Another Week Ends

1. Today many of us are looking for clarity amidst the fraying strands of daily […]

CJ Green / 4.10.20

1. Today many of us are looking for clarity amidst the fraying strands of daily life: plague, family, politics, Good Friday, Easter, time—which has always passed bizarrely but especially now, in the isolation of self-quarantine. A resoundingly helpful story, in light of all this, comes from writer Jay Parini, who reflects on a brief encounter with famed poet W.H. Auden. Auden’s words continued to resonate with Parini, these many years later. Here’s a brief excerpt of that exchange:

Auden had a cracked and wrinkled face, like a baked mudflat, and he told me that he would soon be dead. (Indeed, he died a couple of years later.)

“I’ve learned a little in my life,” he said. “Not much. But I will share with you what I do know. I hope it will help.”

He lit a cigarette, looked at the ceiling, then said, “I know only two things. The first is this: There is no such thing as time.” He explained that time was an illusion: past, present, future. Eternity was “without a beginning or an end,” and we must come to terms with what underlies time, or exists around its edges. He quoted the Gospel of John, where Jesus said: “Before Abraham was, I am.” That disjunctive remark upends our notions of chronology once and for all, he told me.

I listened, a bit puzzled, then asked: “So what’s the second thing?”

“Ah, that,” he said. “The second thing is simply advice. Rest in God, dear boy. Rest in God.”

Also noteworthy: The Notre Dame Cathedral holds small Good Friday mass amid coronavirus lockdown almost a year after the fire. Hardhats, hazmat suits, masks: the beat goes on.

2. Earlier this week, Bari Weiss wrote something of an ode to hospital chaplains. She describes what the job entails (“Doctors and nurses focus on healing the physical; chaplains are there for everything else”), and explains how chaplains’ responsibilities have changed during the time of corona:

The Rev. Dr. Rachelle Zazzu, a chaplain at Mount Sinai Hospital in Queens, has adapted the bedside memorial to suit the new reality. She will stand outside a patient’s room, put her hands on the door and “pray out loud for God to receive this person with mercy and grace.”

When Dr. Zazzu first started doing this work, she told me, “I had about eight seconds of thinking I was going to be some superhero combination of Martin Luther King and Jesus.” Then she realized that “the best coin in my purse that I had to offer was that I kept coming back.”

These days she’s showing up even when it’s not her shift, because she works in Queens, “the epicenter of the epicenter” of coronavirus cases in the United States, she said. “I come in on the weekend because I couldn’t say to God: ‘I didn’t come in because I don’t get paid on Saturday.’”

Chaplains told me that the Covid-19 pandemic was unlike anything they had seen before in the intensity of the sickness, the speed at which it can lay a person low, and the sheer number of deaths.

Weiss doesn’t hold back from writing about the horrors in today’s hospitals — the sheer volume and intensity of sickness and death. Despite this, one quote in particular stands out:

“The thing about faith is faith is based on trust, not on understanding,” said Mr. Walker. “I don’t pretend to understand this.”

3. St. George’s Church in NYC (where our annual Mockingbird conference is held) was featured in The NY Post for the unique way it is lifting the city’s spirits. I know many of us were saddened not to convene there this spring, but this story reminds us of why this church is such a special place:

Although St. George’s Episcopal in Gramercy Park closed its doors three weeks ago in the wake of the coronavirus, the church is still lifting the spirits of the neighborhood with pealing chimes.

“Church bells are historically rung to call people to prayer, in times of celebration, and in times of sadness,” Reverend Jacob Andrew Smith told The Post. “We wanted to specifically play some comforting songs that reminded us [of hope] during sadness. We’re tapping into the tradition to ring the bells during a tragedy — I would say we’re in a time of tragedy.” […]

“People are genuinely afraid,” [Kamel Boutros] added. “To see actual body bags go into a freezer truck by the hundreds, we’re in a time that people have never experienced.”

So the musical solace is resonating with grateful New Yorkers. “People say, ‘I was walking my dog in the neighborhood and I heard ‘Amazing Grace’ and just started crying,” said Boutros.

Smith has seen the same reaction: “One officer got up from his car, waved, and said, ‘thanks.’”

“Whatever your story is, people can relate to the sounds of these bells,” Boutros said. “It’s like an intangible hug — with no judgment.”

4. At Commonweal, Austen Ivereigh interviewed Pope Francis who offered some stirring thoughts on the virus, what we can learn from it, and what we can learn from our responses to it. There’s a lot to sift through, but what stood out to me was the following:

…the counsel is not to give up, but save yourself for better times, for in those times remembering what has happened will help us. Take care of yourselves for a future that will come. And remembering in that future what has happened will do you good.

Take care of the now, for the sake of tomorrow. Always creatively, with a simple creativity, capable of inventing something new each day.

He also condemns what he calls “throwaway culture,” which is a culture that values whatever is economically efficient over the often inefficient human life.

