Guest blogger and advice columnist Pious Petunia has been muddling along amid the pandemic like the rest of us. Here she gathers a little quarantine-related wisdom to help us keep on muddling.

Dear Miss P: The only way I can get through all these Zoom meetings is by carrying on snarky side chats with certain trusted coworkers. I feel vaguely guilty about this. Does a side chat count as gossiping?

PP: Miss P indeed sympathizes. She has endured her share of Zoom meetings in the past six months, and thus understands the satisfactions of a snappy side-chat. Snark is, after all, her love language.

For all the complaints about how exhausting Zoom meetings are, they do offer fresh opportunities to bond with your coworkers—or get revenge on them, as needed. In-person meetings afford only the opportunity for doodling aimlessly on your notepad and surreptitiously launching meaningful glances. Zoom, on the other hand, allows one to send incisive real-time analysis only to certain colleagues, fully dismantling a lame proposal, for example, while another co-worker is still in the midst of delivering it. Of course, one runs the risk of accidentally sending a note such as “oh brother there he goes again” not only to a trusted coworker but to “everyone.” That drop-down menu for chat recipients is a little fiddly, so one must beware, lest you end up with the Zoom equivalent of the dreaded, accidental Reply All on email.

To avoid such risks, one can carry on the side chat via another messaging app entirely, preferably on one’s phone. This would be outrageously impolite in an in-person meeting, but on Zoom, no one need know. One can appear attentive and sober-faced, nodding and smiling as the proceedings drone on, all the while sending meaningful emojis, such as the “eyeroll” or the “poop.”

In fact, Miss P can imagine developing a whole set of emoji hieroglyphics for the purposes of side chat:

Clearly Miss P has a rather wicked imagination. In fact, we have now descended into advice about “safe side chatting” rather than answering your question. So. There’s a fine line between sitting in the seat of the mockers and engaging in therapeutic side chat. One must not bear false witness. And one must avoid creating cliques of side chat cool kids fueled by disdain and bent on disrupting the proceedings. Office life is already far too reminiscent of middle school.

Nevertheless, a good side chat can provide a safety valve for speaking truths that would otherwise remain silenced. In any case, Miss P suspects that what goes on in the side chat is nothing new. It’s just the same stuff that would otherwise get whispered behind closed office doors after the meeting.

If you believe your guilt feelings are well warranted, perhaps you should listen to your conscience and refrain. You can always develop other Zoom-related skills: answering email while the usual suspects micro-edit the minutes, purchasing lightbulbs on Amazon while the supervisor goes over a document that you all read in the first two minutes, or holding your face very still so that everyone thinks your screen has frozen and you can avoid revealing your opinion on some controversial issue.

Dear Miss P: My worship life is in crisis. Every week since the pandemic began, my church staff has recorded a service and posted it on Facebook for everyone to watch at the same time. For the first few weeks, I got the children up on time, we all ate breakfast and dressed, and then we lined up chairs in the living room to “attend” worship. A few weeks later, we just sat on the couch, dressed, the kids slurping cereal and the adults drinking coffee. Then, my husband and I started letting the kids sleep in while we watched the service on our laptops in bed in pajamas. Now we all sleep in on Sundays and I admit—it’s nice. Will I ever get my worship groove back?

PP: Likely you will. Miss P has faith in your faith. One is tempted to pronounce this an excellent time to develop robust home worship practices, gathering the family round to work through the book of Romans together and engage in meaningful times of intercessory prayer. But one must also be realistic. When all is in upheaval, we use up considerable reserves just feeding ourselves and putting up with each other. Pious initiative evaporates like the alcohol in our hand sanitizer. We are discovering that what our church-going grandmothers always warned us about is indeed true: the law of entropy applies to worship practices. Given the opportunity, things will slide.

