Accidents of Grace – Kent Mayfield


September 20, 2020

Readings for Meditation and Reflection

New York psychiatrist, Jerome Groopman wrote recently:

Over the first few weeks, [Covid-19] went from being an abstract, distant concept to something closing in on s, as people knew people who were sick or hospitalized [or dying].  And then people settled into their routines, and have come to accept that they’re at home.  And [now] it’s shifting [again], with people being now frightened by what happens afterward.  What kind of world will we find after we walk out our door?  [he went on to say]

You know the rabbinical interpretation of why the Israelites had to wander in the desert for forty years?  It’s because the older generation, born in slavery, had to die off.  I think that older people are going to have a much harder time adapting to the new world that’s coming.  I see radical politics, new ways of living coming into being.

 In June, Karen Binder Brynes, the author of a study of Holocaust survivors and their children wrote for the New Yorker, June 1, 2020

[in the pandemic] What is needed is faith and hope [neither alone].  The difference?  Faith is about the moment; hope is a vision for the future. Without faith people tend to collapse in crisis but what helps people to survive is specific hope for a nameable and better




What if you thought of it

as the Jews consider the Sabbath—

the most sacred of times?

Cease from travel.

Cease from buying and selling.

Give up, just for now,

on trying to make the world

different than it is.

Sing. Pray. Touch only those

to whom you commit your life.

Center down.


And when your body has become still,

reach out with your heart.

Know that we are connected

in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.

(You could hardly deny it now.)

Know that our lives

are in one another’s hands.

(Surely, that has come clear.)

Do not reach out your hands.

Reach out your heart.

Reach out your words.

Reach out all the tendrils

of compassion that move, invisibly,

where we cannot touch.


Promise this world your love–

for better or for worse,

in sickness and in health,

so long as we all shall live.


–Lynn Ungar 3/11/20    


The approach of a man’s life out of the past is history, and the approach of time out of the future is mystery. Their meeting is the present, and it is consciousness, the only time life is alive. The endless wonder of this meeting is what causes the mind, in its inward liberty of a frozen morning, to turn back and question and remember. The world is full of places. Why is it that I am here?

 —Wendell Berry, The Long-Legged House



Now it is night again, child on my chest/ I croon and my songs drifts you toward rest.

As I chant in darkness you are also learning/to hear minor scales chime and fourths falling.

Together we hover inside a melody /many dead mothers once sung before.

Tonight the cherry still has no stone. Tonight I rock you out of bodily memory.

&these songs are older than we are;/&this tune I hum is wise as a virus;

It makes me a vector/for rhythm & cadence–

(tonight the chicken still has no bone);

The song lives on, persists & persists.

Tess Taylor…from “Rift Zone”



Spared by a car or airplane crash or

cured of malignancy, people look

around with new eyes at a newly

praiseworthy world, blinking eyes like these.


For I’ve been brought back again from the

fine silt, the mud where our atoms lie

down for long naps. And I’ve also been

pardoned miraculously for years

by the lava of chance which runs down

the world’s gullies, silting us back.

Here I am, brought back, set up, not yet

happened away.


But it’s not this random

life only, throwing its sensual

astonishments upside down on

the bloody membranes behind my eyeballs,

not just me being here again, old

needer, looking for someone to need,

but you, up from the clay yourself,

as luck would have it, and inching

over the same little segment of earth-

ball, in the same little eon, to

meet in a room, alive in our skins,

and the whole galaxy gaping there

and the centuries whining like gnats—

you, to teach me to see it, to see

it with you, and to offer somebody

uncomprehending, impudent thanks.


William Meredith, “Accidents of Birth” from Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems



Slumping in a chair a few weeks back, brushing a few stray pretzel crumbs from a tattered Lands’ End Super-Tee, I remembered how last winter, before “pandemic” was the center of the season and byword of every conversation, I went to a potluck where no one ate or drank anything at all. Perhaps the people were alcoholic or sober addicts or struggling with binge eating, maybe we just weren’t in the mood for a bulb of blistered fennel, a tray of portobello slathered in tahini, zucchini grilled with sliced rings of pineapple or peanut butter straight from the jar.  I don’t really know but we weren’t eating.

Everyone brought something to read or sing, and we gathered over flickering candles and listened to one another as if our voices were food: stories, poems, “songs older than we were,” “ vectors for rhythm and cadence.” We recorded some of the evening and sent audio-files to one another.

 In late August, I listened to the disembodied voices of friends reading William Meredith’s “Accidents of Birth”:

  But it’s not this random

life only, throwing its sensual

astonishments upside down …not just me being here again, old

needer, looking for someone to need,

but you, up from the clay yourself,

as luck would have it, and inching

over the same little segment of earth-

ball, in the same little eon, to

meet in a room, alive in our skins,

and the whole galaxy gaping there…

you, to teach me to see it, to see

it with you, and to offer somebody

uncomprehending, impudent thanks.

