Joe reappears to announce the publication of his short story collection and read one selection, “Hero,” a flash fiction piece.
“Hero: 3rd Street and Yakima”
We stood at attention when the car drew close, and one of the nieces even saluted. I wondered who taught her that—if it was Maria. Someone said, “This is what you do at a Veterans Day parade, mija. Salute now. Your uncle is passing by.” Like he was Atticus Finch.
Salute Pedro Gutierrez. Pedro, the gangbanger whose dying was the only noble thing he ever did. Pedro, who joined the Army to hide. Another day on the streets and the cousins of someone he jumped would have stabbed him. Or worse: there would be a drive-by that killed someone who mattered, someone like Maria and her family. My family. Mi familia.
If Pedro had died here, stabbed or shot or beaten, the people that stood on curbs, the ones who saluted his poster-size picture—riding in the back of a 1950-something Chevy like a Cuban dictator—those people would have said it was justice: one less punk. The karma of gang life. Let them kill each other. But Pedro died in Afghanistan, in the last gasps of America’s longest war, and we saluted him as some lost American innocent in a shrapnel-shredded uniform. He was a hero. He was Maria’s hero.
Maria waved at the car, and she walked out to it and touched its waxed white door. One of the men inside, a Vietnam vet with a black baseball hat, gave her a little flag on a kabob skewer. Maria brought it back to the curb, and she walked to Javier, her father, and presented it to him. Javier held Maria like a son.
This final episode of Season 2 is a two-parter: Joe ponders the Pentecost Plague as an American Plague and then comments on two stories of moral authority.
Transcript (“Pentecost” essay):
I am, as anyone listening or reading knows, a Christian. That word can mean many things, and increasingly few of them are doctrinal. It may say something about my adherence to the Trinity, resurrection, bishops, or scripture. But not necessarily. The word, especially in a term like “Evangelical,” has become about affiliation. Who I am likely to vote for, my opinion on gender identity, and whether I will or won’t cooperate with social distancing guidelines. “Christian,” like so many other terms, has devolved into a demographic, a stance, a voting block.
I don’t have time here to list my theology or my background. It is a wide-ranging and circuitous one. I will say only that I have, at various times, been in many camps within Christianity. I have been a single-issue voter, a seminarian, and a sacramentalist. I have drifted on my views on the Bible, my understanding of hermeneutics, my consideration of church history, and my perspective on ethics. In all of these shifts, I have, for better or worse, remained a Christian—at least in the sense of what the word has historically meant.
What I’ve found though is that many tests of my faithfulness, almost always from other Christians, are based on whether my politics are the right ones. I no longer am asked about theology, about what I think of scripture, of whether Jesus of Nazareth was the incarnate Word of God resurrected from the dead, whether I adhere to any or all of the assertions of the Nicene Creed. Instead, my acceptance and rejection—whether I’ve backslidden or apostatized—has more to do with memes and who I vote for.
In the early 2000s, I was a member of a Southern Baptist church, and at a barbecue, the youth pastor mentioned he had voted for Bill Clinton. The other people in leadership flocked to him. Joked—but not joked. Were in disbelief that a Christian could do that. And the only way to deflect them was for my then-wife to note, “Joe voted for Clinton, too.” She knew I was prepared to defend that stance. I was better equipped to take on the accusations. Besides, I wasn’t a pastor. I had less to lose.
Or, around that time, I was part of a closed-door breakfast with Richard Land, then president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He seemed to assume that everyone in the room, perhaps 30 men, were Republicans. Maybe all of them were. He seemed to think that having George W. Bush in office was what a proper Christian wanted. Then he told a story about visiting the Bush White House with Jerry Falwell. Falwell, in the Oval Office, went to the desk. He pointed. He smiled. He asked the President of the United States, “Is this the spot where Monica Lewinsky…?” Something about a cigar.
One of my favorite movies is Robert Hamer’s 1954 Father Brown, sometimes called The Detective. The titular character, based on the detective stories of G.K. Chesterton, is a priest played by Alec Guinness. In his autobiography, Guinness notes how this role helped lead to his conversion. One night, still in costume as the priest, a small boy on the streets of Paris came up to him, took his hand, and accompanied the man he thought was a priest. Guinness wrote, “Continuing my walk, I reflected that a Church that could inspire such confidence in a child, making priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable, could not be as scheming or as creepy as so often made out. I began to shake off my long-taught, long-absorbed prejudices.”
Of course, there is irony in Guinness’s story. I doubt an actor today would have the same encounter or interpretation. Most of us now keep children away from lone priests on park benches. I suspect that not many priests are comfortable walking along the Seine, holding hands with a boy.
This last weekend was Pentecost, and the Lenten Plague moved from Lent to Easter to Pentecost, the festival of fire. I could not help but notice that on the eve of Pentecost, the Multnomah County Justice Center in downtown Portland was on fire. That makes me think of how fire spreads, for good or for ill, based on its fuel. That on the first Pentecost, the tongues of fire spread good news, increased the church, and brought salvation to many people. That on this year’s Pentecost, the fires destroyed businesses, that fire was a sign of loss of faith—or, in some cases, utter nihilism. The Lenten Plague, in places such as Iceland and New Zealand, is all but gone. But here, in America, in the great Christian nation, or whatever we were or are, it spreads. This is now our Plague. An American Plague.
The last few years have been hard ones. Not only because the divisions in our nation have shown to be deeper and more persistent than they need to be. But because moral authority has been so thoroughly wasted. Part of my departure from Evangelicalism was certainly theological. But it was accelerated by events like the closed-door breakfast or the way in which so many of the people who had taught me right from wrong seemed to no longer recognize those differences. They squandered their moral authority. They took their moral authority, like betters in a casino, and placed it all on one color, one number, certain that it would make them wealthy and powerful. And in the process, whatever temporary political victories they may have gained have culminated in the loss of trust.
It reminds me of this old story about St. Dominic, though I’ve heard it ascribed to St. Francis, too. The legend is set somewhere around the year 1210, when the Catholic church had grown wealthy beyond any dreams, perhaps in the years when the church, as a political institution, was as powerful and unchallenged as it would ever be. G.K. Chesterton tells it this way: “It was of [St. Dominic] that the tale was told, and would certainly have been told more widely among us [Catholics] if it had been told of a Puritan, that the Pope pointed to his gorgeous Papal Palace and said, ‘Peter can no longer say, “Silver and gold have I none”’; and the Spanish friar answered, ‘No, and neither can he now say, “Rise and walk.”’”
I know why I am still a Christian. But I’m not sure why anyone would become one if the Christianity they see is the one that I see most pronounced, most vocal, most aligned with power: that says all things are negotiable except abortion and guns rights. Perhaps I am being unfair. But this is the loudest and most emphatic face of Christianity, one that has taken many Christian words from me—and from others. It is the view that has corroded Christianity’s moral authority. Just as the priest abuse—and the institutional coverup—has taken away much of the Catholic church’s moral authority. It is, to use the old Greek word, a scandal. A thing that makes people stumble.
In the fires and the protests, I see new moral authority. I don’t love all that it stands for or agree with all it wants. But it is true moral authority. Driven by justice. Driven by a clear sense of right and wrong. And it is filling the vacuum created by the old moral authority, the one that says, “Yes, but, at least we’re getting the Supreme Court we want.”
The abdication is allowing some Christian groups to emerge more defined—to say, “That isn’t us. That never was us.” But it’s confusing. And if in the years ahead, the gap between religious and non-religious grows, it won’t be because of some humanist conspiracy at the universities, the encroachment of socialism, or the pollution of Hollywood. It will be because those who were supposed to be salt and light lost their saltiness, hid their light under a bushel. It will be because we have not only cast our pearls before pigs, we have threaded them into necklaces and worshipfully adorned swine.
This new plague, the Pentecost Plague, is the realization of our early fears of the Lenten Plague: that it would mutate, that it would become more vicious, that it would spread beyond control. Despite conspiracy theories, the Pentecost Plague did not originate in some lab in China. It was shaped by our history, by our persistent and willful negligence. The Pentecost Plague is our creation. It is fueled by hypocrisy: some people arm themselves at state capitols, outraged over the loss of haircuts. They go unbothered by police and celebrated by a king coronated by those who ought to know better. Other people march in outrage over murder, racism, institutional injustice, and the utter moral bankruptcies of a nation that continues to betray its ideals. These people are met with rubber bullets, tear gas, and the condemnation of a king tweeting from the safety of his bunker.
