The Old Church Pew….

“You are my refuge and my shield; I have put my hope in your word.”
~Psalm 119:14

Directly across the street from Ground Zero in New York City is St. Paul’s church.  An Episcopal church that was built in 1764 and is the oldest surviving church in Manhattan.

On September 11, 2001, as the towers fell, the church stood its ground.  Not a single pane of glass in the sanctuary was broken.  Not a single headstone in the cemetery was damaged.  Only one tree fell; a giant sycamore almost a century old.

In the days and then months that followed, St. Paul’s served as a relief site for emergency workers.  It stayed open 24 hours a day, seven days a week for eight months, providing food and rest and a sanctuary for moments of silence and prayer for hundreds of firefighters, police officers, volunteers and other rescue workers.

In 2006, I visited New York City with a group of girlfriends.  We hadn’t specifically planned to visit the site where the Twin Towers had once stood.  It had been less than five years since the attack.  The New York City Medical Examiners office had only recently ceased their efforts to identify remains.  And we didn’t want to be tourists there.

But one afternoon, as we were walking around the city near Battery Park, we ended up close to the site.  Though, it really couldn’t be missed.  The size of the devastation was staggering.

Then, we saw St. Paul’s church, perfectly intact, stoic like, defiant, amidst so much destruction.

It was clear the church was open and so my friends and I made our way toward it.  We walked around the grounds for a while and then we entered the chapel.  Inside were dozens of displays and memorials honoring those lost in the attacks.

After walking the perimeter of the church, we took a seat in one of the pews and a woman approached.

“See all these markings?” she asked, pointing to the large scrapes that rang the length of each pew.  “Those were caused by the boots and belts worn by emergency personnel who came in to rest.”

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I ran my hand along the markings and was overwhelmed by the weight of what those pews had held.  They had served as a place for so many tired bodies to rest and refuel….and for tired souls to pray and hope and cry and rage.

Sitting in St. Paul’s that day, I thought about the hundreds of people from New York and all over the country and all over the world, even, who had come into the chapel in the wake of September 11.  Many religions and faiths were represented in that church, as well as non-believers.   And they sat alongside one another, united in grief and fear and disbelief and anger and hope and love.

It always seems that in the immediate wake of a tragedy, we see the best of humankind.  Strangers helping one another, consoling one another, praying together, making sacrifices for each other and so on and so on.  And we do it regardless of race, religion, gender, or political affiliation.

I think that when it matters most, when we are called, really called to be good humans, we answer the call.  We rush towards those places and people who need us to help in whatever way we can.  Some rush directly to the front lines to offer their skills, others rush to places of worship, or into groups/organizations that are lending their support from afar.  We rush to family and friends.  We organize and we pray together and we just be together and we embrace one another, strangers and family and friends alike.

I was in college on September 11,2001 and later that afternoon, as we students wandered through the day in a dazed fog, I remember being in the dining hall that was unusually quiet as we picked at our food, going through the motions.  Then, another student whose name I didn’t know and still don’t know, stood up and said,“Would anyone like to pray with me?  

And we did.  The dining hall full of students, believers and non, stood and we held hands in a large circle.  He led a very short prayer, followed by silence, in which we prayed across our own denominations and faiths and beliefs.  I wasn’t sure if I felt God in that circle, but I certainly felt a steadying and comforting energy as I shared that intimate moment with people who were otherwise just passerby’s in my life.

A year or so ago, I purchased an old church pew from a large, beautiful church in a small rural town in Maine.  The church had been sold and was being renovated into a mixed use space for the community.  I wandered the aisles of the church inspecting the pews, all of which were still affixed to the sanctuary floor, until I found the one that spoke to me.  Then, I brought it home.

The story about those pews in St. Paul’s church had stayed with me and I loved the idea of bringing something into my home that I think represents a part of what makes us great; the coming together for a shared purpose or passion.

For the last several weeks, we’ve been again watching as New York City, the current epicenter of the pandemic in the US, suffers.  This time though, we’ve been watching from our own communities that are also under siege and we can’t rush anywhere.  Not to one another, or to the places that feel familiar and safe.  We can’t congregate to hold one another up and together.

The comforting energy created when we are able to be together, that urge to connect with touch (a hug, a pat on the back, a handshake, a handhold) is palpable.  Our impulse to rush is as innate as breathing and in our most desperate moments we are, for each other, like those pews in St. Paul’s chapel; holding one another up, offering one another a place to rest.  Together, we help carry the weight of our collective grief and anger and we share our hope and joy.

This experience has left many, myself included, feeling disconnected and alone, even in homes where we aren’t technically alone.  I’m fortunate to be isolated with my husband and our son, for which, I am incredibly grateful.  But still, I miss the casual connections that tether us to community and the broader experience of being a human.  Right now, it feels as though my small family and I are an island of our own.  It feels tenuous, fragile.

