Dispatch from Ft. Quarantine

As I write this, someone is doing my grocery shopping for me. I am reminded how incredibly privileged I am to be able to choose whatever I want to eat for the next week from an app on my phone and have it promptly delivered to my home. Thank you to everyone, especially the hourly workers, for making this possible.

It has been a week of sharp contrasts. A week filled with the joy of puppy-hood, of being around a creature for whom the simplest things—a romp in the grass, chewing on socks, eating supper—are causes for celebration. We could all take a lesson except for the chewing on socks part.

It’s also been a week for sober reflection. I feel like I’m still recovering from watching my fellow citizens wreak havoc and violence on the building that represents democracy, not only to our country, but to the world. Frankly, I’m terrified for what may happen at the Inauguration. As has been made all too clear, nothing is beyond the reach of the evil political forces raging war on this country right now.

And then as we were getting ready for bed one night, one of us got an email that we had tested positive for Covid. Huh? No, wait, that can’t be right, especially since the other of us had gotten a negative result earlier in the day. We’re fine, we feel great. We only got tested as a precaution because someone who had been working in our home called to tell us they were experiencing symptoms.

Lysol-ing bathrooms at midnight. Texting the few people with whom we had had contact in recent days. Getting conflicting messages—is it ten days or fourteen days? Is it from time of exposure or time of testing? Panic and fear and frustration that after doing everything right, the virus still found us, just like it did the millions of others who were playing by the rules. I remember seeing a friend’s post from early in the pandemic that said sooner or later, we’re probably all going to get it. True words.

So far, we remain symptom-free, thanks be to God. We separate ourselves with a guest room and second bathroom and use different tables for meals. We scrubbed every surface in the house, wear masks when we’re in the same room and are hoping for the best, knowing that so many around us don’t have the same opportunity to comfortably quarantine in their homes. Was the testing accurate? Who knows? We can only make decisions based on the knowledge that we’re given. Assuming the exposure date is correct, we should be on the home stretch.

If you would have told me a year ago that we’d be living like this, I wouldn’t have believed you. Or that going to church, singing in a choir, or enjoying a restaurant meal would be forbidden. That games would be played in empty arenas accompanied by the eerie computer-generated sounds of crowds. That national guard soldiers would be sleeping in the halls of the Capitol to protect the lives of legislators, and the celebration of a new President taking office would be fraught with danger. That 400,000 lives would be lost to a disease terrible beyond anything imaginable.

Huh? No, wait, that can’t be right. Bad dream, dystopian movie, could never happen here. But it has, and right now, our country does not feel fine, nor does it feel great. I just hope we’re on the home stretch with this, too.

What I’ve Learned from Quarantine, Part 2

I wrote about what I learned from quarantine way back in the spring and thought I’d revisit, now that we’re closing the books on 2020.

I am incredibly grateful for my health.

I never dreamed the new reading chair I bought in fall of 2019 would get so much use.

Our twenty-three-year-old, no-repairs-ever-and-still-going-strong dishwasher should be in the appliance hall of fame.

I don’t know if it’s a result of the pandemic or my age or having endured a year of the ghastly festering wound that is American politics, but my tolerance for artificiality and spin is at its lowest ebb. Speak honestly, be real, and please, lose the buzzwords.

My new bread machine is significantly more advanced than its 90’s predecessor but still has a tendency to want to hurl itself off the counter in a frenzy of over-enthusiastic kneading.

Sitting back and watching the world on a screen instead of living in it is frustrating, and yet, I’ve learned a lot from being a quiet observer.

There are wonderfully kind and knowledgeable Comcast customer service representatives. Seriously. So many are working so hard trying to get it right.

Much as we love supporting restaurants with take-out orders, it’s just not the same eating the meals at home at your own kitchen table.

I am very much a creature of habit. In a world where familiar structure and routine have been upended,  I find myself clinging to those habits even more fiercely. That being said, I’ve also learned to appreciate  new and different ways to accomplish something that I may have resisted in “normal times.”

