Don’t let the pandemic rob us of joyful traditions

We’re missing holiday closeness just when we need it most. But even grim, uncertain times can hold sparks of love and light.

ILLUSTRATION by ELENI KALORKOTI
Read Caption

For centuries, people around the globe have created miniature devotional objects often called “pocket shrines.” Most consist of a tiny vessel—a leather or cloth case, a wood or metal capsule, a matchbox, even a bullet casing—sheltering a statuette or image.

ILLUSTRATION by ELENI KALORKOTI
This story appears in the December 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Sometimes we let go of things, sometimes things are taken away, and sometimes things break, such as lives, hearts, entire ways of life. Doesn’t our world feel broken in the time of COVID-19, maybe especially when holy days arrive?

If we are wise, we avoid large gatherings, dinner indoors with family and old friends, services at our mosques, temples, churches—so we lose the joyful and profound rituals and gatherings at this time of devastation when we need them most. But does this mean we lose the nurture, bonding, and sacred silliness that ceremonies provide?

Maybe we can be fully immersed in the holy even as we keep ourselves and our beloveds safe. Maybe broken isn’t the end of the world. Maybe broken is a new beginning, a portal.

Let’s start with what we mean by “holy.”

The word derives from whole, uninjured, healthy, complete. I am not always feeling whole these days. Rather, I am often rattled, sad, mad, existentially tired, and crunchy. I would love a nice burning bush about now—but the holy doesn’t come only from the divine, as I understand it. It’s woven through life.

The holy is not a spectacle, the Rockettes on stage at the Taj Mahal backed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It is more often felt in small graces and blessings, although you do have to be paying attention to catch the momentousness of the moment. That’s the rub. It is around us, above us, below us, and inside us all the time. It’s here, but often we’re not.

Maybe our definition of holy and whole have to change. The early morning is holy. Holy is the warmth of the grocer or grandchild, or a bowl of homegrown tomatoes from the neighbor who once reported you on Nextdoor. I’m whole, -ish, older, slower, with a few dings.

Holy are the candles of the menorah or carolers, or a community bonfire. These days are about the coming of the light—warmth, illumination, life anew. The triumph of light over darkness, as in the Persian tradition of Yalda: gathering with loved ones by candlelight and firelight, reading poetry and telling stories—and the inevitable sacrament of eating special foods—to celebrate the longest night of the year. It’s called “the night of birth.” We are there now. It’s beautiful, and hard, as life so often is. Suffering is part of the beauty of the human drama. (I hate that.)

Finding what is sacred amid the loss might look like a wild spiritual awakening. It might be a secular return to the rituals your people have been performing for millennia—our peeps always did it, let’s do it too—or new DIY rites your loved ones create. (Sparklers, s’mores, and formal wear?)

All of these offer connection with the larger, truer world, with the ancient, with timelessness and the luminous now. Rituals fill our souls and tummies. They distract, refocus, enliven. (Kids need holiday traditions—no matter how untraditional this year is)

But what if there’s only you and a few others, a couple of whom exhaust you?

Everything—our whole system of life, family, travel—has ground to a halt. So if broken is what we’ve got, where do we begin the repairs?

One possible solution is how the ancient Japanese repaired broken pottery with gold along the mended spots. You dishonor things if you won’t admit they are broken. You value them by repairing them. The gold edging adds to the broken things’ beauty. You adorn the cracks so now they really show. (And as Leonard Cohen reminds us, that’s how the light gets in.)

The world is broken. What is the gold?

On the visible level, the gold is appreciation that comes from paying attention with gratitude to what is left: We praise the big things, the gifts of life, love, nature. But don’t forget nice windows, your books, the curated strew of stuff that hooks us into memories and people. I raise my eyes not only to the mountains and stars but to my living room beams, to the view outside the windows. I savor the fresh air when I open them; it’s the breath of the house. All these expand me. And I savor Oreos instead of the double chocolate death cake Becca brings to holidays.