In what was normal life, I am as introverted as a person can possibly be, but I have come to realize, in all this, how deeply connected to people I actually am.  How simple, natural, day to day interactions with strangers and friends and acquaintances and neighbors…. interactions I was never even fully cognizant were happening….have always been tiny little strings connecting me to an enormous community.  I’ve come to understand that although I have often said, I enjoy being alone, I need alone time….I have rarely been truly alone.

Of course, true to our nature, we are finding new and beautiful ways in all this to rush to one another, to hold one another up and together.  However, I don’t think anything can replace what happens when we are able to literally close the distance between us.

I hope that when this is over, we have a greater appreciation for one another in every way.  I hope we are softer and gentler and more patient.  I hope the slowing down of life gives us a fresh perspective about what it means to be alive and a part of something far greater than just ourselves.

I think it would be a shame if we simply fell right back into the exact same lives we lived before we were given this opportunity to stop and reflect.  Yes, opportunity.

Because I do think there is room, in all this madness, to consider that it includes a gift or two….

Valentine’s Day Isn’t For Everyone….

“All you need is love.  But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” ~Charles M. Shulz  

So, my son is now a first grade and I’ve learned that a lot has changed since I made my way through the public school system.

I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s when people didn’t care all that much about your feelings, so this whole, everybody get’s a Valentine thing is new to me.

When I was in elementary school, I loved Valentine’s Day.  I spent days preparing my tacky Valentine’s box with construction paper hearts, feathers, stickers and paper doilies.

On Valentine’s Day, we placed our boxes on our desks and walked around our classroom depositing Valentines and treats into the boxes of our friends and our enemies?  Well, they could go right on ahead and choke on a box of those chalky conversation hearts for all we cared.

Personally,  I never gave a Valentine to a kid named Olin who had a harelip.  Not because of the harelip, but because he cut a chunk out of my hair in Kindergarten and I never let go of a grudge.

I also refused to deposit a Valentine into the box of a kid named Bobby, who used to pick his nose and wipe it on all the girls.  To this day, anyone with the name Bobby makes me want to vomit.

I spent years campaigning to blacklist a girl named Roberta, who beat me up, EVERY DAY, on the playground in second grade.  That is, until I told my gramma, who arrived at the school one afternoon during dismissal and confronted Roberta using a variety of clever obscenities none of us really understood, but delighted in repeating whenever possible.

Example:  “If you ever lay a finger on my granddaughter again you hussy, I will kick your ass so far up around your neck, you’ll have to spread your butt cheeks to sneeze!”

Not only could we exclude our classmates, but because nobody actually looked at the Valentine’s we were passing out, we were free to send hate mail too.

I got a few and I gave a few.

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In middle school, we gave up the Valentine boxes and instead we got to purchase candy heart lollipops for fifty-cents in the cafeteria, to be delivered, with a note, to anyone we chose.

Throughout the week of Valentine’s Day, our classes would be disrupted by a knock at the door and the candy courier would walk in and announce who the lucky recipient was. Which of course made the rest of us feel like ugly, unlovable ducklings.

My friends and I sent candy hearts to one another, but mostly I sent them to myself and claimed they were from a secret admirer. I wanted the candy and I wanted to make the other girls jealous.

I also sent one to my seventh grade science teacher, because he was smokin’ hot for a middle-aged science teacher and I hoped to woo him away from his wife and kids, apparently.

In high school, candy hearts were replaced with single stem roses. The concept played out the same way. The roses were purchased for a dollar and delivered throughout the school day. Tables were set up before school, in the hallways between classes and during lunch, allowing ample opportunity for rose purchases.

Girls with boyfriends ended the school day with a dozen roses by final bell. Girls without boyfriends told everyone it was because those girls put out….because it was really the only way to save face when walking through the dismissal crowd without a single rose.

Honestly, all of it sucked. There were years in elementary school when my friends and I got into huge fights over Barbies and who got to be the teacher when we played school. We teamed up against one another and if Valentine’s Day happened to fall during a rumble, things could get ugly.

“Nobody give a Valentine to Laura….she’s bossy and she’s got a knock off Cabbage Patch.”

In middle school and high school, the number of candy heart lollipops and roses you received were symbols of how popular and well liked you were compared to others. Clearly, there was something wrong with you if NOBODY thought you worthy of fifty-cents or a dollar.

So, I think it’s better that kids these days are expected to spread kindness equally on Valentine’s Day.

They’ll have plenty of time as adults to be biter and cynical when the day ends without a bouquet and takeout for one.

And by then, they can acquire alcohol.

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