Holy Week

Wednesday.

We walk, on the eve of the high holy days of the Christian church, in shirtsleeves and shorts. It is a warm, changeable day, but in the afternoon, the sun shines down, and we take the long way around the campus. It is busy with walkers and joggers and bikers, families with four and five little ones thrilled to be released and berserking, couples walking oddly matched (one big and galloot-ish, slow and ponderous; one tiny, frenetic, highly wired) dogs.

The sun is hot on my back, and the walk feels good.

At night, the wind howls, and trash cans detach themselves from the garage and throw themselves, prostrate, onto the backyard grass. Old limbs from aging trees creak and groan and fall into the dandelion-ed grass. The wind chime waves crazily; I fall asleep to piercing, haunting tones.

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Holy Thursday

Thursday can’t decide. Rain falls straight and hard and determined. The sun comes out; I check the weather app, which promises no more rain until after lunch. We head off to the fitness trail in late morning, and when we get there, we wait in the car until it stops raining again.

It is cold, and we are bundled in jackets, with knit gloves on. Jim says he’d just as soon sit in the car and listen to music on his headphones, thanks very much. Mark and I head off, buffeted by fat plops of rain. In a moment though, the sun is out again.

We take the long way ‘round, and we are rewarded on the home stretch by seeing friends march toward us. We stand eight feet apart and talk, and we realize we have been starved for just this kind of interaction.

In the car, Jim’s head bobs to 80’s rock.

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Holy Thursday, if it has a theme, must be about betrayal, right? There is Jesus with his closest friends, his heart breaking. There is Jesus eating a Passover meal with the friends who would give him up, who would not back him up, who would fall asleep when he needed them; they were friends who would, when fear clashed into loyalty, actively deny they even knew him.

I think that I should take time, after the static-laden evening teleconference meeting, to ponder betrayal, to think about the times I have been the betrayer and ask forgiveness. I could parse out those times dear ones have betrayed me, too, forgive them, let it go.

I sit with my notebook after the meeting wraps up with staccato, crisp farewells, but the betrayal theme will not emerge. A little voice tells me my pondering is awfully ponderous. My thoughts keep turning to odd indications of new life.

I think about this: at the meeting’s end, one of the board members asked the doctor among us for an update on the COVID-19 situation in the county. The doc said that all the COVID patients have been released from the hospital and are in recovery. In a hospital where they expected to house 350 cases by the peak time of the virus, there are beds waiting and ready for those afflicted. The numbers are far, far less than anticipated.

That was good news in the midst of bad, amid spiking curves of new illness and daily reports of mounting deaths.

But, the doctor added, flattening the curve means lengthening the duration. Social distancing, which is working, may go on for longer than we can foresee.

When I hang up, that is what is in my thoughts. Life has changed. This was a Lent of a different kind of fasting—a giving up of lunchtime meetings, face to face classroom interactions, coffee with friends, writers’ group richness, travel to visit dear ones and to explore.

The winds rattles the windows in my little second floor study. The furnace kicks vigorously on.

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Good Friday.

It is cold on Friday morning. Sweet gum pods scatter all over the front lawn; one trash can again threw itself out into the backyard. Broken branches litter the driveway.

We need a treat, even on this somber day of fast and abstinence. I mix up a batch of potato chip cookie dough and put a plate over the top of the bowl. I sweep the kitchen and bathroom floors, and I run downstairs to get my new mop.

While the boyos pull their coats on, lace up sneakers, and head out to the car, I quick mop all the hard floors, then pull the door closed behind me.

And we go off to walk at the college.

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We come home feeling wind-burned and vital. I turn the oven on and decide to make big cookies, rather than bite-sized ones, for a change of pace. I spoon large plops of dough, studded with butterscotch, milk, and semi-sweet chocolate chips, eight or ten to a tray.

They spread and rise and settle, golden brown, and I spatula them onto the big pizza pan to cool.

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For lunch I make a tuna sandwich. The boyos eat leftovers. Mark, who has declared that, at 65 years of age, he is exempt from any kind of fasting or abstinence, eats the last grilled Sahlen dog. Jim (who says, “I’m spiritual, not religious. And I eat meat.”) reheats a pork burrito.

