Church in the Time of COVID

The evangelical church fears that recognizing women’s leadership will mean bowing to cultural peer pressure. But what if the church is bowing to cultural peer pressure by denying women’s leadership?

Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth

And in other words: what if we’ve gotten it wrong? Barr acknowledges that in her work as a historian and as a teacher, asking the question, “What if I’m wrong?” has enabled her to be a better listener and to keep her humble.

If only we all could ask that question.

And while this particular book is about how we got it wrong in terms of women submitting to men, I can’t help but relate it to so many things I grew up believing about what it means to be a Christian. It is humbling. It is enabling me to be a better listener to people of other faiths and to people who are, simply put, different than I. And while I am moving in this direction, I feel an undercurrent of hostility towards me from The Church. No, not anything direct. Not any particular person. But hostility nonetheless. I sometimes think that if The Church knew what I really believed, they wouldn’t think I was a true Christian.

But I am not renouncing my faith. I hold firm to identifying myself as a Christian, but man it’s been a rough year to be a Christian. I have been embarrassed and ashamed of so many things The Christians have been up to. And when I get embarrassed and ashamed of a group of people I somewhat associate myself with, I start asking them questions.

I’ve always had a problem with getting shut down when I question things, whether it be as a member of a Bible study or as a teacher in a meeting. Have you experienced this? It’s frustrating. I like to discuss, challenge, and disagree with popular opinion. But when my questions or comments are seen as undermining The Faith or threatening the powers that be, they don’t go over well.

I remember being stuck in yet another English department meeting, slogging through the meeting to-do list. One item was to go through these gosh-awful, beastly, 3-ring binders and talk about how what we’re doing in the classroom is meeting blah blah blah particular standards. Listen: Standards are good. They can keep people accountable. But when you teach at a small school where department and division heads actually do visit your classroom and students do fill out teacher evaluation forms and in general The People do know what you’re doing in the classroom, taking 15 minutes for each teacher in the meeting to turn pages in a binder and describe what, in my opinion, was a very contrived, rule-following-robots type of classroom was a colossal waste of time. The first teacher finished her Goldilocks just-right curriculum, then the second, and then I couldn’t take it any more. I spoke up.

And that has always been my problem.

But its being my problem is The Problem. Why can’t I politely make a comment that perhaps this isn’t the most productive use of our time? Why is questioning the meeting to-do list met with such hostility?

Because it was. My department chair was MAD.

During a Bible study at The Church on a Wednesday night a couple years ago, I challenged the pastor’s take on a passage in Hosea. After I asked some “why” questions, the pastor said that Max Lucado says that it’s OK to ask “what, God,” but it’s not OK to ask “why, God.” I tried to look this quote up, to no avail. So I’m not sure if it’s even accurate, but there it was, stated to me from the pulpit. I shouldn’t ask why. Another elder spoke up to say that I was just struggling with my faith right now.

Well, what? (I can ask that, right?)

So when it comes to our being in a pandemic and things getting political about *all the things* and The Church having to vote on a president based on a single issue (why?), I can’t help but ask if we’ve gotten it wrong about some things.

When Steve and I went to church on Sunday, hardly a soul wore a mask. In our neon green ones, we felt like swamp monsters. None of the kids or kids’ leaders (that we saw) wore masks. We (naively? stupidly?) assumed that the adults working closely with the kids had been vaccinated.

When we got a text on Tuesday that someone who had worked with our kids that Sunday was unvaccinated and had tested positive, our first thought was “Wow, that was reckless.” But we thought we’d be fine. We had gone a year and a half without getting COVID, and Steve and I were just a few weeks out from being fully vaccinated (we got our first shot literally the first day we got to the States, which happened to be the day before church).

SPOILER ALERT: We all got COVID.

And I’m writing this in my COVID fog because I want to capture how my brain is working right now. I hope my writing is bearable. I hope I’m getting my points across. But I’m hazy, I’ll tell ya.

I’m disappointed in The Church. I’m disappointed that we can’t ask why. That doing something to protect others is seen as a political statement that comes with its own judgments.

And I have my personal regrets as well. When we got to church and saw the dearth of masks, why didn’t we hightail it outta there? I don’t know. But that’s our fault. We take full ownership of that.

Coming full circle, I think it’s time for The Christians to start taking a little look inward, asking some “why” questions, and definitely asking if maybe they’ve gotten it wrong on some things. As I am a Christian, I will be doing this as well. To take it one step further, I think it’s what God would want us to do. On the podcast The Faith Angle, Kirsten Powers and Jonathan Merritt talk about how doubting things about God and the Bible and religion means that your faith is alive. What an interesting perspective.

So maybe you fear wearing a mask or getting a vaccine will communicate to people that you are a Biden-idolizing, abortion-loving liberal.* But what if wearing a mask or getting a vaccine is how you can show Jesus’ love — by communicating that even though you might not want to do this, you’re doing it on the off chance that it might help others.

Because my understanding of Christianity is that it’s about others.

*To those people who choose not to get vaccinated and live a stay-relatively-at-home-or-around-a-few-designated-people kind of life, I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to the people who are living life in a pandemic as “life as normal,” or treating life in a pandemic as some political thing, or treating life in a pandemic as a way the secular world is trying to undermine God.

