In the middle of March, when we first got a sense of how much would change because of the coronavirus, a friend joked, “I didn’t plan on giving up this much for Lent.”
It was a good line, but I didn’t smile because things were getting depressing. No concerts. No parties. No going to bars and restaurants. No school. Small businesses were worried about their sales.
The “no” list kept getting longer. No beach. No bike trails. No haircuts. No zoo. No museums — so much for the “El Greco” exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. No spring break trip to see friends in St. Louis. No visits of any kind. Growing unemployment and shrinking 401(k)s.
We know why — we must try to contain the virus. We have to flatten the curve. We have to keep as many of us well for as long as possible, so there will be enough medical care to go around. Things are getting worse, and it’s no time to complain about trivialities.
I know this, but can’t help feeling grouchy and deprived of common pleasures. I feel like I’m 9 years old again, kicking the table leg in frustration because it’s raining and I can’t play softball. Every day and on and on.
For me, it really got bad when the Archdiocese of Chicago canceled Holy Week and Easter services. I’m a church musician — cantor and choir member — and we’ve been rehearsing for Holy Week since January. It’s such beautiful music — “Pange Lingua Gloriosi” and “Were You There?” — pieces we sing just once a year.
I’ll also miss so many other things about Easter time, which is better than Christmas because it’s spring and you don’t have to stress about presents. We’ll miss braiding palm branches and bringing the Easter basket to church for a Holy Saturday blessing, a Polish tradition. I remember as a kid competing with my siblings over who could decorate the prettiest eggs that would be good enough to go in the basket, along with the rye bread, horseradish, a ring of kielbasa and the butter molded into the shape of a lamb, all covered with my grandmother’s embroidered cloth. Then there would be a giant family party on Easter with an egg hunt and lamb cakes. Not this year.
I know there are worse things. People are suffering and dying by the thousands around the world. Health care workers are going without necessary equipment and getting sick themselves.
But you never know what’s going to trip your own emotional wire, and losing Easter was the first thing in these past few weird weeks that made me cry and cry.
Eventually, you have to stop crying and figure out what to do next. So I decided to think about the pandemic lockdown as a giant, extended version of Lent. A solemn, global Sabbath. A cosmic boot in our collective pants.
Lent, which started Feb. 26 for non-Orthodox Christians, is 40 days of contemplation, penance and fasting, a slowing down of ordinary life. Catholics and followers of some other Christian traditions give up meat on Fridays and let go of some personal pleasure. Over the years, I’ve given up chocolate, Facebook, salt, coffee and reading fiction. I remember one year, my friends all gave up alcohol at the same time, and we had a sober late March birthday party, grimly drinking O’Doul’s.
Many religious traditions have some kind of fasting ritual, whether it’s Lent or Yom Kippur or Ramadan. While the types of fast differ, the sacrifice serves as a reminder both of the presence of God and of all our blessings. Seeing a dish of candy, and not taking one, is a spiritual pinprick, a way to both recall the transcendent and the sufferings of the poor.
This is what’s happening with everyone now, religious and nonreligious, all over the world. By not being able to get together with our friends and family, we are reminded of how much we love them and how much we may have taken them for granted. If we are sick, we are reminded of how good it is to be well. Unable to go where we like, we remember how precious that freedom is.
I also find myself grateful for what I do have now — the walks around the neighborhood with my daughter, spotting bears and rainbows in windows. I’m grateful for the phone and Zoom chats with family, and that a friend with the virus is out of the hospital and getting better. I’m grateful for the chilly spring sunshine, my house, my job, water, heat, enough toilet paper and my own health. Touch wood. So far.
I’m hoping for those of us who come out of this, when coronavirus-Lent is over, we’ll value what we have a little more. Perhaps summer will be sweeter, because spring was so long and sad.