Today is my twenty-fourth birthday. Cricket and I left shortly after dawn and went to hike my mountain.
We spent almost eleven hours on the mountain and it was both the best and hardest day I’ve had in a long time.
The last time I was here, I was twelve. That was half my lifetime ago, and it was before all the bad things happened.
Last night I wrote out everything bad — everything — from the last twelve years. I wrote it out and then I burned the papers and collected the ashes in a bag. I carried all those ghosts of myself with me up the mountain.
I sprinkled the ashes on the wind at the tree line.
I felt as though I was standing with the child I was before. The child who climbed this mountain twelve years ago had no idea what her future held. She was full of life and she felt like she could conquer the world.
I lost that feeling somewhere along the way, but I realized I had it again as I stood there today.
Hiking my mountain this time was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. I’m still dealing with chronic health issues that made the seven-mile hike tricky at times, but the mental and emotional elements wrapped up in the trip were the hardest things to deal with.
Coming back down my mountain, my heart was full of light. I felt present and connected and I was so full of joy I couldn’t stop smiling.
I’m a writer. A storyteller. But I’ve never known how to tell my own story.
I don’t want to be seen as a victim. Even to be seen as a survivor often makes me uncomfortable, because I rarely see myself that way. I mostly see myself as a human who had hard battles to fight. There is more to my existence than the trauma and I’m at a point where much of my existence is outside of those experiences.
Some time ago I wrote a poem with this line; I don’t remember the rest of the poem but this line is engraved in my mind:
“Survival is not who I am; survival is what I did. When you speak of me, call me by my name.”
I am Annie.
I don’t know what lies ahead but I do know two things for certain: one, that I am loved beyond comprehension, and two, that at the end of this incredible journey called life, I’m going home.
A few months ago I went to the hardware store to find the fire chief to ask him a question, and ended up seeing two of the fire chiefs I work with regularly, so I got dual input on my particular problem.
(In rural Maine, if I need a firefighter for non-emergency reasons, odds are good I can find one by wandering into the nearest hardware store.)
My problem went like this: one afternoon I realized the smoke alarm in the kitchen did not work. This was mildly problematic so I climbed up on the step stool and did some troubleshooting.
The problem was that the smoke alarm was unplugged. I, being a tech genius, plugged it back in.
It began squawking like nobody’s business.
I, being an annoyed tech genius, unplugged it and went to the hardware store and got a package of batteries. I replaced the battery and thought all was well.
It was all good, for a little while. Until I began heating the tea kettle.
The kettle hadn’t even begun to hum before the smoke alarm had a meltdown and began screaming in earnest.
I, being a short and annoyed tech genius with a high ceiling, grabbed the nearest cooking implement and jabbed at the smoke alarm reset button to get it to be quiet while I made tea.
The nearest implement was a chef’s knife.
I did NOT damage the smoke alarm and I DID get it to be quiet for a few minutes, but before the tea kettle was properly whistling it went off again.
THAT was the point at which I went back to the hardware store to find Fred.
“I have a hyperactive smoke alarm–” I said and before I offered further explanation, both fire chiefs informed me that I needed to replace the unit.
So, I did. Two different units, one return, and twenty-five dollars later, I had a new smoke alarm.
For the most part, it behaves. Every so often however it takes great offense to whatever I’m cooking, and sets off screaming like I’m trying to kill it. I keep a spoon handy to jab the smoke alarm when it does go off, but it’s been pretty good for a few weeks.
This week, while attempting to make avocado toast and baked fish, the smoke alarm decided that the scattering of crumbs browning in the pan while I made toast presented a life-threatening hazard to everyone and everything in the neighborhood.
After I recovered from jumping out of my skin, I grabbed the spoon, stabbed the ceiling, and went back to making my toast.
This sequence was repeated three more times while I made my supper.
When I made avocado toast again the next day, I was speaking with Missie on the phone and really didn’t want to set off the smoke alarm; it has really awful sound effects through speaker phone and I didn’t want to blow out her eardrums.
Avocado toast, round two, was made without harming any smoke alarms.
