Autumn is the earth announcing its own impending sabbath, or it ought to be: the leaves lighting up in their familiar array of crimson and gold, the light fading earlier and earlier each day, the last of the small green figs on the tree in the backyard turning a streaky purple. Here, the earth is saying, I will not leave you without this particular beauty, but I am going to lie fallow for a time, let you enjoy the warmth and bounty of each other from your windows while I lean your half away from the sun and your southern brethren towards it. Good night and good luck, see you in the spring.
This isn’t quite true, of course. Mycelia continue to snake beneath the soil; perennial bulbs assemble the shoots and sprouts that will reveal themselves after the thaw; animals digest the fat they store up in the fall to sustain them until the planet tilts again. Still, at least it’s poetic, a nice story to tell over pumpkin spice lattes in our chunky sweaters, the ones that will look heavy and tired by March.
The actual state of things is a bit more complicated. We wrapped up a four-part series, structured around the four classical elements of water, fire, air, and earth, this week at church as we listened to the Gospel of Joni Mitchell: Don’t it always seem to go/that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone? Do we? One of the major lessons from the series has to be that there is no rest for the church around climate. If life on Earth actually becomes too grueling for a critical mass of humanity, Pastor Dwight asked, how is the Christian church to respond? The Bible, ambiguous to be sure on a great many things, is clear on this much: the Second Coming is not a reprieve. We will not be spared the consequences of our greed, our shortsightedness, our apathy—not by the planet and not by God.
The first dress I put on this morning was missing a button. I found another dress to wear, but the missing button was a harbinger of discomfort and frustration to come: the shoes that rubbed a blister on the back of my heel, the hem of the second dress that felt a little too short, the cool breeze that stopped just short of actually refreshing in the humid late summer air. It’s Labor Day Weekend, and above all I should be resting, but I’m tormented by the thought of the pleasant barista at the coffee shop down the street from the church we started attending in our still-new-to-us town. She should be resting, too. Why was she making me a butterbeer latte on Sunday morning? Why, in my struggle to avoid shopping during the long weekend, did my post-church coffee run not count? I didn’t think of it, and thinking of it now only makes me more tired and more in mind of total depravity.
Pastor Dwight spoke on Ecclesiastes, but I can’t cite more than that because I spend the first thirty minutes of each church service wrangling Junia until the church is ready to reopen their nursery post-COVID (if we are ever post-COVID) and until we’re ready to leave her in the undoubtedly good hands of the volunteers there, and I didn’t catch the citation. (Dakota takes over when the bell chimes ten-thirty.) But Ecclesiastes has a lot to say about work: “So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot” (3:22), for example. That seems like a fine place to start.
Forget what J.D. Vance and the Post would have you believe: it’s still perfectly safe to picnic with your little ones in Washington Square Park. I know, because I tested this theory with my tender thirteen-and-a-half-month old just this past Sunday, and she danced to “Johnny B. Goode” in front of the fountain and even tipped the piano player (with my money, of course, but it’s the practice that matters at this point; if you enjoy the busker, pay the man!). I didn’t doubt it, not exactly, but the rumors do reach one even all the way out here in the sticks of Suffolk County, and I wanted to believe I’d find the park more or less the same when I got there this past Sunday. And there they were: chalk artists, chess hustlers, dog walkers, vendors selling pins and balloons…all in their places, all right with the world.
We were there to celebrate our return to in-person worship, of a sort, after sixteen long months away. The prerecorded service, interspersed with Mumford and Sons and Earth, Wind, and Fire videos, played on the wall below the rose window while a group of us watched and prayed, or didn’t pray, beneath. And one of us took the opportunity to run some laps, and two more of us took the opportunity to chase her. You will be able to figure out who.
It’s Thursday, and I’ve just finished watching Faith’s sermon from Sunday, which tells you something all by itself. It’s been a real week here. I’m not even sure why. Maybe this is the pandemic wall people talk and tweet about. I feel like I can’t think of another meal to make out of the standard grocery run items, like I can’t possibly watch any more TV, like I can’t bring myself to imagine that the world might be different in just a few short months.
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, normally a day I take reasonably seriously. I thought of the kind priests at St. Ann’s and the Holy Trinity and held them in prayer for a moment, remembering spending Ash Wednesday with them, however briefly, during the past two years. They would offer ashes and space for meditation and prayer all day, and I would stop in on my lunch hour, since I was always passing through downtown Brooklyn one way or the other because of work. (Remember work? Remember passing through places, hopping from one neighborhood and borough to another, sometimes several in one day, on the bus and the subway? Remember the warm glow of stained glass between stone walls, remember hot noodles in a cardboard box with a sticker on top?) None of the Protestant churches around here were offering a daytime or outdoor service, and I missed church on Ash Wednesday for the first time in at least a few years. The day was dull. Even the ducks we visit a few times a week during our walks to the lake couldn’t be bothered to make an appearance yesterday.
Valerie preached on Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” today, a fine centerpiece for the first Sunday of Black History Month—especially in 2021, when we are so desperate for change, large and small. Cooke himself, not only as a Black man in the mid-twentieth century but as a father grieving the death of a young son, knew profoundly that need for change.
And yet today’s Ancient Testimony was John 1:1-5: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. I associate John 1:5 with the beginning of the Christmas Eve liturgy in my ELCA church, and I often forget completely that the verse is not from the Christmas story at all. John also writes in the past tense for the first four verses, and then switches to the present continuous: The light shines, the darkness has not overcome it. The passage speaks of the constant—not merely constant, in fact, but eternal, beyond grammatical tense perhaps, outside time at all.
There was a first time to speak publicly even for Jesus, a first time to demand attention and claim authority. Yesterday’s testimony from the Gospel of Mark related that story, in which Jesus teaches in the synagogue and drives out an “unclean spirit.” Onlookers were amazed—by what, really, I wonder? Was it a supernatural intervention that drove out the spirit, or was it Jesus’s audacity in that moment—not merely authority but authorship?
Micah was preaching on theopoetics yesterday, and not for the first time—not even the first time he preached about it and I noted the occasion. But it was fresh for me nonetheless. Eight months into motherhood and nearly eleven months into the pandemic, I find myself professionally and creatively rudderless, obviously with plenty of energy to give but deeply lacking in direction. When I care for the baby, I try to practice a certain amount of loving nonattachment, as paradoxical as that sounds—I need to get out of her way sometimes, literally and metaphorically. She is on her own journey, and I tell her often that as long as she is honest and kind, she can be whoever and whatever she needs to be, and I will be proud of her. I figure that I can start practicing that nonattachment now, which is sometimes harder than it looks. She took a tough fall at one point today, as she does with increasing frequency while practicing standing and walking, and I dearly wanted to just hold her for a while and encourage her to cuddle a plushie and read a book or two. But she doesn’t like to stay still for long, and although she tolerated The Very Hungry Caterpillar, she made it clear that she was ready to be on the move again as soon as we were finished. And I had to watch her pull herself up on her Pikler triangle yet again, and prepare for her to tumble yet again, and accept that she is on her own journey. This nonattachment leaves me with further paradoxes: I spend most of my days guiding and nurturing a child who will be her own creation; I have so much energy, so much will, but so little authority, or authorship.
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.