, even the new puppy, slumbers on. If I have a word for these moments, it’s expectancy. If I were to step outside now I might hear footsteps in the pine straw beneath trees that border my back fence; I will not yet be able to see which creature is moving there in the dark. A white-tailed deer, perhaps, or a squirrel, which makes an astonishing amount of noise in the straw, much more more than larger creatures. Two mornings ago, in the first light, I glimpsed a huge gray rabbit running to and fro just beyond the fence. And if I wait long enough, I’ll hear my neighbor’s rooster crow. Any time now. He doesn’t wait for actual light that I can see. He’ll proclaim the new day, the continuum of daily living, before it’s set in motion. He’ll stir the goats in various pens throughout the neighborhood (not to be expected in a little subdivision—whatever happened to restrictive covenants?) and their loud chorus of wild baas will back up the rooster’s solo.
It’s life waking up again, claiming the day for its own.
On this new day, of this new year, this new decade, I think about life. The trouble with life, I once read, is that it’s so daily. Not merely being alive but trying to accomplish all that must be (or that we think must be) accomplished in this day, this week, this month … last year I learned a lesson about life on hiatus. When the life of someone you love hangs in the balance, all your best-laid plans disintegrate. Poof.
Moving forward becomes an act of will, a revised determination to do what you can, what’s most important, for that given day. Recovering ground, inch by precious inch.
Whether life is suspended, or stagnant, or spinning out of control, we still have choices. Maybe it’s resting more. Writing more. Reading more, singing more. Praying more. Maybe it’s seeking help. Maybe it’s restoring relationships, or releasing them. Or creating something beautiful, meaningful. What we want to do and what we’re actually able to do in a day, a week, a month, a year, may be vastly different, but reclamation doesn’t happen all at once. It happens in determined, consistent bits by bits. It is deliberate and intentional.
Once I wished for something like parallel lives, a cloning of sorts, with one of me staying home to write all day, one of me getting everything done in the house the way I want it, and another me going to work. I am exacting of myself; I do a thing, I want to do it well, and so I am easily paralyzed by my own standards.
I think of the sea, rolling on and on, its billows and rhythms, its continuity, its fluidity. I contemplate its healing properties, how it is designed to cleanse itself. I look at the photo I included at the top of this post, how, writes the photographer, the cemetery “is being reclaimed by the forest as alders, birch, spruce, fir and a couple apple trees crowd out the dozen or so headstones that stand here.” It’s in Newfoundland and that symbolism strikes right at my writer-heart, new found land.
That’s what reclamation is. Taking back solid ground, or creating new land, from what would submerge it, overtake it. Inch by precious inch, bit by bit. Yesterday I heard a sportscaster speak of Ron Rivera’s move from the Carolina Panthers to the Washington Redskins: “Coach Rivera has been part of a reclamation project before.” It took him four years to take the failing Panthers to the Super Bowl. He’s already begun the work for the Redskins, before he ever gets there … like my rooster here, calling to the dawn before it appears.
It’s hard daily work, reclamation. Progress is slow to see for a time.
But I’ve started.
I pulled the weeds out of the planters on my back deck and planted pansies, a bright bit of welcome on these cold mornings when I take the new puppy out. The puppy is himself an act of reclamation, an affirmation of love my family has always had for dogs (which, I’ve said before, have souls; purer than my own, there in those eyes). He marks a moving forward.
One step at a time, I’ll reclaim the house by many little needed repairs and coats of paint. Patience, endurance …
My writing, my writing. How many stories lay unfinished? Not begun? If I can learn to live nonlinear, to live as fluid as the sea, then anywhere is an entry point. Whenever, wherever, just plunge. The time necessary for writing will come if I just begin the reclamation.
Work. I write this paragraph not only for myself, but for other educators and instructional coaches struggling for clarity and a foothold in an ever-changing, shifting field: Beware the great chasm between theory and application, between programs that are packaged as “the magic bullet” and cost a pretty penny but fail to deliver. Be aware of the great gulf between data that’s visible and the stories of human children, not so visible. Push back all that encroaches on growing the children, that which would inhibit their love of learning. Reclaim that for them. Know them and their families and their stories. Know your colleagues and their stories. Write together, all of you; in this day of restorative practices and social-emotional wellness, why are people not writing more in such settings? We reclaim the very heart of our humanity when we share our stories.
—It is light now. A new day is here; I hear life stirring all around. Forget those restrictive covenants.