No smoke alarms were harmed in the making of tonight’s supper.
There is a good chance that the reason for tonight’s success was because I microwaved a bowl of pasta and made a much larger bowl of green salad, but that’s beside the point.
(Note: I am a good cook and rarely ACTUALLY burn things, I just have bad luck with smoke alarms.)
Two years ago, sitting on a slightly lumpy bed in a medical hostel in Portland, I sent in a query for a job writing at my local paper. I had no experience in journalism and I was scared stiff of the prospect, but I also knew that I needed a job that would allow me to be a part of my community, and I figured it was worth a shot.
Before I began working as the sole journalist at the paper, regularly covering a dozen municipalities and nearly all of the unorganized territories in Maine’s north western mountains, I’d heard vague chatter about “the media” and how awful it is. There was plenty of chatter but no details; no specific examples or instances of what was so terrible. I’m still hearing a lot of that chatter, and still without specific examples.
I want to take a minute and share some of my own specific examples of what my life is like as a journalist. I don’t expect to change anyone’s opinion but if I’ve learned one thing in the last two years, it’s that information can lead to a greater understanding; there is value in understanding another perspective, even if you don’t agree with it.
I do understand that there are differences between myself and many other reporters and journalists, and I cannot speak for their experiences, but I can speak for mine.
I’m always “on duty”. When I want to take a vacation? I have to shut off my phone and leave the county. I wish I was exaggerating. I’ve tried to be deliberate in making connections and relationships, and I’ve tried to make myself accessible and available. Most of the time that works in my favor, even if it’s not related to work; when I take vacation time, it is often challenging to truly take time off if I’m still in my territory.
All the bad things you read in the news? I put them there. Sometimes I rewrite a press release from the sheriff’s office, but sometimes I’m building the story from the ground up with gathered information and conversations. Regardless of how I received the information, I have to be sure I’m understanding it thoroughly so that I can correctly communicate it to others. I have to do my research and know my topics before I can begin writing the story. Imagine that your homework assignment is to thoroughly evaluate, process, and understand all the available information about the death of a child you knew, and then figure out how to explain it. Imagine the toll that takes on you.
Sometimes people aren’t nice. I have been harassed, yelled at, threatened, mocked, and abused by people in my communities. I have had people come into my office and yell at me about how to do my job. I try to interact with everyone in a friendly, open manner, but that doesn’t always get reciprocated. Sometimes I can set it aside and not worry about it; sometimes I end up sitting in my truck in the driveway after work, crying because it’s all too much.
I get to see and hear and know about the worst of humanity, without the ability to do anything to help. This is a hard one for me sometimes because every fiber of my being wants to help, and most of the time there is absolutely nothing that I can do except stay out of the way.
I have to make it make sense. I have to write about the inexplicable and find a way to explain it. I have to turn chaos into a line of orderly words on the page. And I’m pretty damn good at it, but sometimes this is what it feels like for me:
As the only reporter at the office, I covered everything from festivals and celebrations to municipal meetings to school events to accidents and fatalities.
As a reporter I wear hundreds of hats and they’re all being juggled at once to make sure that everything gets covered. I’ve had to flip a switch from writing about a horrific snowmobile accident to writing about the kindergarten class having a play day at the sledding hill with no space to breathe in between.
I wanted to be accessible and available, and it worked. Sometimes I wonder if it worked a little too well. Folks have told me stories that can’t be told to anyone else. They feel better afterwards and I am glad that they feel safe enough to trust me with their stories, but sometimes I wish I didn’t have those images in my head.
I don’t even want to talk about COVID-19, because that would take up two or four more pages, but that is a massive piece of the puzzle too.
I love my job, and as a general rule I wouldn’t change a thing, but it is not an easy job. I care about my people far too much for this to ever be easy.
It’s not easy, but it is worthwhile.
I get to go to the best places and meet the most interesting people and I have a whole book’s worth of my own stories that happened alongside my news articles. I get to be connected and engaged and part of these communities in a way that I haven’t been before, and it is so satisfying for me.
People have this fundamental desire to be connected with each other and to know what is going on, and meeting that need is one of the things I get to do.
