Scope for the Imagination

I got the first dose of the covid vaccine last week. My sister told me the day before that I needed to take a selfie at the exact moment I got the shot and post it on every social media channel immediately, so that people would know. I told her I absolutely wouldn’t. But I am writing this blog entry, so, you know…

For many people the vaccine symbolizes hope—hope for health and light and a return to normalcy—and I do think there is truth to that, but over the last few days I’ve found myself thinking not about how this will change things going forward but about the actual experience of getting vaccinated.

This pandemic was hard and then we got used to it and now, it seems, it has gotten hard again. Here in BC, we’ve been in the grey time of the year for months now, and restrictions are such that, with the exception of those we live with, we can only see one another one at a time, out in the cold rain. Classes are still entirely online. We know things will get better, but we can’t be certain when, and there is no way to mark the future, to make definite plans for joy. We have only the huddled, breath-holding present. There doesn’t seem to be much of Anne Shirley’s fabled “scope for the imagination” just about now. 

I know some people are flatly afraid to hope at this point because they can’t bear to be disappointed, and pessimism feels safe. I’m typically in the opposite camp. I can’t bear not to hope, because otherwise how would I manage to get up in the morning into each new day? Yet recently, with the way everything has felt hemmed in to this current sodden moment, my realist streak has been making its presence felt and I can sympathize with the pessimists in our midst. I remind myself more often than is necessary how long it will take to distribute this vaccine, how much longer after that before people feel safe.

Last Thursday morning my appointment was at 9:20 at the spinal cord clinic at VGH. I briefly waited in one of two lines into a parking lot, then was directed around the corner between tall hospital buildings with foliage pasted on the side and waited in another line for longer. At each checkpoint I was asked which dose I was getting and where I worked (they’re mainly vaccinating care home workers and other health professionals at this point). I noticed that some other people waiting were clutching important-looking yellow slips for dear life, and I wondered what they meant and whether I ought to have one. 

Once I got inside I traded my cloth mask for a medical one and after again confirming where I worked, but still not being asked for ID, I was directed to a table where a woman politely introduced herself, asked me the various screening questions which we’re all so used to by now, and had me fill out a form. When I was finished she handed me a copy of the form, which turned out to be the precious yellow slip, and sent me on to a nurse who also politely introduced herself before asking me a couple questions about my allergies. I’ll freely confess that I don’t remember either of their names but I still liked that they told them to me.

Then she gave me the shot, which ached more than it stung. After, she told me to “follow the orange wall” (a phrase I really liked for some reason) to the after-care room where I would sit for fifteen minutes to make sure I didn’t die. (That’s not quite the way she put it, but I inferred.) The room was populated by a crowd of thirty or forty distanced chairs, with two bored (but still polite) nurses observing in the corner. We were our own time-keepers. Some people chatted, but most sat still and silent, like obedient children waiting at the designated meeting spot on a family day out, coats on and bags clutched on our laps. I was tempted to leave early, but I sat out my full time, because that’s what you do.

Then I left the building cradling the yellow slip which would enable me to get my second dose, and walked back to the hospital parking deck, which is miraculously free to everyone for an unspecified period of time. And I drove home. Getting the vaccine felt normal, which is not what I expected, but so it goes. 

Yet, like I said, I keep thinking about it, about how normal-and-not-normal it was. How normal-and-not-normal all of this is. And I can’t seem to shake it. So perhaps there is scope for the imagination here, in this ashen in-between. The present, after all, is always the point in time which most nearly touches on eternity. And eternity is full of hope.

Art and Justice

I’ve thought and prayed and grieved and read and talked to friends and written over a thousand words of notes for a blog entry. But now I’ve deleted most of it and I want to say just two things.

The first is that there are many, many resources out there for folks who feel new to this, like me and maybe you. There are lists of practical ideas for offering help and support and solidarity in this continuing moment, and there are lists of resources for our own reading and our children’s, all to educate ourselves. Many people have put thought and care into these, and practical, tangible action is always, always important. But one thing which I think may be helpful for me going forward, which I haven’t seen appearing much on these lists, is art. 

I know art will not change policy and it will not stand between the innocent and the aggressor. But it seems abundantly clear that one of the deepest needs for all of American history has been for black voices to be heard, and for the rest of us to hear them, really hear them deep. And there is no better way for us to hear something deep than through art. Good art can do things, say things, make permanent, searing inroads into the human heart in ways that very little else can. I have always believed this, and so I spent a good deal of time over the past week or so shyly searching out black artists and photographers on instagram and looking up recent novels by black authors that I can buy on Kindle. I want to hear what they have to say about race and what they have to say about everything else. I want to teach myself more fully to see them as brothers and sisters, near and dear, molded fascinating and precious in the image of the same great and mysterious God I serve. I want the light that art can shed.