The first Pentecost was a fire for the world. It spread good news. It included those who had been cast out, it reached those of different languages and across class lines. It elevated the poor and needy. It said that all were equal. But the Pentecost Plague is an American Plague. It is fueled by venom and injustice, by moral bankruptcy and unkept promises. Unlike the Lenten Plague, whichspread through contact and breath, the Pentecost Plague feeds on desiccated moral authority, like so many dead leaves and dry twigs, and spreads through fire.
This is not part of the essay. But I think this is what moral authority looks like:
First, Monday morning, I read a story about Safia Munye, a Somalian immigrant who, in 2018, used her life’s savings to open a restaurant in Minneapolis. Mama Safia’s. During the shutdown, she had to choose between keeping her business insurance or paying her employees. She chose her employees. And then, this weekend, her restaurant—and the relics and irreplaceable items that shaped the restaurant—were consumed by fire during the riots and protests. No insurance. It’s all gone. She is completely innocent. This wasn’t her fault. She did everything right.
Moral authority is Safia Munye saying “Al-hamdu lilah”—all praise is due to God alone. And then this: “My heart is broken. My mind is broken. I know I can’t come back from this. But this can be replaced. George’s life cannot. George’s life was more important. That man that got killed in the most inhuman way. I hope he gets justice.”
That is moral authority.
Or moral authority was this: that as my wife and I were driving through Portland on Pentecost, on our way to grab takeout, a driver in the turn lane wouldn’t let us in. Hope says, “Turn on the next block and loop around.” I take a left onto Alder. The businesses and offices on Alder are boarded up. New plywood over the windows. It’s eerie. And at the intersection of Alder and 6th, I stop to turn left. The businesses across the street—the Legal Aid office; my wife works with Legal Aid—is boarded up. And across the street is a man—perhaps in his fifties, maybe younger or older. The way people age on the streets makes years hard to estimate. He’s white, like me. He has a beard and thin gray hair. He has a plastic boot on one leg—a fractured ankle or some other injury. And he is trying to cross the street. It isn’t going well. He’s wobbly. Not because of the legboot but because he is disoriented. It could be drugs for all we know. Maybe meds—maybe he took too many. Dementia. Traumatic brain injury. Something. He looks lost and blank. He just knows he is supposed to get from one side to the other. Or maybe he doesn’t even know that.
And he takes a couple steps and then seems to fall back a little. It’s a miracle that he’s upright. And he has trouble lifting his boot above the streetcar rail. It almost fells him. I’m waiting, my left turn signal on. The light is green, but I have to wait for the man to cross.
The light changes, and the car facing him on 6th pulls forward a little, but the woman driving stops. The man is taking a step forward. He’s just past halfway across. And then, behind the woman, a service van. White and unlabeled, about the size of all the blue Amazon Prime vans that run around Portland. And the driver, white like me, in his late twenties or early thirties, honks. I don’t know it’s him at first, but it’s him. His light is green. But the car in front of him won’t go. And I think, at first, the honking is only urban impatience. The van man doesn’t see the man in the legboot.
But he does see him. He sits high above the car in front of him. The man in the van leans out his window and yells. He honks again.
And then the man in the legboot, about five feet from the corner, tumbles. The van man honks. He yells something. Then my wife opens her door. She leaves the safety of our car. The safety of our distance. She closes the door and then I put on my hazard signals. There is a car behind me. Our light is green now. The car behind does not honk. It is another woman, not so different than the woman perpendicular to me, the woman waiting as the van man behind her honks and yells.
My wife goes to the man, and, yes, I’m aware as I write this—I’m aware in the moment—that she is a better person than I am. Me, all I can think to do is put on hazard lights. But my wife gets out. She breaks lockdown.
And walking down Alder is another man. Tall, white. I can’t quite tell if he’s homeless, too. He’s a little worn looking. But he comes to help my wife. But from the other side—the van man honking now again. Yelling. His light is green. But from the other side, two teens on skateboards. They are in bandanas, red and black. They are in tracksuits. They are Black. Or maybe they’re not. I think they are but my wife doesn’t remember it that way. Maybe tan, maybe Hispanic. They don’t care. They’re not asking that question.
The teens, maybe 15 or 16 years old, maybe younger. They’re thin. They look both ways. They pick up their boards and run to the man on the ground. They pause. They ask if they can help, but they pause because they’re wearing bandanas around their mouths because of the virus. The virus is still out here. But they help. They help my wife lift him. Their skateboards roll. A Gatorade bottle rolls.
The man is incoherent. Afterward, my wife says he was completely out of it. She asked him questions and he couldn’t respond.
My wife, the man coming down Alder, and the two teens show this man compassion. They help him, even in violation of social distancing restrictions, regardless of the signal telling cars they can go. The rest of us watch and wait—the woman behind me, my hazards flashing, me, the woman perpendicular, the van man honking.
The man in the legboot is resting on the sidewalk now. The other man is with him. And the light is green for 6th Street, so the woman in the car perpendicular eases out. She waves at the two youth. Then there is the van man. Yelling. His window down. And this is something only I see. In his right hand, turned sideways like in an action movie, a black handgun. It’s the same size and shape of the 45s I remember from my Army days. But black. And the man is yelling. He’s pointing his loaded hand toward the broken man in a legboot. No one else sees this. And among all the ways I fail in that moment, I fail at noting his vehicle, catching a picture.
My wife comes back in. She puts on some hand sanitizer. And the two youth, now ready to cross, wait. Because they have a red light. They wave for me to go, for traffic to flow like normal. As if nothing happened. We’re back in the world of the van man—when traffic lights tell us the rules, when green means go and red means stop. And I know that I have no right to move on before they do—no moral right. Those teens—likely on their way to the protests— my wife, Safia Munye, the man sitting with the legbooted man—they should have to yield for no one.
Joe tries to remember the eruption of Mount St. Helens but isn’t sure he trusts memory.
Around 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, May 18, 1980, my world changed. There was no way of knowing or suspecting, so soon into the morning, the sky would turn black. Not black like the night. Not black like an eclipse—there were no stars or moon. Black like a closet in a basement. And still. The stillness of attentiveness, the stillness of hiding. Then quiet, like the world after a blizzard. Silent. Silence that is both comforting and eerie. A quiet in which sound is absorbed into the surroundings. Like the world was quilted in black velvet. No echo. No reverb.
Then the snow came. The streetlights kicked on, in the morning, as we were getting ready for church. And—in the radius of the streetlight—snow. But it wasn’t snow. This was mid-May. It couldn’t be snow. But it looked like snow. Dirty snow. Gray. It was the falling pieces of trees and soil and stone, all reduced into flakes and dust and ash, the particles of a mountain 105 miles directly west of Granger, Washington.
Because of how memory works, I don’t have many details of that morning. Only that the eruption of Mount Saint Helens, to me, a nine-year-old, was a welcome apocalypse. I did not want to go to church. Neither did my brother and sisters. Nor, probably, did my Dad. And in a world as small as Granger—with its 1,800 people, uncluttered by stoplights or movie theaters or even a McDonald’s—the eruption of a volcano was entertainment. It was sublime. It was bigger than anything I had seen or known or thought to know—bigger than the hydroplane races at SeaFair, bigger than the Space Needle, perhaps as big as Star Wars.
For me, that is the entirety of the memory: The mountain erupted, it was black on a late-Spring morning, and we didn’t have to go to church. I wish there were more. But memory doesn’t work like that. It is not a home movie—a rediscovered VHS tape in the garage. Based on the way memory seems to work, you can never be sure the details are correct. The memory becomes transformed by narrative—like my memory that we didn’t go to church—such that there may be no actual memory. Only the story that was crafted and called “memory.”
Since 1980, I have gone through similar collective events—the Challenger explosion, the Columbine shooting, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Nisqually earthquake. Each event becomes lodged, internalized, by the “where were you when it happened” context—the place and time and feeling of the experience more than the event.
Ben Lerner, in his novel 10:04, writes of this phenomenon. He describes the Challenger explosion and how all us Gen-Xers remember where we were, how we watched the space shuttle blast off and explode. We were in school, encircled around a TV with our classmates. Only we weren’t. Not most of us. Not those of us in Granger. Lerner points out that only CNN carried the launch and explosion live. We didn’t watch it happen. We watched it as remembered later in story, as news. In 1986, I don’t even know if Granger had cable. Our school, among the poorest in the state, certainly didn’t have TVs in every classroom.