I can understand, to a degree, the skepticism and mistrust of “the media”. I, too, struggle with vague and faceless entities that seem to have no connection with my world.
My advice, which may not be worth much, is twofold.
For those who are not in journalism, consider supporting your local media and avoiding national news for a few days. Local or even state media is more likely to provide you with connections, instead of just information. I think that a lot of the time we’re experiencing an information overload and that is hard to cope with.
Secondly, for my fellow journalists, I don’t know much about how you do this job, but I know that we are a part of this world and that we need to be connected and integrated. How can we expect to be successful, trusted, or respected if we treat ourselves like outsiders and like we don’t belong? These are our communities too.
Earlier this week I had an Impromptu Rangeley Day. I needed to take some time away and had limited options, but I had a full tank of gas and the afternoon was free, so I grabbed my dog and we headed north.
Our first stop was the Maine Department of Transportation rest area on Route 27 in Carrabassett Valley. There’s a picnic area and bathroom facilities, and a tiny little trail that leads down to the river. This was my first visit this year; the rest area is closed during the winter months and opened in just the last few days.
The river water was pretty cold still. How do I know? I stepped in it and soaked my shoes, obviously. I was wearing the right shoes for it, so it was all good.
The entire trip was unexpected and I didn’t really have any structure. We headed up to Stratton and then through to Eustis, and stopped to take photos at Pines Market on Flagstaff Lake.
Flagstaff Lake is gorgeous, and one of the largest lakes in Maine; I have a love-hate relationship with it that I don’t entirely understand.
As a teenager I learned about the history of Flagstaff Lake. It is a man-made lake, created about seventy years ago when the Long Falls Dam was built, causing the Dead River to flood the valley. There were several small towns in the valley; the property was bought, many of the houses were moved, graveyards were exhumed and relocated, and the lake replaced the townships of Flagstaff, Bigelow, Carrying Place, and Dead River.
I’ve been told by local pilots that on a clear day they can still see the roofs of some of the houses under the water.
I know how strongly some people are bound to the land here in New England and I can imagine the grief of having to unearth more than a century of community history for the sake of a corporation.
I think in some ways the story of Flagstaff touches on my own grief and my own feelings of un-belonging. I have Native American ancestry, but I don’t know much more than that. Many of the records were destroyed when my great-grandmother Annie’s house burned down, and others were lost or obscured or forgotten about. I know that my ancestors lived in what I know as Maine and Canada, but I don’t know what tribes they belonged to and where they called home.
I often find myself standing in the woods, knowing that I know this place, and not understanding why or how. I feel invisible threads pulling me to the woods and the waters and the mountains, and I feel two conflicting things: I feel like I belong and that I know this place, and at the same time I feel like I am completely and entirely lost and that I don’t know where I am.
This spring I had the unexpected opportunity to listen to a man singing at the ocean. The words, the tune, and the rhythm were unfamiliar at first but as I sat on the rock and listened, I suddenly felt as though I knew what he was singing: he was singing about healing, and being, and part of the song was a prayer. I still couldn’t understand the words but I felt the same way I feel when I come home from a long time away and see my mountain for the first time; I felt like I was in a space where I belonged. It made me cry, sitting there on the rock.
I spoke with him briefly afterwards, and I asked what he had sung. He told me that he had sung healing songs, and spirit songs, and prayer songs.
When I think of Flagstaff and the villages that were destroyed, I remember my own history that holds so much that has been lost or destroyed or erased.
All of this was rattling around in my head while we were at the lake, so I decided to leave and head west to Quill Hill. It was my first trip there this year, and the day was lovely and I thought I would be able to get some good photos.
Quill Hill was created by Adrian Brochu. He engineered and designed the road up the mountain and the overlook at the summit, which gives 365 degree views of the entire Western Maine region. He also created the Ira Mountain overlook and picnic area.
I met Adrian once, while I was working on an article for the paper. He and I got to chatting and he asked about my writing. I explained that I write books as well as news articles, and he got excited for a moment. “Well,” he said, “I want someone to write a book about Quill Hill and Ira, and why I made them.”
