Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.
Mary Oliver, from “Starlings in Winter”
The word of the day is “reimagining” on Sunday morning, when all around the world millions of us turn on computers, phones and televisions to watch ministers deliver sermons, musicians sing songs, and well-known voices pray prayers to empty sanctuaries. I can picture my own sanctuary just down the street, a new building featuring plenty of warm wood and cold concrete, typical of our little corner of the world. It felt so huge when we built it, now thirteen years ago, with twice as many seats as the room it replaced, but in no time it was filled to bursting, three or four, sometimes even five times a Sunday. It’s a busy place. And today I imagine the dozen or so staff members, spaced out in the pews, listening and praying. Reimagining their role, and the shape of church, in the light of this ever-stranger season for our city and our world.
Seattle is a closed city. Our front doors are closed, keeping us mostly in. Doors to the library, the zoo, the stadiums, all schools and universities, many businesses, are also closed, keeping us out. Some doors swing open far less, to restaurants that hand over paper bags and boxes to patrons who wait next to towers of tables and chairs where sitting is now forbidden. Others have shut completely, establishments that could not see a chance of survival anywhere in the bleak indefiniteness of this quarantine.
This is a season of reimagining for all of us. We are reimagining not only church, now relegated to screens, but school, set to take place in living rooms for the foreseeable future, and work, scattered to homes connected by a billion-stranded web of communication. What, we are asking, is essential about all of this? How can we salvage the worshipping, the learning, and the working from the buildings where they used to happen, and the people they used to happen with?
My own reimagining, I admit, is on the small side, because my life has already become unbelievably simple in the last few years. My daughters have no schools to be cancelled, and I have no job to do from home. I’ve been surprised more than once to find myself feeling personally anxious, since on the surface it looks like only a little has changed for me.
There’s a bit more to it than that, I suppose. We can’t spend our mornings and afternoons outside, afraid that our trip to the park or the playground will somehow transmit this virus to someone unable to weather it. We can’t invite our friends to our houses, or to the zoo, or to anywhere, because every interaction damages the fragile fabric of this protective net we’re trying to weave. We are, for better or worse, all alone. Together in our isolation, but isolated all the same. Friendship, self-care, exercise, fresh air, and mothering will all require a bit of reimagining for a while. For us, it will mean writing letters and making phone calls, and a whole lot of patience with each other.
And it’s not just me, of course. My husband is finishing his training as a deputy sheriff for our county—a whole career reimagined for him, though long before this current crisis—learning each day that some of his first assignments may be far different than he had expected. My sister and her husband keep serving pastries and coffee to patrons who can no longer linger in their warm little bakery, while across the mountains my brother and his wife are delivering bottles of wine and boxed sandwiches from their restaurant to diners’ cars. They know what is essential, clinging to their callings in the midst of massive upheaval and reimagining how to live them out each day.
Reimagining is different, of course, from the blank canvas of imagination, a place where anything can happen and no one bothers us with the details of reality. Reimagining is messy and reactive, bound to the unpredictable circumstances of real life and often coming on the far side of real problems. It’s exhausting, reimagining.
But it’s also creative. It’s not automatic; certainly we could have just cancelled school and church, and not bothered replacing them at all. Reimagining is a choice, one we make with courage. I could easily stew in increasingly bitter isolation, refusing to imagine a new way of connecting to others in light of this new way of life. Instead, I will try to be creative. I will try to keep imagining, with each strange new day, how best to be an “instrument of peace,” as St. Francis famously prayed.
I know that Seattle isn’t alone. I know that all over the world people are asking the same questions I am, wondering what to do with our time and how best to love the neighbors we can’t see. And I know that there are so many people with far more difficult questions than that, questions about income and health and safety. This is a season of questions, even more than other seasons, and I’m not here with any answers. Just, for now, an encouragement to keep imagining.
This wasn’t the spring that we planned, and it may not be the summer we hoped for. We may have to do more reimagining than imagining for a long while. We must keep paying attention to the realities of those around us, especially those who face harder questions than ours, keeping our eyes, ears and hearts open, though our doors are shut. But let’s keep at it, the reimagining, clinging to the faith, hope and love that remain when everything else shifts around us.