Inspired by Matthew 24:23-35
“Supposedly the old senator is coming through next week; that’s what Mrs. Simpson said she heard at church,” said Amilia as she set out the potatoes she’d brought back from the community garden down the street, one by one on the counter.
“Isn’t he still the senator, technically?” Eleanor asked.
Her partner, Mora, gave that sideways look that said “does it even matter?” But it did matter, Eleanor thought. It mattered to mark what had been, what wasn’t anymore, and what people were still holding onto, what they were still pretending was true or could be true again. Maybe the Senate was still meeting, maybe other government officials were still in their posts; they didn’t know, couldn’t really know, since the internet was no longer widely accessible, riding around in their pockets or on their wrists or even in their homes.
“I wonder why he’d come here, why he’d go anywhere,” said Jonah. “Does he think he’s going to inspire people to… do what? I think it’s more likely he’ll be killed. When I was at The Assembly last week there were people from outside Philly who said no one leaves their house without a gun; there are whole apartment buildings in Manhattan that are just armories now. Wren has a semi-automatic strapped to them at all times–can you believe it? They’re the last person I could have imagined. Supposedly they’re organizing a whole neighborhood now. Makes sense, they were always charismatic in the good way, but I just can’t square them biking around with a gun strapped to their back with the person I knew from back when we were doing student walkouts for the climate.”
The truth was that they had known lots of people who had bought guns years before, going to the shooting range “just for practice,” preparing for exactly this, whatever “this” is. What do you call it when a virus had killed millions and left others with lungs and hearts so weakened they couldn’t go about their daily lives, and certainly couldn’t flee to the mountains like so many did when everything started shutting down.
They had come to call now “these days” and the Before Times were “those days,” like a backward biblical prophecy. But there were the middle days too. Middle years, really. The edges were fuzzy between those days and these days. Back then, it wasn’t only one thing that changed everything. There was the virus, of course, but the floods and fires and poisoned water had already been happening before then and just kept getting worse and more frequent. And the politicians and leaders kept trying to do just enough to stay in office, but never enough to truly turn the tide, never passing the kind of legislation that would make a real difference in getting people real access to healthcare or keeping the climate from warming as much as it did. Even though most of the world was willing to make the kinds of sacrifices required to save what could be saved, even though most of the world was already making those sacrifices, it wasn’t enough.
Eleanor remembered her childhood friend talking about his husband’s depression, how he said he’d been “like a frog in a pot of boiling water,” not realizing how bad it was until his husband had almost died by suicide. But the truth is that frogs didn’t die in pots of boiling water that slowly come to a boil. When the water gets hot enough the frogs realize and jump out.
Another truth is that some people did jump out of the pot in those days; there were people and movements for years that jumped out of the heating water and screamed at others to jump out, organized to help them get out, but the politicians and billionaires kept turning up the heat and trying to convince us that the water wasn’t getting hotter, or that it was just getting a little warm, nothing to fret about.
“Así es,” said Amilia, what she always said when someone said anything resembling reminiscing about those days or incredulous about these days. Amilia was pragmatic. She grieved what was lost, and she still had days of anger at all that had changed, but she was the first one of them to leave the house. They had stayed in part because of Amilia, because she had just found out she was pregnant when the electricity went out for good five months ago. People started to flee for the mountains, afraid the city would turn to violent chaos as things started shutting down. But they stayed because of Eleanor and Mora’s baby and because Amilia was pregnant, and they thought they would have a better chance of finding what they needed in a known place. They went back and forth for a few days trying to decide, but, Eleanor pointed out, there were only choices, no right and wrong, and once they decided they tried not to second-guess themselves.
Two weeks later after deciding to stay, they were out of fresh food, and Amilia was craving lettuce, of all things. It was January, and she and Mora left the house early in the morning with their coats on and came back ninety-four minutes later with some kale. They had only gone two blocks away, to the old plot that neighbors had taken over two decades ago and made into a garden, long before Amilia and Jonah and Mora and Eleanor had moved in a few years earlier. It was the first thing Amilia had gotten involved in when they moved in and it was the first place she went when they went out; it was where she spent most of her time these days. Mrs. Simpson was also almost always there, often resting in a lawn chair, always calling people “honey” and holding the babies so their parents could garden. Mrs. Simpson couldn’t bend over anymore and she couldn’t exert herself, but she had somehow survived the virus, and she was the heartbeat of this neighborhood, sharing news and love out and receiving it back to share out again.