I gave him my business card and he said he would get in touch in a few months when he was prepared to tell the whole story. He wanted to tell the story so his grandchildren would know it.
Adrian passed away a few months after our conversation. When I go to Quill Hill, I still wonder what stories he could have told me.
From Quill Hill we continued west into Rangeley. By that point I was pretty tired out and Cricket was getting a little warm, so we actually didn’t stay in Rangeley for long. We picked up snacks and headed south towards Smalls Falls, where I knew Cricket could get out and cool off and relax.
Smalls Falls is one of my favorite parts of a good Rangeley Day. Standing on the foot bridge over the river and listening to the water rush down the rocks into the pool is one of the most emotionally healing and cleansing experiences I’ve ever had and I always leave there feeling stronger and brighter.
There were people at the lower pool, so we crossed over the river and went up the other side to take photos of one of the upper pools.
One of the reasons I love Rangeley Days is because I get to see so many of my favorite places. Another is because I always find something unexpected. Sometimes it’s something external, and sometimes it’s something internal. Sometimes, it’s both.
On this Rangeley Day, which had started out so badly, I found a little bit of peace. I felt that I was part of this place and this place was part of me. When I got in the truck to drive, I felt like I was falling into a black hole in the universe. I didn’t know what else to do with myself, so I drove, and I took photos, and I tried not to think too much.
And by the end of my day I wasn’t anywhere near a black hole. I was here: in my world, where I belong.
It was an impromptu Rangeley Day but it was exactly what I needed.
Cricket and I went to the coast for a mini vacation this week. I was careful to pick weekdays, not the weekend, when there would be less traffic. I picked Freeport because of Wolfe’s Neck State Park, which is open year-around and allows dogs.
Wolfe’s Neck State Park
My family and I went to Wolfe’s Neck last year and I fell in love with the place. Given the pandemic and everything going on, I was looking forward to some time away in an outdoor setting.
Walking trails lead throughout the parking with a variety of terrain and lengths of trails. One of the trails is wheelchair accessible, which I love. It follows along a ridge to the overlook where you can watch the ospreys nesting on the island.
Our first day there I intended to buy a season pass to get into all the Maine State Parks. The website said I could buy one online and have it mailed to ne, which obviously wouldn’t work out since I was already a hundred miles away from my mailbox. Or I could buy one at the park.
I decided to get one at the park. We arrived and I found a park ranger emptying the self-service payment container. As it turns out, while the park is open year round, it’s self service for part of the year.
I had pretty good timing, however. The ranger was there when we got there. He was very helpful and went off to get me a season pass from the office since the park station wasn’t open and didn’t have any passes. We waited in the parking lot for him and he brought a whole bunch of goodies along with the pass, including a Maine State Park Passport and Geocache record. I’d never really heard of geocaching so the passport was a good excuse to get into it.
It was a rainy sort of day but we went for a long walk on the trails. I made the mistake of letting Cricket take the lead and she went off at a jog for two miles. She wore me out!
We didn’t see too many people all three days we were there. The first day, we met a family with small children. Cricket wanted to keep them and they wanted to say hello. Their grownup was very sweet and told them to wave hello to the dog.
A couple hours south they’re well into spring. Things are green and soft and warm, and it makes me happy.
Wilbur’s of Maine Chocolate Factory
I accidentally scared the living daylights out of two of my brothers so I had to buy chocolate to make amends. That called for a visit to Wilbur’s of Maine to get homemade chocolates for the boys and a few for me.
Island Treasure Toys
I didn’t pack any kind of art supplies and realized it was a terrible idea, so I hopped over to Island Treasure Toys and got watercolor paints and paper. Honestly it’s the first time I’ve had real watercolor paper, and it is AWESOME. The rest of the shop was a lot of fun to explore and I will probably have to do some birthday shopping there for my nephew.
Two Brothers Books
My mum and I found Two Brothers Books in Freeport and have been checking them out regularly on our Portland trips over the last couple years. We usually find something good hidden away in the shelves, and I just had to stop in and take a peek while I was in the area.
