Early reflections on life under COVID-19

With everyone retreating and self-quarantining to stem the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus, it seems the time has come for me to live more like a writer again. Here are some of my early reflections on life under COVID-19:

 

—Over the past several weeks I’ve seen well-meaing Christians post things like “God’s plan is going exactly according to plan.” 

To that I say, with all due respect, shut up. I do believe that providence is at work in the world is some mysterious, awful (in the traditional sense of the word—awe-filled) way. But people are hurting right now. They’re suffering. They’re afraid. And for good reason. People are going to die, perhaps on the scale of wartime numbers (God-forbid!). We don’t have to keep a stiff upper lip and project nice, theologically-correct statements. On the contrary, my prayers at their most desperate and sincere these days sound more like: God, where the hell are you right now? Why must we endure this?

Right now, I think that’s okay. And I’m going to keep shouting that lament for as long as I feel that way. God can take it. He won’t cast me away for it.

As I’ve sat in my room and sought the presence and voice of God over the past week, I’ve found myself returning to a great vision of the Lord holding our suffering. When my heart broke and my world fell apart last year, I learned firsthand, at an emotional, heart level, that God tends to show up in the most powerful and intimate ways amid two kinds of experiences: those of great love and of great suffering. Today the world is entering into a collective, once-in-a-generation suffering. So many things are upended. The elderly and immuno-compromised are at great risk. Graduations thrown into flux. Weddings celebrations canceled or delayed. Career changes and advancements halted in their tracks. Travel plans derailed. I do not fear for my own well-being, but I am afraid for the elderly in my local church. I’m afraid for my friend with asthma. I’m afraid for my friend’s sister battling cancer. I’m afraid for the child stuck in a broken home who no longer has access to the structure of a school day and lunch in the cafeteria. 

This is suffering. I do not know why the novel Coronavirus is happening. I’m not comfortable saying God has a plan for this or meant for this to happen because in so many ways I don’t see the goodness of this present moment. To do so would dishonor and be dishonest about the experiences of those who are currently suffering.

That said, I do believe God is real and actually gives a damn about us. In my heart I see the Spirit of God hovering over the world right now just as they hovered over the waters during creation. I imagine Jesus in my bedroom, sitting in the chair across from me, and find that he is not just a savior who will deliver us from this body of death but, more importantly in times like this, he is a wounded savior. He is a man who even now carries scars on his hands and feet and side because in some mysterious, profoundly human way he subjected himself to the violence, injustice, brokenness, and disease of this world and therefore has the embodied capacity to feel it with us. I believe that right now God is actively hurting with each and every one of us and longing to draw near to us, and that if we go to him we will find a friend. I believe we’ll find a friend ready to be with us wherever we’re at: to hold us when we’re shaking uncontrollably with fear and anxiety, to weep with us when a loved one is hospitalized or when our dreams have been shattered, to laugh with us in the funny and absurd moments of being quaratined, to rejoice with us in the beauty of music or the savory goodness of a home-cooked meal, to long for connection and reunifcation with the lover, parent, child, friend, or sibling from which we are now separated. 

 

—If I may venture to suggest one theory about what providence is up to, however, I do suspect that it is no coincidence the pandemic has swept across the world during the season of Lent, which is inaugurated with this exhortation: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We’re much more in touch with that reality now. We can feel it in our bones, our heartbeat, our breath.

 

—I’m excited about the great output of human creativity that will result from this. Already the world has seen a staggeringly vast and beautiful release of creative energy. Musicians are livestreaming concerts and writing songs. People are painting and writing poetry. They’re creating mini-golf courses in their homes and making epic Lego creations. Teachers are finding new ways to impart knowledge amid upended norms. Parents are finding ways to engage and educate their children. Neighbors are finding new ways to meet each other’s needs.

Spring is here, but we are only now just entering a strange, ill-timed social winter. I’m reminded of Annie Dillard’s reflections about winter in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”: 

It is winter proper; the cold weather, such as it is, has come to stay. I bloom indoors in the winter like a forced forsythia; I come in to come out. At night I read and write, and things I have never understood become clear; I reap the harvest of the rest of the year’s planting.

