A COVID memoir

I wrote this for a science fiction fanzine. But it also works well for this blog.


Two years before the pandemic hit, we started living in a graveyard. Not right in the middle of the graves—there was a low stone wall that separated our house, the cemetery office, and the parking area from the graves. But we lived inside the tall iron fence that separated the cemetery from the residential area surrounding it, and each evening an electric motor would start up, slowly driving the big iron gate along its track, shutting us off from the rest of the world.

It might sound a little creepy, but it was actually a very pleasant place to live. We lived in the old caretaker’s house, which was over a hundred years old. Neighbors walked past our house during the day, taking a walk in the cemetery, because it was only open space in the neighborhood. We could chat with the cemetery supervisor, and we got to know some of the members of the cemetery’s board of directors. At night when the gate closed, we had our own private five acre back yard. And, as we liked to say, the neighbors were quiet.

I’m not the first to notice that life during the pandemic felt like living inside a dystopian sf novel. That we lived in a graveyard made it feel even more like a novel. And it felt especially dystopian at the end of the summer, when the sky turned bloody reddish orange.

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G. K. Chesterton on romance and religion

In his introduction to the Everyman edition of Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, G. K. Chesterton comments on how religion and romance are similar. Mind you, when Chesterton says “religion,” what he really means is “Christianity”; thus his is a narrow perspective indeed. Even so, I’m going to quote some of what he says, interspersed with my own commentary:

“Romance is perhaps the highest point of human expression, except indeed religion, to which it is closely allied. Romance resembles religion especially in this, that it is not only a simplification abut a shortening of existence….”

I agree with the first sentence. I think the second sentence is a gross oversimplification of both romance and religion.

“…religion is always insisting on the shortness of human life. But it does not insist on the shortness of human life as the pessimists insist on the shortness of human life. Pessimism insists on the shortness of human life in order to show that life is valueless. Religion insists on the shortness of human life in order to show that life is frightfully valuable….”

Even though Chesterton is really distinguishing between pessimism and Christianity, I think he’s on to something here. Other religions (or other spiritualities) do in fact say that life is frightfully valuable. This is one of the most important functions of religion and spirituality in human society.

“All this is equally true for romance. Romance is a shortening and sharpening of human difficulty. Where you and I have to vote against a man [sic], or write (rather feebly) against a man, or sign illegible petitions against a man, romance does for him what we should really like to see done; it knocks him down; it shortens the slow process of historical justice….”

And religion does this to some extent, too, although we have a longer timeline that the writers of romances like Nicholas Nickleby. In Nicholas Nickleby, evil uncle Ralph Nickleby is driven to death after a period of two or three years; so it’s only a few years until the evildoer gets what he deserves. According to most religions, it takes longer for justice to prevail. The conservative Christians (like Chesterton) talk about judgement by God after death; we will have to wait until death for evil persons to get their just desserts. Progressive Christians like Theodore Parker and Martin Luther King, Jr., talk about the moral arc of the universe bending towards justice; we will have to wait until long after any of us dies before the evil that is in society is expunged. Some strands of Buddhism tend towards quietism and simply accept suffering while trying to transcend it, but the Engaged Buddhists like Thich Nhat Hanh closely resemble Dr. King and Theodore Parker in their timeline for justice to arrive.

I suspect that what both religions like Christianity and Engaged Buddhism, and romances like Nicholas Nickleby share is a commitment to hope. Pessimists (and even some realists) see hope as ridiculously idealistic. Religions and romances take hope as a given.

Four years

Four years ago today, on Friday, March 13, 2020, the state of California shut down schools across the state. I was then the minister of religious education in Palo Alto, Santa Clara County, California. Since our congregation decided to tie our education programs to whatever the public schools did, that meant we too were going to move all our programs online effective immediately. And on that same day, Santa Clara county banned all gatherings of more than 100 people, so our congregation moved Sunday services online as of the following Sunday.

Complete lockdown happened three days later, as most Bay Area counties issued a stay-at-home order on March 16. A state-wide shelter-in-place order was issued on March 19.

Houses of worship were considered “essential services,” so I could get out of the house and go to work a couple of days a week. But it was definitely creepy commuting to work on Highway 101. The week before, all four lanes in both directions would be packed with cars from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. In the first weeks after the shut-down, at times I’d see no other cars on the road. It reminded me of this passage from Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year: “…the great streets within the city [of London], such as Leadenhall Street, Bishopsgate Street, Cornhill, and even the Exchange itself, had grass growing in them in several places; neither cart or coach were seen in the streets from morning to evening, except some country carts to bring roots and beans, or peas, hay, and straw, to the market, and those but very few compared to what was usual.”