It was a great trip. We had lots of time to relax and rest, and we got to explore and check out different places and reconnect with favorite places.
I borrowed my youngest brother and we went off wandering. We did have a specific goal in mind and we didn’t make it that far, but we had a good time anyway.
Shiloh Pond is the brand-new conservation land in Kingfield, and we went up to get some photos for work. It’s not necessarily ‘open’, but there’s an easement on the road, so we could get in.
By “get in”, I mean, we could trudge in. The last section of road is dirt and in early April in Maine, that means mud. I don’t want to destroy the road so I parked at the end of the pavement and we walked in halfway before the boy decided he was tired and didn’t want to brave the rest of the walk on the snowy, muddy road.
“Leave no trace” is a phrase I’ve been taught my whole life, and I try to follow that rule. I tread softly.
We packed in a snack; the brother had cheerios and I had a cookie and milk from my favorite little shop in town. We stopped and snacked before we headed back out. As we started back out an eagle glided overhead, wings spread wide to catch the breeze.
Several turkeys had been through before us, and a chipmunk rustled the leaves, and dog prints led in towards the pond ahead of us and back out again.
I’m so excited that this little pond will be part of this community. I’m going to enjoy visits up there and wandering around the pond. Cricket loves it up there. Last summer she found bear droppings and it was the very stinky highlight of her week.
It was fairly warm, but the wind was rough. That was one of the bigger reasons we didn’t go all the way in, but we will another time. There will be plenty of opportunities later on.
Being outside was such an important thing of my growing up and I’m so excited that the kids in this community will have the chance to go get lost and be wild and adventurous. I think it’s really important for a healthy and balanced appreciation and interaction with nature, and this is going to be good for the whole community.
I can’t wait to see where they go from here.
Had to stop in and get a Fatty from Rolling Fatties on Main Street. Next weekend is their last weekend before they close for the spring, so I had to get one more Fatty in before the break.
Fatties are burritos, made with local ingredients as much as possible. The basic Fatty has oat groats and black beans wrapped in a fresh tortilla with salsa and creme. I usually add lettuce and chicken or beef to round out the meal. You can get the Fatty in a bowl if you prefer and the options for customization are almost endless.
If you’re feeling super adventurous, go with the Freedom Fatty, which is just whatever the cook fancies. I haven’t tried that one yet because I’m still working through the rest of the menu, but one of these days I’m going to have to check it out and see what’s what.
Rolling Fatties is run by Polly and Rob MacDonald, and I love their enthusiasm and energy in taking care of their community.
Check them out on Facebook, Intsagram, and online at RollingFatties.com
For our snack, I had a cookie and chocolate milk that Kate gave me when I delivered some stuff for her. Kate and her husband Brian run the Maine Beer Shed and they carry local groceries and produce from local farms, including baked goodies from Nicole up at Bigelow Fields.
Once I started the cookie, I realized that just one was simply not acceptable. These cookies are INCREDIBLE and I had to go buy more for later this week.
It’s getting to be evening time and the girls are herding me off to bed, so I’d best sign off for tonight.
As it turns out, I’m not necessarily super good at talking. I have a tendency to transpose my words and put them in the wrong order which sometimes means that I very seriously and earnestly say things like, “Here in Maine, the hills grow on the trees, and that really limits the visibility.”
I’m sure it’s very bad for visibility if the hills are on top of the trees.
I dozed off no less than three times while finishing this post and when
Reader Notes: a book review + quite a lot of rambling
When You Find My Body by D. Dauphinee, 5 out of 5 stars
This afternoon, huddled under the blankets as the temperature in my house slowly crept upwards following a power outage, I finished reading Dauphinee’s book.
When You Find My Body is the story of Gerry Largay and her disappearance on the Appalachian Trail in Maine, right in the heart of my communities. Published in 2019, this book weaves a story that I have heard about since the beginning, but with more information and details. It helps me complete the picture.
About the book itself: the storytelling and the narrative voice is engaging and compelling. Dauphinee understands something about humanity that can be hard to capture sometimes, and he shows it on the pages of this book: the community need for survival.