As is so often the case in life, we are in a paradoxical space of both/and. This is a time to sow, to rest, to prepare for life on the other side of this pandemic. But it is also a time to reap the harvest of our creative passions, ingenuity, and inventiveness that we have otherwise neglected.

I recently got the lyrics “live it like a song” tattooed on my arm. If we think of life as a song, then certainly the melody right now has taken a sudden and unexpected modulation into a minor key. But that doesn’t mean it still can’t have the aching, awful beauty that is relentless creativity in the face of pain and tragedy. 

 

—It’s time to appreciate the essential workers in our neighborhoods and in the world at large who keep us alive and safe every day. Truckers and delivery drivers are the new calvary in our war against the virus, transporting all manner of life-sustaining goods ranging from hospital supplies to fresh produce to toilet paper. Mail carriers, powerplant workers, garbage collectors, farmers, all of these oft-neglected individuals are soldiering on to preserve life and keep the world from descending into anarchy. Let’s bless these workers. Let’s honor them. Let’s love them (from afar). My heart aches with joy and love to see that for once we are not only declaring that everyone matters, but knowing it and feeling it deep in our hearts. The elderly and immunocompromised matter. Children in school matter. Therapists matter. Priests and artists, computer programmers and medical researchers, politicians and janitors—they all matter so much right now! This reality, I am increasingly convinced, pulses at the very heartbeat of God, and it is echoing loudly throughout the world because we all bear the imago dei. 

 

—I’m hopeful that we’ll come out of this with a healthier relationship to technology. I do not like that my average time spent on Facebook and on my smartphone has spiked dramatically in recent weeks. I loathe it, in fact, all this screen time. But right now I’m thankful that these technologies exist. I’m thankful for the communication and connection to other human beings that they provide at a time like this. I’m glad that I can still hear the voices and see images of my friends and family at a moment’s notice. At the end of this, however, I hope we see that these mediated methods of communicating and connecting with each other are no substitute for embodied face-to-face encounters. I hope we realize that we cannot live in a cocoon of tech-mediated reality and expect to flourish as humans. I think we will feel a gap, a longing for embodied connection that social media or Zoom cannot fill. Already, at this early stage in the quarantine, I long for the day when I can hug someone—anyone. How sweet, how real, how precious will that moment be, the simple act of hugging someone? And how much more will we appreciate how essential touch is to life itself?

 

—If I could offer one exhortation amid the digital noise of the pandemic, I’d encourage everyone to take some time to practice silence and solitude. Consider Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s warning in “Life Together”:

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.

I’m an introvert, yet I am struggling to live well and make good life choices in conditions where I can’t meet friends for coffee, play pickup ultimate Frisbee, go to the gym, attend a concert, or go out on a date. It may come more easily to some of us than to others, but I propose that the time to get alone with ourselves is now.

Several years ago, over a nine-month span, I had the privilege of experiencing six separate days of silence and solitude. They were the best days of my year. They ushered me into new depths of being. They freed me to find the glory of an entire world in a single flower. They helped me start to taste and see the joy in literally, physically walking with God. They gave my mind space to wander, to compose poetry, to rest and process my life. 

At a time when videoconferencing, phone calls, and social media are the only ways to safely connect with most people, I suspect that the practice of silence and solitude will be the key to avoid being flooded by digital noise. I’m not sure if there’s any other way, in fact, to walk through this into a healthy emotional state on the other side. 

It doesn’t have to be for a full day. Block out a chunk of time from nine to five. Or just a morning. An hour even. Close the laptop. Put away your phone. Turn off Alexa. Go into a still, quiet place, and see what the silence has to say. Brew a cup of coffee and savor its flavor. Light a candle and breathe in its aroma. Tend to a houseplant. Feel the sun shine on your skin. Write a letter, in longhand, to a friend. See what voices begin to speak, where your mind wanders, what feelings rise up. Write about it. Talk to God about it.