Still, I long for my beloved communities, my family, the singing and sacred silence of church, the motley crowd of people who’ve joined us for dinner forever. I’m homesick for touch. I miss celebrations, good vibrations in the midst of grim times, and even loud celebratory noises. Loud noises scare off bad spirits. More than anything, I miss skin.

But we cannot fly anywhere or even drive to our cousin’s hunting lodge or mobile home.

Left to my own devices, I am steeped in dread. But I am not left to my own devices: I have friends and an imagination. Since COVID-19, I first imagined us as our own planets. We could holy up our homes, with our cranky selves and those we’re quarantined with, who can wear on our last nerve. (I am not going to name names.) But that was too large a canvas for me in my current condition. So I imagined my home as one of those glittery matchboxes friends have given me over the years, with Mother Mary on the cover, or Frida Kahlo, containing emblems of hope and faith: packets of healing dirt from Chimayo, an origami crane, a spray of dried bluebells, a heart.

Then I made altars around the house. Feathers to remind us of flight, weightlessness, grace. A mini scroll with one line of scripture, from Woodstock-era peace activist Wavy Gravy: “Dare to struggle, dare to grin.” And something from the beach that has been tossed and churned, brought to beauty by turbulence.

We can make an altar on the island in the kitchen—which, if you’re like me, is where we find ourselves most often—or in an actual portable matchbox.

Life wants to keep reminding us of its sacred self, but we have to open our eyes and hearts. Yes, our hair looks like hell, and we’re out of shape, and dislike our mate, and shouldn’t have had children, but God, what a sunset. And I so appreciate the roof over my head. There is an exuberant patch of poppies and weeds outside in the rocky dirt. The poppies are lanterns: light over darkness, good over evil. Light your lantern with self-love. Shine.

We can’t feel many people’s warm skin, but we have the scarf that Emmy knit, the cap Granddad left us, our first toolbox that an uncle assembled for our eighth birthday even though we were a girl. These are as sacred as the statues and tapestries we would see in mosques, temples, Zendos, ashrams. We leave them around, to remember love.

It goes without saying that we put up photos of the people we love and miss: The connection is so deep, deeper than the physical, and contact, so much deeper than on the plane of talk. It is in the fullness of spirit, the capillary system, the ether of breath and memories. It also goes without saying that we play our holy music—hymns, kirtans, klezmer, Aretha—or listen to a wind chime, breezes made visible.

Then—drumroll—we pick up the phone, or log on to Zoom, and by prearrangement, on Kwanzaa, New Year’s Eve, as Shabbat starts, or the solstice, we reach out. We say, “Hey, you!” As we used to bring our best selves to weddings and funerals, we bring them now to what we can still attend, by phone, or by walks in the neighborhood, masked, waving.

Whatever the realm, there can be a sense of direct transmission. Life has taken away some of the barbed wire of our emotional difficulties—yay—and we appreciate what is left. We make eye contact with each other, and this allows us to cry together; our eyes aligned: That is a lot of intimacy. The sound of each other’s voices, the IV infusion to each other through the port in our chest when our hearts are open.

I have my body, where I live, the place of function, pleasure, pain, rest. I offer myself what I would offer a stranger: a hot bath, a plum, kind words.

The meaning of this pandemic is that we are all vulnerable and connected. We are in this together, spanning the globe, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, pagans, Christians, atheists. This is so much bigger than the virus, because love and caring are bigger than anything—even, or especially, suffering. These nudge the virus right out of the lane, here and there, creating spaces we can slip right through.

Even when we are lonely, hollow, heartbroken, or angry, we can slip through these gaps into what we have always longed for: presence, not presents. And that will sustain us, let us rejoice and be fed, until we can be together again.

Anne Lamott is the author of numerous New York Times bestsellers, including Hallelujah Anyway; Small Victories; Stitches; and Help, Thanks, Wow. Her new book, Dusk Night Dawn: On Revival and Courage, will be published in March. A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, Lamott lives in Northern California.