He paints a beautiful but unapologetic picture of the place I call home. While the story he tells is full of grief and sorrow, frustration and even anger, hope, courage, and compassion shine through. I definitely recommend this book and will be picking up a copy for my own shelves.
That’s my thoughts on the book itself. My reaction to the story, on the other hand, is kind of complicated. I think that’s one of the reasons it has taken me so long to read it. I picked it up before Christmas and am only now putting it down.
I grew up in a little village tucked at the foot of Mt. Abram – Mt. Abraham, I suppose, to people who aren’t locals. I live near most of Maine’s tallest mountains. My hometown is also 23 minutes to Sugarloaf Ski Mountain and one hour, 8 minutes to Saddleback Mountain. (This is assuming favorable weather conditions and no delays and I tend to give myself 30 minutes and one hour and 30 minutes, respectively, because I often have poor conditions and/or delays.)
I did not grow up skiing. Or snowboarding. In the winter we amused ourselves by hurtling down an icy dirt road, bouncing off the frozen plow bank as we turned a ninety-degree corner, and continuing on down the road until it leveled out and the plastic torpedo sleds scraped to a halt, often a few hundred feet past the bottom of the hill. (It is worth noting that in 20+ years and 14+ kids, there were only two broken bones associated with these winter activities.)
In the summer, we played outside. The woods were ours, and nothing could get in our way. We built forts and shelters, made campfires, foraged for nuts and berries and greens, swam in the pond and the river, caught sunfish and frogs, wandered through the small woods in the pasture, and scrambled up and down hills, cliffs, and shallow ravines.
My uncle took my older brother and I on a number of hiking trips when I was a pre-teen. With him, we learned to follow a trail, to pack basic survival items and a little more food and water than we needed, and to pace ourselves and not overexert. On one hike we ended up unavoidably delayed due to injury and ended up hiking in the dark down to the logging road, where my dad and our friends met us and drove us out. That time we learned the importance of flashlights, extra batteries, and a good communication system.
The most important lesson, however, was one I learned from reading, well before we began hiking. I don’t remember when I first met Donn in the pages of Lost On A Mountain In Maine, but I do remember the most important time I met him in person.
It was September 17, 2011, outside the Cole Transportation Museum in Bangor. I say it was the most important time because I actually met him multiple times in my life, but this one was different. I was fourteen, my life was complicated and messy, and I was scared stiff about meeting him. We had eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the suburban on the way to Bangor and I was regretting that as my nerves twisted up my insides. It was, as I would later realize, an anxiety attack.
Donn was incredibly sweet. He graciously signed the entire stack of books my mother handed him and talked with me the whole time. I don’t remember if my mother or I told him that I was a writer, but it came up, and we chatted about that. He mentioned something along the lines of, maybe someday he would see my name in print.
I think, all told, we talked for ten minutes. I remember feeling embarrassed that we were holding up the line, but I also remember that he made me feel calmer. Less scared.
The most important lesson I learned from his book was twofold: if you’re lost, stay where you are; if you have to move, follow the water. It will always take you home.
As a pre-teen, hiking Maine’s high peaks with my uncle and brother, those words stuck with me. Donn was my age, and my best friend’s age, when he got lost. For a while I heard that rule in a kid’s voice.
After I met Donn that day when I was 14, however, I always heard it in his voice: comfortable and warm and soothing. And I wish I could have told him that.
Reading through When You Find My Body over the last few months, I found myself comparing notes with everything I have learned. And the thing that hit me was, would it have helped if Gerry had Donn’s voice in the back of her mind, reminding her to stay put when she first realized she was lost? Or later, when she finally settled down and made her final camp near a small stream, if she’d known to follow the water?
I don’t know. I’ve never really been lost before, so I can’t fully imagine what it must feel like. I know that the human mind doesn’t always behave rationally and that panic can make it impossible to do something unfamiliar.
