Since March, when the global pandemic bound us in our homes, I have been over-functioning. I was working while parenting and parenting while working, feeling inadequate at both. I was exhausted. All around me, people were sick and dying. People lost their jobs, faced eviction, and struggled in isolation. Comparatively, I was well. I felt my privilege. So when asked, “How are you?” I clung to a positive narrative. “I hit the COVID jackpot,” I’d say over and over, “My kids are three and five. They are easy, and not in formal school. I’m the lucky one.”
Then, in late August, we got a call from my youngest’s preschool telling us they were closing for the entire year so they could focus on childcare for essential workers. Next, my oldest’s kindergarten teacher sent out their daily online school schedule. Finally, my main child care provider called to tell us she was moving across the state. I had to make hard decisions fast. I looked at my workload, my childcare options and my parenting responsibilities with a sense of overwhelmed inevitability. My narrative crumbled. I lay in bed, nauseous and spinning. I cried a lot. Then, I put in my letter of resignation at the church where I had worked for seven years. I joined the growing number of parents, disproportionately women, shifting their careers during COVID to tend to their children at home.
I felt how our society often values productivity and capitalism above women, children, and education.
Over a few weeks, I received encouraging notes from mothers in the congregation. My supervisor sent a card and gift in the mail. On my last day of work, I saw my closest co-worker. That evening, my spouse handed me a glass of wine. Just like that, it was over. Because of COVID-19, I didn’t get to see, hug, and properly say goodbye to the youth, young adults, and staff I had been working with for years. With minimal marking, the emotional closure rested on my shoulders.
Early in COVID, I interviewed Rabbi Jennifer Hartman of Temple Israel for the Unlikely Conversations podcast. She spoke of Zoom funerals, how painful it was to not be able to offer people the time-tested rituals created around death. How inhumane it felt to not stand close and touch each other in our grief. I asked her if that was the hardest pandemic shift, and she surprised me by saying, “No. We have ritual built in to mourn the death of our loved ones well after death. I worry most about our high school seniors. We have no idea what it will do to their development to not mark the transition from high school.”
Humans mark time. It is one of the things church does well. We create the factors ripe for thin space. We write liturgy and build ritual where we can see, touch, ingest, and internalize the fleeting holy. We hold space to say things that need to be said. To plant signposts on the path. To make tangible and visible the love of God and our faith community.
Annually when tenth graders affirm their baptism, I cry watching family and friends lay hands on the youth, reminding them how loved they are. On the Day of the Dead, we bring in objects saturated in meaning and memory and tell stories that invoke our ancestors. On Break the Silence Day, I attended a service for survivors of sexual violence, which started with a confession of church leaders. I sang. I lamented. I was wrapped in a prayer shawl and prayed for in my brokenness and healing. In COVID, we are challenged to be creative in our marking. For the graduating seniors at our church this year, we designed an online ritual for them and their parents. We had a safe outdoor party with a meal, story sharing and games. We did what we could with what we have.
Now, when I am the one feeling the lack of marking, the loss of community, it is a reminder to get to the heart of what ritual does.
How can we connect people over time and space?
How can we continue to say the things that need to be said? How can we keep being church in this moment, not waiting for church as we know it to resume? How can we support the most vulnerable community members being hit the hardest by the pandemic?
At home with my little ones, God reminds me that my work is to love. It harkens me back to my days on maternity leave, when definitions of productivity alter and break through society’s pressure to do more, buy more, and produce more. Time passes differently. The ruler I previously used to measure my worth doesn’t work. I double down on loving my children who belong to me and also belong not to me, but to God. Some days I miss the ladder I used to climb. This pure loving, this stripped down sacredness can be a little boring and also utterly delightful.
I repeat to myself: Do less, be more.
A few weeks ago, I entered the church building, masked, to turn in my computer and keys. My exit interview was brief. I paused in the hallway before leaving, looking at the lights streaming in through the stained glass. I closed my eyes, listened to our musician practicing the organ, and cried. When the song ended, I walked out into the sunshine, trusting that church was happening all around and the Spirit would meet me outside of the building.
Ellie Roscher is the author of 12 Tiny Things, Play Like a Girl and How Coffee Saved My Life. Her writing also appears in the Baltimore Review, Inscape Magazine, Bookology Magazine and elsewhere. Ellie hosts the Unlikely Conversations podcast, is a certified yoga instructor and teaches at The Loft Literary Center and the Minnesota Writing Project. Ellie holds an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in Theology from Luther Seminary.