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After lunch, I struggle back into my sneakers for my afternoon walk; I will walk during the time when, in olden days, we might be in church. Solitary walks free my mind, clean my lungs, are a sort of moving meditative prayer in themselves, so this feels right for a solemn day of remembrance.

But my aging hammer toe, which rubs against the roof of my otherwise very nice sneaker, rebels. It will settle down, I know, as I walk, but later, it will be red and sore.

A tiny sacrifice, I think, but then I’m derailed from starting off by a package on the steps. It holds my new hiking sandals, arrived one day early. I rip off the packaging outside, stuff it in the trash, go inside and wash my hands.

Then I take the sandals, an Easter gift to myself, from their box. They are not glamorous; they have thick sturdy soles and tough black fabric straps that secure with Velcro. They fit perfectly, and they do not rub my bent and aching toe.

I march off, a geek in sandals and thick gray socks. It is the best, most comfortable stride I have had in weeks.

I walk during the hours when, as a child, I would have knelt in church, praying in solemn, incense-soaked silence; joining the throng of pilgrims who bow to kiss the feet of the crucified Christ, held by the priest and his helper. The helper wiped the long-toed, fragile-looking feet after each kiss, and then the next supplicant bent and kissed them in turn.

I imagine that happening in a time of COVID, and I realize this pandemic has changed many, many things.

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I think about the pollution that has lifted from China, from India, from New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, as we hunker down in our isolation. Perhaps the Earth has its own way of getting humans to pay attention to its needs; perhaps we’d better listen.

I think of the fact that we have not shopped in two weeks, and that we have been just fine, thank you: not deprived at all, not even beset by junk food cravings. We’ve said, Mark and I, that we will do things differently after this: we will shop twice a month, and creatively use what we have in the meantime. We may even send our grocery order off electronically and just pick it up or have it delivered, keeping our impulse-susceptible selves away from retail enticements.

I think of the people with whom I’ve reconnected during these at-home days, and of the bonds that have deepened.

The whipping wind makes me think of that old adage: it’s an ill wind that blows no good.

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The solemn hours of the Passion pass into the vacuum, the quiet time, after the crucifixion. This—Friday night, Saturday—provides time to let the meaning settle, to acknowledge the supreme sacrifice made on behalf of humankind.

Time to think too, of the people who have died from COVID 19…the babies and the parents and the grandparents, the single and the paired, the artists and workers and the caregivers, the ordinary and extraordinary: much-needed and much-loved, every one.

I think of my oft betrayal of this Earth—my use of randomly disposed plastic, my arrogant waste of water, my willful driving to places I could easily walk. I think that the Earth is teaching me discipline and care during these pandemic days.

I think of dearly missed people lost to death, and the thought of some kind of resurrection, of reconnection, brings hope.

This is not a ‘usual’ Holy Week; my thoughts whip along with the manic wind, but now I try to settle into the waiting time.

When Sunday dawns, we three will celebrate with cinnamon rolls and hoarded Easter goodies, with a dinner of plump roast chicken, with walks, if it doesn’t rain too much, and with texts and emails  and calls that extend the web of our stay-at-home world.

We will think of new life, and we will interpret that concept with a new and unforeseen lens.

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Easter is the celebration of new life, and this pandemic sits us down, grabs our cheeks, and makes us focus. “Look on this,” it says. “Look on this, and think about what new life needs to be.”

Good Friday in Ohio

It is cold; it is gray; it is wet. I clip the leash on the little dog, and we venture, in the lightening morning, out into the front yard. She darts, confused, from spot to spot, looking up at me, imploring, keen to get out of the rain. Finally she finds her place, takes care of business, and tugs me toward the door.

I kick off my duckies and shrug out of my jacket, which is sodden. When I rouse James and hurry him through breakfast, so we can—on this last Friday before the first of the month—take care of banking, pick up prescriptions, and fuel up the car, I wear my raincoat. It, at least, is dry.

Rain beats against the windshield; the wipers squawk and complain. We plot our route efficiently, accomplish job after job, and head home where it is dry and warm.