…we’re realizing that all our thinking, like it or not, has been shaped around the economy. In the world of finance it has seemed normal to sacrifice [people], to practice a politics of the throwaway culture, from the beginning to the end of life. …

Right now, the homeless continue to be homeless. A photo appeared the other day of a parking lot in Las Vegas where they had been put in quarantine. And the hotels were empty. But the homeless cannot go to a hotel. That is the throwaway culture in practice.

5. Along similar thematic/ideological lines, Casey Cep profiled Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, which aims to provide relief for those in need. “[B]y the time she died, in 1980, Day had become one of the most prominent thinkers of the left and doers of the right. In her lifetime, it was the secularists … who called Day a saint.”

…what most alienated Day from her fellow-radicals was her conviction that what was needed was not a violent revolution but “a revolution of the heart,” as she called it: an ability to see Christ in others, and to love others as God loves us.

As the years passed, faith and radicalism, which coexisted so seamlessly in Day herself, grew further and further apart in the outer world. The left wanted less heart and more revolution; the faithful, less revolution and more heart. Day wanted what she always had: justice for the poor and peace for all.

Additionally Cep recommends the following documentary:

6. For any writers out there (and/or if you’re just in need of some inspiration) George Saunders wrote an open letter to his students. It is classically heartfelt and gracious:

I’m trying to practice feeling something like, “Ah, so this is happening now,” or “Hmm, so this, too, is part of life on Earth. Did not know that, universe. Thanks so much, stinker.”

And then I real quick try to pretend that I didn’t just call the universe a “stinker.”

… the world is like a sleeping tiger and we tend to live our lives there on its back. (We’re much smaller than the tiger, obviously. We’re like Barbies and Kens on the back of a tiger.) And now and then that tiger wakes up. And that is terrifying. Sometimes it wakes up and someone we love dies. Or someone breaks our heart. Or there’s a pandemic. But this is far from the first time that tiger has come awake. He/she has been doing it since the beginning of time and will never stop doing it. And always there have been writers to observe it and (later) make some sort of sense of it, or at least bear witness to it. It’s good for the world for a writer to bear witness, and it’s good for the writer, too. Especially if she can bear witness with love and humor and, despite it all, some fondness for the world, just as it is manifesting, warts and all.

Also in the category of “coping,” here is a sharp op-ed by Emily Esfahani Smith: distinguishing “happiness” from “meaning,” she encourages us to look for meaning. “If the goal is coping, [happiness strategies] do not penetrate into the psyche as deeply as meaning does.”

7. This week’s humor comes in the guise of two longform profiles, one on the man who made a career out of doing nothing, Larry David, and one on Weird Al Yankovic. First, Mr. David, Master of His Quarantine. There’s a lot here, but a couple fave quotes include:

I found Larry David barricaded in his home in the Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles. “No one gets in here,” America’s most famous misanthrope said. “Only in an emergency plumbing catastrophe would I open the door.”

I asked what he fears most and he replied: “Anarchy and a potential dental emergency — and not necessarily in that order.”


You’re meditating a lot lately.

Oh, God no. I find that’s an extreme waste of time. I’m supposed to be sitting here repeating this thing over and over again. Toward what end?

The Weird Al piece is shot through with similar humor but, I would say, is perhaps more uplifting. Sam Anderson marvels at the cult celebrity’s staying power. Though the mountains should move and the world be wracked with virus, Weird Al will never stop rocking:

Weird Al’s bond with his fans is atomic. He will stop and speak with them anywhere — at airports, outside the tour bus — for so long that it becomes a logistical problem. The fans approach him like a guru, and Weird Al responds with sweet, open, validating energy. […]

As I watched him with his fans, sometimes I felt as if Weird Al was multiplying all around me, multiplying inside of me. We were one crowd, united in isolation, together in a great collective loneliness that — once you recognized it, once you accepted it — felt right on the brink of being healed.

8. I’ll conclude this week with some snippets from a stunning reflection by Tish Harrison Warren; though if you have time, you should proceed to Christianity Today to read the whole thing.

The stakes could not be higher. As a deadly virus speeds its way around the world bringing chaos, destruction, and death, it’s painfully clear that the Resurrection is either the whole hope of the world—the very center of reality—or Christianity is not worth our time.

“Let us not mock God with metaphor, analogy, sidestepping, transcendence; making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages,” writes John Updike in his poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter.” If Jesus’ “cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle, the Church will fall.”

I am a Christian today not because it answers all my questions about the world or about our current suffering. It does not. And not because I think it is a nice, coherent moral order by which to live my life. And not because I grew up this way or have fond feelings about felt boards and hymn sings. And not because it motivates justice or helps me to know how to vote. I am a Christian because I believe in the Resurrection. If it isn’t true, to hell with it. […]

The truest fact of the universe this Eastertide is not death tolls, emptied sanctuaries, or overcrowded hospitals. The truest fact of the universe is an empty tomb. 


Featured image credit: AP Photo/Francois Mori.