And another note: if anyone from this particular church reads this, please contact me directly and let’s chat. I’m not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I felt I should be candid in relaying my experience.

Grief and the End of the World — in Quito, Ecuador

The sting of a fly, the Congolese say, can launch the end of the world. How simply things begin.

The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver

Even though we are still lumbering through this pandemic — this pandemic that all simply began with one itty bitty bat (or an itty bitty pangolin, or an itty bitty lab leak) — when I read this quote from The Poisonwood Bible, I don’t think of a global pandemic that started with one infection and led to over three and a half million deaths.

I think of my own grief.

And when I realize this thought process of mine, I feel selfish. How can I possibly think of my personal grief when people are dying every single day in every single part of the world?

So I’m selfish. Because there are so many simple things that happen in the course of a day that launch me into the thick gray fog of grief.

Lately, everything reminds me of my mom.

When I tuck my legs up on the couch to read my book, I think of how my mom would tuck her legs up the same way.

Mini emotional breakdown right there on the couch.

Washing dishes the other night, I got to thinking about how my mom would keep her house so sparkly clean all the time.

Full, heaving sobs over the sink of dirty dishes and soap suds.

I made brownies tonight and was excited to add toasted walnuts to the batter. I remember my mom first discovering the magic that is brownies with walnuts and talking to me about it, going so far as to add a bag of them with a boxed brownie mix as part of a college care package.

Overwhelming sadness and nostalgia.

I sat down at the piano tonight to sing and plunk out the chords to Toto’s “Africa” and thought of how my mom wanted so badly for me to enjoy playing piano and here I was doing just that.

Fat tears. While I’m playing “Africa.”

When I watch old episodes of Call the Midwife, I think of how my mom would have absolutely loved watching that show with me.

Just miss her so much.

Typing that just now, thinking about how silly it is to be sad from watching some random TV show — a show that my mom was never even alive to watch — a fresh spring of tears to my eyes.

How simply things begin.

And while I don’t feel like it’s the end of the world, I do feel deep surges of anguish.

It’s been 12 years since I got to hang out with my mom, watching HGTV on her couch, walking over to downtown Sunnyvale to shop at the farmers market, grabbing lattes at Peet’s Coffee and talking about hopes and dreams.

Time has made things easier, and yet, at the flip of a switch, at any moment, tears can start rolling down my cheeks. I’ve accepted it. And I’ve learned some things about my own grief that might help you:

  1. Accept it for what it is and how it manifests. For me, it’s mostly tears — sometimes at inopportune times. Oh, well.
  2. Surround yourself with people who can handle it. And who care about you. The last thing you need is to be embarrassed about your grief.
  3. Don’t suppress it. I’ve found that my tears are pretty cathartic for me. Maybe they can be for you, too.
  4. Find outlets for your grief. Clearly one of mine is writing, as you know if you’ve been slinking around on my blog. Singing and playing piano is another. Reading books here and there about other humans experiencing grief has been helpful to remind me I’m not alone.
  5. Love others. Tight hugs and shared belly laughs can do wonders. But also being able to channel some of those deep, heavy emotions into love for other humans can be a boon.
  6. Do something that scares you. Perhaps a jump off a zip line tower. Or perhaps a telephone call to a dermatologist’s office to schedule an appointment — in Spanish.

This past Monday, I called a dermatologist’s office here in Quito. I was terrified. Speaking Spanish is already scary, but over the phone? I hate calling to make appointments in the States where I can speak English! But, as I mentioned, I’ve been watching old Call the Midwife episodes, and in one scene, one of the midwives is terrified to do her first solo birth. She knows that if she makes a mistake, a baby or mother could die. So when I started dialing that Ecuadorian phone number, I told myself, “NO ONE IS GOING TO DIE IF YOU MESS UP YOUR SPANISH.” And that made things a lot easier. Thank you, Call the Midwife.

But after I successfully made my appointment and got off the phone, I felt transcendent. I could fly! I could do anything! Silly, I know, but it sure put me in a happy mood.

So there you have it: a great way to deal with grief is to move to a country where you don’t know the language well and make an appointment over the phone. Let me know how it goes for you.

Until then, tuck your legs up on the couch and read a book. Or watch some BBC and have a little cry. Preferably with someone you love. Happy grieving, Friends.

I think my favorite part of this 17-year-old photo is that white-knuckled GRIP my mom has on my arm. Fierce is the love my mom had for me.

White Fragility and More Murder: Lord of the Flies, Chapter 11

What’s grownups goin’ to think?

Piggy, “Castle Rock,” Lord of the Flies, William Golding

I play a game with my students towards the end of the book. I read various quotes, and they race to raise their hands to tell me who said them. This Piggy quote is definitely one of them. At this point in the book, you should well know that Piggy is concerned — nay, obsessed — with what grownups think.

I should also tell you that the game is basically their test — but on paper. “Fun game!” — what all my students are thinking, I’m sure.

