S2E10 Funerals

Joe sees the world in the time after the apocalypse, in a world without funerals.

Transcript:

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.

S2E05 Frost

Joe is done with Lent and the Plague. Instead, he wants to talk Passover and Robert Frost.

Transcript:

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

S2E03 Apocalypse

In this episode, an actual third episode of Season 2, Joe writes about how he misses thinking that the world might end today.

Transcript:

American Christianity has always been eschatological. It has always viewed life with an expectation of an imminent end, where we are moments away from our personal finality or a step from the Day of Judgment. Consider Jonathan Edwards or Michael Wigglesworth’s poem, “The Day of Doom: Or, A Poetical Description of the Great and Last Judgment.” We are always a moment away from the return of Jesus.

Depending on the particular strain of theology, this return can come slowly, after a thousand years of peace. Or it can come instantly, before I finish this sentence. It’s this latter form—the “thief in the night,” the “twinkling of an eye“—that I have lived longest with. It is this ongoing sense that we are living in a unique age, that when things get bad enough—or too organized, such as a peaceable and efficient union of nations—Jesus will come for us. He will call us home.

My mom believes in this—the Rapture—and for several years, I did. I think her life is more religiously rich for believing still, as I, having read too much theology and history and recognizing that the hopeful whisking away of us Christians into the clouds is a recent idea. It is, best I can tell, not at all likely. Though, to borrow from one of my favorite preachers, if I’m wrong about that, please grab me on the way up.

The Rapture, when I believed in it, game me hope that I have lost along the way. For one thing, it served as a bond with other evangelicals. We read the news differently, saw every moment differently. And a war, a rumor of war, was followed by a wordless knowing, a quiet and aware glance, a speechless recognition that this could be it. This could be the fulfillment of a prophecy that makes the clock—the Doomsday wristwatch that only God the Father wears—click one more minute to midnight.

Living in the world with the expectation of the imminent end gave life a steady dose of adrenaline. Rather than being frightened by the news, we could find comfort in it. We had, of course, no concept of history, no way of reconciling the many signs that have already come and gone—the ways that people, including Christians, had already lived through—or were violently killed by—plagues, wars, pestilence, ecological disasters. The Rapture eschatology knew only those histories that include Israel or advanced the world toward a unified global government. It did not have a way of fully comprehending how ravaging life had already been for most of humanity. Or how the churches named or existing when the Book of Revelation was penned may have experienced all—and worse—of what the book seemed to depict. Or, as Corrie Ten Boom, the Dutch Christian who described the Nazi occupation of Holland and her imprisonment in a concentration camp, noted, that much of the church, at the time Christians in America were talking of Rapture and escape from persecution, were experiencing horrors that made Revelation read like a nursery rhyme.

These flaws aside, the Rapture gave me an expectancy that was both absurd and envigorating—like a feverish crush that, in hindsight, leads to both a “what was I thinking?” feeling of foolishness and a tinge of sadness that he or she “wasn’t the one.” It is a little like that adage (which I have grown more suspicious of): “’Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” It was, I think, better to have believed in a life that was always self-consciously expectant than to live always rationally and mundanely—a life that was almost certain to conclude in a hospital bed.

1970, the year before my birth, produce Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, which sold 28 million copies in its first twenty years and led to a movie narrated by Orson Welles. That book encapsulated—or triggered—all that was right and wrong about the form of evangelicalism I grew connected to. The book and its adherents scoured the news for government movements, connecting existing nations to Old Testament prophecies. The description of Gog and Magog in the book of Ezekiel became a twentieth-century code for a war with the Soviet Union. The Bible was, page by page, a revealing message, like lemon juice scribbles on paper held over a heat lamp. It talked incessantly of 1948—or 1967—the establishment and expansion of the nation of Israel, the undeniably divine coincidences that birthed a country, the unseen hand that defended and expanded it. From that book and the movement it spoke to, the Bible was alive and constantly calling Christians to think and prepare, like restless horses in the moments before an earthquake.

I am, now, saddened that all of this fell apart — that 1988 (marking the forty years after the establishment of Israel) came and went with nothing except the election of another Republic president. No rise of an anti-Christ, no trumpet or shofar from heaven. (I was, during the first Gulf War, convinced I, a soldier, was living in the book of Isaiah, chapter 13, where Iraq equaled Babylon and the coalition of nations under President George H.W. Bush was the coalition in scripture. Instead, the war came and went and, in consolation, gave way to the eventual release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. I remain disappointed that the calendar’s turn from 1999 to 2000 was as uneventful, cosmically, as every turn of year before it. The world went on as regularly scheduled. No earthquake or series of earthquakes were enough to bring about the end Jesus spoke of in Matthew 24. No matter how much I turned my eyes to see or my ears to hear, I was blind, I was deaf, the world stopped speaking.

