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.Continue reading “Take Me to Church 11/1/20: In Between Breaths”
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.Continue reading “Take Me to Church 9/20/20: Walking with the Saints”
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.
To reject this great lie looks like coming together for a picnic in the park—on separate blankets but in common cause. It looks like humbling ourselves before those we would discard as criminals and lost causes to thank them for their service and ask them to rejoin society with reason to hope. It looks like teaching our children to giggle and roll over because someday they will be asked to do much more. It looks like logging on to yet another Zoom brunch and church service on Sunday morning, though the novelty of online church has long worn thin, to keep up our connection to the people who want to stay connected to us in spite of it all.
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?
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.
I accidentally re-discovered a consistently brilliant part of summer two summers ago: I secretly planned a trip to Wildwood, New Jersey for Dakota’s birthday over Labor Day weekend, and we had so much fun that we’ve gone back for the subsequent two summers. The key here is giving yourself over to the entire idea of fun, and a very specific kind of it: you need to roll the quarters you’ve saved all year for the arcade games that still accept quarters and not a prepaid card; you need to accept the idea that you are not going to eat anything healthy for a couple of days; you need to not get too attached to the particular look and shape of any individual plushie and allow yourself to be delighted by whatever the claw picks up and drops down the hatch. (Succeed at the latter and you, too, can be an adult hauling home fourteen stuffed animals.)
We took hundreds of pictures during our trip to Ireland, but I didn’t notice that the camera settings were wrong for the first few days, and the pictures I took in Glendalough disappoint me deeply in their low quality. This is perhaps the most first-world problem I’ve ever admitted to having in this space— my photos from a vacation some people dream about taking all their lives are too low-res— but there you have it.
Maybe it’s to be expected. The lush green that sweeps up the Wicklow Mountains, carpeting ancient ridges and tangling over itself, and the earthen tones of the rock and the trunks of the trees— how can any camera adequately capture the darkness of the embrace the woods offer, the softness of the greenery, the mystery of the tangle? Is it only words, in the end, that offer the depth of vision I want?
Somewhere along what is now called the Wild Atlantic Way, between Galway and Westport, my ancestors Ellan Moran and Ulick Walsh were born and later lit out for America. Like so many millions of others who have left their homes and crossed seas and oceans in search of different lives, they never returned to the shallow, rocky shores of the west of Ireland, to the shadow of Croagh Patrick rising through the fog over Clew Bay. So at first, standing on the shore of that bay with that same mountain rising behind me, felt like closing a historical and genealogical loop in a way I’d never experienced before. They left, and I, their descendant, college-educated and then some, with enough time and disposable income to be overseas, stood where they might have stood.
When we were diverted in the pouring rain on our way to County Mayo, exactly halfway through our road trip around Ireland, we wound up on a twisting, narrow, and nameless road through a boggy stretch of Connemara. I remembered our trip the National Museum of Archaeology in Dublin a few days before, where we saw the bog bodies— human remains found, eerily intact after hundreds and hundreds of years, in Ireland’s many peat bogs. One of them, known as Old Croghan Man, is believed to have been over six feet tall and was found with a braided leather armband around his left bicep, which, along with his manicured hands and his varied diet, suggest a person of high status. Cuts to his body, including the removal of his nipples, may evince a ritualized, tortured rejection of Old Croghan Man’s kingship, as suckling the king’s nipples was a sign of submission. The old kings were symbolically wedded to goddesses of the land and harvest; famines were signs of displeasure with the kings’ leadership, and the kings were therefore murdered, their bodies buried in the bogs that would later fuel the fires needed to cook the fruits of later harvests and keep the people warm, the same bogs that also hid gold and illuminated manuscripts, animal bones and broken pots. I thought of all this as I ate Frosted Shreddies, bought from a Tesco outside Wicklow on the other side of the country, straight from the box in the passenger’s seat of the car, as we listened to Van Morrison. I tugged on my polka dot raincoat to leave the car and take pictures of the landscape both lush with green and desolate with cloud and exposed turf.
I moved a small bookshelf in my apartment on Saturday, and was greeted by a dust bunny so large that it was more like a dust Flemish giant rabbit. I was moving the bookshelf in the first place because I’d decided it was time for some redecoration: I had framed some posters and pictures, and had some others I’d just never gotten around to hanging, so I enlisted Dakota in this fun project for the long weekend. We were trying to finalize the placement of the print from the recent Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum when I found Harvey, and in some ways, it’s been downhill ever since.