But this line is so important (and so Piggy) because it underscores yet again the biggest irony of the book: the grownups — the people kids are taught to obey and respect — are the ones killing each other in a war. Piggy, bless him, can’t see this, though. Even after his words Piggy said back in chapter 5 — “There isn’t no fear…unless we get frightened of people” — he still can’t see it.

People are the problem. Piggy, you’re right! But in his myopic view, he can’t see past the boys on the island to realize the scope of his words.

Aren’t we a lot like Piggy sometimes? We know truth, but we suppress it. We’ll take just enough truth to be in reality and live among other humans. But digging deeper into that truth? It starts getting messy. And humans don’t like messy.

Flashback to chapter 10 when Piggy thought that Jack’s raid was to get the conch. Piggy understood the truth of Jack’s being bad and stealing, but denied himself the real truth of Jack’s stealing his glasses. Think about it: had Jack’s concern been the conch, that would have given everyone a glimmer of hope. He would have acknowledged his respect for what the conch symbolized: order and rules. But he didn’t want the conch.

Flash to the current reality of our leader acknowledging the coronavirus (part of the truth), but denying the fact that at this time the US is 8th on the list of mortality rates (the full truth). He said that the US has “one of the lowest mortality rates in the world.” That’s like Piggy saying that all we need to do is “meet and have tea and discuss” like grownups do and we’ll be alright when in reality the grownups are blowing each other’s brains out. Piggy, buddy, friend, champ — we do NOT want to be like grownups. We do need to be frightened of people, and not just the boys on the island.

Part of the truth isn’t good enough.

But even a little bit of truth is threatening to people like Jack and Roger. They’ve painted themselves, moved camp to a rocky section of island that is unsustainable for life, beaten poor Wilfred up just for kicks, and, of course, stolen Piggy’s glasses. Suffice it to say, they are not concerned with the truth of their situation. They get to do whatever they want with no consequences! What human doesn’t want that sometimes?

So when Ralph confronts Jack about stealing Piggy’s specs and tells him, “You’ve got to give them back,” Jack responds by saying, “Got to? Says who?” Jack doesn’t have to follow rules! He’s dictator! He does whatever he wants whenever he wants!

Ralph and Jack then proceed to do what we expect them to do at this point: fight with sharpened sticks. Meanwhile Roger is hanging out by a big boulder (watch him). Piggy is desperately clinging to the rock, knowing that one wrong step for him means falling to his death. But Piggy realizes the importance of coming to face Jack, and he tries to remind Ralph: “remember what we came for. The fire. My specs.”

Poor Piggy. He can’t even see what’s going on, but I’m sure he can hear them fighting. I’m sure he’s thinking “meet . . . have tea . . . discuss.”

Then, somehow in the scuffle, the twins are grabbed and tied up. Jack’s pretty proud of this, but Ralph loses it. He yells, “You’re a beast and a swine and a bloody, bloody thief!” (Interesting to note here that Ralph uses the word “beast” — the evil thing the boys are so afraid of throughout the story.)

Piggy decides to speak up and delivers several logical, rhetorical questions to the boys:

“Which is better — to be a pack of painted Indians like you are, or to be sensible like Ralph is?”

(Answer: sensible.)

“Which is better — to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?”

(Answer: have rules and agree.)

“Which is better — law and rescue, or hunting and breaking things up?”

(Answer: law and rescue.)

Can you imagine presenting logic to a group only to be met with “booing,” “clamor,” “yelling,” and “Zup” ? Sounds like my department meetings. It’s aggravating, really, when people can’t understand what the right thing to do is.

(But have you been watching Roger in this chapter? Hanging out next to the boulder? Leaning on a lever that — with his weight — would tip the boulder onto the path right where Piggy is standing?)

Piggy finishes, holds up his fragile white talisman while the sound of the boys becomes an “incantation of hatred.”

It is at this point that by Piggy presenting bits of truth and bits of logic, something becomes unsettled in Roger and he, “with a sense of delirious abandonment, leaned all his weight on the lever,” releasing the boulder — directly towards Piggy.

Piggy falls forty feet to his death, the tide pulls his body out to sea, the conch “exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist,” and the twins have now been taken captive.

Piggy thought that the only fear is the fear of people.

Simon thought that the beast was really inside them all.

Both of them verbalizing ugly truths about humans. Both of them murdered. By humans.

When truth seems threatening, it’s our chance to face it and reconcile with it. Is it true that Black Americans have been discriminated against since the forming of our nation? YES. Now what are we going to do about it? Feel threatened? Hear “Black Lives Matter” and have to clap-back with “No, no, no — all lives matter” and “No, no, no — blue lives matter”? All lives matter is the part-truth — the part where we tell ourselves that the focus needs to be on everyone, that giving anything extra to black people is wrong and unfair. But when white people have been getting extra for over a century, maybe the fair thing now is some reparations. Let’s even things out. Maybe we can talk about equality. Maybe we can go from this:

To this:

The chapter ends with Roger advancing upon the twins “as one wielding a nameless authority.” Friends, this is evil. Recognize it. Resist it. Don’t be like Roger. And don’t follow leaders like Jack.

See you next time for our very last LOTF post! Read chapter 12, “Cry of the Hunters,” and as you read, ask yourself “How can lessons learned through the reading of this book make me a better human?” Because that’s what it’s all about:

Being better humans.

