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My 14 year-old son sat at a card table in the new makeshift office in my bedroom, complaining about a physics lesson on potential versus kinetic energy that he was attempting as part of his new virtual schooling.
“When am I ever going to use this stuff?” he moaned loudly enough for my husband, an engineer at a local furniture company, to hear from our dining room table, the table where he has parked himself for the past six and half weeks.
Staring at his laptop with random chair parts and tools strewn around, my husband yelled back, assuring him, “Using it right now!”
I once had grand visions of the peace and tranquility of working from home, but this is not quite what I had in mind. Two parents navigating full-time jobs and three boys under the age of 14 attempting a new version of school in the same home is likely not an adventure I’ll long for again.
I work in the curriculum office of our local public school district and while my kids are occupied with their own lessons (cushioned by a good amount of time staring at screens and lazing around), I find myself on multiple Zoom calls each day discussing just how to navigate this unexpected school year. Over and over we ask each other: what is most meaningful right now? What is accessible? What is appropriate?
As someone who taught inside a middle school classroom for many years, I’m well aware of the gap between obtaining knowledge and applying it. Skill and drill exercises are meaningless if those skills are never put into practice. I could teach my middle school students all about commas, but if they never use any in their writing, what would be the point?
I won’t pretend that each online lesson my own sons are doing right now will be remembered, but I do hope that the increased number of life lessons they’re encountering might stick. Maybe post-pandemic, they’ll know how to bake bread, play a game of euchre, or, for the love of all that is holy, pick up the toilet seat to pee. (See actual image of a homeschooling lesson at my house.)
Quarantined in our homes, it may be tempting to think our spiritual skills and drills also have no practical application. After all, many of us aren’t out and about in the world very often, and many of the people we do encounter are those captured on a video screen or telephone line.
And yet, the fruits of my spirit have been tested in new ways and my prayers have grown quite a bit more authentic than they were in February. And while I’m praying for the world, as Megan Hodgin wrote about so eloquently in her recent essay on this blog, I’m also praying as much to change my own heart.
During the last several weeks my mind has often wandered back to another socially distanced experience I had. As a 22-year-old college graduate, unsure of my next career steps, I jumped at the chance to move to Geneva, Switzerland to work as an au pair or nanny. My initial idealism — idyllic images of bravely adventuring in the Alps — gave way to a significant bout of homesickness, especially considering I landed on September 11, 2001 and my first hurdle was to ponder a national crisis in my home country while adjusting to living in another one. It took me less than an afternoon to realize how ill-equipped and underprepared I was for the complication of jumping into another family’s relationships and dysfunction.
“When am I ever going to use this stuff?” In terms of my faith, that question became abundantly clear when I found myself physically and socially distanced from my family and friends halfway around the world. The loneliness of that new place quickly transformed my apathy to wrestling and my wrestling to surrender. While other times in my life I’ve simply gone through the motions of my faith, during this particular season, it was prayer, Psalms, and weekly communion inside a little English-speaking Anglican church that saved me.
Perhaps that transition from head to heart is tricky because we want the learning and the application to be cleaner than it actually is. We want to teach or be taught something, maybe about commas or physics or patience or bathroom etiquette — and then to have it figured out — instantly. We don’t want to bumble through the hard parts where we make mistakes and need reminders and review. We don’t like resorting to erasers, the delete key, or apologies. We want to listen to a sermon and think “Yes, yes!” and then not have the actual work of loving God and loving people be so difficult the minute our feet hit the parking lot. (Or, as we’ve experienced the last several weeks, when we close our computers.)
On Sunday, our church celebrated Communion via Zoom. As I passed a slice of bread and tiny cups of OJ to my family, my youngest son was crying, the middle was letting our dog excessively and loudly lick his arms, and our oldest was muttering and critiquing our lack of control and poor parenting skills. We were a bit of a mess. We weren’t showered, all in need of haircuts and attitude adjustments, and unlike when we sit semi-serenely in the sanctuary, there was little effort to pretend to have it all together for a few minutes.
My first instinct was to feel embarrassment, mixed with a bit of hope that no one was Zoomed in to get a close-up look at us. But then, as I looked around our table again, I stopped to wonder if there could be any better posture for communion. We were clearly people in need of a savior, a family caught solidly in that awkward space of the Not Yet. We were a work in progress. People in need of grace and perhaps poised a bit better to give that grace to others, which was the theme of the message we had just heard.
Emerson wrote, “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”
In response to Emerson, Anne Lamott writes, “I hate this idea more than I can capture in words, but insofar as I have any idea of ‘the truth,’ I believe this to be as true as gravity and grace.”
Before Covid-19 altered our daily schedules, I was in the habit of getting up each weekday at 5 a.m. I cherish this small sliver of time when my house is completely quiet and I am the only one awake besides the dog. I can write and think and be still — or as I tell people, get down some words before the world steals them from me. This is my version of what we in Christian circles often call “quiet time” and it keeps me sustained. But what’s tricky about this quiet time is when it collides with all the unquiet time that follows it — it is easy to feel full of love and inspiration when there is little friction. There is hope and peace in all that potential energy, but when things start to move, life gets trickier.
And yet, without the rest of the day that follows that quiet time, what would be its point? The time is set aside to provide space to orient my heart and thoughts, not as an escape for the rest of the day, but as preparation for it. As educators, we keep teaching, even when we know 100% mastery is seldom possible, even when the students aren’t sure they’ll ever use this stuff. As people following Jesus, we keep striving to learn more, to get better, even when we know earthly perfection is not possible.
I hope and pray that sometime in the not-too-distant future, we find ourselves taking Communion inside our church again. But may we not be so cleaned up, so put together, that we forget about this mess we’re in.