 William Meredith, “Accidents of Birth” from Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems

And Tess Taylor’s  “I Gave My Love a Story”

I thought of that boozeless, foodless winter evening. How songs drift back to mind as days roll by and faced with the unsteadiness of our universe, the many “minor scales” unfurling inside our days “as wise as a virus,”. and how grace never arrives as we imagine it.

I’ve strained, to parse the strange incandescence of March to nearly September skipping summer virtually. Limp attempts at parody? Yes. Meager, banal pandemic diaries in very discipline.  I’ve read binge books galore of every stripe:  Mostly espionage novels or dark thrillers with deeply flawed Scandinavian detectives with anxious eyes. I’ll admit it. I’ve done it all. Sci-fi horror films – Birdbox…sure…even ‘Lovecraft Country’ HBO’s new horror series sends a Black family on a quest across 1950s America, 

My reading has been safely cocooned, distant from the world of layoffs, mass graves, ZOOM funerals. Together it represents a struggle in real time to give language to a set of emotions that are, as yet, painfully nameless.  Any effort at naming is ungainly.  No metaphor works tidily.  The isolation of quarantine is compared in books and film to anything from living in wartime to being friendless at work. The hazy quality of our time replicates, some say, the solitude of wilderness, the cloister, or the aimless afternoons of childhood.  But few of these quasi-metaphors satisfy—they’re heightened but meager and inappropriate. Still, there is something stirring in their awkwardness, in seeing a new phenomenon slip the net of ready-made language.

This year has forced me to contemplate coronavirus victims, young and old, who have died in sterile isolation, silenced by ventilators, screen from family.  It has forced us to watch the choked final minutes of a man suffocated under a police officer’s knee. Perhaps, more than ever, the ability to formulate and deliver a farewell message feels like a privilege.  In the poetry or music, it’s also an art — something that might light the way to a more mindful conversation about the end of life.

In opera, for example, death comes in many forms: steel, poison, gunshot, fire.  Characters sing their last words alone in prison or in palaces or surrounded by shocked onlookers.  Some expire in the arms of their beloveds; others use their last breaths to utter a curse, extend a blessing or reveal a secret. Many exits arias are elaborate testaments that settle accounts, issue last orders and tie up personal threads with larger arcs.  Yet even these big, wordy and cerebral testaments funnel down to a single point:  The tyrant begs forgiveness; love vanquishes the curse.  That rings true regardless the pomp and stylization.  “There are so many things I want to tell you, Mimi sings at the end of Puccini’s “La Boehme,” “or really just one but it’s vast and deep and infinite like the ocean: You are my love and my life.”

 Whether characters rail at their fate or surrender to it, composers endow them with alacrity and eloquence that is inspiring and instructive, a helpful blueprint for a mindful exit from life: the conception of a personal legacy in a social context; the formulation of a single emotional message offered to another person, a gift; and finally a reconciliation with death, a releasing of the grip on life.

 This may be most explicit in religious works such as the cantatas of Bach or art-songs like Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abandon gekommen – beautifully compact objects of contemplation, but opera and even modern American musicals (think of “Carousel” for example or Sondheim) with their combination of vivid drama and vast spaciousness, allow us to temporarily clothe ourselves in the experience of death.

We know from going through life’s big moments, like a birth or falling in love, that they can feel very fast and very slippery, and it can take a long time for us to understand them.  The arts can give us a way to look at these moments and pick a beautiful lens through which to confront what shapes meaning.

The artifice of composition, even when it is slipshod, far from alienating us, helps draw us in.  It can both condense life and blow it up. Transformational processes that in nature are drawn out and messy are concentrated into (relatively)compact sequences. But, at the same time, the stream of psychological affects and thoughts these experiences spark in us — which in reality are so often ephemeral and unexamined–are slowed down and magnified by reading and listening.  There is a kind of distance that such beauty gives, and there is an intimacy, a proximity.

I know that my summer with the virus has been less than intellectually rigorous and spiritually uncompromising. Clapping for essential workers in the streets rose around us like a hymn some evenings.  The video a friend sent of herself dancing in the middle of deserted Wells Street in downtown Milwaukee to a speaker blaring “We Are the World” from a stuttered jewelry store was amazing. Still, these string beauties did nothing to mitigate the oncoming apex of deaths, to stave off bankruptcies and evictions or the insistently pervasive racial unrest across the city. They were not a vaccine or an antibody test…not even a deeply contemplative reflection on the suffering at the core of each lonely day for my next-door neighbor Laura.  They did not cure the virus or redeem the pain it caused.  They did not transform my private crisis of faith into an expansive spiritual vision.

No, the central paradox of making art and making life out of what comes our way is that while uncertainty may be the wellspring of creative (and spiritual) vitality, we are capable of living—of surviving–by hedging against the uncertainty with an arsenal of habits and routines that make days feel containable, controllable, workable.  We simply cannot cope with the fundamental precarious-ness of it all, every day, day in and day out. Each of us has his/her mechanism, a makeshift raft for the slipstream of time and uncertainty that is not only our COVID experience but life itself.

