I organized an impromptu family church service today. It came about somewhat stubbornly out of a desire to solve a problem that can’t really be solved. My grandparents, who live next door to me, are 90 years old. They’re lonely during this time of vulnerability and isolation. Traditions of church, hairdresser, and senior meals are upended, leaving them with nowhere to go just like the rest of us. My grandmother doesn’t really understand why we aren’t getting together for dinner today, Palm Sunday, (the Sunday before Easter) like we always do. I tried to explain to her again about social distancing, about keeping our circle as small as possible, about limiting our exposure, about keeping us all safe. About not wanting to be a headline – “Family of 9 Contracts COVID-19 at Palm Sunday Dinner.” I tried to tell her we were following guidelines from the CDC and the governor. “No gatherings for any reason. We’re trying to save lives and to keep us all safe,” I explain again.
“So the governor says that families can’t be together?” she asks again.
She’s right. We should be able to gather (safely).
So in the interest of all of our mental health, this morning, we gathered. The nine of us, four generations spanning ages 2 – 90, gathered outside next to the eager daffodils (with our chairs 6 feet apart). A neighbor joined us at the last minute, rounding out our group to 10. We gathered to be together and to practice ritual and tradition.
The world cries out for peace. Let us be part of that peace, I started the service.
I was channeling my mother, who became a local licensed pastor in the last few years of her life. With her help, I led my family through prayers and songs, adding my own flare to the service (I’ve recently started identifying myself as 1/3 Buddhist, 1/3 animist and 1/3 Christian... I’ll save my own pondering about religion and spirituality for another time).
We closed our eyes, taking three deep breaths, and noticing our sensations and our senses. I noticed the voices of children and the voices of birds co-mingling in the space between the earth at our feet and the sky above.
We listened to music played through a smart phone and speakers. “What beautiful organ music,” my grandmother, who used to play the organ, commented.
We listened to my brother read the scripture of the day.
We listened to the voices of my nephews, ages two and five, as they stomped around the garden and played in the sandbox and found worms.
Dirt church is where I pray, you can find me there. The words of a favorite song came to me as I saw their small bodies in the garden and their hands in the dirt. Porter, age two, took advantage of our reverent state to take miniature shovels-worth of sand out of the sandbox, an action that is usually met with a swift cry of “Keep the sand in the sandbox!” I watched him spread it on the raised beds awaiting seeds and across the greening grass. I think he was delighted to finally get to put sand wherever he wanted.
We listened to the wise, comforting words of our pastor, Rev. Betsy Ott of The United Ministry of Delhi, as she compared the present day and our uncertainty and turmoil to that of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’s death and resurrection.
We listened to my father sing “The Palms,” a family tradition on Palm Sunday. 5-year-old Wyatt looked up from the garden sand box wonderingly as he sang. “What’s going on, and why is Grandpa singing?” I could hear him asking with his eyes.
We sang a hymn together, my sister-in-law’s beautiful soprano ringing out above all the rest. My tears came then, as I looked out at the fields that nourish us, the mountain that accompanies us, the birds that fly above us, the cloudy sky that holds us. That was the moment I really felt my mom with us. It was four years ago today that she received her terminal cancer diagnosis and all of our lives changed.
And then our ritual concluded and we sat and talked. Our friend and neighbor told us of her Jewish tradition at this time of year, of the matzo ball soup and the unleavened bread and the sponge cake. On Passover, she told us, they remember their convictions, their conscience, what they believe in - whether its written in stone or deep within their hearts.
What do we believe in? What does our conscience tell us right now, in this moment?
I’m devouring a book of essays by Wendell Berry right now. He’s asking similar questions as he traverses the woods he belongs to in his essay, "A Native Hill."
“We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumptions that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to co-operate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.”
He goes on, “I have at least arrived at the candor necessary to stand on this part of the earth that is so full of my own history and so much damaged by it, and ask: What is this place? What is in it? What is its nature? How should men live in it? What must I do?”
“I have not found the answers…But the questions are more important than their answers. In the final sense they have no answers…And so my questions do not aspire beyond the earth. They aspire toward it and into it. Perhaps they aspire through it. They are religious because they are asked at the limit of what I know; they acknowledge mystery and honor its presence in the creations; they are spoken in reverence for the order and grace that I see, and that I trust beyond my power to see.”
For me, this morning was a confluence of my own current set of living questions. How do I balance family needs and my own needs? How do we stay connected and also safe? How to I react to fear? I see fear of loss and death and the unknown all around me and within me, amplified on a global scale. What must I do? What is this place I belong to, the swirling river, the rolling hills, the returning birds, the flowing streams? Who am I in it? What does it mean to be here right now?
I’m reminded that fear is contagious, and that peace and calm are also contagious. That in gathering (safely), we are choosing love and peace over fear. We are living intentionally as my mom would have wanted us to. She wrote in her own obituary, “When she was diagnosed with cancer three months after retiring, she vowed to continue living fully and intentionally. She asks that you honor and remember her best by living your life fully and intentionally with kindness and compassion.”
“Come to our house?” Two-year-old Porter’s little voice asks me inquisitively. It’s 1/2 request, 1/2 demand as only a two-year-old’s voice can hold. I tell him it’s my writing day and that I’ll be over later. Waving their stalks of dried hydrangea, fists full of worms, the young ones march their rubber booted-feet back over the place they belong to as our revolutionary gathering disperses. I hope one day Wyatt asks me, “Aunt Chelsea, remember that day when Grandpa was singing and we all waved hydrangea stalks? What were we doing?”
And I’ll tell him we were collectively, stubbornly, intentionally choosing peace and love, asking big questions, and honoring the mystery of place, of time, and of our lives.