And a Sign Came Down: Lord of the Flies, Chapter 6

But a sign came down from the world of grownups …

“Beast from Air,” Lord of the Flies, William Golding

Remember the “sign” that Ralph so desperately asks for at the end of chapter 5 (“If only they could send us a something grownup . . . a sign or something.”)? Well here it is: “a figure dropping swiftly beneath a parachute, a figure that hung with dangling limbs.”

So the “sign” from the world of grownups is a dead parachute dude. Hmm. Doesn’t seem like a great sign … And let’s remember the chapter title: “Beast from Air.”

After getting dragged up the mountain by the wind filling up the parachute, the dead figure comes to rest at the “shattered rocks of the mountaintop” where its head rests between its knees until the wind picks up, filling the parachute, causing the figure to bow and sink, bow and sink.

To recap, we’ve got a dead dude bowing and sinking at the top of the mountain in the middle of the dark night. Satanic much?

Sometimes in life we want a sign. We want answers. Some might say that the heart wants what it wants. But does it, really? I’m sure Ralph wasn’t thinking that the sign he was asking for was going to come in the form of a charred, dead parachutist.

Luckily for him, he won’t even know about this sign until the next chapter.

So the boys carry on doing whatever it is they do (build fire, putter around, hunt with sharpened sticks, etc.) and even the woodlice are “unable to avoid the flames” just as that rando birthmark kid from the beginning of the book (remember him?). And as flames began mastering branches and wood explodes, we are reminded yet again that the sign from the grownups comes because the adults are killing each other in a war.

Here’s the thing. We may not be in the midst of a “war.” But I think Golding’s point here is that we are always in a war against evil. And while Golding may think that it’s inevitable that the flames master the branches, I happen to think that we’re better than branches. And woodlice, for that matter.

Or maybe we actually are in the midst of a war or two. As we’ve been warring against Covid-19, the war against systemic racism has begun to rage as well. I hold onto hope that good can win out here — that evil will not be our master. That we will be able to avoid the flames. So let’s take a quick look at some good that humans are up to:

Simon, who — remember — is considered by some a Christ figure, knows that true evil lies inside of humans: “However Simon thought of the beast, there rose before his inward sight the picture of a human at once heroic and sick.”

Interestingly, Simon isn’t all doom and gloom. He does use the word “heroic.” And doesn’t that give a bit of hope? (Hold that thought for what happens to Simon in chapter 9. . . )

But just as Simon maybe offers a glimmer of hope, the majority of the boys decides that the rocky part of the island would be a good place for their fort. Keep in mind that the section of the island doesn’t have a lot going for it. Here are some descriptions of this *great* new fort area:

  • “a half-cave that held nothing more terrible than a clutch of rotten eggs”
  • “a rotten place”
  • “no food here”
  • “no shelter”
  • “not much fresh water”

But don’t dismay! The boys realize that it’s OK because they can … “roll rocks”!! (wink, wink, ahem — foreshadowing)

The most disturbing part of the chapter, though, comes at the end when the tribe splits between Ralph and Jack. Ralph is pleading with the boys to listen to him because he’s chief, and when he asks them if they’re “off their rockers” for letting the signal go out, the boys fall silent. Mutinously so.

The chapter ends with “Jack [leading] the way down the rock and across the bridge” towards the rocks. A simple sentence with a huge implication. Jack is leading now. Ralph’s reign is over.

See ya back for chapter 7, “Shadows and Tall Trees.”

So You Wanna Be a Human? Read Lord of the Flies. (LOTF Post 1)

(The first in a series of LOTF posts. I hope you enjoy.)

The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon.

So begins William Golding’s famous novel about humanity’s ultimate failure — its evil nature. I first read this book in high school, of course. Then again in college. Then in my first year of teaching high school English.

And every year since.

That puts it at 17 times.

Every year, I tell my students that this is my favorite book to teach because every time I read it, I see something new! I think of something new! I understand my students in a new way! I understand myself in a new way!

I went from mostly agreeing with Golding that we are evil little buggers (back in my recently-post-graduate “disillusionment” days) to later in life realizing that Golding’s got it wrong! We aren’t that bad! (Surely.)

Right off the bat, I tell my students that THIS STORY IS AN ALLEGORY. If we miss this, we’ll get caught up (like Piggy does: “I got caught up”) in the inconsistencies, the illogic, the creepers (which, by the way, are just vines). (And if you’re having a brain fart — happens to the best of us — an allegory is a simple story with a deeper meaning below the surface. Ultimately, the inconsistencies and the illogic don’t really matter because the story of the boys on the island isn’t actually important. It’s what we learn about the human condition from reading a story about boys on an island that is important.)

It’s easy to get caught up in the absurdity of the story: So you’re telling me that a bunch of British boys from all different schools — well, except for the choir boys, who are all from one school — all managed to survive a plane crash in which the pilot died? No girls, no adults, and just a scar down the side of the mountain to show for the plane? Riiiiight.

Its being an allegory can’t be missed. While it is a story about boys running around half-naked on an island with sharpened sticks chasing pigs and each other and pooping wherever they want (near the fruit they eat — gross!), it’s really a story about us.