One of our first trips up Mt. Abram last fall when neither my dog or I were familiar with the trail, we had a moment when I thought we’d gone off the marked trail onto a deer path. I couldn’t find the next blaze and the trail was faint, narrow, and covered in leaves. Something deep in the pit of my stomach started to bubble up into panic for a second, making me want to run and find safety, and then I remembered the rule: if you’re lost, stay put. I took a breath, looked behind me and found the trail and blazes leading back the way we’d come, and realized we weren’t lost. A few more steps led us within sight of the next blaze ahead of us. The whole thing lasted for maybe fifteen seconds.
My biggest takeaway from When You Find My Body wasn’t the tragedy of the story or the pain of losing someone and not knowing what happened or the courage and dedication of those search teams. I got all of that, certainly. But the biggest thing I was left with was much more simple and maybe a bit silly:
Maybe it’s a good thing that I hear Donn in my head when I’m hiking.
Beyind that, reading Gerry’s story has highlighted areas I may be lacking in and encouraged me to learn more. But she also has encouraged me to be brave and to reach for the stars and to fight for my dreams. “Inchworm” has inspired me to keep trying, even if I’m slow and it feels impossible. And she has encouraged me to keep faith close to my heart.
One final note:
I was able to spend a day with the Maine Search and Rescue Dogs group and the Maine Mounted Search and Rescue group last fall. I volunteered to be a subject for their training searches, and it was an incredible experience. I learned so much in those few hours and I would love to do it again.
But the thing that stuck with me the most from that day was one of the gentlemen who, when he learned where I was from, got a sad, sort of distant look in his eyes. “Oh, I’ve been there,” he said. “We were looking for Gerry.”
I am far away. Far from the rage and the turmoil, far from the shrieks and screams and smoke. No one here is threatening. No one here is fighting. Not tonight.
The little bubble of my world is calm. Still. Peaceful.
The stars are silent. Orion is gone. Every night I look back over my shoulder and there he glitters in the night sky like a watchful, wakeful guardian. He is veiled tonight.
I feel as though I am holding my breath.
“Perhaps the Christ Child had walked between the lines and while he walked, peace had stayed the guns.” (Kate Seredy, The Singing Tree.)
The words circle in my mind and I hold them lightly, feeling the pulse of the words against my fingers.
Peace seems forever far away.
I am far from the city, but the fight is here in my chest. Fear is a heavy master and one I know far too well but tonight, I am more weary than afraid.
I am tired of living in this fight for my whole life. Half the time I don’t even know what is being fought for, but my whole life is marked with battle after battle while I am told there is no war.
There is more than this present chaos.
I believe that someday, at the far distant end, there is a garden, filled with great good things. There is peace and gentleness and love in abundance. There is the embrace of those I love that eases the ache of losing them. There is grace, and compassion, and beauty. There is everything great and good and more than I have ever dreamed. There is life and wholeness and healing. Healing, and no war and no battles and no destruction to try to undo me. There is rest.
This is not that end. I have a work to do first. I must sow the seeds. Water them. Nurture them. I may not see them come to fruition but I must plant them and care for them as long as I am able.
When it seems like everything is falling apart, I remember that it is okay to grieve. It is okay to mourn. It is okay to be lost and hurt and afraid. But I am here to do great and good things. I am here to make a change. Maybe that change begins here, tonight, in the quiet. Maybe that change begins in me.
I am here to live the best way I can and trust that in the end, I will be somewhere safe with someone good.
I am not a bible scholar, an epidemiologist, or a scientist. I’m simply a writer who has been immersed in biblical history and literature for most of my life, and who has done a lot of reading and writing about COVID for work.
For me, a fascinating study during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the Old Testament laws for cleanliness and hygiene, which I studied at least four different times when I was younger. Some of them seem a bit extreme but many of them are common sense measures we see in use today. Things like washing yourself, isolation and cleansing after exposure to dead bodies and certain kinds of illnesses, and washing or discarding contaminated garments and items are all found in the Old Testament.
Moving through history to the Black Plague, we learn that one of the reasons the Jews were blamed for the plague was because they were less affected by it than others, due to the rules for health and hygiene that they followed. If you’re not affected by it, you’re obviously the cause of it, right? There were other issues going on as well, I’m sure, such as people being prejudiced walnuts, but that was one contributing factor for why they were blamed.
