The meat is cooked, sliced, and rested, the garlic-roasted broccoli and carrots tower on the platter, and a bold red and fresh loaf are side by side taking a bit of a breather when I summon everyone to the table for our celebratory Saturday night lockdown dinner. The sons have put in an effort – I notice buttoned shirts and different jeans from the ones they’d worn in the paddocks to hunt me a hare – and my husband, Chris, has his hand in the small of my back in the way that says, “I am seeing all the love in this food, and I can’t wait to taste it.”
Then the phone rings.
We all laugh: it always seems to ring just when we’re sitting down to eat. (Here in the Australian bush, a landline telephone is a necessary anachronism, as cellular coverage is a dicey proposition on a good day.) Chris goes to get it, thinking he knows who it is. A few hours earlier, there had been a choked and tearful voice message – a lady we barely know, asking Chris to call her back. When he did, twice, she hadn’t answered, and attempts to contact her neighbors had failed.
Now she has finally reached us, struggling to keep it together as she gives my husband a litany of her woes: an off-the-grid rental home with no electricity or hot water, thanks to a broken photovoltaic system; an uncooperative landlord; deteriorating health; and two grandbabies to try to feed and clean.
It’s dark, it’s cold, and I want to eat with my family. Now, please. The wine is poured, the candles are lit. This is our special Saturday dinner: we’ve taken care in these past weeks of isolation to carve out a rhythm, a schedule, things to look forward to and ways to mark time. Like never before, the table has become the solace of our home – at least for me. When the homeschool lessons and online tutorials are finished and the dictionaries and pencils and glasses and tissues (seasonal allergies) have been cleared away, it transforms into the altar where the scattered ends of the day are sanctified and blessed. Can’t anyone else respect this hallowed space the way I’m trying to, especially when the days of kitchens and porches overflowing with friends and food and restorative laughter are so over?
It’s dark, it’s cold, and she is washing two grandbabies in tepid water.
There’s no discussion except in my heart about what happens next. Of course, Chris will help. In between hurried bites of lukewarm food, there are texts and calls, chasing up an electric urn, some food staples, and a friend with a pickup truck willing to lend a hand. There’s no conversation about the day, no jokes or banter. Just the inconvenience of someone needing something more than I need this unhurried time around the table.
I follow my husband out to the garage where he and our oldest son are already fueling the portable generator and coiling power cords. It’s dark, and I feel the dark inspiring me as I hear myself say, “Can you stop taking this all so personally? You hardly know this woman. You’re already exhausted from work today. Just get someone else to deal with this.”
Chris stops and turns and says evenly, “This is very personal. This is something I can actually fix.”
Then I remember how the past weeks were fraught with a deeply-scarred friend laying his woundedness over and over at my husband’s door, and that there was no fixing, no mending, but just holding the brokenness and hoping it wouldn’t break us. The larger events in the world, so many in pain, so little we can do. And here, finally, a simple chance to fix, to help, to send aid – and I was resenting the interruption. I instantly regret hounding my husband for wanting to help.
I return to the disheveled table and kitchen, and reflect on how these weeks of quarantine forced me into new ways of being. The heroes of the pandemic crisis are undoubtedly the healthcare workers and others who serve their communities at tremendous personal risk. But for so many of us while the virus is still rampant, the way we’re being asked to love our neighbors is to stay away from them. I am a doer; I was not made for sequestration. The syntax of my love language is food, the preparing and serving thereof. The fellowship of the table has been so central to my home and family, and to the shared life of our Bruderhof community. I feel ridiculous, in light of the awful scale of suffering this pandemic has loosed, but when I’m honest with myself and break it down, I know the hardest thing for me at this time is not being able to gather people around my table, in my home and in my way, with my food.
Perhaps I need to learn a quieter, more nuanced, less me and more them kind of hospitality. A sharing not just of food and recipes, but of more enduring ways of nourishing the soul. Maybe I’m learning to grab the chances life gives me to celebrate or serve, however clumsily, rather than trying to choreograph idyllic moments when the candles are lit and the wine is poured. Unsurprisingly, those designated times of celebration rarely live up to the pre-planned scene in the theater of my mind, and more often than not tip farcically toward dysfunction and distraction. Candlelit moments are great, but more frequently the real connections happen over the rim of an impromptu cup of tea shared with a neighbor who just needs an excuse to pause amid the mundane stresses of the day.
The calendar on my wall is strangely blank. I flip back just a few months and see scrawled reminders of invitations, birthday and anniversary festivities, get-togethers for no particular reason. “At the still point of the turning of the world.” I mull over T. S. Eliot’s famous phrase, and wonder, are we there yet? So much going on, everywhere. So much angst, suffering, injustice, death. And yet also so much stillness.
Through it all, life goes on: suspended motion is not silence. “Except for the point, the still point / There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” The poet’s words are with me as I think back on phone calls and messages from friends during the quarantine: “How do you start free-range chickens?” “I’ve finished chemo. Some wicked weeks of radiation are up next.” “What’s your best recipe for wild rabbit?” “My mom’s dying, and I can’t go say goodbye.” “How do you make your place feel like home when it looks like a messy classroom all the time?” “I find myself crying often because everything feels so strange and different . . .” We are all dancing, as best we can.
I remember all the strong women who taught me the little I know, who didn’t mind my interruptions and silly questions, who were always there to help first and ask questions later or not at all, and who are unknowingly coming to stand beside me and teach me again, right now. And in these days that are forcing me to rethink the essence of relationships and hospitality, I’m asking that my heart be made more sensitive to the needs of others, to be the first to reach out instead of the first to hope someone else will shoulder a burden. That we be the peace for others, the still point – in prayer, over the phone, and in the myriad ways we are able to connect today. At the same time, I ask for humility.
Later in the evening, a grateful text comes in: the loan of the generator and urn have meant warm baths for the babies, and, together with the food hamper, seem to have gone at least a little way toward lifting their grandmother’s spirits.
A small thing, on our part. It changes precious little. There is only so much fixing we can do, now or anytime. I am doubly reminded of this as an American abroad, witnessing from a distance the pain, hurt, and pent-up rage boiling over. For those of us tempted to think we’re indispensable, the clarity this perspective gives is, I believe, starting to change us. This uncertain season, with its forced sidelining, proffers us a chance to open our hearts and spirits when it’s not clear what else we have to give.
Meanwhile, the power is off, metaphorically, around the world, and there’s no backup generator up to the task. In Australia alone, where the pandemic itself has been remarkably well-contained, mental health experts are now forecasting up to a fifty percent rise in suicide rates due to the economic and social impacts. The number of deaths by suicide in Australia, they say, could be up to ten times more than those caused by Covid-19. There’s no point hoping for a miracle panacea; you can’t vaccinate against despair. Yet, as this evening has (embarrassingly, painfully) reminded me, it doesn’t take a cure-all to make a difference to someone. It just takes seeing that at my heart’s perfect table, candles, generators, red wine, power cords, loved ones, and strangers all belong and are welcome.