Claiming a Fast in Pandemic Time: On How We Carry What We Miss

Before the pandemic, the scent of warm, yeasty bread would have filled the chapel. Someone from our school’s café would have walked down in the hour or so before the service to leave a fresh-baked loaf wrapped in a white towel on the table. We’d have smelled it through all the prayers, music, and spoken word, reminded in each moment of a service of word and table. 

However, on the day of our very first in-person service since the pandemic began, I smelled nothing. The bread was missing.To be fair, I sometimes focus on bits and pieces when the bigger picture feels too big to handle in any given moment. I suspect I focused on the bread because it felt like the least painful absence on which to muse. Early in the service, one of the leaders shared the names of two community members who’d passed away recently. I could still see their faces so clearly that I could hardly believe them gone. Tears welled up in my eyes. The thought of our two missing colleagues blended in my heart with all the other people who, for one reason or another, no longer sat in the pews with us.

The pandemic has left us no strangers to loss. Even those who have not lost people to death have had to let go of so much in the last couple of years. Rituals and routines, gatherings and goals, all sorts of plans and hopes and dreams—almost all the corners of our lives have required changes and, sometimes, endings. 

The pandemic has left us no strangers to loss, and I feel in some ways as if I’ve not gotten very far at all in metabolizing it. I’m not keeping up with the rush to return to normalcy. What does a person do with her deep sense of not-rightness that remains? How do we carry all the absence, all the awareness of people and things missing from our days, other than to carry it around like holes inside of us? 

I lost track of much of the service that day. I mused on these things until a few words near the end caught my attention. The liturgist asked us to join in the “Call to Eucharistic Fast for the Neighbor.”

“God is with you,” the presider said.  

“And also with you,” I joined in the printed response. 

“Open your hearts.”  

“We open our hearts to God.” 

“Let us give thanks to God.” 

“It is right to give our thanks and praise.” 

“It is indeed right,” the presider affirmed. “In this time of pandemic—a pandemic of illness, a pandemic of injustice, a pandemic of loss in so many ways—to call to mind our unshakeable connection through the body of Christ. It is also, indeed, right and painful to fast from the Eucharist in these days for the sake of the most vulnerable among us . . .” 

I used a sleeve to dab at tears before too many had fallen into my mask. I’d never heard of a liturgy of “eucharistic fast” before. Apparently, we were declaring that we would not share bread or wine again just yet and would instead claim this fast.   

I let the liturgical words wash over me, welcoming their echo of how “off” life still felt. Yes, some of us sat together again in a chapel, but how many remained at home, too vulnerable to risk indoor gatherings? How many of us had found the capacity for “normal” functioning again? I, for one, had not.  

I’d forgotten how beautifully the sacred language in our traditions could help us articulate a “there” that we haven’t reached yet. Here now, still in pandemic time, we were going to wait. Even the Eucharist would wait. It would wait with us. 

“Right and painful,” the presider had said.  

I remembered his words a week later when I woke up congested, feeling my body do that tired, aching thing that bodies do when getting sick. On the one hand, I didn’t think I had Covid-19. On the other hand, my workplace’s policy said that my symptoms warranted isolation. It had been right a week ago to withhold from sharing bread and wine, and it was right now to stay home, withholding myself from others for all our sakes.  

I began contacting people to cancel things the next couple of days. 

“We’ve done this before, haven’t we?” my mother asked when I called her to explain why I wouldn’t be visiting that weekend to bake cookies as we’d planned. 

“I hate isolation,” I said. 

I hated it, and as I felt my disappointment mounting at all I’d be missing that week, the new language of “eucharistic fast” returned. I wondered what it would mean to offer these days as a sort of fast. 

This would be no 40-day Lenten fast, choosing to set aside certain meals or foods for the sake of self-reflection, penitence, and reconciliation. Pandemic time has already spanned two Lenten seasons and bled across entire church calendar years. It has called us to give up more than bread. In so many ways, we’ve given up contact with each other. The liturgy of eucharistic fast described a much less defined timeframe requiring a much deeper kind of patience. It pointed us outward, asking our reflection and sacrifice for the sake of those more vulnerable around us.  

Those who are absent from us these days may be gone with an absence from which they will not return to us in this life. If I claimed a grief-time fast from expecting certain kinds of comfort or seeking to return to life as I knew it with those I’d lost, that fast might need to last a long time. What we miss dearly from pre-pandemic days may remain far from us, or at least available only intermittently, for a while. Were we to fast from our moves to return to “normal,” that fast might need to last a very long time. I seem to recall that the biblical tradition of forty days represented something to the effect of “a very long time.”  

To carry our losses as a fast, our grieving as an act undertaken for God and one another, might honor those experiences as more than merely holes inside of us. These opened-up spaces might feel raw, confused, or grief-filled, but they likely feel that way because of the precious relationships, gifts, and other blessings that once filled them. What if we gave up our expectations that our lives to return to “normal”? What if we fasted from assuming comfort would feel the way it used to feel? If we let go of expectations and assumptions that separate us from God and one another, could our losses become spaces in which we behold divine and human presence in new ways? 