The loss of this expectancy cannot be overstated. Though I can point to the problems of a Rapture theology, I have no deep need or interest in taking it away from people who still hold it. As arrogant as it sounds — and as arrogant as it surely is —when I hear a Christian talk about a new American policy toward Israel—naming Jerusalem as the capital, for example—and watch the excitement of the Rapture people, I am tempted to dispel it all. Like how I told my, then-five-year-old daughter, while she went on about the dress she would wear for a middle-school boy at the baptist church we attended, “Elaina, you’re not going to marry James.” And my girl—daddy’s favorite—refused to speak to me for 36 hours after. I had thrown a cold and hopeless form of reality over her expectancy and possibility. And, to be honest, knowing what I know about James, I would have been quite pleased if a world existed in which my daughter wanted and was with a person of his qualities. I can, fourteen years later, transport back to the Safeway parking lot in Yakima and slap the younger, orthodox, reasonable me and whisper to him, “Shut up, you know-it-all, and just ask her what she and James will name their children.”

There is, in the creeds, an expectancy that aligns nicely to a theology of a sudden and definitive end. The rational, informed, sophisticated Sadducee in me has come to accept the language as so abstract and distant that it might as well be poetry: “I believe he will come again to judge the living and the dead.” It is the creed recited by Christians throughout the centuries, generation after generation—expectant and attending to the world with a belief—at least the possibility—that today could be the day. And the delay of that day has, among many of us, reduced that element of the creed to a formality and a tradition. Do we—except in the acknowledgment that any one of us is mortal and could die and could therefore on this day come face to face with God—really believe that this day might be unlike every other day in human history since some blessed moment in the first century?

I have long given up on the idea, even as I defend the virgin birth, the death and resurrection. But those historical statements are no different than the eschatological: they are as sure to happen as those things that have already happened. The creed—and the Christian conviction—sees the end as concrete and settled as the beginning. The world is part of a story both written and unfolding, both planned and spontaneous. That in every moment, there is room and reason for fear and assurance. We are letters and commas and periods waiting in the ink of a pen.

This morning, I’m bored of the world. As I’ve been bored of it for more years than I can count. It is, for me, stuck in the aimless cycle of Ecclesiastes. And as I grow older and more disappointed, I have come to think like that writer. I have even come to celebrate his or her wisdom, the way that living each day under the sun has shown the pleasure and meaninglessness— or “vanity” and “smoke”—of life: that we are all, at once, pathetic and fortunate. That every day always mundane and miraculous.

Ecclesiastes is a respectable book, one that even English profs can introduce into a lit course without apology, teaching its poetry, its wisdom, its insight into life under the sun. And we can expect a philosophy major to gravitate toward it, relate it back to the great Greek movements, revolving between Stoicism and Epicureanism. A perspective holding in tension the extremes of despair and expectation, all in a form and brevity that merits re-reading and meditation.

How different this is than showing the end of Matthew’s gospel as Jesus responds to the question of when will the end come and what will be the sign of its coming. Or of Revelation, its obscurity and scale—a long-winded and archaic vision of beasts and dragons and scrolls and an abyss—cryptic and superstitious, the fodder for horror movies. And we, I, am quick to note that Jesus is speaking of a moment that has come and gone: the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. (careful to say “C.E.” and not “A.D.”). Or that Revelation is part of a literary tradition that encodes political messages—that for a reader in the late first century, these images would all be evident. Think of how in a thousand years people will read Harry Potter and assume the world believes in Hogwarts and wizards, or they’ll find our endless archives of Star Wars references and make strange interpretations of our belief in “The Force” and Jedi. All of this—the scrolls, the silence in heaven—has already come and gone.

Yet that leaves me sad and bored. We, living in this moment, have been left out of the story. The book has been assembled and canonized with no part for us to play but to continue on unto our individual immanent deaths, each of us witnesses to a private apocalypse—some by stroke, some by cancer, some by accident. Each little apocalypse, both unique and generic, small and immense. But no great cosmic event, no coming in the clouds, no trumpet blast reverberating through every human ear. Only the sequence established, barring accident or untreatable disease: my grandparents will die (as their parents did) in hospice or hospital. Then my parents. Then in some sequence, me and my siblings. Then it will be my children’s job to be accepting and wise, to read Ecclesiastes and see the machine running on schedule: days pass, lives pass, better is a living dog than a dead lion. Elaina will not marry James. Israel will not renew the temple sacrifice. I will work until I can afford to retire. I will read through the latter pages of the gospel of Matthew, and my pulse will stay steady.

As I write this, the news is all redundant. The virus has entered the world—as viruses always have—and every story or post includes a set of numbers. Every story judges how leaders moved faster or more decisively—those numbers could be lower—as if those numbers weren’t going to be counted sooner or later, as if we are actually stopping something that can be stopped. I wonder if they have even read Ecclesiastes. Don’t they know that there is nothing new under the sun. They have, already, stopped calling the virus “novel”—the “novel coronavirus,” the new coronavirus. It no longer feels new. It feels as old as Gog and Magog. It’s always been here. It will always be here. World without end.