This week, I am trying to remember the explosion of Mount St. Helens forty years ago. I will talk to peers and tell stories. The Portland Art Museum is sharing its volcano exhibit. But, if I’m honest, I don’t know much more than anyone who wasn’t alive then or who isn’t from the Pacific Northwest—only that it happened and was worth remembering. I will, like many people I know, probably say, “I’ll never forget it.” Which, with few exceptions, is not a choice we get to make with memory. Of course I will forget it. Maybe I won’t forget that it happened. Every year since 1980, I associate May 18 with Mt. St. Helens. Just like I associate June 16 with my dad’s birthday. Though there is a substantial difference between remembering that my dad was born and remembering the events of his birth.
I can make a list of “never forgets.” But the list is short. It shifts from public catastrophes to private ones, from the attacks on September 11, 2001, to the death of my friend Nelson Ng on August 15, 2008. Nelson was a police officer. And he’s been gone so long. I’ve almost become used to a world without him. Though, not really. I still feel the cavity. Just as now, every time I drive north on I-5, if the day is clear, I see what remains of Mt. St. Helens. It is something like a tooth after a root canal, hollowed out and sunken. It’s top 1,313 feet are missing. Parts of it mixed in with the dirt and dust in Granger, Washington. I can’t see the summit. I only know that until forty years ago, it had one and that now there’s nothing in the place of where the summit should be.
I admit, it’s harder to see the chasm left by Nelson. I’ve moved away from Ellensburg, his wife remarried and changed his daughter’s last name to match her new husband’s. Though, earlier this week when the Kittitas County Sherriff’s Office posted pictures of officers who died in the line of duty—beneath the banner at the top of the page that reads, “Never Forgotten”—I noticed the absence of Nelson. These portraits were limited to the never-forgotten of 2019.
By definition, I do not know who or what I’ve forgotten. I’ve certainly forgotten many of the people and events I said I would never forget. Whenever someone says, “I’ll never forget,” it rings like a challenge to the universe. Yes, they will forget. I will forget. We might remember a feeling—or that we felt. We probably will create a story that takes the place of memory. Where we were when the planes hit the second tower, what we were eating when the radio reported the death of President Roosevelt.
I do wonder, when this moment in history ends, what will remain. Probably stories about toilet paper and a cartoonish American president. I will remember not being able to go to church—how the Plague took away Lent, then Easter, then (unless a miracle in the next week) Pentecost. But not much beyond that. Memories are a bit like produce on a counter: the browning of a banana, the softening of an avocado. So, we put new bananas, new avocados on the counter.
I have long envied that device in the Harry Potter books—the Pensieve. About which, Dumbledore says, “I sometimes find… that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind.” The Pensieve allows the pure extraction of a memory so that it can be reviewed—by the original witness or by others. Like it was filmed before a live studio audience—a piece of television more than a concoction of facts and perspectives and interpretations. But, of course, this magic does not exist any more than does floo powder or the spells by which Voldemort can come continually come back from the dead. Memories fade into interpretations or absences. Dead people stay dead.
Perhaps I am reading too much theology and history lately. It’s strange the way that history, so often, feels more like discovery than recollection. The way I come across a story and think, “How did I not know that?” Which is another way of saying things were forgotten. I’ve been reading a family history my Aunt wrote. All of it feels like discovery. My family has forgotten—or chose to forget—or maybe I’ve simply forgotten. And the memories exist now only as stories, like a form of alchemy. How trilobites, once fleshy and living, exist now only as stone. How a mountain’s summit is now dispersed across states as part of the topsoil or makes up the silt on the ocean floor.
I don’t know what any of this means, only that I keep hearing about the things people will never forget. I wonder why they believe that. Of course we will forget. We always forget. Maybe memory was never about remembering. Maybe it is only a process by which an experience or person blends into us, that even if we forget all the details, we respond to the next tragedy or pleasure with an instinct or intuition, a sense that we’ve been here before. Or maybe memory is this flicker—this idea that we need to re-discover a thing that is in danger of being lost. And maybe that is why I write—to remember a few things, to try, as much as I can, to re-create the Pensieve. Or simply to store something that will otherwise be as distant to me as childhood and volcanoes and the celebration of staying home from church.
Joe sees the world in the time after the apocalypse, in a world without funerals.
For at least two decades, I’ve had this end-of-the-world fantasy. I base it on Night of the Comet, a 1984 movie about two Valley Girl sisters who survive the annihilation of humanity. After the comet, they have free reign of the streets and stores of Los Angeles. They even, despite zombie scientists, manage to find love. By the end, it’s their responsibility to rebuild civilization. I envy their freedom—no debts, no work hours, no possessions. And, too, I envy their ability to determine what is worth saving. They get to start over and hold onto only those things that matter. It’s a variation of one of my favorite childhood movies, 1960’s Swiss Family Robinson. After the catastrophe comes the freedom of paradise.
Those are the optimistic apocalypses. Nearly every other apocalypse movie I’ve seen describes—in Mad Max style—a world that devolves into a new feudalism or something much worse. These apocalypse moves—whether Escape from New York, Waterworld, or Cyborg—are new westerns: clans of predatory men who ravage people and resources, who exploit the weak, and who can only be defeated by some powerful hero with a vendetta or an innate sense of righteousness.
I’ve tried to write an apocalypse story. It always fails. But I find that each attempt leads me to an entirely different question. An existential question I can’t seem to shake. Is it better to be taken by the apocalypse or to live on only to die alone in the after-mess? By which I mean, would I rather die peacefully in my sleep or on a falling jetliner surrounded by other people? Would I rather die of some private cancer or sit on a park bench with others to watch the world end? Like in that other 1980s apocalypse movie, The Day After. The mushroom clouds, the nuclear blast, the fire that consumes.
Apocalypse movies begin with the bulk of humanity, countless billions, coming to a collective end. Skylab sends out the terminators. An alien invasion incinerates nations. The big ending is the beginning of the apocalypse movie. The apocalypse movie is really about what comes next—the post-world and the protagonist navigating it. The way people no longer suffer as a whole. Every person has a separate fate, a separate destiny, a separate experience of survival. Some are fabulously wealthy and powerful. Most are fodder and food.
This weekend, Portland feels like summer. It’s warm and lovely and green. The birds are choirs. Bumblebees pop from flower to flower. The rabbits are back—multiple incarnations of the same brown bunny in the bushes across the street, in the park, by our driveway tree. There is, too, the buzz, the sense that the world is moving into some new phase.
Yes, all the news is the same news, but it is not the same news for everyone. If you live in Germany, you have different news than Alabama or Italy. If you live in South Dakota, you have different news than Sweden or South Africa. If you are wealthy, you have different news than the poor. If your skin is dark, you have different news than those who have light skin—the people for whom a neighborhood jog is not lethal. The collective story of the Plague is becoming the separate stories of the movie hero. Every one of us our own franchise.
For a few weeks, humanity had a shared story. And now, as movie theaters and hair salons open in some states, as bars and restaurants open in others, we are back to doing our own things. We risk some people and protect others. We have grown bored of one another. We have tired of cooperation. There is, perhaps, only so much solidarity we can have. The apocalypse moves from the end of the world to the world after the end. And maybe it reveals that the cooperation, unity, shared purpose, and common resolve were all illusions. Maybe we were never really in this together.
Today, I am thinking of funerals. My Great Uncle Jerry died this week in a nursing home, a new kind of lonely—a denied dignity. Jerry did not get, as he deserved, anything so normal and humane as family at the end of 82 years. He isn’t getting a funeral. At least not anytime soon.
Which makes me think of the funeral I last went to—a year ago for my uncle Paul. Uncle Paul’s funeral afforded something that only funerals offer: that point when people connected to one another realize, for a moment, how disconnected they have become. A funeral, more than any wedding, is about connection. It’s the place where we try to plan out ways to, this time, stay in better touch. I laugh and talk much more at funerals—or, at least, after them—than I ever do at weddings.
The Plague has taken many gatherings. Students lament graduation ceremonies. Two people I know have already altered their weddings. And then, birthdays. My niece and stepdaughter both turned 21 in quarantine. On Saturday, I did an eight-hour round trip for my son’s 14th birthday. I stood outside. I felt uncomfortable being within six feet of him.