Really one of the most important roles of art is to bring hope, and that is the other thing I want to say. I think we must commit ourselves to the hard work of justice with all the self-reflection, listening, sitting, standing, walking, and praying that entails. But we must do all of these things with hope, hope that we are, each of us, made by a God who sees pain, who knows pain, and who desires justice for his people even more than any of us can imagine. The whole Bible shudders with the justice of God. He means all those things he says about the woe that will come upon the oppressor and how completely he will lift up and restore the oppressed. He always means what he says. So take heart, because he is the one who can and will bring justice fully, and he always finishes the work he starts in us. We can step out into this gashed-open, festering world with our sleeves rolled up, gashed open and festering ourselves but full of hope.

Let justice roll down like waters,

    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

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Bearing Hope

We are settling into February, which is a month with which I’ve always had a bit of a tenuous relationship. It is nearly always a natural low point for me, the downturn of grey and dust before the upturn of Spring and daffodils, but I have grown used to this rhythm. A few years ago in February I wrote this, and I find myself returning to reread it each year and realizing I believe it more and more each season, because this is a time, I think, when most of us are the poor in spirit, and the idea that ours (ours!) is the kingdom of heaven can seem particularly fantastic.

Fantastic, even completely implausible, and yet true. Ours is the kingdom. 

I am returning back to the base of things recently and more and more I find that when I dig down to that base through the litter and grime of this world and of my life and heart and mind, all the way down to the rock bottom, I find that that rock bottom is somehow made out of hope. Another implausibility. Hope is always and ever the ground I stand on. And more than that, I am learning that I bear it involuntarily on my shoulders–it drapes heavy over them from morning till night. Sometimes I am even able to see the way it lays weighty across the shoulders of those around me. It is uncomfortable, inconvenient, unavoidable, completely necessary. We bear hope with us everywhere, its train dragging behind us, through the ins and the outs of our days. We cannot shrug hope off, we cannot wipe its dust from our palms, cannot extract it from our guts. It hangs like an indelible banner over our heads–hope above and below, behind and before. We live, I have come to realize, in its very midst.

 

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

Have Hope

This week I told my students news I’ve been sitting on for a little while: next year, I’m not returning to teach because I’m going to graduate school in Vancouver, a city in some other country facing out over some other ocean. Some of them were calm when I told them, and some were less-so. Two fell out of their chairs. A few announced they could no longer do the assigned work for the day because of their great grief. I laughed. But my hands shook through the first two classes I had to tell. I am sad. I’m as sure that this is the right decision as I’m sure of my own right hand, but nothing can quite assuage the child-like sorrow I feel over leaving people and places I love.

However, my moving to another place and another life is the least of these things.

My sister told me this afternoon that everything feels heavy right now. This season has been one in which I’ve learned the weight of the world, and this week that weight has been not only burdensome but loud. All the pain in my peripheral vision, the groanings of the created beings around me, are making themselves known in cacophony.

I have been thinking of the Yeats poem I love which says: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” I grieve for the things I see that are lost, many beyond repair. He’s right: the things on which we rely will be shattered, and we can’t buy back past innocence for ourselves or for those we love.

I love that poem because it is completely true, but I also love it because it is completely short-sighted. I’m not disputing the obvious brilliance of W.B. Yeats, but human bitterness often assures that our long-distance vision is effectively nil. Things lost may be beyond repair, but they are not beyond redemption and rebirth. The things we rely on will eventually crumble beneath us, so that we may land at last on the Rock, the only one who can, in fact, buy back not only our innocence, but ourselves entire, and bring us into eternity. Yeats tells the truth, but only the first page of it.

One of my fellow teachers, a kind, kind man who was my English teacher himself back in the day, told me yesterday that I needed to write a book, because I had something to say. I hesitantly agreed, and perhaps what I have to say begins with this: I am hopeful.

Once I would have told you that I am hopeful because my students are sweet and bright and growing up into good people. I would have told you that I am hopeful because my family and my friends, they love me and make me happy. I would have told you that I am hopeful because God had given me far more comforts and blessings than I deserve. I would have told you that I am hopeful because spring comes every year.

But now, though my fears are bigger, because my fears are bigger, so are my hopes. They are stronger than they once were. Now I am hopeful because no matter where my students end up, they have a God who loves them each like the hundredth sheep. Now I am hopeful because that same faithful God loves me and has given me others to pass that love on to, in sinful fits and starts. Now I am hopeful because that love is so real that God saw fit to manifest it in his own bleeding, gasping Son on a cross. Now I am hopeful because I serve a God who dreamed up spring, who has pronounced that life can spring forth from the deadest death, that Yeats’ “blood-dimmed tide” will be followed by the clearest dawn.