If staying home is the smell of onions, leaving home is the smell of rain just before a heavy storm: cool, weighty petrichor. It’s too easy to forget anything is different just by looking around. The sun shines, the sky is blue; the bags from the grocery store are heavy with oranges and oatmeal and cheese; the birds call and the mailbox clangs when you relieve it of another clutch of Christmas cards, now more than a week late. But something hangs in the air, heavy and foreboding and not quite familiar. Noah, six hundred years old, may have caught it before he boarded the ark. Sure smells like rain, he might have thought. This pile of junk better hold together.
Noah is described in Genesis as both “blameless” and “drunk,” which I appreciate. After he pulls off the modest achievement of preserving male and female samples of all earthly life, he plants a vineyard and really leans into it. (Following my abstemious ten months of pregnancy, I could relate.) Who could fault him? Now more than six hundred years old and having spent however many months (I gave up on the math in Genesis 8; let me know what number you come up with) on the ark, he probably felt like he’d earned the fruits of his labor. We leave Noah at the end of Genesis 9, hungover and cursing Ham, before living to nearly a thousand years old. Some real highs and lows in this Noah story.
The public consciousness still lingers over the indelible images of 2020: faces half-obscured by masks; marchers on the move, shouting in defense of Black lives; and, as I write this, Donald Trump’s glower and its slow supercession by Joe Biden’s grin. Close your eyes and, for better or worse, the glow of them are there, the film negatives that flood your vision when you think you can’t see anything else.
Along with these, we have our own collection of images. Mine includes my daughter, of course, transforming from a disoriented deep-pink blob-wrinkle of a newborn to a confident, chubby-cheeked, downy-headed seven-month-old blowing spit bubbles and reaching for absolutely everything. My heart is humbled to remember her. And I am lucky, lucky, lucky that my mind’s eye rests on her, in a year in which so many will never forget their last glimpse of a loved one falling to the pandemic, in which Aidan Ellison’s mother had to begin to turn to memories instead of to the living face of her son.
And I am lucky, lucky, lucky to have seen so many onions.
Micah invited us to “check in with [our] breath” at the beginning of his sermon this morning, and when I dutifully did so, I noticed that I had been more or less holding mine since he brought up the election, however obliquely, a minute or two before. It didn’t feel good—the tightness in my chest, like trying to push sand between fist-sized rocks—and I forced myself to breathe in and out, slowly, the way you’re supposed to when you’re noticing your breath. It’s one more thing you have to notice, in this time when nothing can escape your notice—when, if you take your eyes from Twitter or the Times for an hour or a night, there will just be a backlog of outrage and grief waiting for you whenever you come back. So you don’t, and your breath stays ragged, the discomfort a small sacrifice in your otherwise comfortable life when thousands are dying and disconsolate.
This is Judson, I told her, the most special, beautiful place. This is where Mama and Papa were married. This is where we couldn’t wait to tell everyone that you were on the way. This will always be one of your spiritual homes.
But before I tell you about how we finally got to take Junia to our church today, let me talk about Green-Wood Cemetery.
It turns out that, once babies are a few months old, a lot of them don’t just pass out anywhere, anytime anymore. They also go through a long spell of brain development that causes, in many babies, a strong sense of FOMO. Combine these two factors and it’s a great recipe for a nap strike—never mind that the baby who doesn’t nap is just as unhappy as her guilt-ridden, exhausted parents (or, at least in this case, her mother—her father maintains his usual Zenlike calm). She has not yet connected her cranky, pouty downhill slide that starts as early as nine a.m. with her refusal to take anywhere near her supposedly age-appropriate number and duration of naps. And after two failed (i.e. the baby finds it more restful to sob than to sleep) naps, her mother gives up on the idea of a formal nap on a safe sleep surface in a cool, dark, quiet room with a white noise machine running, preceded by gentle rocking and a lullabye and a diaper change and a feeding, all of which was initiated at the very first sign of a yawn or pinkened eyebrows (THANKS, EVERY BABY SLEEP “EXPERT” EVER), and packs the baby in the stroller and heads for the cemetery. Yes, the cemetery. Because there are no traffic lights in the cemetery, and one can walk and walk and walk. For up to four miles or so without even running out of cemetery.