These are true losses, and I don’t mean to diminish them. But all of these things, as unfortunate as they are, do not compare to the loss of funerals. They do not compare to the isolation in hospitals and nursing homes. In all of my fantasies about surviving the apocalypse or being collectively lost to it, I did not imagine this other scenario: for people to die alone and together, the worst of both experiences.
There is a special cruelty to it. And it reminds me of Sylvia Plath, how her mother, in order to protect the young girl when her father died, did not allow any of the Plath children to the funeral. Rather than sparing the girl, the choice seems to have damned her. She grows obsessed with death. She lives her short life feeling betrayed. She has no sense of acceptance. Her father becomes a ghost. He abandons her. He leaves her alone. Maybe he is still alive and just doesn’t want her anymore. Plath never got to see her father one last time. She never saw him lowered into the ground. Plath’s career is famously tormented by obsessions with her father and with death. In a poem written two weeks before her own death, Plath cannot shake this loss. She describes a heaven that is “fatherless.”
I am not romanticizing funerals. Rather, I am recognizing this moment in which the Plague has taken on a new character or—rather—exposed our character. As groups gather to wave flags and rifles to declare their personal sovereignties, I cannot help but think of how fragile solidarity truly is and how rare shared moments of concern are. Plagues, like wars, reveal us: they show us opportunities to join our resources for a common good, though like westerns and apocalypse movies, it takes little time for clans to form, leaving us longing for some Hollywood ending: the saving hero to come in. But that—the hero—is the real fantasy. There is no Jean Claude Van Damme Cyborg coming to save us. There are no Avengers. There is only us, creatures capable of saving worlds or destroying them. Creatures equipped with the ability to recognize the dignity of the individual or to collapse into rants and lawsuits about our rights to assembly. Perhaps I would be more sympathetic to the protests if their concern was human dignity, if their outrage was about people like Uncle Jerry who had to die alone—no child or priest permitted bedside.
The apocalypse has already happened. We are the people left behind. And already, the first chance we get, we run our separate directions, chasing our private storylines, abandoning the sense of humanity or shared responsibility or collective sacrifice. Each of us to our own path, each to our own story.
Like after a funeral, on the car ride home, and the conversation about how nice it was to see Aunt Sylvia again and we really should get to Boise to visit. Then the glance at the calendar. The look at the bank account. The question of what to get for dinner. And then, the unspoken understanding that only another funeral will bring the family back together.
Joe reads a new bit of fiction: a story about quarantine and a cat that doesn’t have anywhere better to go.
Stephen always hated cats. Always. This hatred had even ended relationships—women who were wonderful in all ways except their loyalties and adoration of cats. Cats. Vile creatures that resent and sulk and destroy. The fat ones that lounge, entitled. The thin ones that shred, mischievous. All of them, unaffectionate and arbitrary, as fickle and arrogant as middle school girls.
Cats were even topics of therapy. Stephen’s counselor theorized about the why of it all: childhood trauma. That maybe Stephen was scarred—literally and psychically—from the family cat. How, as a five-year-old, Stephen tried to pet it, but Misty scratched across his face. The scratch got infected. Or how the next cat, Shadow, left a teeth-wounded mouse on his bedroom floor, bleeding from the eyes and squealing and the boy Stephen, in terror, was too paralyzed to step over it or to scream for his parents. And the mouse, in its agony and erratic death-breathing, moved toward him. Or how, when he was eight, a friend from school, who lived on a farm, took a sack and filled it with unwanted kittens, and tied the mouth of the sack with a shoelace and threw the sack in the river. How Stephen stood by as this happened. And maybe, the therapist said, that if Stephen acknowledged the value of cats he would have to acknowledge his complicity in their execution. The therapist suggested that Stephen wasn’t mad at cats. He was mad at himself.
Whatever the reason, Stephen considered cats lecherous and parasitic, cruel and savage. He wanted no part of them and could feign no tolerance. He loathed the creatures. He would sooner say, “nice cancer” than “nice cat.”
He liked dogs. But his apartment did not permit dogs. Cats, yes. But not dogs.
Stephen had been alone in his apartment for eight weeks, now. Most days without any interaction except email or following links real-world friends posted in the virtual world.
The grocery store trip became the highlight of his life—the going out into the world, leaving shelter, as permitted by state law, only for emergencies, essential work, and groceries. He—at least his work—was not essential.
His family worried about him, alone. Friends called him. Even an old girlfriend, more lonely than he was, perhaps. The spark was long over on that one.
Stephen was tired of faces on screens. At first, it was good: re-connecting, talking to people he intended to visit. But, a month in, it felt as hollow as reruns of baseball games.
Into this, of course, a cat enters. A non-descript cat—a gray tabby, no collar. Scrawny. White toes and a white chest. Young—maybe two years old—and quiet. It sits outside on Stephen’s deck. Stephen does not know why. Stephen shoos it away, stepping toward it and saying, “Shoo.” It leaves.
The next day, it’s there again. Quiet, sitting on Stephen’s deck, looking into the sliding glass door. Stephen fills a glass, opens the door, and tosses water. Cats hate water, he knows.
The third day, Stephen throws his work shoes.
The fourth, he tosses couch pillows.
The fifth, he finds a hose.
And each day, the cat walks away and then returns in the morning. No sound. Just a tabby on the patio staring into the apartment. Even after Stephen closes the curtain, as he turns off the lights so he can’t be seen.
The sixth day is Stephen’s store day. The cat is there when he leaves and when he comes home. Stephen asks a clerk if they have anything to keep cats away. The clerk says, “A dog?”
Day seven, Stephen jumps toward the cat, making sure to land flat-footed in his sneakers to create the biggest clap. “Git.” The cat walks off.
On day eight, Stephen ignores it. But at night, he pulls the curtain, and the cat is there.
The morning of the ninth day, he calls his therapist.
“Maybe,” Dr. Williams says, “it’s a gift. Maybe this is a chance for healing.”
“But you think it’s real?” says Stephen. “It’s not a hallucination.”
“I guess it could be. Hadn’t thought of that.”
On the tenth day, Stephen kicks it.
On day eleven, he whips a leather belt on the ground. Loud, percussive slaps.
On the twelfth day, Stephen calls the city. The secretary answers and says Animal Control is understaffed. Emergencies only. The secretary tells Stephen, “You might as well feed it.”
That day, Stephen understands that only one action remains. He will catch the cat. He will get rid of it once and for all. Out in the country. And that will be the end of it. He doesn’t need to kill it, but he’s willing. If he has to.
So he has his plan. He’ll wait until dark. He doesn’t want any neighbors seeing. Too many cat-lovers in the complex. They would think him—not the lurking animal—the villain.
He will catch it in the dark, drive it in the dark, abandon it in the dark. Ten miles away, no less.
At nine, Stephen pulls the curtains back. The cat is on the patio. Stephen opens the hall closet and takes out a pillow case. He unfolds it, waves it so it billows and opens. He turns off his patio light, slides open the door, and walks to the cat. The cat does not move. It only watches him.
Even as Stephen wraps the pillowcase around it, the cat neither squirms nor squeals.
To be safe, Stephen ties off the case with his belt and sets the bundle in his car trunk. He gets in the front seat. Looks around the complex. Seeing no one, he starts the car and pulls out. He puts on music. Something loud, first. But then something soft. Switching. No song forming the right soundtrack. Then, after five minutes, no music at all. Only the engine.
The streets are bare. Stephen drives a half mile before coming across another car. The headlights are harsh, a cool but abrasive blue-white beam. He doesn’t remember car headlights being this harsh. Perhaps he’s been locked inside too long. When this is over—when he is free to get out—he will go to the eye doctor. He’s getting older. He’ll be thirty-two in October. Maybe he’s aging. Maybe it is all happening, and what has he done with his life anyway?
He still follows traffic laws. He comes to full stops. He looks before entering an intersection. Then, at one light, a police car waits in the opposing lane. Just Stephen and a police car. No other traffic. Nothing to distract the officer. Stephen worries about how the bored cop, needing something to do, might check him, check the car. How he will explain the cat. He can’t. Or maybe he can. The police will understand. It’s a stray. The city isn’t taking care of strays. He isn’t hurting it. He’s just taking it to the woods to set it free. Besides, there is that article about the virus and how cats can carry it. Maybe this cat is contagious. Stephen is not wearing his mask. He’s not wearing gloves.