Mrs. Simpson was there that day that Mora and Amilia first ventured out. She was the one who had been tracking who had left and who had stayed, along with what skills they had–healing of all kinds, repairing machines, carpentry, childcare, baking, and more. While Jonah and Eleanor stayed in the house with the baby, worried every minute they were gone about what they would find and whether they would return, Amilia and Mora were a four-minute walk away, answering a whole informal survey of questions. Mrs. Simpson kept the lists, mostly in her head, and soon she recruited Jonah to go around to the houses and apartments where people still lived to invite them to the garden to plant the spring crop, see what they needed, see what they had to offer.
Eleanor also saw Mrs. Simpson at church, when she went. Eleanor had been a pastor in Those Days at one of the churches on the big avenues. Now she occasionally went to church when she needed to sing with other people, and she liked the way people in her neighborhood had been gathering to sing and sometimes sit in silence and sometimes pray. Mostly, she liked that it wasn’t an obligation to go to church. She liked the gathering stripped of the robes and the stained-glass and even the familiar order of worship and the words printed on a page, even as she missed those things sometimes. Most times, people lingered after and shared news they’d heard and sometimes gossip, because some things about church hadn’t changed, thankfully.
On a Sunday evening in April, Mrs. Simpson and another neighbor, Miriam, and Eleanor were walking back from church. It had been a service where no one said anything, they just sang together, sat in silence for a while, sang again, and left.
The singing helped work out some of the heaviness of grief that sat in Eleanor’s stomach and the anxiety about what was coming that buzzed in her chest. They weren’t gone, but the reverberations from the singing made the grief and anxiety gentler sensations.
Miriam had worked at the botanic garden in those days. These days, she was a leader in the garden, and she gave workshops on growing vegetables and plants in pots and on rooftops and in medians and anywhere else people could find space. When they got to Eleanor’s house, her eyes moved to the fig tree they had planted in the corner of the yard. They had gotten the fig tree as a housewarming present. It was potted then, but they had decided on a whim to plant it outside a few weeks ago, as the days started to stretch and the sharpness of the morning chill began to soften.
There were so many plants that survived now that didn’t in the past, even ten years ago. And there were plants that they only remembered of course, plants that couldn’t take the extreme droughts and the sudden floods. The birch trees with their spindly trunks had all but disappeared; they couldn’t survive in the heat that was now common for several months in the summer. But they thought they’d give this fig tree a chance at life outdoors. They couldn’t tell if it was still simply adjusting to its new environment or if it was not meant to be outdoors in this coastal now-subtropical climate, but the little fig tree had seemed droopy and quiet.
Miriam walked over to the fig tree and looked at it for a long time while Eleanor waited and Mrs. Simpson looked on. Finally, Miriam said, “it may not survive the winter, but it’ll love the spring and summer. You may even get some fruit.”
“You think? We thought it looked a little unsure of itself out here,” Eleanor responded.
“It’s just getting ready for its next growing time, that’s all.”
“If there’s fruit, the Goldbergs know how to make and can jam,” said Mrs. Simpson, “if you don’t eat them all right off the tree, that is.”
“We’ll see what happens,” said Eleanor as she moved toward the front door. “Well, goodnight.”
“See you soon, God willing,” said Miriam.
“Take care,” Mrs. Simpson called.
Miriam and Mrs. Simpson walked slowly down the cracking sidewalk. Eleanor pushed open the front door, remembering the smell of fresh figs and summer.
Rev. Emily Brewer is a parent, partner, daughter, sister, and friend. She is drawn to the intersection of spirituality and nonviolent action and has been involved in faith-rooted justice movements for over a decade. She was raised in East Tennessee and lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York.