Those who believe we are living in the End Times are easy to caricature. You can imagine it, right? Long beard, cardboard sign, REPENT FOR THE END IS NEAR? But there are those of us who have long believed much the same thing, but more quietly, and without the wild-eyed optimism of the bearded man who believes he actually might be saving souls. We have looked at the way we live and seen its absolute unsustainability, the violence of its shoddy construction. We are pretty sure it’s too late. We turn inward, or towards family or a few friends. We believe in what might be called the Last Times.
The Last Times are different from the End Times. The End Times are cataclysm; the Last Times are tragedy. The End Times are supernatural; the Last Times are painfully, obviously human.
The pandemic is a long stretch in the Last Times, in the ways in which it has lain bare the rickety structures of civilization and turned our weary faces towards the times that we didn’t know would be Last for much later. I keep thinking of the Last Time I went to church (March 8th), and the Last Time I had dinner with my friend Alison (January 30th)—Last Times that weren’t clearly marked as such. But Judson ceased in-person services after that Sunday, and the pandemic and the baby separated Alison and I, and then she moved back to D.C. in August. These are small, quiet Last Times. There are others for those who lost loved ones to COVID before they could say goodbye, barred from hospitals where ventilators would prevent conversation anyway; there are others for those who lost their livelihoods with no sense of when they might return.
And there are the Last Times of those who are watching their homes and communities burn on the West Coast, in fires exacerbated if not caused by irresponsibility, short-sightedness, greed, denial. I’ve seen photos of these fires described as “apocalyptic,” but the better descriptor is “dystopian.” Human, not supernatural. Tragic, not cataclysmic. Within our control, at least somewhat, were it not for hubris.
What if our daughter was born in the Last Times? We couldn’t have known, as last summer was ending, what was ahead (although maybe we should have). When we discovered, a year ago today, that we would be expecting a child, our reaction was unalloyed joy. Never did we think that we would spend most of the third trimester away from the hugs and hearts of everyone we love most but each other. We did not anticipate her birth arriving in the midst of so much death and the shock waves emanating from it: the devastation in the wake of COVID-19 and the righteous rage against police brutality. We did not think we would celebrate her passage out of the newborn stage as the world literally burned. But, again, maybe we should have. The fault lines—environmental, social, political, economic—have been evident for some time. That we believed, however unconsciously, we could pass through untouched is another mark of our privilege.
What if? The answer must be in the same humanity revealed in all its fragility and frailty by the Last Times. We have opportunities, small and large, to reject the lies of empire, the greatest one being that we are alone. It has never looked more like we are alone. We have spent so much time alone during the pandemic that aloneness begins to look and feel like the natural way of things. I have felt alone as I try, fruitlessly, to soothe a crying baby, to see more than a few days in front of me after months of tattered sleep. I think of those who died alone of COVID-19, of families who have lost everything in the fires. I think, even, of Jesus. Even Jesus in his final, terrible, vulnerable moments, when even God in human flesh came to die—even he found himself believing empire’s lie. Why have you forsaken me? he asked.
If these are the Last Times, let us face them with the honesty and companionship that empire would deny us. If we can be together, even in small ways, even if not in the ways we’d like, we continue to uncover the great lie. We honor the sacrifices of our fellows and the lonely death of Jesus. We prolong the life of this world and look forward to that of the next with joy rather than desperation. We put out the fires.