The light turns. Stephen pauses one second before releasing the brake. The police car is already halfway through the intersection. The officer is a black woman. Stephen notices this then feels guilty for noticing. She continues. Even as Stephen drives straight, watching in his rearview mirror, the cop continues on. Steady red lights. No break lights. No in-street U-turn. Maybe if it was a black male cop, he thinks. Then, again, shame. He is not a racist. These are not the kind of thoughts he should have. And should he talk to his therapist about this?
Stephen reaches the edge of town, past the suburbs, and the speed limit increases to 50. Whenever he stops, he listens for the cat. It’s quiet. Or maybe the car is too loud. Or maybe there is, in the trunk, an exhaust leak. Maybe the fumes have gotten to it. He hadn’t meant to kill it, but, really, wouldn’t that be a merciful way to go. Not drowning. Nothing as cruel as drowning. Just a quiet sleepiness. Like all other sleepiness. Only this one doesn’t stop.
Stephen turns right, onto a streetlight-less road off the main highway, and, after a mile, looks for a place to pull over. There are trees here. Tall trees. It’s dark, except for his headlights. And the houses are far apart. Maybe one of these houses will want a cat. Maybe this cat will wander to those houses and find a home. Some old woman who needs companionship. Someone who has no one else.
He pulls onto a wide shoulder, onto gravel. He turns off the headlights. Turns off the engine. This looks suspicious, he knows. If anyone drives by, they won’t understand. He can explain, but still, it doesn’t look great. But this is the right thing to do. This is better than the cat—any cat he’s known—deserves.
He opens the door, which squeaks. He hadn’t noticed a squeak before. When the quarantine is over, he will get grease and fix the door. Until then, it’s just a squeak. He pats his front pockets, nervous that he will somehow lock himself out. The key is in his hand. The gravel marks each step like movie gravel—a blend of crunch and the whisking of a broom. The woods themselves are quiet. Almost peaceful. But, also, too dark to be comfortable. A little unnerving in their darkness and their quiet. What of the birds? There are no birds. And no sound from the highway.
Stephen thinks of horror stories. In a horror movie, the cat will find its way back to him, torment him. But those are just stories. Cats, abandoned ten miles in the country, don’t come back to houses that were never their homes. They find new homes. Or coyotes find them.
For reasons he does not fully fathom, Stephen is pleased, opening the trunk, that the cat is still moving. He doesn’t actually wish it dead by his hand. He just hates it. Nothing personal. A natural hatred, like a mongoose’s hatred for cobras. It’s a feeling he has toward all cats. For someone else, this might be the world’s greatest cat. But the world’s greatest cat is no less a menace than the world’s greatest hornet or world’s greatest mosquito. Nothing personal.
The cat makes no sound, even as Stephen lifts the pillowcase from the trunk. It does not resist or scratch. Instead, it allows itself into the temporary cradle Stephen forms, resting fully in the man’s arms. Unanxious. No defense. Stephen feels the weight and the warmth. He feels the pillow case’s insides nestle into his chest. All the pillows this case has ever covered have not done this. They are inert. They are room temperature. They are utterly indifferent.
Stephen lowers the case to the ground. He is gentle. He loosens the belt.
The cat, cautious at first, pushes out of the pillowcase. It walks four steps and then settles, as it had for nearly two weeks, on its haunches—its front arms straight—sitting up, staring at Stephen, eye to eye.
“Nothing personal,” says Stephen. “I told you to get.”
Stephen walks around the car and says, behind him, but not looking back, “You’ll be fine.”
He gets in. Turns the key. Turns on the lights. He pulls out slowly. Doesn’t even spin out on the gravel. He makes a wide U-turn, and the cat watches him. It doesn’t budge. Stephen rolls down his window. “You git, now,” he says.
The cat does not “git.” It stays. It watches Stephen.
Stephen can make it out in his mirror. Just sitting there. Watching. Glowing red for a moment. And then it is too dark. The cat is part of the shadows now. It’s free among the woods. And all this is finally over now. Stephen can go home now. In peace. He can finally be all alone.
Joe considers neighbors, aspirations, and fear. He attempts to be inspirational.
On Saturday, my neighbor stopped me in the street. I was dumping compost from dinner, and he was wandering, a little stir crazy. My first feeling was that newly-gained dread: the terror of people: all of them are like zombies, carrying the plague and walking, standing, or running too close. There was, too, the introvert’s terror of having to engage. I knew he expected me to turn on, which is to say, my neighbor needed me to be neighborly.
Fortunately, he didn’t need me to talk much. The wind shifted, and I caught the scent. He was buzzed. He just wanted to ramble. And if it wasn’t me, it would’ve been a dog or a tree.
He had an idea for a book. For ten minutes, he described it, though it morphed and took on new forms as he talked. He asked questions, but never waited for the answers. By the end, I had no idea what his book was about. Only that an idea had occurred to him. He could write a book. It would be interactive. It would be a best seller. He wanted to print locally, not in China. He thought about Portland. “Does Powell’s publish books or just sell books?” he said. I said I didn’t know. I started to say I knew of a Powell’s employee who was a publisher. But my neighbor didn’t hear this. His idea was so great that Powell’s would begin publishing and make his their first book.
The book’s title was a secret. It was a hilarious title, he said. It made his kids and his wife laugh, he said. He couldn’t tell me. He didn’t want to give it away. He had that paranoia people have when they get book ideas. It’s like having a map to gold in the Yukon. Keep it secret. Keep it safe. If someone gets the idea, they’ll steal it. The step from great idea to New York Times bestseller is a simple matter of typing the thing out.
I’ve been writing, and getting rejected, for nearly twenty-five years. At this point, I don’t even feel rejections. I barely feel acceptances. So, I envied the neighbor’s enthusiasm. But like the middle-aged man that I am, I also thought it naive. He still believed that the most important part of a book was the concept. And it did me no good to tell him that concept doesn’t matter. An idea is the easy part. It’s the discipline to sit and write that matters. I was pretty sure, given how squirrel-like he was, bouncing from concept to concept, he wouldn’t be able to do that part.
Long ago, I stopped caring about the ideas people had. I only cared about their follow-through. My neighbor would need to learn how to move from enthusiasm to tedium. Writing is tedious. From what I know of people who build businesses, that work is tedious, too.
At dinner, my wife’s daughter asked why I get up early to write. I said fear—this fear that if I don’t, I will die having wasted some gift I had.
I’m not proud of that answer. It goes back to a bad understanding of gifts, nurtured by a bad understanding of a parable Jesus told. I learned this parable in the King James translation, which uses an old word—“talents”—that some translations render as “bag of gold”—an old Roman and Greek unit of measure. But to me, the word is “talents,” and the idea of the parable is talents—our aptitudes and skills.
The gist of the parable is that a master allots each of three servants talents. It’s not even. One gets ten, one gets five, one gets one. Each servant’s responsibility is to do something with those talents. Then the master leaves.
The servant given one talent buries his, afraid he will lose the little he has. He fears the master and figures that it’s better to not use a talent rather than to risk losing it and falling into the master’s wrath. The other servants use their talents. Each doubles the original amount.
The twist in the parable is that the master, once returning, is outraged by cowardice, not by risk. He takes the one talent the man has, gives it to the person who now has twenty. Then he casts out the talent-less servant.
I am afraid of being the servant who buried his talent. I’m afraid that the master will return and look at a life that squandered its talents.
Of course, writing from a place of fear may not be the best way to write—or to do anything. I’ve tried switching my motivations to something else: love, enthusiasm, joy, affection, envy, money. But all of these ideas—except envy—pass. Instead, I work because I’m afraid of failure, of coming up empty. Though here I am, twenty-five years later, mostly anonymous.
Sometimes my view of success—publishing, money, notoriety—is hardly healthy. It can make me miss all I do have—which is more than anyone has a right to have, in terms of possessions and relationships. Perhaps a good therapist might be able to fix this.
But I think, though, of the trade-off: how if this motivation goes away, I might simply stop working or caring. Maybe, in some way, this kind of fear is a talent.
Had my neighbor asked me or cared, I could have told him anything he wanted to know about writing, self-publishing, editing, rejection, and persistence. I know the venues, the technologies, the techniques. But he didn’t need that. He was excited, and whether that was the concept of writing or the bliss of marijuana isn’t really the point. He had an excitement that does not come from fear or from obligation or discipline. Perhaps it was naive. And next time he sees me, he will likely tell me about some new idea: a face mask business or a laser system that filters air particles.
