I’ve never been so glad to lose a child. If only they could give you this feeling on graduation day or move-in day, a feeling where what is happening matches what you are actually feeling. Maybe it is the quarantine, or the disease, that has brought my heart to its knees. Or the long months of cancelled life, so very unnatural. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, Ellie is leaving. Stranger still, Ellie has somewhere to go. Her beloved Camp Hanover, like so many residential camps in the time of Covid-19, has closed for the summer. Done and gone. But then, almost in the same breath they released an idea that surely came to someone in the middle of the night on the wings of prayer: The Isaiah 40 project. Brilliant. Here is the description of the program off their website and, if I can manage it, a video is attached. On it, Ellie’s voice introduces what will be the next 11 weeks of her summer, and among the more transformative weeks of her life.
The Isaiah 40 Project is an opportunity during this unprecedented summer to practice love of God, neighbor, and self at Camp Hanover. For 10-11 weeks, participants will establish an intentional community focused on service, spiritual growth, and personal development. Service may include grounds-keeping, painting, cleaning, gardening, animal care, trail maintenance, demolition, light construction/repair, leading alternative summer programs, and other community service. In the evenings, team members will share a meal and spend time in devotion and leadership development. The schedule will also include times of sabbath and worship. Living arrangements and work assignments will be coordinated with best practices for health and risk mitigation in light of COVID-19.
You don’t often hear the word “light” in the same sentence with this disease, which for months has brought darkness and isolation. But I believe there will be a lot of it. For one, Ellie’s name means light, and as a baby, it was her first recognizable word. Two, this is a brilliant idea, a viable solution to the CDC and governor’s orders and every other restriction out there that begs the obvious question: how do you do “socially distant” residential summer camp for children? Can you even imagine? Hiking would be okay, so long as no one stumbled or needed a leg up. But campfires? Cabin chats? Canoeing? The mud pit in a mask? What is more “body-in” than a bunch of eight-year-old boys on a campout–a world federation Jello wrestling match maybe, but it’s close.
This project, announced weeks ago in the midst of every “no,” was our first recognizable joy. The first possibility that something could be restored and even hope to approximate its fallen original. This one well might have. In any case, it is exciting to ponder after she submits the application, is contacted from her hospital bed (appendectomy, last month’s adventure), and then Zoom interviewed when she gets home. An “intentional” community with loads of manual labor “focused on service” shared by small team who comes together in the evenings and–because of Covid-19–a certain measure of “just don’t know” and “adapt as you go” call for creativity and adaptability? HELLOOO — college girl here. Sure enough, she is just the sort of candidate they are looking for. Now, two weeks and an emergency room visit resulting in surgery later, I can’t believe we made it to this day. I feel almost victorious, defiant. Take that, you %$#@! disease. Stripped of every fun thing for months and now, this mainway to hope. To life. The thank you, Lord leaks out of me like breath and sometimes tears.
Up to this day I wanted to put her in a glass jar and keep her safe, germ free and unbroken. My whole being is on quarantine, afraid to live, move or have our being before she gets her answer. Before she goes. Sophie asks to go to the beach with friends and I explain the situation–like I want to nail the rest of us into our upstairs bedrooms for fear of anyone else bringing it in. All us air sharers who can’t even agree on a family movie: notice, it is joy and disaster that connect us, at our core. The rest of the days, some of them, like you are providing free rent to strangers plucked off Craigs List. I tell you what. One bad thing, my daughter, could pull us all over the edge. Didn’t you see the rope? Just as, now, one good thing will lift us all to soar. And soar we will. We made it and she is leaving, taking with her all that goodwill, can-do and helpfulness that a project such as this will need. But not her toothbrush. That I will have to mail.
For the first two weeks they will live in isolation. Even more than Thoreau-boy in our backyard, I gather. Each of the seven will have their own cabin, their own table in the dining hall (seats 10) and their own sofa on “couch porch.” Remember the last time any of them ate in this dining hall it would have been teeming with 250 noisy, sweaty campers clattering trays and silverware. Now these young adults will sit like silent islands unto themselves. Putting the word experiment right up on the table with socially distant. As we are all learning in this new “re-opening” time, viewing is not the same as visiting. Even Zoom preserved the distance and therefore eliminated the decisions. I don’t know about you, but have you chatted with a neighbor from 20 feet away, had lunch with a friend you’re used to hugging and touching, been around people whose personal space could hold a small parked car? Serving up some serious awkward these days. Fussing with the placement of a facemask and praying your invisible force field extending from you six feet in every direction will hold, for their sake and yours. These are some strange times. Seven of them on 600 acres, they will have quite a personal spread. Their work jobs will be solo–part chain gang, part parallel play, part infectious disease. Got my bug spray, my pillow, and m’ hazmat suit. Did they ever in a million years think to add “M-95 mask” to the packing list? On the YouTube videos we can see Ellie in the woods, clearing a trail, picking up sticks and brush, hoeing in a garden, masked and apart. They say this is holy ground, as each Christian community has one: Holy in the sense of “Take off your sandals for the place you are standing is holy ground.” Holy in the sense of set apart. But I know as truly and deeply as the realization dawns: not this sort of apart.
