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.
The Sunday Morning story revolved around a woman who lost a newborn over forty years ago and saw her baby’s body transferred to Hart Island before she could intervene, but it also more broadly discussed the history of Hart Island as a place of mass burial for the marginalized and the question of how the island can be better managed as a place of dignified final rest. I think of how medical personnel are working so hard to bring as much dignity as possible to the deaths of COVID-19 victims, so many of whom are dying alone in hospitals, with virtual visits from families made possible in some cases by nurses’ and doctors’ personal devices. How many of those victims are missing even that much personal contact, both before death and after it, if they are among those that end up in the potter’s field of Hart Island?
Then it was time for church (we never watch Face the Nation), and my already-shaky mood, having been soured by a round of late-pregnancy nausea the previous evening, was tested further by a translation of the lyrics for “We Gather Together” for which I did not especially care. I flung myself on my sofa in my bathrobe, unshowered and uncheered by my usual Zoom “brunch” with my church friends as I did not think I could inflict myself on them at that point in time. I wondered if I should go back to bed.
But I stuck around for Jeremiah 18:1-12, the Old Testament God at God’s Old-Testament-iest, never disinclined to remind a nation or nations that God has some serious smiting powers. Just as the potter (who, it would seem, was just minding his own, trying to shape a better pot) might flatten a misshapen pot or might guide it towards something better, so might God. A lot of us, I think, are feeling flattened, our flattening of the curve here in New York notwithstanding. We are humbled by our own suffering and the suffering of so many others—in the hospitals, in the stockrooms and warehouses, and in the potter’s fields—and we are reminded that we are both made in the image of God and utterly, completely different from God, both at once.
And then a completely different testimony from artist LeAnn Siefferman, a straightforward and gentle exposition of her pottery technique. (It starts at 17:20 during the service.) I watched her shape a wet, unassuming lump of clay into a mug, using nothing more than a wheel, a few simple tools, and her hands. I left my grieving body—heavy, sore, still queasy and weak—and joined her in her workshop, and when I came back, my body felt safer again, home again to the two of us, in the hands of the master potter.
The baby woke up as the music in the service continued, and Dakota and I watched them move. We held my middle, where life is persisting, together. God sits somehow both in and above it all: among the bodies in field, between the fingers of the artist shaping the clay, beside the essential workers and alongside the merely useful, within the baby we’ll meet soon, and over this nation, misshapen and vulnerable as it is.
Even so: I wish I could say that I left church fully restored. I sent myself back to bed after all, and stayed fairly crabby. I didn’t go out for a walk. I didn’t get out of my bathrobe. I sat with it all day, the fragility and the frustration and the loss. I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve seen my friends, and I don’t know how long it will be until I see them again. God of the potter’s field and the potter’s wheel only promises that, in all of this, we are not alone. Some days, that has to be good enough.