Facing Fear

Hugh, my guinea pig, faces some fears of his own. (Read more in the article linked!)

Opportunities for fear have abounded this past year and a half. When Servants of Grace invited me to contribute their series for women, and tackle the topic of fear, I took the opportunity to reflect on all that I have learned in the midst of the battle…sometimes in through the most unlikely means. You can read the article here.

Do We Need a Keats Ode Right About Now?

I think we do.

“Ode to Autumn” by John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
   Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
   Steady thy laden head across a brook;
   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Photo by Efdal YILDIZ on Pexels.com

Solace in the Scary Part

When I was little, I wasn’t allowed to watch the “Night on Bald Mountain” portion of Fantasia. It had everything to do with my own anxious tendencies as a child and not because my parents were uptight about the holiday. Actually, my parents’ embrace of Halloween deviated from the cultural norms of the religious community we belonged to at the time, one that looked askance at anything remotely spooky, even in one instance (I wish I was making this up) expressing concern over the use of magic by one MARY POPPINS. [Pause for laughter. Or therapy. Or crying in the arms of Julie Andrews.] All that to say, thanks to my parents I grew up loving Halloween and basically everything about autumn, but I didn’t get around to seeing “Night on Bald Mountain” until I taught an interdisciplinary humanities course. 

Our Halloween class was one of my favorite traditions. My co-teacher would talk about the historic origins of the holiday, and I would cover the music history side. We would listen to such favorites as Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre”, and then I would teach a little lesson on Modest Mussorgsky, and we would watch “Night on Bald Mountain.” With each viewing I found the animation weirdly moving, and the more that the tumult our current age intensifies, the more meaningful the piece is. 

It takes place Halloween night where Bald Mountain opens up and a satanic looking devil-fellow summons all the ghosts and ghouls and other demons, and they have a little rumpus in the flames that he conjures. It grows increasingly frenzied and disturbing until suddenly the devil flinches, and all goes silent. He grimaces and flinches again. The demons too, wince and recoil, and a rhythmic pattern to their movement emerges. It becomes clear that what is having such an effect on them is the tolling of a bell. As the bell grows louder, they shrink back, and eventually the demons and ghosts and ghouls begin to swirl back to the realms from which they came. Even the devil-fellow wraps himself in his wings, throwing his hands up in defeat and becomes part of the mountain once more. The music grows softer and more sacred, and a line of lights appears against Gothic arches as a line of saints. The bell reveals itself to be a church bell and the lights, the torches of church-goers processing in prayer. Ultimately, a ten minute romp of wickedness was powerless against the prayers of the saints.

Obviously this is a Halloween cartoon, but in the days when turmoil, tragedy, and societal decay seem to grow with the same frenzied intensity, the idea of an evil battle swirling above our heads doesn’t seem entirely implausible. But that also makes the image of that line of lights carried by the gathering saints as well as the incapacitating power of the church bell so much sweeter. I think of the simple zoom call my church has done every Wednesday since the pandemic hit in March. On my very worst days I can listen to the faith-filled prayers of people who have lived a lot more life than I have, and my own sense of strength and hope is renewed. I picture the glowing lights carried by each saint that may feel small and insignificant on its own, but combined, sends the shadows scattering. 


July is the cruelest month. That’s not exactly what T.S. Eliot said, but around this time in July, every year the flashbacks begin and the “what was I doing X years ago” starts to kick in. “This time 11 years ago I had a brother”—I can say that part the first 11 days, “this time 11 years ago he was gone.” That part comes on July 11.

Except that this year has been exponentially worse. I spent the week before my brother died watching him suffer on a ventilator, watching his oxygen saturation numbers cruelly rise only to fall again, and this year the flashbacks have been from March until July. My brother did not die of Covid obviously, but the similarities that people on the front lines report are horrifying, and my heart breaks for the lives lost and the families torn apart. Yet this national tragedy often gets reduced to numbers, statistics, and percentages, and though I don’t think it’s humanly possible to grasp the scope of suffering, these numbers bring back for me a fraction of what they represent. Instead of a number, I see desperate gasping. Instead of a number, I hear that macabre mechanical click as a machine forces air into human lungs that refuse to work. Instead of a number, I feel the confusion of witnessing pain so great I momentarily prayed for God to put an end to the suffering and then hated myself for it immediately afterwards. 

Reliving through the worst day of my life would be hard enough in a country where people generally agreed this was a problem and decided to work together to put an end to it. Yet somehow, mind boggling as it is, this issue has become political. I don’t want to get into the politics of it, but speaking from the heart I will say only this: people who do not take this seriously have no idea how high the stakes are. They have not watched a loved one suffer on a ventilator. They have not experienced a Christmas morning with a fifth of the family gapingly vacant. I fear they will not know the fire they are playing with until they themselves are burned. 

Pandemic Musings

I went for a quick lunch break run on the trail and here is what I discovered: The burbling of the stream now mixes with the babbling of children playing outside. While parents look on, kids are balance-walking across fallen trees and jumping from log to log because obviously the ground is lava. I saw a mom and her son crouched on the bank of the stream picking out rocks, and a dad with fishing net and bucket trailed by two kids, all in rain boots. I saw prancing dogs on walks with tails aloft who can’t believe their good luck that their owners are home during the day. I know this thing is big and scary and tragic and awful, believe me. I probably sound like an asthmatic hipster when I say I have been panicking about this virus before it was cool. However, I think there is a distinct chance that good things also come from this madness. Stay safe out there.

Remembering My Sweet, Brave Friend

Dear Kelly meeting Hugh the baby guinea pig

Hymns have words when we don’t, and I’ve been living in these words lately:

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish;
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel;
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot heal.

Joy of the desolate, light of the straying,
Hope of the penitent, fadeless and pure,
Here speaks the Comforter, tenderly saying,
“Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot cure.”

Here see the bread of life; see waters flowing,
Forth from the throne of God, pure from above;
Come to the feast of love; come, ever knowing
Earth has no sorrow but heav’n can remove.