After the two weeks are up they will come together in one house and one group to live out the summer as a “quarantine community” — no one leaves and no one comes in. But also — no masks and no distance. Only the “socially” left standing. What does it look like? Hugging. What does it sound like? Singing. What does it feel like. Family. When you live with adolescents and young adults for that brief gulp before jumping, the world is constantly besting the family and its meagre offerings. It is outgrown, outmoded, at best a worn-out relic in the young person’s drive to autonomy. Maybe they are kind to it, patting it on the head on their way out the door, or maybe they kick or shun it in full-blown rebellion, either way it slips from the top of the list. If you raise some independent souls, maybe it doesn’t have far to fall. But with the pandemic, and the hunker-down, world-a-threat for weeks on end, the family got dusted off and restored. In the rubble of our times: Look! Here’s one. Will this work? Is that Sophie girl at my dinner table??! Why, I haven’t seen her in months! Second child, blur-girl whose most permanent mode these past two years was “just on my way out.” Now someone bigger than us has cranked her dial to “here.” And “wow, still here.” When it goes to “here indefinitely” this mother’s heart mourns with her, for though it is nice it is surely not natural. She was the ghost of the upstairs. Still is, preferring her room, but now there are vestiges, passing glimpses, and all-out pauses of her at the dinner table, coming to help me fix supper, or even playing a card game afterward. For several weeks I have pinned all three to their empty plates with a read-aloud time. What is this?! Does an adult child even know how to push back but not get up from the table immediately after dinner? Yes, be still. Last time this family read aloud with all of them in the same room? Well, as Will is more than four years younger than Sophie, maybe never.
In quarantine she comes back into focus gradually. I see the outline and the limbs first, and then as more of her is spent here she fills in….I get to relearn and re-see. Her face. Her smile. Her scowl as you say/do/suggest/breathe a thought displeasing to her. Gives a whole new meaning to “Learn at Home.” It is like a parents’ remediation, a time with my grown and gone people I never thought I’d get, not in my wildest dreams. Maybe because I am not prone to particularly wild dreams, accepting what comes and trying to make the best of it. (Okay, then, family for one? I’ll take it.) When Ellie graduated two years ago, on a high as high as this summer has been low, I remember thinking —finally. Now we would be that postcard family of four, coming and going as one, fitting more comfortably in the car that would carry us to such fun family adventures –hiking and camping and visiting historic Virginia sites and expensive outdoor adventures. While others were mourning the breach of the family, created when a first-born moves away, the “never again” of the nest-keeper, I felt a small relief that I wouldn’t have to struggle so hard. We never got that time. Second daughter slipped out while the door was still open. Licensed that summer before the ink had dried on her hourly driving log, she was gone. Tell you what. I have not cleaned many closets this quarantine. I have not taken up Ukulele, origami, needlecraft or learned a new recipe or done more than pass by a silent piano and left it mute. But I have certainly learned a new skill: Family.
Family. The only institution made stronger by its attrition. Ellie is ecstatic. Her camp is closed in a way that is wholly open and new. She knows the people coming, has worked with each of them in different capacities in summers past. It is the biggest “Yeah, but” I’ve heard so far that stands against the disease and its constant threat, its big black marker over the calendar of our lives. I listened to the “Why not?” of her sister’s beach trip, which seems so much on the fast track to disaster that the beach they are going to is called Corolla. For real??! I’ve heard the “Virus?? What virus?” shrugs of the unmasked people at the grocery store or lined up outside Home Depot, but this is the first response to the situation that humbles itself before a very real health threat and offers a responsible alternative to hermetic isolation and xenophobia, two new outfits I’ve frankly been trying on that fit me quite well. But, no…this cannot be. Life forever changed cannot paralyze forever. Ask the colleges, already studying the broken pieces for what new thing they will build. Slowly, this startling camp project rouses me from day-less stupor and tugs me gently away from denial. There will be light. Let there be. They will go back to school in the fall. Dorms will open. People will work all summer to make college campus an experiment in strange new light. UVA welcome packets each will contain two “personal masks” and a vat-sized jug of hand sanitizer. I’ve been so busy staying alive from it I haven’t wanted to live with it.