Noted without comment

A letter from Dr. Samuel Johnson, to his friend Dr. Lawrence whose wife had just died:

“The loss, dear Sir, which you have lately suffered, I felt many years ago, and know therefore how much has been taken from you, and how little help can be had from consolation. He that outlives a wife whom he has long loved, sees himself disjoined from the only mind that has the same hopes, and fears, and interest; from the only companion with whom he has shared much good or evil; and with whom he could set his mind at liberty, to retrace the past or anticipate the future. The continuity of being is lacerated; the settled course of sentimant and action is stopped; and life stands suspended suspended and motionless, till it is driven by external causes into a new channel. But the time of suspense is dreadful.”

from Boswell’s Life of Johnson, 20 Jan. 1780

Dream world

I woke up early, decided it was too early, and went back to sleep. I seem to have had a lot of dreams, none of which I remember. But I have vague memories of a dream involving my mother, during the years she had dementia. My mother died twenty-five years ago this month, and for the last few years of her life had gradually increasing dementia associated with supranuclear palsy, Parkinson’s, and the side effect of the drugs she was taking. She didn’t know who I was for the last couple of years of her life, and I didn’t have much in the way of real conversations with her for a couple of years before that. The mother who appeared in my dream last night was the person who had dementia — not always making sense, sometimes hallucinating. It’s funny how vivid my memories of that time still are, vivid enough to reappear in my dreams from time to time.

In an opinion piece on Religion News Service, Tyler Huckabee quotes from an interview with Russell Moore. Moore has become semi-famous for having called out the Southern Baptist Conference on their sex abuse crisis, and getting savaged for it. Anyway, in the interview Moore says:

“…multiple pastors [told] me, essentially, the same story about quoting the Sermon on the Mount, parenthetically, in their preaching — ‘turn the other cheek’ — to have someone come up after to say, ‘Where did you get those liberal talking points?’ And what was alarming to me is that in most of these scenarios, when the pastor would say, ‘I’m literally quoting Jesus Christ,’ the response would not be, ‘I apologize.’ The response would be, ‘Yes, but that doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak.’ And when we get to the point where the teachings of Jesus himself are seen as subversive to us [evangelicals], then we’re in a crisis.”

Mind you, Moore opposes same-sex marriage, opposes abortion rights, and I don’t think I’d have much in common with him. But I admire the way he stood up for his core values. And I find it unfortunate that he paid a heavy price — he was essentially driven out of the Southern Baptist Convention, and is now pastor of a non-denominational church.

We’ve actually seen similar things happen within Unitarian Universalism. To give just one example, we drove out half of our African American members from 1968 to 1970, people who wanted us all to live up a moral standard that the rest of the denomination could not accept.

It’s difficult to live up to high moral standards. It’s even more difficult when someone challenges us, telling us that we’re not living up to the moral standards we claim to hold. Conversely, it’s very easy to convince ourselves that we are right and everyone else is wrong. Especially in today’s hyper-polarized society, where we seem to be unable to listen to any point of view that differs from our own. But if we can’t listen to others, we may find that ourselves saying something that contradicts our core values.


I awakened this morning in the grip of an unpleasant memory.

The memory was from the end of the last semester of my last year of undergraduate study. I had majored in philosophy because it had the least amount of required coursework. That meant I had plenty of time to take classes in fine arts and music, and do lots of reading on my own.

Even if I had taken more philosophy classes, I knew I was a mediocre and uninspired philosophy student. I knew it, and the department chair knew it, and I knew he knew it. But I didn’t think I was anything worse than mediocre and uninspired. So I was a little taken aback when the department chair pulled me aside one day and said that sometimes the philosophy faculty needed to talk a little more with one of the seniors….

At first I had no idea what he was talking about. He seemed to be talking around in circles. Then it became clear he was saying I had to meet with philosophy faculty for some kind of oral exam. The exam would take place in two days.

Two days. Holy shit. I still didn’t understand what was going on. I felt too burned out to study.

By the time of the oral exam, I was terrified. I have a vivid memory of walking into an office and confronting the entire philosophy faculty. As soon as they started questioning me, though, I realized I had been mistaken about the purpose of the oral exam. Apparently someone had proposed me for academic honors. That’s what they were going to examine about. This was not at all what I had expected. I froze, and could barely speak. Some of the faculty looked disappointed and even disdainful. It was humiliating. At least they had the kindness to let me go quickly.