It’s about what we do when there are no rules.

When there’s no one telling us what to do.

Or what’s right and wrong.

Or where to poop.

So in this tropical-island, full-of-pre-pubescent-boys microcosm, life is magnified, and we see who we really are — naked, except for our tattered shorts held up by a knife belt.

And if I know one thing about being a human, it’s that we’re a touch (a lot?) narcissistic. The story isn’t really about the boys on the island. It’s about us! Oh, well, I’d like to read that!

So I invite you to dust off a copy of Lord of the Flies, and read along with me as I read it again for the 18th time.

We’ll start with chapter 1, “The Sound of the Shell.”

The boys crash land down the side of a mountain on some random deserted tropical island in the middle of an ocean in the midst of some big war that adults are all in a fluster about, hence why the boys are being evacuated. There’s plenty of fruit (conveniently) and a fresh water source (also convenient) and a pair of glasses (I wonder what convenient purpose these will serve…) and a boy who can sing C sharp (clearly this is a sign of good leadership and survival skills) and a bespectacled, asthmatic fat kid nicknamed Piggy (a convenient nerdy-loser-scapegoat for the other boys to mock — “Sucks to your ass-mar!”).

Already in chapter 1, Piggy “waded away from Ralph, and crouched down among the tangled foliage” to take a fat dump. It’s important to note that an all-fruit diet leads to loose stool. The fat kid has probably been stress-eating non-stop since the crash. And as a fun added detail, he grunts while he poops.

And that’s just a little (fruity) taste of the chapter.

Oh, and did I mention that the Hebrew translation of “lord of the flies” is Ba’alzevuv, Beelzebub in the Greek? (The Wikipedia site is pretty fun. It chats about how flies are “pests, feasting on excrement” — and let’s just remember that the boys are already pooping all over the island.)

So you’re telling me that the title of the book we’re reading is basically SATAN?

Yes. Yes, I am.

Well what better book to read during quarantine. Get ready for some introspection. Read “The Sound of the Shell,” and I’ll meet ya back here for the next post. (Don’t have a copy? Can’t get a copy? See if a local bookstore is open — maybe a bookstore near you does curb-side pick-up. And if not, read for free here.)

The story is simple, but its implications about the human condition are not. Reading it forces us to ask the tough questions — of ourselves.

So until we meet again, we’ll start with this question: What would you do if there were no rules?

Learn with Humans (and not just during a pandemic)

Hansu never told him to study, but rather to learn, and it occurred to Noa that there was a marked difference. Learning was like playing, not labor.

Pachinko, Min Jin Lee

Well wouldn’t that make life a whole lot easier. Don’t study, kids. LEARN. It’s like playing, I promise. Writing that Hamlet essay should be like the rush of wind as the swing at the playground carries you forwards and back, up and down.

As a teacher, I find myself constantly selling my class to my students. (THE SHEER NUMBER OF TIMES I’VE TRIED TO CONVINCE THEM OF THE IMPORTANCE OF A DECENT VOCABULARY — it’s exhausting.) I want my students to want to learn. (“I want you to want to do the dishes.”)

So if students viewed learning as playing, not labor, they wouldn’t be so glum, and the Literary Prude English Teachers of America (LPETA) might learn to untwist their panties a bit, too. (Speaking of glum, I took a screenshot of my senior class zoom session the other day, and even though I was very excitedly reenacting Act 4, Scene 3 of Hamlet through my laptop camera, those glum students could not un-glum themselves. One student was showing only eyebrows. Another just a corner of his shoulder. Little screen-boxes of glum faces and glum eyebrows and glum corners of shoulders. That was a tough day for me.)

But something magical happens when we get out of school (I’m a teacher, yes, but I AM GLAD TO BE OUT OF SCHOOL AS A STUDENT). Ironic, really, that when our time is not specifically allocated to learning, we have more of an innate desire for it. (There’s gotta be a way to bottle this up and put it in those awful blue Gatorades that the students are always guzzling.) This pandemic has only heightened this feeling — this innate desire. As we are mostly (hopefully) hanging out at home, with our time not specifically allocated to very much at all, it seems we are getting …

bored.

And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, learning has become fun again. Thank you, boredom. (And thank you, time at home. So very much time at home.)

Back in September of 2019, I lauded the importance of boredom, having no idea that a PANDEMIC(!) was in store for 2020:

Take some things off your schedule (and therefore off your mind). Try for fewer activities. Allow your kids to have open schedules that include boredom from time to time. Allow yourself some boredom from time to time. Put the phone in another room (or — gasp — don’t bring it with you on your errands). When you’re back with your phone, reassess what you actually need (I use that term loosely) notifications for. Maybe notifications for phone calls and texts only.

And then: Go outside. Play piano. Sing. Write. Read. Talk to your spouse. Talk to a friend (not Siri; not Alexa).

Burn All of the Things! (or at least donate them)

On that list of things to do, I should have included learn a new thing. Boredom is often the impetus of creativity. Learning and creativity? Sounds like fun to me!

