By Elliot Shaw
In the classic poem “To a Mouse,” Robert Burns tells us that the best laid plans often go askew, leaving us to deal with nothing but grief and pain. But what he doesn’t tell us is that skewed plans can sometimes be better than carefully formulated ones. Of course, there are times when our hoped-for designs on the future truly were the ideal scenarios; there are times we are left with only misfortune. And sometimes these realities are impregnable to our efforts to re-narrate, to augment, to reveal silver linings, as it were, and the only thing left is to simply inhabit their severity. But other times, failed plans—and sometimes pain and grief themselves—function more as deviations from expectations rather than failures and senseless grief, eo ipso. Though these may be spaces of discomfort and dislocation, they sometimes gift us with revitalized perspectives. This is an old trope, to be sure, which we can see all around. In movies, it’s when the odd couple are forced to interact with each other in a broken elevator, discovering a sympathetic spirit in a place they never would have looked. In fiction, it’s when circumstances obligate disparate strands to engage, as in Boccaccio’s Decameron, or the Canterbury Tales, or in modern stories like Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter,” and so on. Such moments underscore the fecundity of the unexpected, and, I think, bear some resemblance to what the time of COVID has been like for many people. The past several months have been strange, disorienting and, without equivocation, tragic. But for many, as for me, these have not been the only takeaways. Let me offer a personal example.
This past Easter occurred during what was (hopefully) the height of the pandemic. About two weeks had elapsed since restrictions had been enacted in mid-March. Vigilance was high and efforts were being made to grapple with the magnitude of the unprecedented event. As such, the desire to attend on-ground Easter services was trumped by the dictates of safety and caution, forcing many to observe from the confines of their individual homes. My wife, Eleonor, and I were among this population, and the experience proved to be a disorienting one. Sitting at our kitchen table that Sunday morning, we tried to conjure for ourselves a facsimile of an Easter service, reading through a liturgy our church had emailed, doing our best to focus our attentions and energies how they might have been were we at a brick-and-mortar gathering. When we came to the end, there was some genuine gratification in the act of remembrance—but there was a palpable absence also. Reflecting on the sensation, I suddenly realized the important role being physically among community had played in Easters past. It was a you don’t know what you have till it’s gone moment that brought the reality of quarantine home, in a new, literal sense.
I went about my day—ate lunch, completed tasks around the house—in a sort of haze, feeling this sense of disjunction brought about by COVID. That afternoon, Eleonor received a text from her father in Florida. He and some extended family were going to have a “prayer meeting” on Zoom later that evening, and, he said, that we should join. This was exciting because I had had few opportunities to interact with some of Eleonor’s extended family due to the fact that they are widely dispersed around the globe—her mother is Portuguese with family ties to Europe, Africa, and South America, and her father is Salvadoran, with brothers and sisters fanned out in similar fashion. As such, still loafing about in my haze, the invitation to the meeting was a welcomed prospect.
That evening, sitting at the end of our kitchen table again, we dialed into the Zoom call. We had been punctual, but discovered once we connected that the meeting was already in full swing. In the center square of the call, a man with a salt and pepper beard was preaching. Surrounding him, a wreath of expectant faces listening calmly. Eleonor talked me through the relations. Above him, a cousin in El Salvador; next to her, an uncle in Brazil. Eleonor’s father—white ear-buds in, phoning in from her childhood bedroom in Florida—was in a bottom square; next to him, a second cousin in Chicago. And finally, grandma—80 years old and effervescent as ever—bottom right, calling from El Salvador. We quickly realized that the meeting was more than a mere “prayer meeting.” It was a full-on church service. The uncle was speaking a fast-paced Spanish that rendered my limited competence moot, so Eleonor translated for me in real time. Though not a pastor by profession, he preached with the naturalness of veteran—effortlessly modulating the cadence of his delivery to bring emphasis and variation, alighting from point to point with ease. When he had finished, the meeting was yielded to the uncle in Brazil, sitting comfortably on a living room couch next to his wife, who took up the mantle of guidance with equal confidence and gusto. He began to prepare the family for taking communion, but whereas many ministers in the States (in my experience) usually limit its administration to just a few words, there was no such reserve here. It began as a few remarks on the meaning of communion and gradually evolved into additional sermon in its own right, complete with points, textual analyses, and illustrations. Reaching the end, he provided the old instructions, and we watched silently as the host of people on the screen partook together.
A short time of prayer followed and soon thereafter the “church” portion of the call wrapped up, about an hour after we had joined in. For the first time that night, we began to hear the voices of the family members. Almost in unison, they began chatting with one another—one box addressing another box, another set in another conversation—unbound by the stolid rules of Zoom meetings in professional contexts I’d been accustomed to.
We watched as people caught up, laughed with each other, held up babies to the camera—and I suddenly felt an old feeling welling up. Pressing into my psyche was the sensation one has of being in a living room at Thanksgiving, the cozy familiarity and security, the sounds of several disparate conversations coalescing into a warm, comforting cacophony. I felt, without understanding at first, the fog of isolation begin to dissipate in the face of a solidarity unfazed by the separating miles.
Soon, the group addressed us, as we were the relative newcomers to the meeting. We said hello (Eleonor translating and speaking) and how nice it was to be with and see everyone.
Eleonor’s father let slip out that it had been my birthday a couple days prior. Without hesitation, aunts and uncles and cousins I barely knew began singing happy birthday in Portuguese. A second stanza in Spanish followed, with loving attempts at an English rendition finishing it off. It was an unexpected display of goodwill that moved me and was much stronger than the sense of isolation I had been experiencing that day—and it trumped my malaise with ease. Grateful, I bumbled out some Spanish and exhausted the little Portuguese I knew, to everyone’s amusement. Then, as quickly as it had turned its attention to us, conversation flowed on to other things. We hung about a few minutes longer, listening to and participating in some of the conversation, and then began to say our goodbyes. We signed off, looked at each other, and took in a restorative breath, feeling for the first time that day the old feeling of Easter finally abiding among us.
There’s no doubt that time of COVID has been a deficit. Though we are seeing incremental improvements by the day, the past two months are likely a harbinger of a strange new normal for the foreseeable future. A continued flow of casualties, new cases, and new social complications is likely, frustrating the mounting desire to get back to old routines. For those of us fortunate enough to not have dealt with the effects of the virus directly, everyday life is very much like a waiting game. Strangely, the most heroic thing most of us can do is continue to limit social interaction, which after two months of doing is becoming old hat. But the experience has reminded me of the virtues of stasis and the unexpected benefits of discomfort. There is the sobering realization that the unexpected and aberrant is not all bad, that lean times teach us about reserves of strength that normal times would have kept hidden. Though times of discomfort and disorientation are rarely pursued, such moments have a way of revealing things that the comforts of routine habitually blind us to. In the limitations of the pandemic, one can only hope to perceive with new appreciation the bounty of what is actually close to us.