“Sustain us in these days,” the presider at that chapel service had prayed, “until by your grace we are brought together to the table again.” 

The smell of bread remained absent, but the liturgy held me, filled me. It seemed to remind us of how much larger life is than bread alone. The God who made us continued to sustain us and had not left. 

I’ve continued to whisper, “Amen.” 

This essay originally appeared in the October 21, 2021 issue of Bearings Online.

On the Changing of Seasons

Lately, I’ve been fighting it. Pandemic life has meant so much change already. I’m feeing less and less desire to adapt. I’m feeling strongly protective of things I wouldn’t have expected to hold onto so tightly. As summer passes and days shorten, I find myself feeling inordinate amounts of grief about small things like the loss of bike rides before work.

Sound silly? It’s true. Much as I’ve hated the pandemic, both COVID summers had me working remotely and relishing early sunrises on commute-free days. I’d often take a bike out on the rail trail near my home, riding north past restaurants that smelled of frying bacon, steering clear of pedestrians leaving coffee shops with their to-go cups and pastries. I’d notice changes in the feel of the air and coloring of the sky, amazed at how many different ways the world could look before 7 am. 

I knew that I’d never begun days so well. Rituals can remind us of bigger pictures, and that bike ride ritual began my days by reminding me of life beyond my email inbox. I’m really, really missing those rides.

I miss Steve’s smile. I never even learned Steve’s last name, but I learned to recognize the grin that would spread across the face of this older walker when he’d see me riding towards him. In our world of masks and Zoom-mediated faces, I found unmasked human beings and their smiles on that rail trail, and I loved it. Maybe Steve did, too. At first, we only waived to each other as we passed. Eventually, when we’d introduced ourselves, we’d stop and chat. I heard about his wife and his upcoming hip replacement surgery. He heard about my concerns as the end to my working remotely approached.

“Will you go back, or will you find a new job?” he asked. “I hear more and more people are doing that.”

“We’ll see,” I said, laughing to find that I was suddenly not worried about the future when I could stand under a shade tree, chatting my new friend. 

Those mornings along the rail trail kept reminding me that life had not ended, pandemic notwithstanding. Life moved along with a series of rapid and profound changes, and Steve and I and a lot of other people had been finding ways to move along with it. Those mornings kept me out among people, engaged by what I could still do and discover, experiencing newness as something beautiful rather than frightening. That time became precious. I’m missing it. When I think about all these things that time has meant to me, perhaps I shouldn’t feel surprised to find myself missing it so much.

The passing of seasons can feel bittersweet at any time of life, as it often means losing what’s become familiar and comforting. I wonder: does the passing of pandemic seasons feel extra difficult? Though life hasn’t ended, it has changed rapidly. Many of us have lost more this last year and half than we even know how to explain. One way or another, we’ve had to find things with which to steady and orient ourselves. No wonder I’m finding it difficult to let go of the pandemic summer comfort I found in those morning bike rides. 

I try to be gentle with myself as I bear this in mind. I try to be gentle with others, too. I try to be gentle, and I try to give myself time to enjoy those memories of summer things that brought me gladness and comfort. Taking time to remember can honor what seemed good and right. However, remembering doesn’t only focus us on the past. Remembering what seemed good and right can also help us focus on what may yet become good and right in new seasons ahead. It helps me, at least, to remember what I’m watching for. 

I’m watching for good ways to start my day, for one thing. I need morning rituals that remind me of bigger pictures and of life beyond my email inbox.

I’m paying attention, also, to how much I need those settings where I get to enjoy being with people who are enjoying their world. Morning bike rides meant getting outdoors into settings where I could soak up the smiles and gladness of others exercising, contemplating, and otherwise greeting the day. (Sometimes I have my own smiles and gladness to share, and some days more than others I need to draw gladness from the people around me.)

I’m also on the lookout for Steve. I haven’t seen him since his hip surgery. I knew recovery would take time, though, so I’m not worried. I’m just making sure to get out as bright and early as possible on my days off to watch for him as he works his way back to the distances he used to walk. 

I trust that we do tend to find what we’re looking for, however unexpected the form our findings might take. I remind myself to stand down from fighting all the changes of season underway (both in Indiana weather and in a global pandemic). I hope to draw wisdom yet from the grief I’m feeling as I say “goodbye” to summer.

I’ve been taking my bike out in the evenings after work lately, and going up the rail trail the other day, I found something new that I’d been waiting to see. A tunnel that had been closed for a while had reopened. Five young people with paint brushes stood inside, studying the tunnels walls while trying to stay out of the way of foot and bike traffic on the trail.

During the tunnel closure, I’d read that a mural would be going up. I saw it now: piano keyboards, violins, and instruments of all kinds danced the length of the tunnel walls. These five young artists must have had detail work to finish up, for they laughed with one another as they dabbed their brushes at the wall. They acted so engrossed with their project and with each other that I wondered if they even noticed the cyclists flying by so close behind them. I watched them enjoying this new thing they were doing, and I let their smiles make me smile, too. 

Monon Greenway tunnel mural by Carmel High School students. Photo by Callie J. Smith.

What will you be watching for this fall?