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I trade my black sneakers for penny loafers, change into my off-white blazer, drag a comb through my hair, holler goodbye to James, and head out for what has become a lovely monthly ritual. I am meeting three friends in the parking lot of a big-box hardware store, an easy launch onto the road that will take us to Granville. There, we’ll check out a new restaurant, and we’ll meet two more friends who’ve driven in from Columbus.

I feel my jacket sleeve: still damp and cold. And then I think to look out the window. I realize it is snowing, hard little pocks of snow that hit the pavement with a ‘chishing’ noise. I open the closet, and I pull out my winter coat.

Linda and Judy are parked in the very last row of the parking lot, cars warming. We all grab phones and text frantically, and Susan’s car appears, surging up from right in front of the store itself, where she’d actually been transacting business. We bundle into her SUV and begin catching up on all that has happened since our last meeting.

And we complain about the weather. “Snow on Good Friday!” we all snort in disgust, relaxing into the gentle heat of the car, comparing notes on the just-past snowstorm, commenting on the irony of that first day of spring event.  The thirty-mile drive melts away.

Becky and Karen have staked out a table for six, tucked into a corner by a window. Karen and her husband Tim know the restaurant’s owners. The wait-person is Karen’s former student, Rachel. She brings us water, brews up a fresh, wonderful pot of decaf, and lets us talk our way through deciding what we’ll order.

Linda has had to cancel her extended family Easter because her daughter-in-law has a nasty case of the flu (The soup today is chicken tortilla. Don’t the cheese strips sound good?) Susan has wonderful news to share; her Sara has just found out she’s a Fulbright scholar. Sara will do research in Finland for a year before starting her graduate studies. Susan and Tom will visit her in the spring.

Judy and her husband will be flying out to Arizona in a couple of weeks; they’ll rent a motorcycle and explore, revisiting favorite places and seeking out new adventures. (There’s a pick-two option—soup or sandwich and a salad. Soup sounds good as the snow falls!) Becky and Karen both have photos to share—Becky’s, from her magical Valentine’s Day trip to the newly refurbished hotel where she and her husband, Greg, spent their twentieth anniversary. For this visit, a special re-opening event for a select group of couples who have a romantic history at the resort, she and Greg searched out vintage dress clothes.

Becky’s dress was beaded, flapper-style, and her shoes were gem-studded. Greg’s 1930’s tux had a cummerbund and snowy white shirt; he wore white and black patent leather dress shoes. People kept going by and nudging him, Becky told us; “Nice shoes!” they’d say. Her pictures bear evidence of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

(Fruity grilled cheese: that sounds interesting! I wonder if I can get an appetizer as a side for my salad?) Karen is taking a photography class at a downtown college; she pulls up an incredible photo of a dove just rising into flight. The color, the movement, the glint in the bird’s eye: amazing.

Rachel comes and takes our orders, and we talk: six retired women discovering the wonders of life after career. The ticky snow taps the windows; Rachel hovers with fresh pots of coffee, and she slides plates in front of us. We eat, talk, laugh.

By the time we reluctantly push our plates aside and gather up our go-boxes, the snow has stopped. The sky is a sulky gray. We take out our calendars—paper and electronic—and juggle schedules to plan our next outing. The ride home slips by swiftly; we disperse in the parking lot, heading back to our separate lives.

I swing by and get James; there are a few more errands to run, and he is an agreeable wing man. The pavement is drying; only a few puddles linger from the morning rain. The snow didn’t stick on the saturated ground.

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Greta and I head out for a longer walk; she sniffs frantically. At home, I boil an egg and chop veggies, defrost some peas, and open a can of tuna. I take the leftover penne pasta and mix up two salads—one without tuna for Mark, and a batch with tuna for me. Dinner will be simple: grab and go.

And Mark comes home and we fill plates and pour water and gather at the table to compare notes from the day; to slit open the mail that sat, ignored, until this moment; to firm up the menu for Easter dinner. And it’s just chilly enough, we agree, to warrant lighting the living room fireplace.