Two-month-old babies don’t constitute a key demographic for most of the city’s cultural sites in the best of times, and even less so in the pandemic. Still, the mothers of two-month-old babies have to go somewhere before they go stir-crazy staring at the tummy time mat for seven hours a day. When I first found out I was pregnant, my own mother was so excited that I’d be having the baby in late spring: “Oh, there’ll be so much you can do!” she said excitedly, imagining lots of time at the park and the splash pad, long outdoor lunches and merry picnics with friends and family. But of course, by the time the baby was born, I was not feeling encouraged to have regular outings of any kind, anywhere, with anyone. I needed to give myself a little pep talk before I took the baby into the grocery store yesterday, and nervously flubbed my order at Just Salad twice before managing to make it out of the store with a Tokyo Supergreens that I ate with one hand while holding her to my breast with the other on the PS 321 playground. Outdoor dining for mother and daughter! #justsummer2020things
The centerpiece of the day was our visit to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I rolled her up to the gate in her stroller, my mask in place despite the ninety-degree weather. We were greeted by a kind docent who asked me to keep said mask in place and reminded us that dining facilities and water fountains were unavailable (although I was welcome to bring my own water). With that warm welcome, we made our way down Cherry Walk and around the Rose Arc and through the Cranford Rose Garden.
Obviously, the two-month-old baby could not have cared less; she slept through most of the visit, somnolent from heat and motion. I gamely explained cherry blossoms and pollination, identified butterflies and read the fanciful names of the hybrids and teas. She rubbed her face against the newborn padding of the stroller (she’ll outgrow it soon, but she’s still small enough to need the extra cushion), pffted her tiny lips, and dozed some more.
The Japanese Hill and Garden were half-closed; the Shakespeare Garden and the Children’s Garden were completely off-limits. And while I am fortunate to be able to largely put aside the fact that I spent $19.54 to wander a half-closed garden with a sleeping baby for an hour, it still left me with a hollow feeling. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad to help pay for the apiarists and the pullers of weeds, the kind docent and the perspiring crew with their rakes; for the integrated pest management and the gravel and the seeds and the mulch, and all of this especially now. But it’s still a reminder that nothing is normal, as much as we’d like it to be, and that we’ll pay full price to be reminded.
Then again, if I am salty about the lack of extravagant welcome offered my child, into a season of heat and disease and anxiety and despair and looming fascism, I am reminded that far too many mothers’ children are not welcomed at the so-called best of times. The unwelcoming begins before children are born, when BIPOC women struggle to access quality care in the days leading up to labor and delivery and during the birth process itself. It continues when children are separated from their parents at our borders, when the very act of bringing them constitutes love and courage that I pray I will never be asked to demonstrate so fully and nakedly; it continues when some children are taught to seek out the police when they need help, while others are taught to not even make eye contact with an officer, to be sure to stare straight ahead and keep hands visible and answer all questions loudly and clearly.
And to all children, the message from our government and workplaces is clear: your arrival is a burden to be borne as quietly and quickly as possible. We will not support your parents to stay home and care for you in those breathless, sleepless early days. We do not care that your mother cannot bounce and rock you to sleep because her lower abdomen is fragile and aching with the pain of the incision that opened her body to bring you out into the world; we do not care that your father sees her pain and wants to ease it, but needs to be at work the next day all the same. And while we call your parents back to work, we certainly do not care what happens to you. There is no help for your parents to choose and pay for day care, or to seek flexible work arrangements that would enable them to care for you themselves. If you slip through the cracks in any way, there is the shrugging of shoulders and the pointing of fingers.
I sat outside the locked Children’s Garden with her for a few minutes to rest my feet and take a few sips of water. (I had indeed brought my own, as I was reminded that I had to do.) The baby continued to sleep, sweetly unaware of all this; her parents had welcomed her into their hearts and home, after all, and wasn’t that enough? For her, it mostly is. She is lucky to born to parents who themselves have been lucky, and whose parents were lucky, and so forth. She will wait for the Children’s Garden and it will wait for her. Other children are the “neighbors in need” to which the sign alludes. They are hoping that the garden can produce some food, even in this barren season, even if they cannot dig their small hands in the soil and enjoy the fragrance of the roses and the hum of the bees and the butterflies.
The Children’s Garden is indeed closed. What would it take to truly reopen it, for all children?
It sounds so naïve now, but in the spring, many of us thought that (waves hands vaguely) all this would be over by midsummer. July sounded so far away! Surely the twice-cancelled baby shower could be repurposed as a baptism celebration! Yes, a baptism celebration. We all nodded thoughtfully, decisively. All theological doubts about infant baptism were laid aside. Our daughter would be baptized at the church in which I was confirmed back in Pennsylvania, the church my eighty-nine-year-old grandparents still attend. And then we would be able to be together, to celebrate properly, with a bona fide religious ritual to gather us on the banks of the River Susquehanna.