In an article from The Atlantic (“In 1950, Americans Had Aspic. Now We Have Dalgona Coffee.”), author Shirley Li talks about how in times of crisis, humans become food innovators:

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but isolation and boredom are proving to be close cousins. Cooking is serving as therapy

And later:

Recipes like dalgona coffee, sourdough starters, and banana bread aren’t being associated with limitation or hardship, but with relieving stress and removing uncertainty.

So when my friend Carrie texted me asking if I’d do a virtual therapy session bread baking workshop to help her learn the art of sourdough, I jumped at the opportunity. She wanted to learn! She wanted to learn something I could teach! Suffice it to say, I was excited. And maybe in the process we’d remove some uncertainty and relieve some stress. Because, ya know, BREAD.

I decided to put out the good word about the workshop to see if anyone else would like to join. And people did! I got to work creating a document to share with timelines, directions, recipes, and, of course, the now-ubiquitous Zoom link. The eight of us met several times throughout the day, ending by putting our dough in the fridge for its final overnight proof. The next morning, we met up a couple more times to flip and score the dough and then to show everyone our baked loaves and say goodbye.

We had a blast, and people from California to Florida joined in on the fun. I got to hang out with a friend from college who lives in Pasadena, a summer-camp-counselor-turned-friend who lives in the Bay Area, and some of my Florida homies.

It’s exciting to me that sourdough baking has become, according to Li, a “quarantine micro-trend.” But I hope that we emerge from this life-under-quarantine time with new skills that we use and refine for the rest of our lives.

What if the things we learn right now don’t end as a trend? What if we learn things that make us better humans?

Susan E. Rice has a piece in The New York Times titled “It’s Not Enough to ‘Get Back to Normal.'” And I couldn’t agree more. For many people, this time right now is difficult. Very likely lonely. Perhaps sad. Possibly reeking of despair. Rice asks, “how can we exit this crucible of death and hardship as a more decent America?” She goes on to mention historical examples of how we’ve emerged better (Civil War led to constitutional amendments ending slavery; Great Depression led to the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps; World War II led to the G.I. Bill, NATO, and the United Nations; Vietnam War and civil rights era led to the abolishment of segregation and the opening of voting rights for all Americans).

I don’t know that Trump’s priority right now is to brainstorm innovative ideas on how we can emerge a better, more humane nation.

But there’s one thing I do know.

And that’s bread.

It’s satisfying to make; it’s satisfying to bake. Seeing the transformation from wet-blob-that-resembles-a-gelatinous-tummy to a crusty, crackly, beautiful loaf is the ultimate satisfaction.

My friends and I baked bread together. And it was marvelous. Several of them have baked since meeting together, and that makes my heart happy. One friend texted me yesterday to tell me she had baked two loaves of sourdough, six baguettes, and a pan of focaccia — all in one day. Sounds like a great day! My wish for my friends (and all of you learning sourdough) is many more years of baking delicious bread.

But if it’s not bread for you, make it something. Pick a new thing. Learn it. And enjoy it. Allow it to be play, not labor.

And if it is bread, yum!

Let’s bake life better.

Sourdough Bread Resources:

  • Me! Drop me a line, and I’m happy to share my document I put together with a basic recipe and tutorial videos I’ve made through the years.
  • Bread Baking for Beginners, by Bonnie Ohara: This one is best for beginners who are OK with starting the learning process by using commercial yeast. The book is in order of easiest to most difficult breads, and it has great step-by-step instructions that anyone can understand. I don’t own this one, but I borrowed it from the library and read it cover to cover like a novel. I ate it up!
  • Artisan Sourdough Made Simple, by Emilie Raffa: This is good for intermediate level to advanced bread-bakers. Every recipe in the book uses sourdough starter, so you’ll want to make some or get your hands on some. I own this book, and I’ve been using it as of late. I love it.
  • Tartine Book No. 3, by Chad Robertson: This one is for the bread foodie, the broodie. I’d recommend it for the more advanced bread baker. I read this one like a novel and felt a genuine understanding and love for sourdough after reading it. It has lots of background information on the history of sourdough along with interesting tid-bits about different types of whole wheat flours. The recipes are more difficult mostly because they call for a higher ratio of wheat flour. I felt kind of snobby reading this one. Which was kind of fun for a crisp minute. I own this one and find myself coming back to it every now and again.

Talk to Humans (and not just during a pandemic)

But I wanted someone fascinating. — Camila about Billy

Daisy Jones and The Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid

Dear Readers,

So I’ve been spending a lot of time at home lately.

And in other breaking news, because the library is closed indefinitely (makes me anxious just typing that), I had to bite the bullet and borrow a book … electronically. I shudder to think about it. If you’ve been following along with me, you know I like good, ol’ fashioned print books. I tried to have a good attitude about it. I pulled up my Goodreads “to-read” list, and started looking up books through my local library’s online collection. Wouldn’t you know, the first book I looked up — Daisy Jones and The Six — was available? Well great! I had really been looking forward to reading the book. Fantastic!

For the next week or so, I proceeded to read an entire book on my phone. (Excuse me while I gag.)