Before I sink into the cozy chair with my book, a new mystery from a favorite author, I give the dog her meds and take her out one more time. And the world is cool and fresh and bright: a friendly evening sun breaks through the clouds. We meander, Greta and I; she sniffs, quivering, her arthritic legs shaking with excitement, as birds shrill and squirrels scurry about. It has turned out to be, after all, a beautiful day. Finally, we turn back toward home, toward a fire and a good book and a restful night after a hectic week full of things unexpected.

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Good Friday in Ohio: rain and snow and glowing sun. A cloud-lowering day that fulfilled its threat, and then, relenting, let go and let the sun in.

 

 

A Good Friday Ledger

Easter

The bricks and cement of the back patio are slicked and wet when I run the kitchen garbage out, ducking into the carport to wrestle with the recalcitrant trash can, which is always unwilling to surrender its lid. The app on my phone did not predict rain–clouds with periods of sun, it promised–but rain seems fitting.

It is Good Friday, and steady somber weather feels just right.

“The pubs are closed in Ireland today!” Mark said this morning, looking up from the early paper. “They can’t buy alcohol!”

He seemed shocked. (I feel the Irish ancestors rising up in dudgeon. “Tell that boy,” they demand testily, ” we could easily forego a drop on this most serious of sacred days.”)

The alcohol ban seems fitting to me, Good Friday being a day of fast and abstinence. Although—I remember a daring Good Friday when my friends and I went to a hometown bar and tasted our first Manhattans and Rob Roys. And ordered up cheeseburgers to go with them, flagrantly flying in the face of tradition, proud rebels of spirits and cuisine. The drinks were unimpressive–I don’t think I’ve ever tried either concoction again,–and the burgers cold and uninspiring. (So that was meaningless and uneventful–real rebellion should inspire some sort of thoughtful, lasting transformation. That silly mini-binge night: huh. It didn’t change a thing.)

Coffee, in my family canon, is okay on Good Friday–it’s a day when I still do not eat meat, nor do I nosh between meals, but I drink coffee all day long today without a twinge of conscience. This morning I dump the too-dark syrupy dregs of my morning pot and set up fresh water for the next pot of decaffeinated brew.

I pull the duster and the vacuum from the back closet. This is a good day to clean, a good day to clear surfaces and suck up the dust and grit of the week, to organize clutter. The sacrifice of Good Friday demands austerity. The celebration of Easter is best painted on a clean slate.

I wick away the cobwebs and, to the crabby little dog’s dismay, I fire up the vacuum. She flees, staying a room away from its high-pitched whooshing noise. I curl the excess cord over my arm; I push forward and I pull back, and the rhythmic motions release tamped thoughts. Sadness flows, and sense of loss.

Last Monday, deep into planning a workshop on holding effective meetings–the irony of planning a meeting to talk about meetings bouncing in front of my awareness like a silly balloon–I felt the raw, insistent blatting of my cell phone. An electric jolt coursed. I knew before I picked up the phone that the text would tell me Kim had died. She was ready; she was at peace with knowing the end was near. She was suffering. This was a blessed Lenten release. And yet: the sadness and the loss were immediate and very real.

And this is the season of new life–of religious festivals of death and rebirth. My mother died a Lenten death, too, and she was buried from an Easter church. There were flowers and banners with butterflies-emerged, and we sang about eagles’ wings in the glowing of the Paschal candle. Symbols of resurrection everywhere: great comfort for my father.

A celebration for Kim might be a different kind of thing, I think, held in an outdoor ‘scape where grass pushes into woods. There would be wine and poetry; the singing might be softer and more yearning. Scarves would float and billow in honor of the lost one. There might, in fact, be drumming, pagan and pulsing, thrumming from those woods. Kim would like to hear some Wendell Berry recited well; she’d be lulled and transported by some authentic rhythm and blues.

And Spring nature itself proclaims the message–what was dead is bursting into life; what was dormant is transformed. Liturgical, ecological: truth interpreted whatever way the listeners need to hear. A death, a release, requires celebration.

On Good Friday, though, I recognize the loss and let the sadness stay.