Well. July found us still staying home, still masking, and still anxious, only now with a baby I can see and hold to consider. Our pediatrician signed off on visits with the baby with some sensible precautions (masks, handwashing, gloves, no face contact), but that wasn’t much help for the now great-grandparents, who, understandably, don’t travel much at this stage of life. The date on which my family in Pennsylvania had agreed inched closer, and we had to decide: Would waiting a month or two make a difference? Could we gather safely enough? Was it even possible to know?
We packed up the baby and an entire car’s worth of stuff for a single night away. (Laugh if you must, but the baby bathtub may have bought us a decent night of sleep away from home.) One bag was entirely filled with disposable masks and three different sizes of gloves. We reserved a hotel room. I fed and changed the baby on a picnic table outside a rest stop and in the back seat of the car in the Wegmans parking lot to avoid taking her into any extra indoor spaces. We summoned absent family members (Dakota’s parents in Texas were quarantined out of New York and Pennsylvania due to the outbreaks there; one of my sisters had been exposed to COVID at work and was waiting out test results) and the little one’s godmothers on Zoom.
Surely it was madness. If we have a coronavirus budget, this felt like blowing a good eighty percent of it for the summer in one shot. Then again, on what else would we spend it, if not to wash our daughter in the waters of baptism and introduce her to her great-grandparents? I don’t even relish popping in to the neighborhood Walgreens or post office with the baby in tow, and outdoor dining doesn’t lend itself to an enjoyable time for a breastfed infant who needs to stay out of the July sun, or therefore to her parents.
So there we were, sixteen or so of us, seated in household groups in every other pew. The love in the room was nevertheless shot through with awkwardness, with fear, warm smiles hidden behind our masks. The amiable pastor stressed the necessary safety precautions for the space as much as the spiritual significance of the event. Still: my daughter wore the gown and bonnet that has been in the family for (now) four generations. A rose on the altar, a church tradition, represented her and her new life in baptism. We brought her to the tiny baptismal font, a simple silver bowl, and watched as the pastor poured the water over her tiny head and made the tiny Sign of the Cross there. Her baptismal candle was lit. And as we agreed to the promises of baptism, my daughter was formally welcomed into the family of God, following in the footsteps of her parents and grandparents, the family and friends in the space and beyond it.
In Mark’s Gospel, immediately after Jesus’s baptism, there is no cake, no pile of cheerful board books and preciously printed bibs to unwrap; he goes into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan for forty days and nights. The respite for us was longer and certainly more comfortable than that, but still, the world as it currently is was waiting for us when we left the church. I kept my mask on as much as was possible (between bites of cake) as a gentle reminder to everyone else to do the same, and we stayed outside as much as the weather permitted. I could feel my coronavirus budget cascading out of me like coins from a torn pocket.
But was it worth it? Eleven days later, as I finish writing this reflection, we’re coming to the end of the fourteen-day incubation period for COVID, and everyone here seems in robust good health. My grandparents got to meet and hold their great-granddaughter. The sigh of relief is almost ready to be released. But we are still in the wilderness of 2020: the pandemic, the hazy postpartum days, the nail-biting countdown to Election Day.
So I reluctantly let go of memories of past summers: hot nights on the Wildwood Boardwalk, frosty afternoons in dark movie theatres, early evenings sprawled on blankets in Prospect Park casually passing sushi and wine between friends. The coronavirus budget is spent and we are in the desert. But there is goodness behind us and beyond us and between us. Our daughter now has tangible reminders, in the form of her My First Bible and the candle we’ll light again next July 11, of being included in that circle of goodness. It is, in the end, the only promise we can make, the only promise that even the omnipotent God makes to Their beloved son. We go forward into the wilderness.
