As I write, I have received news that the schools in our state have been closed for several weeks in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. By taking prudent steps to protect the most vulnerable members of society, I pray that very few of us will actually fall ill with this sickness. Our normal routines will suffer from interruptions – and my heart breaks for the canceled weddings and the grandmothers who can’t travel to hold their new grand babies – but for most of us life will, we pray, go on.
We have a rare opportunity here, to focus on a life of quiet reflection and service. For once, the whole world can see the immediate impact of simply staying at home and caring for the people nearest us. The sacrifices that we make in lost opportunities and business are directly protecting others, and the weeks we will spend cooped up with our families will model for them how to carry on in the face of adversity.
For most of us, the most effective way to fight this evil will be simply by keeping order: making our beds and serving hot meals, praying two Hail Marys for our friends and neighbors as we wash our hands yet again, and treating others with patience during a lengthy confinement. And, of course, reading.
It sounds pointless, doesn’t it? Reading stories when disaster strikes sounds a bit like the proverbial fiddler making music while Rome burned. But stories are about to prove their true worth. Come now; you’ve read The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia (and if you haven’t, you know now how to spend the next three weeks). What do regular people do when confronted with difficulties? They do what is necessary, and more: they preserve what is good, and prove that life is worth living.
Our children our watching our response to this crisis. We’ve read them the stories that inspire us to goodness, and now is the time to write our own. Show them how we can help our neighbors by staying in and praying. Model patience when nerves start getting frayed. Seize on this chance to make pancakes together, to read stories or build something out of Lincoln Logs. Sing songs, set a pretty table, and maybe tackle a bit of spring cleaning. Revel in this chance to serve and pray, and consider what daily customs keep your home grounded and lovely. Perform them – it’s not a waste of time! – and use the coming weeks to carve something beautiful with your time.
Both reassuringly and terrifyingly, the earth continues to revolve around the sun no matter what is happening on her surface. The seasons continue to change with those familiar markers of time. And so, let’s carry on with the story of one family’s celebration of a sweet annual harvest.
It’s still cold at night in this neck of the woods, but stronger daytime sunlight has set the sap running in the maple trees. Seeing the lines and buckets hanging from the trees is a common sight around here, but if you’ve never been lucky enough to take part in this uniquely North American activity you’ll want to check out Sugarbush Spring by Marsha Wilson Chall and illustrated by Jim Daly.
The story is simple: a little girl helps her grandparents tap their sugar maple trees and boil the sap down into syrup. The narration is thoughtful and descriptive, sharing not only the intimate details of an old-fashioned (yet current) family sugaring, but also the concentrated sweetness of family traditions. One generation patiently passes on its wisdom to the next in a hearty rendering of this seasonal labor.
Daly’s crystal-clear paintings are a remarkable complement to the text, together describing all sorts of wonderful details: from that spring-like melty feeling to the bright sparkle of freshly washed mason jars. The use of horses and the shine of Grandma’s kitchen smacks of nostalgia, but not in an unrealistic way. I know several families who work with horses and tap their own trees; and while it may be rare, this depiction is not inauthentic. Rather, it’s an aspiration; a reclamation for those of us who cherish simple family rhythms.
I commend this book to you, and hope that you will be well enough to take charge of this quarantine. May it be a fruitful exercise in humility and love this Lent.
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