There was a window on a quiet street in South Carolina with its shutters wide open, light spilling onto the dark, green lawn. By the window sat a girl with long hair, wearing her mother’s borrowed clothes. Behind her there was a white blanket, strung up with a chip clip and some tape to hide the walls she painted purple when she was twelve years old. There was a little table across from her, topped with all seven Harry Potter books, a laptop teetering dangerously at the very top of the stack.
She and her friends were putting on a play.
Poet Maggie Smith writes, “The world is at least / fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative / estimate, though I keep this from my children.” When I imagine telling my children the story of this time, I get stuck first on the basics.
Well, you might not end up having kids, Liddy. And even if you do, they might not care much about your stories, after you and your friends used enough single-use plastics to melt all the ice caps.
But even if we are all living Jonas Brothers-style, underwater, I will have to tell the young people in my life about the year I finished college in my parents’ home, the year the world turned upside down.
Any good storyteller knows that you have to begin your story with the end in mind. And we just don’t know how this story ends yet.
I do know that right now, the world feels more like 95% terrible. There is nobody I know who is not grieving. The story I tell about all that we lost, all that we should never have lost, will depend largely on what happens in the coming months. Will the structures that were never just or fair in the first place keep people safe? Will we listen to teachers and prophets when they tell us what they need? Will we see ourselves as individuals, or as parts of a collective whole–one that is incomplete when any of our neighbors are locked away in prisons, silenced in abusive places, or, lacking the support and care they need, left to die?
I am not as hopeful as I used to be. Neither is Maggie Smith. But she doesn’t tell her kids that: “I am trying / to sell them the world. Any decent realtor, / walking you through a real shithole, chirps on / about good bones: This place could be beautiful, / right? You could make this place beautiful.”
I don’t know how the story ends yet. But I do know about the girl and the window, the blanket strung up with a chip clip and the laptop teetering on a stack of her favorite books. I do have a story to tell to the next generation about her: a story full of the kind of little, mundane details that make up life under quarantine, that make up life itself.
You see, kiddos, I always loved being on stage, even if I was just in the background. But this play was special. It was written by this incredible person, and all eight of the people acting in it were women! (I know that doesn’t seem like a big deal, now, but back then, people still thought you needed boys to make things interesting.) These eight characters were all so funny and smart, each unique and multi-layered. So were the people who played them. I thought I couldn’t make new friends in my last year of college, but I was so wrong. You can always make new friends.
And when my friends and I all went home and stayed home, that didn’t stop us from making something beautiful.
You’ll laugh when I tell you how much trouble we had with delays and glitches and muting and un-muting. How silly we sounded trying to sing together. But I promise you, we still said our lines like we’d practiced, still laughed at the jokes and held our breath at the hard parts. At the end we all applauded, gave each other “high fives,” and made our hands into little hearts.
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Yes, I loved being on stage, but whenever my choir director tried to get me to sing by myself, even just in rehearsal, I always refused. “I joined a choir for a reason!” During the holiest week of the year, for my faith and for many faiths, I heard for the first time how my voice sounded when I sang my favorite hymns as solos. Somebody hundreds of miles away was playing the organ in one of my very favorite buildings, and I was singing quietly along, alone, as the sky outside my open window got darker and darker.
This was a time when I would start crying whenever I sat still for too long, so while the people I loved gathered in that place I loved to remember a story I loved, I listened along, and kept my hands busy turning old pillowcases into face masks. (Usually you should pay attention during any kind of service or ceremony, munchkins, but these were special days.)
All the chalices that would normally hold communion wine were empty, all the pews that would normally hold people were empty. Empty like the place I was supposed to be sleeping. Empty like a tomb 2000 years ago. So I cut, ironed, measured, pinned, sewed, the white starchy cloth like graveclothes, like salvation.
That’s the thing, dears. When things are really hard, sometimes your world shrinks down to what you have right in front of you. Fabric: hot from ironing, firm from amateur stitching. Yarn: soft in your hand, woven into something new. Dirt: cold and wet, packed gently around the roots of new seedlings. Batter: sweet and delicious, licked ravenously off the spoon. Groceries: delivered to grandparents, chatting six feet apart on a porch. Food: cooking on the grill, while your family danced around the driveway to Sonny and Cher. Letters: written in friends’ familiar handwriting. Faces, voices: present, even though they’re so far away.
There’s an end to this story, but we don’t have to get to it right now. What I want you to know, loves, is that when things are really bad–and sometimes they’re really bad–people can still make things. Things can still grow. I’m telling you, there was so much more bread than there was before! And people gathered at their windows, on their balconies, to applaud at the sky, to make music together.
There were bells in that building I loved so much. Somebody came in every day to ring them, even though almost nobody could hear them. I can’t tell you how it made me feel, to know that those bells were still ringing.
See, sweethearts? Even this place can be beautiful.
You could make this place beautiful.
Liddy Grantland is a Trinity senior who credits her baby fever solely to this amazing song. Her column, feel your feelings, runs on alternate Tuesdays.