Miss P wishes to acknowledge here the brave souls on many a church staff, who are also befuddled and exhausted, but who soldier on, coming up with reasonably creative solutions to the problem of distanced worship. Some have adopted the record-in-the-empty-sanctuary-on-Thursday option. This has the advantage of allowing pastors and worship leaders their first experiences of a relaxed Sunday morning, perhaps ever. One wonders if the ranks of clergy will be permanently thinned after this is all over, since newly relaxed pastors will refuse to return to Sunday mornings characterized by high-anxiety performance jitters.

Other churches brave a live service on Sunday morning via Zoom. This allows everyone to be amused by humorous interludes such as small children making inappropriate comments, cats availing themselves of the warm laptop into which the preacher is attempting to deliver a live sermon, and older parishioners struggling with the mute button. Still other churches have experimented with the “Sermon on the Mount” plan, doing outdoor worship on grassy lawns or in church parking lots. It remains to be seen what will happen when autumn rains drench and winter winds howl.

Whatever option a church chooses, we can all agree that pastors and worship leaders were not prepared for this. Very few seminaries offer courses on video editing, home set design, tent rental, or preaching sincerely and authentically into a laptop camera.

Safe to say, despite these valiant efforts, we are in a time of mourning and fasting when it comes to worship. No sense in pretending otherwise. We’ll flounder on as long as we need to, but meanwhile, this is a good time to think about what it means to be church. We may understand better than ever the way that being together, singing together, sharing the bread and wine shapes us into more faithful disciples outside the church walls. We may decide that our regular congregational life ought to include less program management and more Sunday afternoon nature walks. No need to devise strategic plans for reform right now. Just listen and watch and ponder.

As for your current state of Sunday lethargy, give yourself some permission to rest. These are trying days. However, do make an effort to find your way back to some kind of worship practice. Maybe get yourself out of bed to participate in online worship, but keep your video muted and allow yourself coffee and pajamas. Meanwhile, send the church staff a note of thanks for all they are doing, whatever your opinion of their success. Use email or some other means to check in with a few fellow parishioners outside your personal quarantine pod. And go ahead and try to corral the family for a prayer time if you can. Bribe them with pastries and feel free to wait until after noon.

Dear Miss P: I know we’re all taking turns having days like, “I can’t get myself to do anything today because I feel lousy and useless and discouraged yet again and don’t ask me why because it’s nothing specific it’s just EVERYTHING and I know I have a lot to be grateful for but STILL I just want to wrap myself in a blanket in the fetal position and maybe I can get back to it tomorrow.” I had a day like that yesterday, and I’m just wondering: maybe a getaway is a good idea? What do you suggest?

PP: First, let’s take a moment to feel your pain. We shouldn’t underestimate what this time is taking out of all of us. Even those without job loss, illness, assorted oppressions, or young children to “home school” while one attempts to “work” from home—we all feel the weight of this time to some degree. So indeed, it’s appropriate to take turns sustaining one another through the occasional Fetal Position Day.

As for getaways, much pretending is in order. Actual travel is complicated these days by masking, distancing, understaffed hotels, the petri-dish of an airplane cabin, and, for Americans, the fact that no one else in the world wants us in their country right now. So one must get in touch with one’s inner second-grader and pretend.

Fortunately, resources abound. Those who miss the acrid smells and myriad discomforts of flying might gain ideas from those who have figured out how to recreate the air travel experience in their laundry rooms. (Feel free to set aside the illusion when nature calls and just use your regular bathroom.) You might follow your pretend flight by imitating the young lady in Texas who devised her own pretend trip to Disney World. Or you could fake a beach vacation, setting up one of several soothing beach videos on your TV, dragging a patio chair into the living room, and making yourself an umbrella drink. Or you could rig up a railing between yourself and the TV, put a video of the ocean on the screen, and imagine you’re on a cruise, lounging on your private balcony. Keep a thermometer handy in case even the thought of cruising is enough to induce COVID.