I always feel awkward in zoom meetings—not knowing when to talk or accidentally interrupting someone who decides to talk at the same time. Meanwhile, the cat is lurking on the back of my chair or padding across the keyboard.

Technology, love it or hate it, has flat-out saved our butts this year. Same to be said for streaming TV.

I am determined to use the calendar on my phone instead of my trusty pocket planner even though I could write things down in half the time it takes me to text in all this stuff and scroll through the start and stop times. And there will be no stickers, ever.

Even though I will forever miss them, I am relieved not to be shepherding elderly parents through a pandemic. I know friends who are on that journey and cannot imagine their pain and isolation.

I’ve learned so much (including South African slang) from my online writers group of Chicago-based ladies who have very different backgrounds from mine.

When this is over, I may need a 12-step group for addiction to online Scrabble and Solitaire.

I greatly miss in-person worship. But the view from the virtual pews of other churches, especially the Washington National Cathedral, is reshaping my faith in surprising ways.

Sometimes I need one of those signs found in senior facilities that remind residents what day it is, what activities are planned and when happy hour starts.

You’re never too old for new life, even if it’s in the form of a puppy. (Check back with me in a month and see where I am on this.)

Wishing all of us some form of new life in this next and has-to-be-better year.

Virtual Choir

As I listen to the organ introduction to O Come All Ye Faithful, I’m nervous, as though I’m about to launch into an aria from the Messiah. My singing voice, mostly unused since March, sounds dry and pinched against the subdued strains of the organ coming through the headphones. It’s like an athlete gone to seed, sitting in the bar reminiscing about the good old days when it was scoring touchdowns.

I struggle with all this equipment needed to record. I simply cannot keep those damn little earbuds in my ears, so I appear in videos with gigantic headphones looking like I’m ready to flag planes into the airport. I open sound files on the phone or laptop while my husband operates the high-tech recorder we bought so these home productions would have a decent quality. I listen to the introduction, make sure I’m on the correct verse, and try to time my entrance to coincide perfectly with the accompaniment, which doesn’t always happen. The recordings are merciless—they expose me in all of my musical ineptitude. I sing alone without the comfort of other voices blending with mine in the sometimes flawed, yet glorious tapestry of sound that is choir. And then there’s the uploading of files– are they going to the right place and will they open and, if they do, can my mistakes be edited out?

As I record carols that are as familiar to me as my own name, I try to picture the church on Christmas Eve instead of worrying about the dog barking or singing the wrong words. The jostling bodies and excited anticipation of lining up at the back of the sanctuary as sneaker-clad acolytes light the tapers and the crucifer stands ready, waiting for the precise moment to lift the cross and start up the aisle. The procession moving past pews packed with parishioners and their family members home from afar along with those who only show up twice a year. Our voices, perhaps tired from earlier services, but still singing festive anthems with gusto. The banks of poinsettias and candlelit Silent Night and a few of us altos bravely scaling the heights of the soprano descant in Hark the Herald Angels Sing.

This year, hearing those carols through phone and laptop speakers will have to suffice, and I suppose in time I will become less anxious and more adept at singing virtually. We’ve ordered Bluetooth earphones that may fit me better, and I could (and should) practice more frequently to keep my voice in condition. If nothing else, the pandemic has taught me I can get used to almost anything. It’s also taught me how much I took the gift of singing with others for granted. I’m tired of singing alone into a machine. I will be so grateful when I can raise my folder, take a deep breath, and see reflected in the eyes of my fellow singers, the joy of once again making music together.

My Grandparents’ Creche

I always put up two creches at Christmas. The one in our family room came from a 1960’s Woolworth’s, where it was displayed in the same aisle as the plastic window candles and aluminum trees. Some of the figures still have price tags on the bottom that say twenty-nine cents. A few of the lambs are amputees and the original cardboard stable has long since disintegrated, but this is the creche I grew up with, and I still cherish its delightful tackiness.