But my envy for my neighbor and his freshness about writing turned toward pity—that as quickly as his idea came, it will fade. That once the actual work of realizing his dream begins, the dream will seem less compelling. It won’t be enough. Soon, he will lose both the enthusiasm and the possibility. Because the work to realize a dream is tedious. Though, in fairness, perhaps he has some other area in which he knows the difference between idea and execution. He likely has something that is tedious and that he continues.
I don’t really know why I write, or why I do anything that requires discipline. I know that enthusiasm is a great beginner, but discipline is the finisher. I am thankful for discipline, even though it is often tedious.
But I know that if I don’t do the thing, it never comes into being. And maybe this is part of the gift of the parable: not that the master is a tyrant, but that in the compulsion to use our talents, we multiply them and find that they always return something. They never really are at risk of being lost.
Sometimes, after the fear and the sense of duty—after the relentlessness of being worried that my opportunity will come and I will be unprepared for it—there are moments of joy. I forget the fear. Sometimes I write a sentence that reveals the world to me in a new way. Maybe the sentence helps someone else. And then, sometimes, I find a project that pulls me through a difficult period of life—a book or question that I need to see through, and in the seeing through, sustains me, makes me more engaged with the people around me. I only find these joys, these moments of revelations, if I show up and put in the time. On those occasions, when it all comes together, the fear and the discipline seem like talents in themselves, little gifts that multiply whatever wealth I started out with.
Perhaps, when it comes to talent or dreams or ideas, the only risk is burying them. Only in the use of them—exposing them to ridicule, rejection, inadequacy, loss—do we multiply them. It is not wrath or anger that we have to fear. It is, instead, the loss of opportunity, the missed chance at the simple pleasures of discipline itself—and the work that the discipline produces. Maybe the master in the parable knows that we will find reward as we risk what little we have.
Joe is losing his mind, one memory at a time. Plus, he talks Augustine, Moby Dick, twenty-first birthdays, and Heaven.
For most of the Plague, I’ve been reading St. Augustine’s Confessions. It remains one of the glaring omissions in my study. For the first chapters, it was fascinating. I thought I would blaze through. Expecting a quick finish, I even ordered a few other books, which are now in stacks, waiting their turns. But I’ve been buried, for a month now, in a repetitive and meandering part. It’s the dull and apparently aimless rambling that makes me think of Moby Dick—how it took me years of false starts until finally, in an act of willpower that may have been better applied to training for a marathon, I finished.
My poor wife thinks it’s her obligation to read Melville now. She has my copy on her bedside, bookmarked in the early chapters just as Ishmael, Ahab, Starbuck, and Queequeg leave Nantucket. She’s stranded. Just as I, now past the juicy parts about Augustine’s youth, feel like the Pequod stalled in windless waters.
My stepdaughter turns 21 in three weeks. She’s not excited about it. My wife and I talked with her about twenty-first birthdays. This, for some reason, is an American right of passage. And my stepdaughter is, rightly, saddened that she will miss out on hers. She will mark the day with her mom, her sister, and her mother’s new-ish husband. In our house. No friends, no bouncers, no illicit regrets. Perhaps she will, by nature of the disappointment, remember the birthday. Twenty years from now, she will talk about the quarantine birthday. It will be memorable for its context, even if its actual events are forgettable. Though, perhaps, she won’t really remember it. Because that Monday night will seem so much like the Sunday before it or the Wednesday after it—the same texture, the same Netflix browsing, the same furniture. She will—as is the nature of adult birthdays—not even be excused from her online classes.
My dad never had a twentieth birthday, though it’s the only of his birthdays he’s ever talked about. He boarded a plane for Vietnam on June 15 and arrived in Thailand on the 17th.
I am thinking these days about memory. Since January, I’ve risen early most days and scribbled into notebooks, attempting to form something of a theological memoir. I know I have no chance, without exhaustive research, of building a typical autobiography. I can’t get facts straight. I have few direct quotes. But by attaching my recollection to developments in my religious life, I seem to find some narrative—how I got here—how I drifted from a Catholic through Evangelicalism through other stops until my current homelessness—a Lutheran in most doctrine, but not quite sure what to do with that. This attempt to remember—to create a memoir—was why I finally got around to reading Augustine’s memoir.
The hard part of trying to remember a life is that most of life in unmemorable. Most of it blends into other parts. People enter out of order. I mix up where I lived, when I lived there, and who my friends were. I can’t seem to pinpoint the moment when my family stopped being Catholic and switched to baptist, or why I went along with it. My best resources are corroding memories of conversations with my mom. My grandparents are gone. My aunts and uncles are dwindling or distant. So, I write what I can recall. But the memoir that emerges plays loosely with its historical framework, like how Moby Dick blurs Melville’s time as a sailor with the historical case of the Essex, a ship attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820. Or like movies based on historical events—how I watched the 2003 Luther movie with my wife and had to keep pausing to say, “Well, actually.”
I have no hope of being truly historical because memory is a terrible tool for recording history. When my daughter, now 19, was a child, I deferred my memory to hers. If she said, “No, dad. Grandma wore a pink dress,” then whatever memory I had that her grandma had not been there, let alone never wore pink dresses, would adjust to her account. My daughter was my pure camera. She recorded events without processing them. Though, around her twelfth birthday, this changed. Her memories, like mine, became interpretations. She had a harder time accessing an objective raw feed and tended to recall events based on how they affected her.
This brings me back to something I’ve been plodding through with Augustine. He’s been concerned, for the last week or so, with the nature of time, the essence of God’s relationship to time in contrast to how all of creation experiences—exists in—time. For me, I’m usually bored with theologies that focus too much on God’s perfections—how he is perfectly perfect in his perfectness: eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, unchanging. This theology, as orthodox as it may be, makes God abstract, a philosophical ideal. And it tends to contrast with the God who barters with Abraham, wrestles with Jacob, and rages at Moses.
Augustine, in explaining God’s eternalness, points out why, as an aspect of this, God must be unchanging. He writes, “[God] doesn’t will different things at different times, but instead wills everything that he does will only once, but at the same time and for all time—not over and over, and not differently now and then.” For Augustine, change is an element of time. Only created things—people, pencils, trees, universes—change because they are bound to time. He writes, “periods of time can be perceived and counted off, because periods of time arise from changes in things, given that their types… diverge and diversify.” To Augustine, time is that principle by which we detect and measure change. Change is imperfection. Perfection is unchanging. Perfection is beyond time.
I have two responses to Augustine. The first is more of a question: I can say that God, as I’ve gotten older, appears to have changed. So, how can I be certain that I am changing but God isn’t? My children change, my wife changes, people in relationships change. How do I know that God isn’t changed by entering time and experiencing it with me? Of course, Augustine and St. Thomas and the good Reformed thinkers have answers for that, so I won’t press the point. I try to choose my heresies wisely.
The second is about this present moment and how utterly forgettable it is. This, I think, is one of the illusions of the Lenten-Plague and one of the reasons I keep writing about it. I don’t want to write about this. I want to write about movies, love, cats, and the city. But I’m trapped here. I’m stuck. Or maybe I know that just as I’ve already forgotten what I ate two days ago, I will forget the individual days of this period unless I chronicle them. The further this presses on, the more I’ll mash all its parts into one, just as I blend second through fifth grade into something called “childhood.” We all think we’ll never forget something this big, something this historic. But the featureless and uneventful present moment feels like living the process of forgetting.
I remember parts of my twenty-first birthday. I remember it because it was my twenty-first and that’s something you’re supposed to take note of. So I have a spot for it. My wife’s daughter will likely remember hers because there’s a spot for it—like a picture frame waiting for its photo. And because, over time, she will rehearse and replay her memory—“My twenty-first was the worst because….” She will tell that story until the story replaces a memory, the interpretation replaces the raw footage. For the record, I’m starting to wonder if Naser Al-Hajeri really gave me a Pearl Jam CD on my twenty-first birthday. Maybe that was a different day.
