Connection, Community, and COVID-19

A time you may embrace,
A time to refrain from embracing.
~Ecclesiastes 3:5

I wake every morning and check the map. I look at numbers, statistics, the exponential curve. Often, numbers make me feel safe, a stolid retreat for the emotions swirling through my brain and my body. But these numbers do not feel safe. These numbers only mark the exponential growth of fear.

These numbers only mark the exponential growth of fear.

The third Sunday in Lent is our last Sunday in church…but of course, we don’t know that at the time. Already, things are different: We won’t pass the offering plates. We won’t pass the peace. I had planned to stay home, but my 15-year-old daughter desperately wanted to acolyte, and so I take her, just her, while the rest of my family stays home. I sit alone, watching, as the few attendees file into pews, watch them mentally calculating and measuring: Six feet. Six feet. Six feet. The collect for the day, printed in our bulletin, is so appropriate that I wonder if the church has cheated and pulled something in that wasn’t on the lectionary. I thumb through the worn prayer book in front of me to find the collect for the third Sunday in Lent, and discover that what is printed in the bulletin is, indeed, the collect for the day:

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Amen.

I memorize the collect. First I pray it every morning. Then I pray it throughout the day: All adversities which may happen to the body…all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul.

Defend us, Lord.

Schools close and I ground my heels in positive spin, talking up for my five children all the fun things we will do, especially for the ones who love school, who will miss their friends, who thrive on schedule and routine. Yet even as I am selling this unexpected break, inside I mourn. My kindergartner asks me when he can turn in his reading raffle tickets, and I am transported back in time to when my middle son was asked, by a different school, to leave kindergarten and not come back. Not being able to go to school touches a place inside me that is deep and tender, and I scan my son’s reading raffle tickets and e-mail them to his teacher, a pale comparison for the real thing.

The sun rises. The planet turns. We play Spot It and Dutch Blitz.

Our first week of “virtual church” we have popcorn and lemonade as our communion bread and wine, and I wonder about the theological implications of buttering the Body of Christ. But I decide that, for a family like ours with some special needs in the mix, virtual church is a win. Nobody gets dressed and nobody has to be quiet and nobody has to “maintain expected behaviors,” like sitting still or making eye contact. When my 11-year-old suddenly yells, “Why does the priest always look like he has to poop?” no one tells us to shush, and I do not shrivel from mortification.

I think about all the people living alone who don’t have this touchstone during “shelter-in-place,” this moment of tangible connection that reminds us I am safe. I am not alone.

A friend tells me that, in her state, “social isolation” has given way to “shelter-in-place.” Soon, in my home state, we have “stay-at-home.” “It’s not that bad,” I tell a friend. “I have five kids. I still get a zillion hugs a day.” But my arms ache for those who live alone, for those who go to bed at the end of the day with no one to hug goodnight. My six-year-old starts to appear at my side, multiple times a day, just to connect. His little fingers pause on my elbow, or he leans his head against my arm, and I think about all the people living alone who don’t have this touchstone during “shelter-in-place,” this moment of tangible connection that reminds us I am safe. I am not alone. My 13-year-old son takes to piling on to any hug that is already occurring, calling out in his newly-deep voice, “Group hug!” Any time I hug one of his siblings he comes crashing into an embrace. Soon, though, even that is not enough, and he starts yelling “Sneak attack!” and launching himself at me. He is taller than I am, and as his gangly arms wrap around me I wonder who is protecting whom.

Three times, in short succession, I happen upon a quote from Julian of Norwich, who lived through multiple iterations of the Black Plague in 14th-century England: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Each time, it takes on new meaning. I add it in to my recitations of the collect: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls…and all manner of things shall be well.

My eight-year-old, the extrovert of the family, follows me around the house talking nonstop. I pause what I am doing to watch her. She talks and she talks and she talks, her arms waving, her face shifting into a thousand different expressions as she speaks. I am pretty sure she can talk even while inhaling.

Bombarded with our own exponential curve of “online resources,” my children and I can no longer keep up. The explosion of proliferations of virtual connection filling my inbox overwhelms my introverted self, and I long for either real retreat, or real connection, not this shadowland of both and neither. We close the computers. We RSVP “No.” As a family, we retreat to the shelter of ourselves.

We wash our hands and recite the Lord’s Prayer.

“Don’t pick your nose and eat it!” my six-year-old yells at his brother. “Especially during co-ro-na-vi-rus!” He pronounces it so carefully, the merest hint of his toddler lisp still lingering on the S. It is simultaneously adorable and terrifying.

We ride our bikes through empty streets and I feel guilty for our joy.

A friend moves to another state to shelter with her sister, “until this is over.” I drive to her house to say goodbye and I cry. I don’t know when I will see her again. Another friend tells me a loved one is in the emergency room. The word she uses is “struggling.” The panic swirls ever closer.

We read The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse. We read it again. And again. We tell each other, “When the big things feel out of control, focus on what you love right under your nose.” On an evening walk, the scent from the blooms on the saucer magnolia hits my face like an assault. And a promise.

The sun sets. The planet turns. Defend us, Lord. On earth, as it is in Heaven. And all manner of things shall be well.

Elrena Evans
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