We are, I think, stuck here. Israel is in the news again. It is always in the news. The nation is quarantining, testing, treating the Palestinians the way King David treated the Philistines. But, so far, it has not announced plans to demolish the Dome of the Rock so it can rebuild the temple and re-instate ritual sacrifice, as the Rapture news and the Late Great Planet Earth people told us would happen. That is the news I’m waiting for: that the world, today—or even tomorrow—will do something new.

But, still, I have this vestigial hope, a strange sense of expectancy. Not that this plague is the plague of Revelation, destroying countless lives. But that the world is capable of newness, of remembering to be in wonder. And, this word echoes in me, like an old prayer or a TV theme song: from the very end of the book of Revelation, maranatha.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Theme music is “Holiday Gift” by Kai Engel, via Creative Commons. For artist information, see http://www.kai-engel.com

S201 The End of the World

In this episode, perhaps the only of Season 2, Joe ponders viruses, snow, aging, and the end of the world.

Transcript:

This morning, Friday, March 13, snow has come to Portland. This is how the world ends. Or begins. I’m not sure.

This recording is not, really, a Weekly Reading. I’ve debated how to continue with those. On one hand, I have been incredibly productive: Since my last recording, I’ve finished the draft of a novel, completed a book of poems responding to Genesis, and am nearly 200-hand written pages into what could emerge as a theological memoir. If nothing else, my voice and my interest are shifting further from fiction and into ideas, theology, and wisdom. The idea of contracting myself to weekly readings may slow the progress I’m making elsewhere. This recording, this brief informal essay, then, may be a blip, an outlier, an anomaly—like a stray radio signal momentarily appearing from somewhere east of Mars.

But, today, I feel like writing something. I feel like reading something I wrote.

In this last year, I have grown strangely comfortable with becoming more boring. I am aging. And there is nothing that aging writers seem more fascinated with than writing about aging. If, as writers and humans, we’re paying attention, that writing contains wisdom. If we’re not, it reveals how shallow we’ve been and will, probably, remain. If I haven’t been paying attention to the strangeness, wonder, and lessons of life by now, I’m not likely to start. Or, if I do, my revelations will sound more like the pop psychology of reality television than the hard-worn sagacity of Ecclesiastes or Elie Wiesel.

Aging truly is fascinating. Having completed 48 years, and working on my 49th, I now have data. Life has started to show patterns. And when patterns repeat, we can see meaning—or, at least, seasons. Life is repeating.

More than this, I am growing strangely comfortable with being boring. I watch my children—and my wife’s children—with an understanding that it is they, not us, who are interesting now. The good movies and TV shows, the ones with real drama and excitement, are about the lost and seeking, not about the found and complacent. The young and vibrant, not the middle-aged. A year ago, a stranger in a new city, single and traumatized, I was more interesting, though much less stable. And now, as the world enters a new type of anxiety, people talking about the end of the world or society or capitalism as we know it, I feel oddly at peace. Like I’ve seen this before. Like, if I live long enough, I will see it again.

This morning my wife and I had the conversation being had in every home, school, and workplace. What it all means. What we should do. Where it all leads. And the only thing I could think of was a story about St. Francis. How St. Francis, when asked about the Apocalypse and the end of the world, said, “”Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

Though, as I fact-checked, it wasn’t St. Francis at all. I should’ve seen that coming. According to the Internet, my primary source for how to face the virus and the world’s end, the quote is from Martin Luther. Though, likely, neither Luther nor St. Francis said it. The best guess is that the story showed up in 1944, when the world was the closest it has been to ending until the Cuban Missle Crisis. Apparently, someone in the Confessing Church within Germany said that Martin Luther said this bit about how to carry on in the face of the end. Do what you would normally do. Go to work, help the needy, plant a tree.

There is, whoever said it, some wisdom in that. I’m not sure if it is uniquely Christian wisdom, but it certainly corresponds to a Christian perspective, when Christian perspectives align with wisdom. Today, my wife may plant some seeds. She meant to last year, but she was a little flustered. She was starting to spend her planting time with a man she met. The world was starting for her. For me. But today the world is ending, again. And she may plant seeds.

The snowflakes are thick now, like ash. On a clear day—not today—when I drive I-5 heading north, I can see Mount St. Helens. 40 years ago, the mountain blasted 1,313 feet of stone from its summit, atom-bomb billows of ash and rivers of mud. Parts of Mt. St. Helens are probably in the snow and in the virus. It was a Sunday morning in May 1980 when Mount St Helens erupted. It was black as night at 10:am. We looked out the windows at the blackness. And the four of us kids asked my parents what was happening. It looked like the world was ending.

Theme music is “Holiday Gift” by Kai Engel, via Creative Commons. For artist information, see http://www.kai-engel.com