Numerous websites offer other ideas for imaginary fun. This site suggests actually risking certain outdoor-oriented travels, but if that’s too frightening, you might try one of these staycation possibilities, ranging from the rather clever (backyard camping and makeshift waterpark) to the lame (watch a concert on your phone?). This imaginary trip to Paris actually sounds like good fun, though it requires stocking up ahead of time on pastries, cheeses, French wine, and mail-order fashion. 

As long as you’re pretending, why not go all out? Dress up in khaki cargo shorts, utility vest, and a jaunty adventurer hat, turn on the fabulous Blue Planet series, and pretend to go on wilderness adventures with David Attenborough. All the glory and none of the outsized insects.

Realism would require including travel snafus, family bickering, forgotten toothbrushes and phone chargers, closed museums, and other disheartening developments. But perhaps it’s all right to leave that degree of realism to the side.

Dear Miss P: What will become of us?

PP: Oh dear. As with most things, only the Lord knows, and the Lord is not telling. Our task is to trust as best we can, be kind to each other, support sanity, heal the crazy where possible, and deploy whatever creativity we can muster. Without a good supply of French pastries at hand, Miss P is not prepared to venture further into grand, existential questions. She is, after all, still in her pajamas.  

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer, professor, amateur musician, science fiction fan, and lifelong member of the Reformed Christian tribe. For my day job, I teach early British literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty for over twenty years and still need to pedal fast to keep (mostly) ahead of smart, feisty undergraduates. I have published three books, over two hundred essays for The Twelve, and numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. My husband and I have three grown children.

10 Comments

  • RLG says:

    Super, Debra. My feelings exactly.

  • Hilarious! Laughed almost as hard as I did at the music teacher who posted a song for the pandemic. If you haven’t seen it, Miss P, you must check it out! I don’t know if the filter will let me include the url, but you can find it by searching for “music teacher covid song.”

    I hope to read more of your advice soon!

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Yes! That teacher is a true inspiration. Her composition will be serving for yet another academic year as the Teacher National Anthem. — Miss P

  • Julia Smith says:

    *Very few seminaries offer courses on video editing, home set design, tent rental, or preaching sincerely and authentically into a laptop camera.*
    😂😂😂
    Thank you, Petunia!

  • Jim Payton says:

    Utterly delightful! I laughed out loud through much of this .. Pious Petunia brings it home again! Thank you!

  • Nate Johnson says:

    “Pious initiative evaporates like the alcohol in our hand sanitizer.” Fantastic.

  • Sharon A Etheridge says:

    This was the best blog I read in a long time. Thanks for the smiles for the entire reading of it.

  • James C Dekker says:

    Dear PP,
    Thank you much for your cataloguing of Zooming sins, which, I’m sure, most of the Western world’s meeting attendees have committed. But, caveat peccator! The host of Zoom calls does have access to ALL communications, made not only to “Everyone,” but to fellow chosen sinners and scofflaws, he said, having nearly lost two friends over side chat snark. But to self-righteously redeem oneself in the worship dept, he also notes that he has put o a collar shirt and long pants for all but three Sundays at 10 am to worship on the chesterfield alongside his equally primped up spouse of 50 years and two months. He figures he has surplus points for one Sunday morning’s bike ride before the temp hit 33 C., another when he vainly attempted to catch bass for lunch, far from any and all electrons, and another when a cool new tshirt and kinda dressy shorts felt merely ok. Again, thank you for your insights to emotional, spiritual, and physical wellbeing.

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Oh no! Duly warned about Zoom hosts’ access to side chats, and all the more reason to keep one’s sins confined to other platforms. Miss P hereby presents you with bonus virtue points for you and your long-suffering spouse to spend, as needed, for Sunday morning leisure activities.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    Thanks PP, you hit the nail on the head with the zoom worship. Our cat broke a big class bowl just as we started to celebrate communion. Fortunately no swear words were uttered. Did you see the one where the priest set his robe on fire? We have also gone to a later listening time (and skipped a few). I liked the idea about having a congregational nature walk. That could start even now. What will become of us indeed! Let’s hope for the best.

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