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I line up vases and pretty, thick-walled jars. When the rain stops, I’ll go and harvest daffodils and the waxy white flowers, drooping bells like giant lilies of the valley, that have blossomed in the sunlight behind the house. I’ll check to see if there are blooms on the stalky unkempt lilac bush neglected in the farthest corner of the yard. I’ll trim and sort and arrange, and carry flowery offerings to brighten all the common rooms. I’ll bring the promise nature makes inside to my dark corners.

On a basement shelf, I find a box; it’s labelled “Easter Stuff.” Some scant ceramics nestle inside: two bunnies, a little egg-shaped house, a pink-faced Easter lamb. I let them share a sunny table top, punctuated by candles, awaiting the arrival of blooms.

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I shake the crumbs from the toaster into the sink; I remove the little trays hidden beneath and wash them sparkling clean. I completely clear the countertops and wipe all crumbs away. I fill the sink with steaming water, dollop in some cleaner, and plunge my damp mop in. I am mopping when the dog erupts, and the mail slides through the slot.

While the floor dries, I read my letter of acknowledgement from my pension system. More paperwork is coming, it tells me, but my retirement is on track. (The letter also offers helpful advice, like, “It’s important to let your employer know that you have plans to retire.” Aha. I make a note.)

Retirement will not mean, for me, an end to work, but it will bring great changes to the acts and facts of my working life. Another portent of new life coming, arrived on this mindful day.

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I open the refrigerator to pull out salad dressing and celery to mix my tuna salad for lunch, and I smile at the turkey breast defrosting on the bottom shelf. We’re having a family mini-rebellion this year: Away with the Easter ham! We’ll have us some turkey instead!

So Sunday, we’ll chop veggies and sauté them into stuffing, mixing in the rich broth we made from roasted chicken bones last night. We’ll mash steaming potatoes with cheese and a touch of garlic, whisk the gravy, pour whole cranberries in their tangy sauce into Grandma’s old glass dish.

We will dine as if it is Thanksgiving, and maybe Thanksgiving is an undercurrent of this season:


Thank you for the safe end to winter.

Thank you for the joy of new growth.

Hams are good; they’re lovely, in fact. But this year, we’ll eat turkey.

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There will be treats, too, of course. One day last week, James and I did a Granville run and stopped at our favorite chocolatier. We bought three scoops of special treats–English toffee, sea salt caramels, salted caramel turtles,–and had the lady wrap them up in bright Easter papers. We hid them in a pot on a way-high shelf, so we’d forget and let them be until triumphant Easter morning.

We bought a frozen custard cake, just the right size for three appreciators. It is tumbled high with chocolate chunks.

We will have much for which to thank our Easter bunny.

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This afternoon, I’ll steal the time to read a new book* about the poet Robert Lowell, who studied at Kenyon College, not so very far from here. Lowell was a genius; Lowell was bipolar, and his periodic bouts of mania would whisk away his right mind and replace it with a wrong one. Every time the mania hit, he’d turn away from his wife and to some young and inappropriate lover. His tongue would leap with cutting, harsh words he couldn’t control, and he would hurt and shame his friends. He would stalk and drink and dance the night hours away–sleeping be damned!–until the whole thing got so bad the police would arrive to take him away.

Once he made them sit at his kitchen table and listen to a  poem before he went off willingly to his next institutionalization.

And then would come the pain of stabilizing, the long time of healing, until his right mind returned. And always he’d both embrace the return of life and burn with shame for all he’d done. A quirk of Lowell’s illness was a perfect memory of everything he’d done when he was out of control.

Lowell was a man who understood Good Friday, with its grim and unforgiving sacrifice. He was a man who knew that new life follows darkness.

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I sit at the dining room table, and I watch, though the bay window, white petals floating from the tree that’s just outside. They stain the once-mowed grass–the lawn that needs mowing again tomorrow. They float to earth, making way for the leaves pushing themselves into the light.

The rain has stopped; the clouds are lightening, and here and there the sun cracks through.

The messages of loss and growth abound. It is Good Friday. I move a ceramic bunny closer to the brass candlestick, and I go to eat my lunch.

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*Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire; A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character. Kay Redfield Jamison. 2017; Alfred A. Knopf.