But even though the experience was tainted by the (evil) screen, the book itself was phenomenal. I’m no music buff, so I went into the book thinking that Daisy Jones and The Six was some band I’d never heard of. (I don’t hold my memory in high esteem, especially when it comes to band names.) The entire book is written in interview format, which is fascinating, and I found myself very quickly becoming invested and engrossed (and obsessed) with these humans. Such candor they have! Such wit!

About 100 pages in I realized — you guessed it — that these are not real humans. Daisy Jones and The Six is not a real band. And the “interview format” was the vehicle Reid chose to deliver her fictional story.

Years ago, when I read Go Ask Alice, by “Anonymous,” I started reading the diary entries, thinking they were real. (YES, I’M AN IDIOT.) It was only until almost the end of the book that I realized it was fiction (which was probably clearly stated on the library sticker that smooched the cover of the book).

Side-note: I was SO ENGROSSED in that book, I remember sitting on the floor next to my bed (my first born co-slept with us, and I couldn’t leave because I was the wall preventing him from rolling off the bed) with a flashlight, eyelids peeled open, reading every last page of that book. Imagine my chagrin when I realized it was all made up. And if you’ve read it and you’re reading this post right now, I’m actually mortified because the story is absolutely and irrefutably ridiculous. There we go again with life keeping me humble.

From that experience, I’ve coined a phrase for myself for when I believe something to be true only to find that it is, indeed, NOT. I say that I’ve been “go-ask-aliced.”

Well, I got go-ask-aliced when I read Daisy Jones.

But before I did, I read this line Camila says about Billy when she’s realizing she must marry him, and I remember thinking that it was such a simple and lovely sentiment:

But I wanted someone fascinating.

She believes that being fascinated with your spouse is more important than money, status, or even reliability (Billy is an alcoholic and a drug user).

And though I married a teetotaler (the husband has never tasted alcohol and has never used drugs), I still resonated with her words.

Because I am fascinated with my husband. We have fascinating conversations (after the boys are in bed) about everything from poetry to politics. Religion has been a fun topic as of late as we discuss what we really think about the concept of hell. (Is it real? I’m not convinced.)

But here’s the most fascinating part:

I can say with certainty that I am NOT being go-ask-aliced right now. This is my life. It’s real. It’s happening. It might not be beautifully documented in words, but it is my life, and I love it.

And through this time of quarantine, I have been reminded of how thankful I am to have a fascinating husband. I mean, if I have to be stuck with someone, I’d hope to be able to have some good convos here and there.

The silver lining to the Coronavirus cloud is thick. As I deepen and strengthen the relationships with my husband and my kids, especially during a time that seems to have slowed down, I am continually grateful.

So who’s stuck in the house with you right now? Maybe the next time you lean in towards the remote, choose instead to lean in to your person. Get to know them all over again. Google “deep get-to-know-you questions,” or order a set of Table Topics cards, and go through a few each night. I’ll leave you with this one:

What is one thing you find fascinating about the person you’re with right now?

Happy convos, everyone. May the (thick) silver lining of the Coronavirus cloud include deepening and strengthening your relationships.

Much love,

J

A Rested Development*

I lost the race before the start / … I need a place to lay my head.

Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors

In his song “A Place to Lay My Head,” Holcomb likens life to a race — a race that he’s lost before he’s even begun.

Well if that isn’t demoralizing, I don’t know what is. Having run track in high school, I remember how nervous I would get before my race. The mile was my main event, and I would always try to size up my competition ahead of time (who doesn’t?). There was always someone who looked beatable. As a narcissistic teenager, I wouldn’t have run track at all unless I knew I would beat people. In other words, I wouldn’t attempt things at all unless I knew I’d be good at them. Looking back I do wonder about all the fun things I missed out on because I was so narcissinsecure. At the end of the day, running track was a choice I made (because I knew I’d be good at it). Running the mile was a choice I made (because I knew I’d be good at it).

If you think life is a choice, you’ve actually lost the race before you’ve begun.

So when life feels like a race, and it feels like we’ve lost before the start, how do we cope? As a teenager in an actual race, I would have probably quit. But I don’t think we get to quit life. Maybe Buster wanted to quit army. But instead he gritted his teeth, played the claw game, and came home to Mother with “awards from Army”: a stuffed seal and gorilla for marksmanship and sand racing, respectively. Now that’s really something.

It comes down to control, or lack thereof. If we haven’t even begun the race and we’ve already lost, we have no control over achieving “success.” What’s the point of racing if you can’t win? There’s a reason this is a paradox. (How can you lose if you haven’t even raced? And yet somehow we all know this feeling well. It’s frightening.)

Sidenote: I am writing this post at home. With my 7-year-old’s music playing. Currently, it’s “Mario Kart Metal,” spewing out gems like “if you’re not first, you’re last … just when you think you’re safe, here comes THE RED SHELL … show them that you’re good enough and summon STAR POWER!” Thanks, firstborn, for adding this important and necessary element to the race metaphor.

Living in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, it feels a little like we’ve lost the race. Maybe there was a chance of winning, but we didn’t stumble to the starting line in time. From an article published, fittingly, on the ides of March, The New York Times columnist David Leonhardt quotes William Hanage, a Harvard epidemiologist:

“We just twiddled our thumbs as the coronavirus waltzed in.”

