The other day a friend wrote from the Midwest, saying that he and his wife were like the rest of us coming to grips with the COVID-19 “by stages.” On Wednesday, he wrote,
“Like everyone else, we are sorting out how to ride this out for however long it endures. The ‘making real’ process has come in stages; we are no longer quite certain which day was our personal tipping point. As recently as Saturday we were still driving around in search of a particular Indian flour needed to make chapatis (oddly enough, found in a Mobil station that also carries Indian groceries), dutifully dousing with Purell when we got back in the car.”
He did not try to spell out “the stages” of this journey, but I’ve been pondering his observation and thought I might try my hand at it. I suppose it’s a way trying to give some order amid the disorder. Attempting this, I noticed that the initial stages were longer and things were more at a distance. As we’ve moved on the stages have grown shorter and closer.
Here’s my run at this.
- Stage One: “Where’s Wu-Han?” This ran from the end of December, when word of the outbreak in a huge Chinese city I’d never heard of came, to roughly mid-January. The reports grew increasingly more dire but it seemed far away until,
- Stage Two: “Kirkland?” Kirkland, Washington, such a nice little suburb of Seattle, was suddenly by late January, the U.S. epicenter of the epidemic. A blizzard of cases, and deaths, at the “Life Care Center.” Still, denial lingered as this might be localized to that one place and its sadly vulnerable population.
- Stage Three: “Who’s On First?” Late January. Our Washington Governor, Jay Inslee, was starting to sound the alarm and issuing directives to reduce possible contagion. In the other Washington, President Trump, was minimizing the threat and assuring us that it won’t be any big thing, “we have it under control.”
- Stage Four: “Starting to Take This Seriously” was the first week of March, with again Gov. Inslee leading the way, having now banned gathering of 250 or more and urging people over 60 to stay home.
- Stage Five: “Cancel Culture” came in the second week of March when all sorts of things were suddenly shut down: public schools, churches, meetings, events, and then bars and restaurants. The weekend of March 14-15 was probably our own “tipping point.” By March 16 no more contact with our grandchildren, except via Face Time, etc.
- Stage Six: “It Is Someone You Know.” The third week of March — this week — I got word of the first friends and acquaintances, people I actually knew, with COVID-19. And, then, the first death of one of those.
- Stage Seven: “Not Your Choice: Sabbath” I draw this phrase from a by-now widely circulated and terrific poem by Lynn Unger. She suggests that we think of our new situation through the lens of the Jewish Sabbath. There have been lots of attempts to re-claim “Sabbath” in the recent years. Most treat it as elective, something you might try if you’re of a mind. The original biblical Sabbath (see Exodus 20), like today’s, was not negotiable.
Here’s Unger’s poem, “Pandemic”
“What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.”
That is an invitation to “re-framing” if ever there was one. The “most sacred of times?” But it rings true, doesn’t it? We are encountering something bigger than us, some kind of revelation coming at us. An intrusion upon our plans and presumptions, our busyness and the conceit that we are in charge. With at least the chance that this strange viral sabbath, as the biblical sabbath intends, invites metanoia, turning, re-directing our lives.
Part of that metanoia or “repentance” may include a renewed appreciation for institutions — governments, public health services, schools, and churches. So long now demeaned and derided by the self-confident disrupters. We are now paying for a failure to steward the institutions of our common life. We might also hear the call in this to repent our willful disconnections and self-indulgent acrimony. “Know that we are connected in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.”
To date the stages have grown shorter and closer. I suspect that now we are beginning a time when the stages lengthen out again, going on for longer. This may be a long Sabbath.