This is something I’ve been musing on during the pandemic.
There’s a popular question I hear in church communities. “What would Jesus do?”
I’ve always struggled with this question because it is often asked in situations where we don’t have the information to be able to say, and we can run the risk of shaping Jesus into our own image and expectations. But it is a good question to make oneself think.
So, I asked it in this situation.
I imagine Jesus would wash his hands and stay home if he was sick, and would probably wear a mask if he had one. Jesus would love people regardless of their beliefs, their social standing, and their health issues. Jesus would feed those in need and comfort the hurting and take care of the people around him.
I imagine that during COVID, you would see Jesus volunteering at homeless shelters and soup kitchens. You would see him picking up groceries for shut-ins and talking with them from a safe distance. You would see him organizing online book clubs and movie nights and helping remote students with their classes. You would see him calling his neighbors and family, just to check in. You would see him out taking long walks, and it would seem like the day got a little bit better just for seeing him. You would see him writing letters to folks in nursing homes and others in isolation.
I imagine that you would see his eyes, bright and alive and holy, smiling over a mask or face covering, as he thanks the grocery store clerk and tells her that he hopes she has a good day. You would meet him on the road, helping a stranger change a flat tire. You would see him spending his weekend building a wheelchair ramp for someone in the community who’s disabled.
I imagine you would see him as a member on the volunteer fire department, first on the scene for an elderly woman who fell down the stairs. You would hear the tenderness in his voice as he helped her, and she might say that the pain eased when he came. You would see him working in a blizzard, helping lost and stranded people find their way home again.
I imagine that you would see him raging against companies who place profits over human lives. You would see him fight against a system that causes harm when it should bring help and relief. You would see him challenge the oppressors and stand up for those who cannot stand for themselves. You would see him do whatever it took to make sure that the elderly, the infirm, and the weak are not excluded or forgotten.
I imagine you would see him bring light, and hope, and healing into the sick rooms and hospitals. You would see him hold the hands of the lost and hurt and grieving. You would hear his footsteps between the beeping of monitors and the noise of ventilators. You would see him rejoice with each recovery and mourn with each death.
I imagine that you would see the kindness and compassion in his face, in his hands, in the way he lives his life. You would witness a joy so strong that sometimes it hurts. You would see a man who loves fearlessly and relentlessly. Though he would not risk the health of others, you would see him risk his own health for those in need.
I asked myself, what would Jesus do?
And I asked, what must I do?
A special thanks to my family members who encouraged me to share this. This writing is as much for myself as for anyone else. I understand that everyone has different beliefs and am not suggesting that I have all the answers or that I am an expert in biblical history and literature, Jewish culture, epidemiology, or other subjects; I am, at the end of the day, just a writer.
I don’t understand what the plan is, God. I don’t understand how this brokenness is supposed to help.
I don’t understand.
I look around and I see, played out on a global stage, the divides and shattered pieces and hurt that I’ve battled in my own heart and mind and soul.
There is so much hurt.
I was – finally – beginning to heal from my own. I was beginning to reach out again, to connect, to touch people after being afraid of them for so long.
And now I’m asked to draw back again. To contain myself within the walls of my own existence. I may speak, but my voice is not very strong yet. My body is the strongest part of me and I am asked to be still. To fold my hands in my lap. To step away from outstretched arms, to keep from stretching out my own.
I’m so tired, God.
I’m not afraid.
I’m tired of the fighting. The screaming. The fear and hurt and anger and pride. As hard as I try, the voices still creep into my brain and for a time break the quiet.
It’s finally quiet now, inside my mind, more often than not. Even now.
I’ve learned that in order to heal the hurts inside myself I first had to admit they were there. I cannot mend a broken plate if I insist that it is not broken.
Is that part of the plan, God?
Is that part of the hurt?
I’ve learned that I cannot exist without connection, yet for so long now we have made connection a lower priority – work has become the highest priority.
When work ceases, what will the hands do then? Will the hands learn new languages, or maybe rediscover old languages they know but have forgotten to speak? Will they remember how to connect with another?