Standing in the gravel parking lot at camp, Ellie gives and receives her last hug for a while. I, the grateful recipient. My girl. She is slow in leave-taking and already exudes that “intentional” calm the project calls for. Must be a strange thing, for a girl who as a tot took forever to leave the pool because she had to hug everyone goodbye. Everyone. Her physicality was part of her being and her communion. She could barely swim, so she would just sort of float about and try to propel herself into random strangers’ swim space to tell them “goodbye” and give them a hearty embrace. Without the hugs, I know for a little while she will be emotionally mute, a handicap she will compensate for with words, and soon, with looks from behind a mask. They all will, this intentional community. You can do a lot of living with your eyes.
I will miss this girl as I do every summer, but now with an added reservoir of gratitude. No more bumbling over back roads to retrieve her on a Wednesday night off so she can come for dinner and I can carry her back late the same night. No more sneaking on to campus with a surprise care package and a hope to glimpse our girl in action. There’s no barbed wire circling the grounds as I drive her in, but I know in my heart she is gone to us. Eleven weeks. Has been since they put this proposal out there and asked, How would you like– … You know how the world is closing down? How would you like to close down with us, in this most open embrace of God’s provision? It’s dramatic, no doubt, but driving away without her I feel a little of that “Ellis Island” emotion I told you about. Girl going on ahead, rising up from the ruins of our current life with a situation that is safer, better, certainly whole-r than the one she leaves. That is what feeds a parent even more than their company.
She came to us three months ago today, off a plane from her grandmother’s whirlwind girls’ weekend that kicked off spring break. Unfortunately, somebody kicked a little too hard and spring break never ended. I remember being excited with news that we would have her a few extra days while her college figured out what to do. I don’t know who threw what transpired on the table, but it was a preposterous plan. College girl, sophomore, on the cusp of all her good, now relegated to remote learning from her old bedroom. But she did it. She jigsaw puzzled and pounded out papers and she found new projects and powered her academic life by laptop. She powered our home with grace. It was extended to all of us, and I am a grateful recipient.
An Eagle, like a hawk and most raptors, is a solitary bird. You don’t see them in pairs like swans or flocks like geese. When they soar, their air space seems entirely created for them alone. It’s actually a strange choice of themes for this new project at camp. Why uphold the solo or emphasize the majestic heights one can soar alone? The eagle is hardly an image of family or corporate living. So I am curious about the mis-fit between the description of the project and its chosen credo. I once saw a bald eagle in the wild, soaring (is there another verb?) over a cornfield in rural Virginia. The reality struck me first with wonder (Could that be…? Is it really?), then with awe, the slow certainty of its aerial circles like it was scribing time itself with majesty and grace, a supernatural presence and an assurance of the highest order. When you see something that rare and spectacular, you don’t question it, so much as you question yourself: Where am I? Am I really here? Is this really happening? And with the awe comes the strength to go on.
Here, then, is what the Isaiah community at camp this summer will share: an assurance that our weakened, watered-down living in quarantine and stumbling along is not reason to faint. That fear and despair will not prevail. If you read the beloved words of Isaiah more closely, it’s there: Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. The metaphor, beautiful and eternal as it is, is just that: a metaphor. Like or as will never occupy the essence of that to which it is compared. Once again, a slight grammatical underpinning that makes all the difference. So, those “wings” are “like” eagles and they function as powerfully “as” an eagle’s, but the strength and hope and they bring does not come from a bird. Rather, with hope we will be granted the sensation of soaring like an eagle, on whose wings we can be sure: His.
ISAIAH 40: 1-31
1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD ; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. 5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” 6 A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. 7 The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.” 9 You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. 11 He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young. 12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance? 13 Who can fathom the Spirit of the LORD, or instruct the LORD as his counselor? 14 Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge, or showed him the path of understanding? 15 Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust. 16 Lebanon is not sufficient for altar fires, nor its animals enough for burnt offerings. 17 Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing. 18 With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him? 19 As for an idol, a metalworker casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it. 20 A person too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot; they look for a skilled worker to set up an idol that will not topple. 21 Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded? 22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. 23 He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing. 24 No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, than he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff. 25 “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One. 26 Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. 27 Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God”? 28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. 29 He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. 30 Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; 31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.