My other creche is a work of art, one of the things I would save if the house was on fire. My grandmother “did ceramics” as it was referred to in those days, and hand-painted each figurine in exquisite detail. She dedicated countless hours of tedious work to create a gift for my grandfather who built the stable. The wooden box he designed is as solid and unblemished today as it was that very first Christmas. Inscribed on the bottom of each piece are their initials, like teenage lovers’ names carved into a tree, “ALD to JDD, 1959.”

On Christmas Eve, I would walk a block down the street to their home, carefully remove the baby Jesus from his bed of tissue paper in a Carolina Soap box, and gently place him in the manger, followed by my grandparents and me standing in front of the fireplace singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” As staunch Episcopalians, we believed in liturgical correctness, so the baby never arrived in the manger before Christmas Eve, and the Magi were always strategically placed, approaching from the east.

After my grandparents passed away, the creche moved to my father’s home. Even in his last years, he insisted that it be retrieved from the cupboard beside the stairs and set up in the same place as its predecessor from the five-and-ten. And when the creche finally came to me, I wept as I placed Mary and Joseph in that simple wooden stable on my grandmother’s desk, now in my own living room.

Every December, when I unwrap each piece, I marvel at the rich purple colors of the kings’ robes, the almost lifelike eyes of the human figures, the wonder on the face of the kneeling shepherd boy who has earned a place of honor inside the stable itself. I run my hands over the texture of the saddle on the camel, the pointed wings of the angel with her “Gloria in Excelsis” banner, the empty indentation of the manger bed, waiting for its holy occupant. I place that same soap box with the words “Baby Jesus” scrawled on the lid in my grandmother’s handwriting, into a cubby of her desk where it waits, like the rest of us, during the dark weeks of Advent.

I picture my grandmother, in her ceramics room filled with paint-spattered card tables, crumpled rags, and brushes soaking in peanut butter jars. I imagine her sitting there in her smock, deciding on the colors, using that miniscule brush to outline the eyes of the figures and the words on the angel’s banner, applying the extra coat of glaze to give a sheen to the animals’ coats. I think of my grandfather, puttering in his basement workshop after a long day of seeing patients, selecting just the right pieces of wood, cutting, and sanding and nailing them together to create a perfect miniature stable. I think of the joy and pride they must have experienced on Christmas Eve 1959, seeing their gift to God and each other, displayed for the first time between two miniature evergreen trees on the mantel above their fireplace.

The people who celebrated Christmas with me as a child are gone now. But in the ritual of the creche, I feel their presence. Their hands guide me as I unfold and smooth the green fabric that goes under the stable, position the light to shine directly down on the manger bed, and make sure the angel is properly anchored on her little hook. In that creche, I smell the pine branches and the wood smoke from the fireplace as I walk into my grandparents’ home on Christmas Eve, wearing my new velvet dress with the pink rose, ready for my first ever midnight mass. I taste the eggnog sprinkled with nutmeg in my grandmother’s antique crystal punch cup. I hear my grandfather’s slightly off-key singing and years later, my dad’s weakened voice on the phone, asking when I’m going to stop by and set up the manger for him.

I spend Christmas Eves now surrounded and loved by other people. People for whom my grandmother’s creche is simply a beautiful decoration. We arrive home from church each year energized by the glorious music and the excitement of Christmas coming once again. We chatter about the service and what time to have dinner the next day, as I pour cups of eggnog spiked with rum and set out plates of homemade cookies.

Before I go to bed, I walk into the darkened living room, lit only by window candles and the lights surrounding the manger. On top of the desk is a picture of my smiling grandparents, standing in front of a Christmas tree, arms tightly clasped around each other’s waists. I still miss them. I close my eyes and thank them for magical childhood Christmases and for teaching me that this creche, made with their own loving hands, is at the center of it all.

I reach into the cubby in the desk and pull out the Carolina Soap box. I remove the baby from its tissue paper womb, and my hands, now speckled with age spots like my grandmother’s, once again place the tiny baby in the manger as I quietly sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”