Leonhardt later quotes Trump:

“Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.”

So now (in our homes, away from all other potentially-contagious humans), we’re figuring out how to live life in a new way. (My dad’s voice comes barreling through my skull: “It’s new, it’s different — I DON’T LIKE IT!”) It can be difficult to change, especially when you’ve found a routine that works for you. We’ve lost the race before we’ve begun because … we don’t know what the course is.

While it can be fun to try new things (not drugs, kids), it can also be exhausting. I am very, very thankful that I have a fenced backyard where my boys like to play. I cannot imagine being cooped up inside with three littles. That’s not a “new” thing in life I want to try.

I think Holcomb realizes early in the song that he is exhausted:

I need a place to lay my head

That might be what we most need sometimes. A place to lay our heads. A place to rest. And this COVID-19 pandemic might be a chance to do just that, whether we want to or not. When we’re frustrated (maybe even angry) at the slow response our country has taken against the virus, when we’re feeling a loss of control, when we’re just plain exhausted — we might simply need a place to lay our head, physically and emotionally. Some tips:

  1. Sleep. Our bodies need it. With it, we think clearer, we heal faster, we feel better. (Quick book recommendation: Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker.) Maybe this quarantine period might be a chance for you to establish better sleeping habits — habits that you can take with you long after this crisis is over. It feels good to sleep, so let yourself! Make it a priority, and probably every other element of your life will be improved. Buster recognizes the importance of sleep when he bemoans, “We’re just blowing through nap time.” Maybe we should take naps seriously, too.
  2. Read. Or read about reading (i.e., my blog posts). This post has some book recommendations.
  3. Embrace blank space. There is a reason the phrase “the glorification of busy” exists. Let’s take this opportunity to change it. It’s not healthy to be busy busy busy all the time. Slow down. Have white space on your calendar. Take a deep breath and be OK with emptiness. Allow yourself space to think. Ponder the mysteries of life. Contemplate your purpose. Make a cup of coffee and philosophize. As En Vogue says, “Free your mind, and the rest will follow.”

While those clearly provide rest, sometimes there’s a bit of front-end effort, and that’s OK, too. Provide for yourself a place to lay your head. Just as you have to first get a bed frame, a mattress, sheets, a blanket, and a pillow to be able to sleep well, so too in life there are things you can do to enable rest:

  1. Write. Turn the proverbial faucet on, and see what happens. Try to write only for yourself — not for Twitter or Instagram or Facebook. When we force pen to paper, weird things happen. Try it! See what you learn about yourself and, subsequently, what you learn about being a better person.
  2. Cook. Reconnect with real food and your kitchen. Think about some favorite meals and foods you had growing up. Recreate them. Contact family members to ask about recipes. Start baking bread. Find joy in making food for yourself and your family.
  3. Exercise. Get outside if you can and go for a walk or a run or a bike ride. Or find some workout videos on your streaming service.

Do to not do. Write to rest your mind afterward. Cook to feel full (80% full, to be exact) and lazy (in a healthy, satiated way) afterward. Exercise to sleep better when you actually lay your head down on the pillow for the night.

And if you’re curious about some specific things I and my husband do as a front-end effort to rest well, here’s our “to-do-to-not-do” list:

  • Declutter and clean the desk. A bit tedious, but absolutely refreshing when finished.
  • Clean out the purse and backpack.
  • Pick a room and “death clean” it. We’re currently working on the guest bedroom, which had become a bit of a storage room. Death cleaning is morbid, considering the circumstances, but now might just be the perfect time to do it.
  • Make the bed.
  • Put the kiddos to work, but also make them rest. Chores and naps — you really can have both! And if yours are too old for naps, some mandatory quiet reading time is great, too. I do not feel the need to entertain them.
  • Read through my cook books. And then decide to donate or keep, based on how much I’ve used them. Or maybe I’ll finally use them, you know, to cook.
  • Unearth the package of dry beans lurking in the back of my cupboard and cook those beans! I found a bag of pinto beans last night, soaked them overnight, got them going first thing this morning in the slow cooker with a bunch of chopped onion and garlic and jalapeños and Italian seasoning (no salt yet — beans don’t cook well if you add the salt at the beginning), cooked them on high all day, and had a delicious bean (and cornbread and sauerkraut) dinner.
  • Get some homies together for a virtual book/poetry/essay/article/short story club. I “met” with some fun (and intelligent!) people last night to discuss poetry. (I was basically in heaven. EXCEPT WHEN SOMEONE DIDN’T LOVE E.E. CUMMINGS AS MUCH AS I DO AND THEN I DIED A LITTLE INSIDE.)
  • And for goodness’s sake, go get The Goldfinch from Redbox with the gift card a student got me for Christmas and then come come and wash my hands and Lysol-wipe the DVD case and make some popcorn with nutritional yeast and salt sprinkled on top and escape the world for a few hours!! (If this sounds fun to you, and if you drink alcohol, maybe enjoy a giant juice box with your movie. Buster loves it! It was his first taste of alcohol since nursing, after all.)

In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

John 16:33

*Full credit for the title of this post goes directly to my husband.