So You’re in a Ken Burns Film…

Last week, we retreated to a little house in the hill country with my in-laws. It was Texas in summer, with fresh peaches from a local farm, clothes that dry overnight in the heat, and long evenings watching the sunset on the porch. Andrew was on a first-name basis with our host’s dogs, there was plenty of bird-watching and bug-watching, and we saw some honest-to-goodness Texas longhorns. 

Of course, I both appreciated and bemoaned our accommodations’ lack of WiFi. It meant I couldn’t spend my nights mindlessly scrolling Facebook, pinning pictures of healthy meals (I’ve…gained some weight during all this), and letting episodes of Seinfeld float past my head, barely-acknowledged. It also meant I couldn’t follow the numbers of COVID cases in my county and state, biting my nails. Maybe some of you can sympathize.

So instead, I read. 

My father-in-law gave me a book called In the Garden of Beasts. It’s about the US ambassador to Germany in the thirties, and the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, which seemed to go unnoticed in much of the world. I skipped a few chapters, and the ending sort of peters out, but it’s a good book. The atmosphere is so tense—the dramatic irony is pretty strong. The ambassador’s daughter, Martha, has all these romantic relationships with members of Hitler’s inner circle, nearly gets set up on a date with the Fuhrer himself, and ends up spying for the KGB. (This will only make sense to fellow Seinfeld fans, but I found myself saying things like “He’s a Nazi, George…a NAZI!”)

And so I did a lot of thinking about history. Specifically, about the thirties…and forties.

Like many American kids, I devoured books about the Depression and WW2 when I was in school…books about the blitz in London, about the children sent on trains into the countryside, about fighter pilots and people hiding in attics. Molly, on the home front during WW2, was my favorite American Girl. Peril, bravery, RAF uniforms, fake passports and ration cards, radio addresses with that scratchy audio…I loved it. After teaching for 10 years, I have a theory that most American kids go through a WW2 phase. And of course there’s the Depression, for a different kind of drama. People trying to get by with nothing, in what had been such a paradise. Kids doing odd jobs, people on farms when the crops failed, Bonnie and Clyde at large as if things weren’t hard enough…somehow you did it, though you might have to eat a possum.

 I thought about that last week…how I loved those stories of bravery. And suddenly, I laughed at myself—what did I think they were afraid of? Did I think it was EASY to be brave then?

When you read history, I think you unconsciously think the people in the books KNOW how it all ends. Sure, you run down into the cellar and drop the blackout curtains when you hear the air-raid siren. Sure you’re scared, but…you’re brave too, right? Because you know the bad guys will lose, right? It’ll all be ok…eventually. 

So your husband lost his job and you have to make clothes for your kids out of flour sacks. Yeah, it’s probably disheartening to see them walking around in food containers, but you hold your head high…cuz it’ll be over eventually. 

So you live in the dust bowl and you have to go to school in a mask. It’s fine. It’s just a mask. Of course you’re brave about it. And it makes a great photo, right? 

I’m so stupid. Did I think those kids went to school in a windstorm, dressed like plague doctors, thinking how great they would look in a Ken Burns film?

I realized this week that the bravery that my heroes had was bravery born of NOT knowing what would happen. You ran into the subway station when the bombs fell, and you sat there wondering what life would be like if England fell to the Nazis like all those other countries had. And you still sang hymns.

You stitched clothes for your kids out of food containers, and you ate oatmeal for days, and you stood in long unemployment lines…and you prayed to God to give you strength, because it might NEVER get easier. And you still kept your faith.

Let’s be clear—our current situation is NOT the Depression and it’s not World War 2, and my family is doing fine. But I’ve been very frightened, and this is the first situation I’ve encountered where NOBODY knew how it would end. Nobody on this planet. My imagination is a pretty good one, and I’ve come up with all sorts of scenarios. 

I’ve been praying for bravery. Because I don’t know what this school year will look like, and I don’t know when things will be “normal” again—when I can walk down a crowded street with my son, people-watching. Seeing someone’s face with nothing in between us. Or when I can just drop by and see someone. Or hop on a plane. 

Of course God knows, and His grace has sustained Christians throughout all the long hard fights of history. Because I guess they did know how it ends. God will make all things new. 

How did I get this old without realizing this? Most of you are braver than I am, or less apt to ‘freak out’, but I take my breakthroughs as they come. Ah, adulthood. I thought it would be a series of arbitrary tasks. It’s so much harder. Lord, have mercy. 

Stay safe, team. And above all, stay strong. 

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