Of course I didn’t get honors. Nor did I deserve them — I had done as little coursework as possible in philosophy. I was pretty sure that the department chair also felt I didn’t deserve honors, which helped explain why he couldn’t bring himself to tell me that I was being considered for honors. He and I had clashed a number of times — I thought he was a pompous ass who had coasted on a brilliant PhD dissertation but never published anything — and he thought I was intellectually immature and needed his special guidance. He cornered me at breakfast on graduation and insisted on telling me that he knew I was a prejudiced New England Yankee who hated French Canadians like him and that’s why we never got along. Actually, in my town there were no French Canadians, and that just happened to be the one form of New England ethnic/racial hatred that I had not learned. But I knew what he meant. No wonder he found me distasteful. And recognizing the justice of his opinion of me didn’t change my opinion of him: that he was a pompous ass and an intellectual pretender.

At graduation, we had to sit through an incredibly boring commencement speech about the glories of capitalism (I’m not making this up). I hadn’t wanted to attend graduation, but my parents insisted. Since they had paid for a third of my college degree, I knew they deserved something for their investment, so I bought the robe and the funny hat and sat there through the boring ceremony. We had been instructed that when it came our turn to walk across the stage and receive our diploma, we were supposed to shake the hand of the college president first, then take our diploma from his other hand. I grabbed the diploma first, then shook his hand — I wasn’t taking a chance on them yanking it away from me at the last minute on some pretext or another.

A couple of footnotes: After failing miserably in that oral exam, I was asked to apply for the department prize in philosophy by submitting a list of books I had read on my own, outside of coursework, during my final two years of college. It was an impressively long list, and I got the prize — a gift certificate for $40 worth of books (worth $120 in 2022 dollars). Those books probably were worth more to me than honors, because after graduation I spent 12 years in the residential construction business where no one cared if I went to college, let alone whether I got honors or not. And I met a fair number of former philosophy majors working construction who didn’t use their degrees, either.


Ed died this morning, peacefully in his sleep. Here’s a picture of him when he was 32, sitting next to his four year old daughter:

Man sitting at a picnic table looking at a young girl next to him.

His daughter doesn’t like this photo. She said: no one should be allowed to give little girls hair cuts like that. But since she never looks at this blog, I can get away with posting this. I think it’s a nice father-daughter photo.

Different way of thinking

Recently, I got introduced to two new ways of thinking.

First, I’ve been taking ukulele lessons. My teacher gave me a transcription of part of the Largo movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. As I play through that, it feels like my brain is being rewired. (“Rewired” is actually not the correct way to describe whatever is going on, but that metaphor — thinking as electronics — is common these days, so I’ll stick with it.) Or, more precisely, it’s not just my brain that’s being rewired: it’s my brain, my fingers, my ears and eyes — all of which are part of thinking — these are all being rewired.

Second, Carol’s father mentioned ones’ complement arithmetic. That sounded interesting, so I looked it up. On the CodeKraft blog, I found a good explanation of why ones’ complement arithmetic is useful. Then the Wikipedia article on ones’ complement provides a few good examples of how it works. This form of arithmetic is rewiring my brain in several interesting ways. The concept of signed zero is pretty interesting, though it doesn’t rewire my brain quite as much as, for example, when I learned about transfinite numbers.

I don’t know about you, but I feel as though I actually need to learn new and different ways of thinking. It keeps me fresh. Perhaps this is why I like improving my intercultural competence: this is another way to learn how to think in different ways.


This coming Sunday is the day when we switch to Daylight Savings Time — and lose an hour of sleep. So I decided to do a service all about sleep. I found several poems about sleep that I’m going to use. But I’m also going to work in a passage from the Nevi’im, the minor prophets in the Hebrew Bible — the famous passage in Joel 2:28, which is translated in the King James Version as “…your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions…” As someone who can now be called an “old man” (I’m certainly no longer middle aged), I tend to prefer the International Standard Version (ISV) translation, except I use the word “elders” in place of the ISV’s “elderly people” as a term of greater respect:

Your sons and your daughters will prophesy.
Your elders will dream dreams,
and your young people will see visions.

As a Transcendentalist, I’ve had my share of both dreams and visions. I no longer see much of a difference between them. Martin Luther King, Jr., said he had a dream: a realizable, albeit distant, hope for a more just future. But isn’t that a vision, too? Both dreams and visions can be overpowering. Both can arise while we’re asleep, so that when we wake we know what we must do.

(P.S.: While it has nothing to do with this blog post, I can’t resist mentioning one of my favorite pieces of music about sleep [which won’t be part of Sunday’s service]: Thomas Morley, “O Sleep”.)