My life as I knew it ended on Thursday, March 12, 2020, though I didn’t know it or expect it. I took the subway to work for the last time, a nearly two-hour journey from my home in Brooklyn to the Evander Childs campus in the Bronx for a walkthrough of their AP and pre-AP English classes with Shoshana from the superintendent’s office and the school’s principal and assistant principal. I grabbed a mediocre second breakfast for the last time at the Dunkin’ Donuts on Gun Hill Road, and ate lunch with Shoshana for the last time at the Cherry Valley Marketplace across the street from the school. It was an utterly ordinary day that started like many others in the past four years of my career, but the signs were already there: Shoshana and I had offered, earlier in the week, to cancel or reschedule the visit as schools began to tremble with rumors of COVID-19 infection; she drove me home, insistent that I shouldn’t be on the subway anymore considering that I was thirty weeks pregnant. Rush hour in midtown Manhattan looked like an early Sunday morning, nearly devoid of both pedestrian and vehicle traffic.
I view my calendar for mid-March and I can see life ground to a halt: the book club meeting scheduled for Friday, March 13 was cancelled, as was the West Village Chorale’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil on Sunday, March 15. After that, the calendar just empties out, dotted only with doctors’ appointments and reminders to water my plants. I can look back and see my friend Daniel’s daughter Sophia’s Bat Mitzvah the previous weekend, and laugh, quietly and bitterly, at the memory of bumping elbows and ostentatiously availing myself of hand sanitizer while we sat cheek by jowl with two hundred or so folks at Beth Elohim (indoors! a house of worship! how naive we were!). A little further sees a reminder of our babymoon in Mexico at the end of February (airports! restaurants! vague reports of some virus out of China on CNN out of the corners of our eyes while we waited for our flights! it boggles the imagination); a little further than that and there’s the last show we saw on Broadway, To Kill a Mockingbird starring Ed Harris as Atticus; a little further than that and there is the ultimate forbidden treat, a professional haircut. It is who I was: urbane, cultured, sociable. It is hard to believe that I was any of those things, harder still to believe that I still am any of those things after three-plus months of YouTube-ing and Zoom-ing into church and book club and cutting my own bangs with too-large scissors and gritted teeth before my bathroom mirror and, now, nursing a baby according to her weeks-old whims. Any day I manage to put pants on is a classy one.
Before (virtual) church began yesterday, we caught the tail end of the Mayor’s briefing on the state of COVID-19 in the city, which gave way to CBS Sunday Morning. Sunday Morning is always an odd collection of stories, and we’re usually not home to watch it owing to the timing of choir rehearsal and church (if the NPR Weekend Edition puzzle segment with Puzzlemaster Will Shortz!!! is on, it’s time to leave the house), but we’ve been catching it a lot more often as we shelter in place. It was unnerving, to say the least, to go from the Mayor’s briefing to a report on Hart Island, New York City’s potter’s field; i.e. graveyard of last resort. New York City’s prisoners are no longer doing the burying on Hart Island, as they have for decades, but the site remains active, even more so as the unclaimed bodies of COVID-19 victims are being interred there.
It wasn’t the remedy one might expect for these times, watching Donna gently twist the wilted blooms from her Easter lily. Gathered in front of our screens for the (***checks calendar, because what is time anymore***) sixth Sunday in a row, even in this season of resurrection, we spent a moment or two with death—another moment or two, really, in this season of resurrection that is also a season of death. New York experienced something of a second peak in COVID-19 deaths after our initial Holy Week high, and while we knew the death toll would continue to mount, it feels especially Sisyphean to note that the worst was not, in fact, over.
On the second Sunday of Easter, we remembered St. Thomas, and it’s worth noting that, even in traditions less free with the “Saint” title than ours, he’s remembered as a saint. As Valerie pointed out in her meditation, Thomas’s doubt does not exclude him from the communion of saints; it doesn’t exclude him from the band of disciples a mere week after Jesus’s resurrection; and it certainly doesn’t exclude him from the love and regard of Jesus. Thomas remains in the circle despite—because of?—his doubt. His doubt brings him into a new phase of his relationship with Jesus and his fellow disciples, one we don’t see in the Gospels, one in which he will contemplate what it might mean for him to believe without seeing, or discern when to demand proof and when to trust that things will reveal themselves in due time.