A friend stopped me in the hall the other day, sniffed the air, and asked, “Why did you bake that banana bread?  Why?  Well, out an expanse of time, you carve a little area, an accidental space, that that nobody asked you to do—and you do something.  Perhaps the difference between the kind of something that I’m used to and this new culture of doing something to be doing, is that as an older person, the somethings that I do are cordoned off from the rest of busy-ness, and by mutual agreement this space is considered a sort of charming but basically useless playpen in which oldsters get to behave like children, telling stories and drawing pictures. 

Under such a premise, I should be impervious to the cataclysmic disruption of time that the global pandemic is inflicting on our species.  But that is not my experience or the experience of any thinking person I know has been

I’m reminded of James Baldwin, insisting half a century back that “a society must assume that it is stable but the artist must know – [he said ‘the artist’ but I say any thinking person] must know and he must let us now that there is nothing stable under heaven.”

Not even time is a fulcrum of stability.

As an old man now familiar with empty time and being rather alone, I should manage the quarantine, should manage this situation better than most.  Instead, in the first weeks with the virus, I found out how much of my old life was about hiding from life.  Confronted with the problem of life served neat, without distraction or adornment or superstructure, I had almost no idea of what to do with it.  Back in the playpen, in the absence of ‘a firm place to be at 9 every morning’ or ‘clients to tell me what needed doing’, in the absence of these fixed elements, I had made up hard things to do or thing to abstain from:  Planning is what I know.  Writing is what I know.  Conceiving self-imposed and self-implemented schedules. Planning day, reading day, writing day repeat.  What a dry, sad, small idea of life How exposed it looks now, now that the people I love are in the same room to witness the way I do time.  The way I’ve probably done it all my life.

Of course, this is how we contour and fill our sense of meaning amid the vast, empty boundlessness of being.  That’s why the patterns of those we deem to have meaningful lives, the routines of the great makers and thinkers are of such enduring and intoxicating interest to us, why we hunger for the ideal daily routine.

Eventually, perhaps in the time-warp of a pandemic, perhaps in that of private suffering, loss and grief, something stops us short and we face the absurdity of such artificiality.  When some cataclysm in the slipstream capsizes our life raft, shatters I, leaves us gasping amid the flotsam, ejected from the familiar flow of time–do we sink or sing?

My own stumbling stop and strangely life-affirming realization came mid-summer when I read a line from Ottesssa Moshfegh about love: “Without it, life is just ‘doing time'” I don’t think she intended by this only romantic live or parental lover or familial lover or really any kind of love in particular.  At least I read it as Love with a capital L, and idea form and essential part of the universe —like the color red — from which all particular examples take their nature. Without it present, in some form, somewhere in our lives, there is nothing to fill our days…except perhaps banana bread.

But love is not something to do.  Its terms cannot be scheduled, preplanned or determined. It is not something to do but something to be experienced, something to go through–that may be why it frightens so many of us and why we so often approach it indirectly. So, banana bread, an accident of grace.

It can be easy to subscribe to a fantasy of diminishment as revelation – the notion that wisdom is the inevitable yield of hardship. Of course, Corrie tenBoom was right: In order to realize the worth of the anchor we need to feel the stress of the storm.


Sometimes loss just feels like loss and absence is just absence: The solipsism of pain, the ache of losing touch, empty streets and hallways, disappointment and rage and despair.  The trick is to hold both truths at once—absence-as-presence and absence-as-absence—rather than letting one obscure the other; how to let fragile, unexpected, imperfect consolations – accidents –exist alongside everything they can’t console.  The astrophysicist Brian Greene calls it the “Entropic two-step, the dance between chaos and disorder and the emergence of beauty.

Holding both at once lets us honor the pleasures and odd discoveries of quarantine without blinding ourselves to everything beyond it.  It is a way of seeing that does not back away from what is happening by pretending people are not still dying, and that does not back away from what is happening by pretending people are not loving and being loved alongside this gravity.

Because…Although we are brought to tears by the sight of a nurse walking home from work in blue hospital scrubs…and we despair for the anger and rage surrounding us…we are still baking banana bread from time to time and singing songs that are older than we. 

Suffering and grace live side by side.  They always have—in the same homes or separated by the walls we keep between our bodies now, in service of a solidarity we trust but cannot touch.  Grace locks eyes with pain from the other side of the walk, six feet away.  They both keep walking and “the song lives on, persists and persists.”

Let it be so.



Almost a century ago, as the Spanish flu swept through Europe, Sigmund Freud wrote, while mourning his fifth child and favorite daughter, Sophie, a few words that were meant to be about individuals but might also be about a congregation, a nation and a way of life:

We know that the acute sorrow we feel after such a loss will run its course, but also that we will remain inconsolable, and will never find a substitute.  No matter what may come to take its place, even should it fill that place completely, it remains something else. And, that is how it should be.  It is the only way of perpetuating a love that we do not want to abandon.