This, perhaps, is what I am understanding about the Plague. I will remember the Plague itself, but not the days within it. The longer it extends, the more inseparable the days are. Had all of this run its course by Easter, then, probably, I could think of the parts. But this is not ending soon, and the gap between memorable moments is increasing. This is the dull and slow part of Moby Dick, the meandering pages of The Confessions. I understand, of course, that not everyone is having the same experience—healthcare workers and essential personnel are going through intense hours. But even this intensity is, in itself, a way of confusing memory. It is a type of hypnosis. It’s like this morning, as I tried, again, to find something in a newsfeed that didn’t ultimately come back to the Plague. But all of it does. The blurring of time, the repetitiveness of story, the meandering uncertainty, the loss of calendar and interaction. It makes us as drowsy as a husband and a wife, on separate sides of the bed at 11:00, attempting to read Augustine and Melville.
Which leaves me with another question about God and eternity: a slow horror that emerges when people mention Heaven—another orthodox idea that I admit leaves me cold. Heaven, in my mind, no matter how much pastors smile when they say it, no matter how much I’m told to imagine it as better than anything I can imagine, is Narnia’s always-winter-and-never-Christmas, or this year’s always-Lent-and-never-Easter. The best description of Heaven I know is not in Augustine, though it seems to have come from reading Augustine. It is, instead, David Byrne, in lyrics from the band, Talking Heads:
“When this kiss is over
It will start again
It will not be any different
It will be exactly the same
It’s hard to imagine
That nothing at all
Could be so exciting
Could be this much fun
Heaven is a place
A place where nothing
Nothing ever happens.”
I don’t know if there’s something on the other side of Heaven. Honestly, I hope there is. But I still believe something waits on the other side of the Plague. And when that other side comes, perhaps we will long for this, the season without seasons, the days without days. Because, often, the things we remember most are the things we wish we could forget. Maybe that’s what Heaven is: the process of forgetting.
In the meantime, I will finish Augustine. Maybe I will miss it when it’s done, just as, at some level, I felt more sadness than triumph when closing Moby Dick. A few days ago, my wife said she might miss the Plague when it’s over. Yesterday, she changed her mind. She wants it gone. Her daughter won’t miss it. It’s taken a day that was supposed to be memorable. Though, if it’s anything like most twenty-first birthdays, it would have been disappointing anyway. So rarely do our expectations match reality. And so few things are really remembered.
Joe marvels over the constancy of nature in a post-Easter essay.
Among the many controversies of the early Christian church was the date of Easter. In the first centuries, many Christians celebrated it on Passover. If Easter fell on a Wednesday, so be it. But a Pope began excommunicating those who followed this approach. As the years passed, the date of Easter varied by region and bishop until the Council of Nicea in 325. The council decided that Easter should always take place on the first Sunday following the first full moon of the vernal equinox. Simple enough. Except that because of the eventual split between the Eastern and Western churches—and how each division uses calendars—the ideal of a unified Easter celebration happens only sporadically. In 2020, for example, Western Christians (Catholics, Protestants) marked Easter a few days ago. Much of the Orthodox church will celebrate next Sunday.
In setting Easter, the church tied itself to something constant—the cycles of the moon and the crossing of the sun into the northern hemisphere. This cycle is predictable, though our attempts to mark it—in the Julian calendar or Gregorian—or in the calendars of Babylon, Islam, and Judaism—we make a mess of something simple. We sometimes struggle with aligning ourselves to constancy.
For those of us on the Western calendar, Holy Week coincided with Passover this year, mimicking the New Testament timeline of Jesus’ Passion. Thursday night—Maundy Thursday in the Christian Holy Week—happened on Passover. And yet, whatever cycle or moon or calendar we followed to mark these celebrations, none of us celebrated in the usual way. Apart from those rogue churches or synagogues doing drive-in services, Jews and Christians stayed home. Our family, for example, celebrated Passover with the YouTube feed of JewBelong. We celebrated Easter with a Portland church on Zoom. On our couch. With a dog.
The church’s pastor, one Brady Bunch square among dozens of others, noted the unusualness of a broadband Easter. This Easter without choir, hugs, or sacraments ran counter to every Easter he—or we—had known.
These peculiarities, though, helped the pastor illuminate the generally overlooked peculiarities in the Gospel of Mark. The disciples at the first Easter didn’t run out singing and proclaiming to everyone who would listen, “He is risen,” expecting an echo, “He is risen indeed.” Rather, they responded with fear, bewilderment, and trembling. They hid. They cowered in confusion and terror. In fact, it may be that our usual celebratory Easters have less in common with the first Easter than this year’s muted, anxious, sheltered one did.
This sheltering in place—in the first Easter and in this last one—brought the pastor to offer solace in something that feels somehow lacking at the moment: constancy. That God, in the resurrection, was constant. The resurrection happened regardless of whether the disciples expected it or celebrated it. Whether anyone believed it, Jesus rose. Whether anyone understood it, Jesus rose. Whether anyone rushed off evangelizing or hiding, Jesus rose. The resurrection was an act of the constancy of God, running on its own calendar and pattern, indifferent to human consent or circumstance.
This constancy, though, ran counter to the natural constancy—that, usually, dead people stay dead. The living people, then, who heard that story had to choose between which constancy to follow: the constancy of nature or the constancy of God. Humans have a unique ability to choose between such things.
During this Lenten-Plague I’ve developed more appreciation for the flexibility of humanity and the constancy of the natural order. We humans are adjusting our lives, upending our societies and customs, changing our normals, jettisoning so much of what we believed defined us. Cathedrals that have never closed are now closed. Restaurants and factories that survived the wars of the Twentieth Century are abandoned. Eons of routine and constancy have, through government policy and citizen cooperation, been interrupted. All because we, humans, are inconstant—or, to say it more affirmingly, because we can adjust to new constancies.
There is, outside my quarantine window, a Japanese maple tree, a petite tree with the distinctive leaves that resemble the leaves of every other maple. Except the leaves are small. At full span, they are roughly the diameter of a plum. For most of the last few months, the maple has been barren, even weeks after the magnolia across the street bloomed brightly in pink and white. Even now as that same magnolia has dropped most of its petals. The Japanese maple is full. By some process, some act of constancy, it has returned to the form it had when I first met it. It looks alive. But if I keep watching out this window, by October, those leaves will turn red and orange and look like flame and, finally, fall. Because this is what Japanese maples do. They are constant.
I drove my sons back to Washington on Easter Sunday, and the corridor between Portland and Biggs, Oregon was greener and bolder than it had been on the Sunday before, when I had picked them up. Multnomah Falls flowed, as it always had. Yet, with the parks closed, it seemed both beautiful and sad, like an actress performing to an empty room. Just as all the earth, in its constancy, flows and blooms and dies and comes back regardless of whether anyone watches. There are, of course, interruptions—fires and droughts and earthquakes. But these, unless through human intrusion, are often acts of constancy—the constancy of tectonic plates, the constancy of storms. And the constancy of trees compel the forests back to life.
The pastor’s idea of constancy brought to mind one of my favorite poems, “The Hound of Heaven,” by the nineteenth-century Catholic poet, Francis Thompson. In that poem, Thompson likens God to a pack of hounds pursuing a man. The man, hoping to evade the hounds, calls out to nature to hide him. He cries out to the dawn, to the evening, to the forces and creatures of nature. But they fail him because they are constant. Instead, he says to the night, the “he/his” of this passage referring to the pursuing God:
Float thy vague veil about me, lest He see!
I tempted all His servitors, but to find
My own betrayal in their constancy….
Nature, whether a Japanese maple, a waterfall, or a virus, is constant in its indifference. Nature has a blind and unending loyalty—albeit a mindless one—to the god of Nature. Nature carries on in its cycles and instances, apparently unaware or uncaring about whether it has an audience. The great sequoias of California stood here long before there was a camera to film them. And, in this, they show their greatest strengths and weakness. Their constancy, their indifference, means they never squabble about calendars. It means, too, that they cannot adapt so easily to how we change their environment or introduce predators. The koalas, victims of the great fires in Australia, are also victims of their diet—they eat only eucalyptus just as pandas eat only bamboo. When the eucalyptus is wiped out or the bamboo destroyed, they will pass. They are constant, and their constancy preserves them until their constancy fails them. Though, too, as Thompson’s poem notes, nature’s constancy means it can never rebel; only humans are capable of this. Rebellion is a form of adaptation.