What to Do with Too Much to Do

What do you do with too much to do? 

I remember carrying that question around in my head for quite a while before, one day, a classmate of mine asked our professor how to find her own voice in the writing assignments we did for class. By way of an answer, the professor asked another question:

“What do you enjoy reading?” After a pause, the professor continued: “Find the voices you love, spend time with them, and they can tell you a lot about what your own voice might become.”

I hadn’t been wondering how to find my voice. All the same, the professor’s response (another question) seemed to speak to my own unasked question of what to do with all that I had to do. The names of plenty of people popped into my head: writers I’d enjoyed over the years as well as people or things that I’d found energizing. I knew I didn’t feel that way about our classes. Interesting as I’d found it to work with our class topics and readings, the efforts of school drained me. No wonder going back to school while working full time had left me feeling weary. It meant less time with what I loved.

Bodhisattva the cat
(Image by Callie J.Smith)

I think a friend must have heard the weariness in my voice. Leading up to the Christmas holiday, she sent a care package in the mail. I opened the package and stared inside, stunned. She’d sent things that only someone who’d known me as a child would have thought to send: pastels, pastel pencils, colored pencils, watercolor pencils, charcoal pencils, sketching and drawing pencils. I spread it all out on the kitchen table, where I sat with a little black cat named Bodhisattva (or “Bo”) on my lap. I hadn’t thought about drawing in years. Really, I didn’t have time to start thinking about it then, either, but I took time. I pulled some sketch pencils over beside me and started filling a sheet of paper.

What do you do with too much to do? 

What if we asked, instead: what do you do that you enjoy doing? What suggestions do those things seem to offer?

I remember the year I discovered pastels in elementary school. Mrs. T arrived as the new art teacher, and I fell in love with the broken pastel sticks that she kept in shoe boxes in her classroom closet. On the days those shoe boxes came out, I’d press the chalky colors into soft paper, making pictures of horses and dogs and interesting faces. At the end of class, we’d shake our extra pastel dust into trash cans before setting the pictures with hairspray. I’d take those pictures home to show my parents and, come the weekend, to share with my grandmother.

We regarded my grandmother as “the artist” of the family. She’d taken an oil painting class after she and my grandfather retired, and her years of painting blossomed from that. Her pictures won ribbons at fairs and sold at festivals. She painted things she found interesting, like old barns set back from the road and the lilacs and marigolds in her yard. Sometimes when I’d visit, after I’d show her my pastel pictures, I’d ask her to teach me something about drawing or oil painting. We’d sit down together at a table with her supplies.

Granny’s lilacs
(Painting by Katherine Ridinger)

As a young person, I remember feeling bad for my grandmother that she had to wait until retirement before finding something she ended up loving so much. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve come to appreciate the lateness of her discovery. My grandmother had raised a family. She’d done crafts at home and told “felt board” stories for Sunday school classes. She and my grandfather had spent years working and saving. Her oil painting may not have spanned her entire adult life, but it did meet her just in time to shape a new phase of it. As her world changed with the beginning of retirement, it seems to me that she spent time with something she loved and let it show her what her life might yet become.

What do you enjoy? What do you love? I wonder what those things might be showing you just now about your own life.

The winter that my friend’s care package arrived, I didn’t quite know what was up with my life. I decided, though, to take some time with those art supplies and see what I could do with them. Homework received much less attention. I sketched a few evenings a week, finding photographs of friends and colleagues whose faces I tried to draw while Bo the cat sat on my lap. It took a frustrating while before the faces in my sketch pad looked human, let alone female or male, but eventually they started suggesting particular people. 

Sometimes, finding a way to capture a face showed me that face I thought I knew in an entirely different way. One night, as I tried to draw a colleague’s nose just right, I suddenly realized that he must have broken it. Surprised, I sat back and put the pencil down. I’d looked up into his face all this time and never once noticed that sign of an old injury. I saw it in the photo clear as day now, though, with the sharp angle that the bridge of his nose took just between the eyes. I stared at his photo, wondering what else I hadn’t seen. 

Odd as it may sound, I relished the way those sketching evenings felt like a pause with what I loved: the cat on my lap, the people whose faces I drew, the memories of my grandmother filtering back over time. Those evenings didn’t lead me to the beginning of a new artistic career. That wasn’t the point. Those evenings did give me some helpful perspective as I made decisions about which things I wanted to keep in my life and which ones I could bring myself to let go of. Taking time with what we love can tell us a lot about what our lives might yet become.

Bodhisattva in the sun
(Image by Callie J. Smith)

One sunny Saturday, I finally set aside the sketch pencils and charcoal that I’d been working with and unwrapped the set of pastels my friend had sent. Bo warmed herself in the window ledge with her little face turned up to the sun, and I’d noticed with amazement how many colors showed up in that black fur. I took a picture of her and sat down with it, picking up the brand-new pastels, ready to see what they could do. Working on this pastel portrait of Bo, I realized I hadn’t done a pastel portrait in over 30 years. I hadn’t done a self-portrait in all that time, either. I wondered:

“What would I see now if looked at my own face?”

I made a mental note to take a selfie for my next project.