We have so much to teach ourselves, if only we will take the time to notice.

In the back country: A meditation on man’s relationship to nature

nature meditation 1

The seething earth, it opens up and spits us out.

This vicious child, nature never wanted us

This vicious child, a cancer burning black into its heart.

A few weeks ago I spent a weekend at Prince William Forest Park in Virginia (pictured above and below), near Quantico, where the Marine base is. Two mornings in a row, I walked into the “back country.” At least that’s what the park rangers called it. It’s an area that, if not miles, is at least many hundreds of yards away from the nearest road or any people. I realized this is not remarkable isolated, but for an urban DC-dweller, it was enough to feel profoundly alone.

There’s something remarkably cathartic about nature, especially experienced in contrast to the city or suburbia. It evokes a sort of primeval Edenic memory. I saw beauty at all levels and from all viewpoints, from the small grey moths sent aflutter from disturbed grass underfoot and the carpet-y moss and tiny flowers, all the way to the vast expanse of the reservoir separating us from Marine territory, lined with hills of deciduous trees and brush, sky, clouds, and green glittering in the water in a landscape I’d like to paint. A crane flew by, no higher than the treetops, adding the perfect touch of disruption to the ambiance of twittering and chirping and water lapping and wind dimpling the lake.

It feels welcoming, like a big collective embrace of life, warm and calming, soul-stilling. Ah yes, “be still and know,” it says. Come weary one, and find solace, be at home. The colors are bright and lively at the beginning of summer. The cleansed air speaks to how life was meant to be. It whispers that the world should be better than the urban jungle or cookie-cutter suburbia or the dilapidated cabin I’m staying in. It echoes of a home that I have yet to find. Not where I grew up, and not where I live now, but Somewhere Else. . . ideal.

nature meditation 2

I’ve always felt it, right in front of me but always just behind the next river bend in the river or beach peninsula or mountainside boulder. Camping at Hume Lake in California’s Sequoias every summer, day trips to the beach in Santa Barbara, even driving through the Mojave Desert at dusk – it tapped into some deep-set sense of beauty and belonging. I never put my finger on what it was about hiking in the Sequoias or walking along Ventura beach in the surf that made me want to adventure like the explorers of old and drink more deeply of its beauty. I still can’t, but against the backdrop of city life and my digital workplace I sense it with more volume and clarity now.

Here on the east coast, in Prince William Forest Park, the world teems with life. It slinks between the plants as insects and fungi, every square inch of the forest, it seems, is a picture of vitality. Every puddle and fallen trunk is an active ecosystem in its own right, in balance, dancing the symbiotic steps of life together. Bugs creep and buzz; occasionally I see hints of larger, warm-blooded creatures like squirrels and deer; and beneath the lakes fish glide like shadows and sometimes burst into the world in a flash of droplets to seize some hovering insect that lingered too near the water.

Yes, nature is more vibrant than even the most densely packed, active city ever could be. It is beautiful and delicate.

But it’s also vicious and vile, and I recoil from the wood’s summer awakening. For all my embrace of beauty I feel unease and alienation. “Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth,” goes the fabled curse – and also needles and fangs and stingers. A mosquito comes near my ear, and I slap at the whine. I keep a lookout for snakes – the ranger warned they had been active this year. Flip flops were a bad choice. Near stale pools of warmed rain water, mud puddles on the trail, the whining grows. I forgot bug repellent; also a bad choice. At the reservoir I lay down a towel, clearing sticks that poke into my back and scattering tiny spiders and ants in the untouched grass.

I try to read – philosophy, longform journalism, the Old Testament – but every itch and twitch and buggy sound jerks me away. Sometimes a tick really has jumped on me, the bastards. Sometimes it’s nothing. But the point is that I’m not at ease, not all the way. The spiders don’t want me. The mosquitos only want my blood. This isn’t my home.