Before the Plague, I was invited to Pascha, the Orthodox Church’s celebration of Easter. As we got closer to the date, inevitably, news came that Pascha would not be held next weekend as planned. The church, though, had received permission to celebrate after the shutdown ends. The ceremonial aspect of Easter, apparently, was too significant to cancel; so the church suspended it. I have conflicting feelings about this re-scheduling, as I have had about most adjustments and suspensions and substitutions brought on by the Lenten-Plague. On one hand, I find this hopeful: that the church expects things to return to the old normal, which, I guess, is the essence of being Orthodox. And yet, maybe, in forcing the celebration—on moving the date—it has done a deeply inconstant thing. To me, adapting a celebration away from the method of Nicea or the constancy of the moon and the vernal equinox is the most unorthodox thing to do. Though, maybe, I get some little joy in watching the Orthodox—the people who advertise their constancy—doing something deeply human: adapting.
I wonder if, at least for now, it is best for us to adapt to the current constancy of the natural world. Typically, we fight against it. We turn forests into lumber, meadows into housing developments, mineral deposits into fuel. When the Lenten-Plague began, I thought it was our obligation to fight against hiding, to fight against governments and scientists who wanted us to close our churches. I, still, am not sure that closing so easily was the right thing. But, perhaps we are asked to do what the witnesses to the first Easter were asked to do—to accept that one constancy overrides another. In that first Easter, the constancy of God overrides the constancy of death. In this one, the constancy of nature—in the form of a virus—overrides the constancy of our economy, our habits, and our celebrations. The virus, following its structure, will spread until it can’t spread anymore. It has no other choice. It cannot choose to not be a virus. It cannot choose to show mercy or justice. It is as indifferent as Multnomah Falls or the Japanese maple.
But we can choose. We have choices. We can recognize when constancy is interrupted, even by a constancy. We can understand lightning igniting a forest, a volcano engulfing a stream, or a dead man leaving a tomb. And in our ability to recognize, in our ability to adapt, we show our wisdom and our greatest strength—or perhaps our greatest weakness—the thing that will either save us or destroy us: the constancy of our inconstancy.
Theme music is “Holiday Gift” by Kai Engel, via Creative Commons. For artist information, see http://www.kai-engel.com
Joe is done with Lent and the Plague. Instead, he wants to talk Passover and Robert Frost.
I had drafted a long essay on a strange dream I had about cats lurking in the bottom of a pond, like the ancient floating knights in Tolkien’s Dead Marshes. These cats, beneath leaves and in jade green water, waited for unsuspecting ducks to land. The essay was not nearly so interesting as the dream. It was another ponderous entry in my ramblings about the church and Lent and the Plague. I am bored with the Plague now, just as I am bored with Lent. Also, I don’t know that the world needs any more writing about these things. There is, already gestating, countless books, memoirs, poems, and PhD dissertations waiting to be birthed in the decade to come, assuming we don’t all die. And I feel for the science fiction writers: the Plague has made reality more fantastic than Dune or I Am Legend. Just like the last presidential election made political satire nearly impossible—reality eclipsed fiction in its scope, absurdity, and destruction of norms.
The truth is that none of this feels normal. And I’m not resigned to this being normal any more than I think the current world of politics is normal. Instead, I’m more convinced that it’s all unsustainable. It’s the anomaly, not the new norm. We can live this way for a while, but, at some point, we will want adults running countries again, just as we will want—need—live sports, concerts, and high school graduations. At some point, doctors will be bored again, teachers will count the days until summer. Churches will stop trying to convince me that online communion is communion—or that a Facebook livestream is worship.
This fracturing—the way the illusion of control isn’t convincing—makes me think of Robert Frost’s poem, “The Mending Wall.” That poem, like so many Frost poems, is easy to misunderstand or to remember sentimentally: good fences make good neighbors. But the line that calls to me is the first one: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” It’s a subversive little idea: that the things we build are somehow undone by the ground we build them on. In the poem’s case, the wall is undermined by the ground beneath it freezing and swelling with the natural cycle of seasons—the very foundation rejecting the artifice built upon it. I wonder if there is, in me, something like this: “Something there is that doesn’t love a webcam.”
Perhaps it is the nature of being a Gen X-er, that generation with one foot in the analog, one in the digital. Computers and devices were easy to adapt, but my fingers still trust books—the textures, the weight, the way I remember where an idea is located on the page even if I can’t quite recall the idea.
To my surprise, I’ve found, lately, that my best writing flows when I apply pen to paper. Most of these essays I’m reading originate on screens. Writing with a computer and keyboard is efficient and practical. It allows me to log things, make quick corrections, and keep consistent. I can build a structure quickly and then prune and finesse it. But in a closet in the next room, I have a stack of notebooks. And each morning, I let my pen move across them and I discover things—the slowness and tactileness and unpredictability of the process—that, in using the keyboard, I do not find. Perhaps it is efficiency: that the better I get at typing, the less I hear or the less I’m surprised. I just move forward. I follow the first idea that comes to me. It forms the structure. I add or subtract ornamentation. When I handwrite, sometimes there’s room for a second or third option because it takes me longer to finish the current thought. Or maybe it’s that my right hand, when given full control, is a better and more imaginative storyteller than my two hands, delegating alternating digits, attempting to coordinate in some finger-to-finger popcorn dance.
Yesterday, after a morning of despair and turmoil, I found a glimmer of peace. Perhaps it was simply the result of a nice nap. But somehow I understood that the world would either end or it wouldn’t. And there wasn’t much to be done about it. The quarantines and distancing and economic engineering would, at some point crack. I understood, at some level, that this was either one in a long string of apocalypses or it was the final apocalypse. I am not romanticizing destruction or loss. Instead, I’m aware and awed and terrified by its scale. It awakens something primitive in me. Like in those summers on the campus of Pacific Lutheran University when the sky was free of every particle and Mount Rainier stood monstrous and omnipotent, and I hid behind trees and in buildings to avoid its view. It could have killed me on a whim. I knew it. I felt it. And anytime that I think that this current Plague can take everyone and everything from me, I tremble.
At the same time, perhaps I am a Romantic—it’s all about the sublimity and scale. I am, at some level, excited to be part of a human story, one that connects me to old stories—like the ones that become epic movies. Like the book of Revelation or the story of Passover.
Speaking of Passover, my wife is, in the enviable flexibility of the word, Jewish. We will keep Passover this year, our second together. Last year, was my first non-Christian Passover, by which I mean that I had participated in Passovers, hosted by Christians, pointing to Jesus in them. Christians do to Passover what we do to everything else—look for the secret message and, like me typing rather than handwriting, move so efficiently that we miss what is begging to be discovered.
That first Passover, Hope and I were invited to a family gathering in North Portland. Everyone, except me and Hope, knew one another. The hosts’ parents flew in from Pittsburg to lead the Seder. The food was entirely vegan. It was everything I hoped Portland would be when I got here: perfectly strange and inviting and vulnerable. I drank homebrew kombucha rather than wine. And they invited me, an omnivore Christian, to read along in a story I thought I already knew, but had never quite heard.
This year, Hope and I will take part in Passover through a remote meeting. My boys are here, three Christians among the four of us. Despite that, and the virtual nature, we are going decidedly traditional foodwise: matzah, wine, a lamb shank scheduled for delivery. And I’ve been listening to rabbis lately, talking about apocalypses. How they come and go. How the plagues in Moses’s Egypt are coinciding, in 2020, with the Torah readings—the locusts in Africa, the hiding as if the day had become black as night.
In some strange way, I’m over my disappointment that Easter won’t happen and am embracing Passover. Not that I am rejecting Christianity or Christianizing Judaism. Only, I am accepting that the world ends, which is not exactly the message of Easter, nor is it the tone of Lent. The world ends. Some people know and remember that better than others. It is, of course, good and wise to act in a way that stops the world’s end—or that minimizes the severity and violence of its ending. But when the world wants to end, it ends. If it wants us to stop polluting it, it knows how to shut down our factories and to make oil a burden. It would, of course, be wiser for us to moderate our production, moderate our lives, moderate our ambitions before we have to be reminded that we are not larger than the world, that we are not immune to apocalypses. But, in the end, the world is bigger than us. Just like it is in Frost’s poem, in Creation’s quiet but insistent dismantling of our structures.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The world ends. Then we work to build a new world. Over and over. We build our wall, the ground dismantles it, then we build again. Each time, perhaps we learn to become better builders. Or maybe we find a way to allow the ground to swell and breathe without it needing to topple us. Maybe the world we build, this time, when the ending ends, will be a little better than the one we are being told to leave behind.
Theme music is “Holiday Gift” by Kai Engel, via Creative Commons. For artist information, see http://www.kai-engel.com