Tonight I wrote two events on my calendar: a birthday party and a baptism. They will be sanitized, scaled-down gatherings — and they will be fun — but still, it pained me to sully those blank boxes with black ink.
This stay-at-home and do-not-overschedule-your-family mandate has been a balm to my soul.
I’m not the only one.
My backyard neighbors used to keep the busiest schedule. Between dance, hockey and lacrosse, the logistics of their Saturdays were dizzying. They always felt it was justified, especially when their oldest made the varsity dance team as an eighth grader.
Only an outside force, like a thunderbolt from God or an order from the governor, would bring an end to all their activities. And when it did, they were surprised by what they discovered: being home together is wonderful!
The five of them set a schedule and stuck to it. The preteens learned how to manage their time, how to cook and how to exist without their friends. They looked forward to nightly movies, riveted by “The Hunger Games” series.
“This is the best thing that ever happened to us,” the mom told me.
My next-door neighbor made new discoveries too. For one, he actually likes to sit in the long-empty Adirondack chair on his front porch. Reading the paper and watching the kids in the cul-de-sac — “reality TV,” he quipped — provides plenty of entertainment.
When nothing else normal happened, spring still came, as if for the first time. Our neighborhood hit the trails in full force, swapping routes in passing and occasionally crossing in the woods.
“Five miles!” a dad would call out.
When you couldn’t go anywhere else — churches were closed, even playgrounds were cordoned off — you could still walk in the woods. So we did, religiously.
Henry David Thoreau would approve. One of his most famous essays, published in The Atlantic in June 1862, was titled “Walking.” In language that is at once plain and snappy — and, hence, feels fresh today — he extols the “noble art” of walking.
“It requires a direct dispensation from heaven to become a walker,” Thoreau writes. “It comes only by the grace of God.”
Though many people go on walks, he notes, very few possess “a genius, so to speak, for sauntering.” He goes on to explain the word’s origin. When pilgrims in the Middle Ages were heading to the Holy Land, village people would inquire about their destination. The reply: “a la sainte terre,” French for “to the Holy Land.” And so, the pilgrims became known as sainteterrers — saunterers.
The effect of sauntering is not merely physical, Thoreau writes: “There will be so much the more air and sunshine in our thoughts.”
He concludes with one of his most quoted lines, an observation I have been reflecting on in the age of COVID: “In short, all good things are wild and free.”
I can think of nothing more wild and free than family and faith. The rest, the pandemic taught us, is secondary.
We don’t need to celebrate a birthday with a big party at a splashy complex. The sweetest gift is the chance to spend the day with those you love the most.
We don’t need a gym to exercise. We don’t need restaurants to eat well. We don’t need a vast circle to socialize. Family is enough. When all we have is each other, we have all of each other.
Just as surely as the quarantine healed our wounded earth, it healed the fractured family. Finally, we get to be together, enjoying all of each other, sauntering toward the holy land.