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Our relationship has issues. Nature draws me, or perhaps a better way to put it is that I am drawn to nature – the freedom of the woods calls. But nature doesn’t want me. It flees from me. It does violence against me. So many of these creatures are designed to bite, paralyze, kill. The bugs are tormentors. I curse them here just like I curse them when they are in my house. And they’re just the beginning. I need not digress into lake water, leeches, copperheads, poison ivy.

And so here in Prince William Forest Park I find a tension in my desire for beauty. In the woods I hear whispers of home yet feel profoundly misfit – on edge, discomforted. I even fear sleep in my dilapidated cabin because there’s a mouse running around and moths bumping against the shoddy screen windows. There are urban myths about spiders crawling in your mouth as you sleep. Here they seems plausible.

Those lyrics at the beginning are from a song called “Above and Below” by The Bravery. I like what it has to say about man’s relationship to nature. The seething earth opens up and spits us out. Disease saps our lives away. If nature is our Mother, she has cast us out of the cradle. But we keep venturing in to the forest, looking for new life.

Why?

Nature doesn’t want us, but that doesn’t mean she never did. The Edenic memory is in us all. It testifies that we did belong – once upon a time. There used to be harmony. The world used to be good.

I hope to God it will be good once again.

Film Review at RedFence: Django Unchained

My review of the film Django Unchained is up over at RedFenceProject.com:

Django Unchained, the latest from director Quentin Tarantino, self-consciously incorporates the classic tropes of a Spaghetti Western with a brash flair of action-flick attitude that refuses to fall completely into our traditional expectations for the genre. We’re familiar with the opening credits in bright yellow font, shoot-’em-up gunfights, Western territories scenery, and campy zoom-in shots at the arrival of new characters, but the final product is unlike any Western I’ve ever seen.

As a prime example, a song with hip-hop elements showed up midway through the eclectic soundtrack, which on the whole tends to draw from Western roots, but puts off a modern vibe at times. Given that the hip-hop jam played as a newly purchased batch of slaves made the long walk to “Candyland,” a plantation home, it felt oddly fitting.

Django treats the subjects of racism and slavery with a brutal yet often comedic irreverence. When Django (Jamie Foxx) and Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) visit a plantation in search of the Brittle brothers, the owner tries to explain to one of his slaves that she isn’t to treat Django like a normal black slave, but he can’t bring himself to simply say that he should be treated like a white man. In another excellent scene (featuring a delightful appearance by Jonah Hill), a band of pre-KKK raiders gather before an attack, only to find that the holes in their hoods are too small to see through. The whole thing is nearly called off until their leader stubbornly demands they go through with it: “Did I say we ain’t wearing bags? It’s a raid! Who cares if you can see! Can the horses see!? That’s all that matters!” Through it all we can’t help but laugh at how sick and twisted the whole business is.

(to continue reading, please click here)

My Latest Film Reviews at RedFence

Earlier this month, in celebration of 20 years of Quentin Tarantino filmmaking, I attended the one-night theatrical screenings of Tarantino’s first two films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. The reviews are up on my “Wandering the Vault” blog at RedFenceProject.com.

Check out my review of Reservoir Dogs here.

And my review of Pulp Fiction.

My New Movie Blog: Wandering the Vault

As I mentioned in my earlier posts, I’ve starting writing weekly movie reviews for RedFenceProject.com. These reviews will come in three categories: Currently in Theaters, “Flicks You Might Have Missed,” and “Wandering the Vault.”

My blog, “Wandering the Vault” recently premiered. Here is the introduction so you get a good idea of where I’m coming from. I will be focusing on the classics–great and/or influential films that you should probably see sooner or later.

And what better classic to start with than a true all-time great: Casablanca! Check it out at RedFence here.

New Side Project Of Mine

I’m excited to announce that I’ve just started up a weekly Film Review Blog over at Redfence Magazine. This certainly won’t be replacing ACwords, but I’ll be sure to highlight my work there over on this blog too.

We start things off with a review of the new Bond movie, Skyfall. You can read it here at RedfenceProject.com, so check it out! I know they would appreciate the traffic (and so would I)!