This non-journal began when a good friend of mine suggested the idea of keeping a daily record of things I had accomplished during the stay-at-home period. When I did toy with the idea of tracking my accomplishments, it felt self-aggrandizing to list the quilts I’d made for my grandchildren, the closets I’d finally gotten to organize, or even the emails to old friends I’d written.

If I were trying to boast of any virtuous deeds from this lockdown time, I certainly would not include the fact that, when going through my sewing supplies, I’d found a sailor dress — all cut out and ready to sew — that I had started for my oldest daughter when she was ten. She just turned 45.

And in my list of positive accomplishments there would be no room to mention the scarf I started to knit for a friend in March, and then abandoned for other things, or even the emails and letters I thought about writing to old friends, but never carried through.

It would be tempting to leave out the incident in late May when I was carrying too many things, tripped over the edge of a rug, and fractured two bones in my hand, which significantly reduced the number of things I was able to do each day. From this perspective (on the floor), I was able to clearly see that my ambitions for a prolific, industrious, illustratively virtuous quarantine period would need to be sized down considerably. 

As the days of this, ahem, special time wore on, my initial surge of energy waned, and I found fewer triumphs to check off my list for each day. When your entire world has been reduced to the walls of your own home, sometimes these check marks are the only thing that keeps you going. And as these days continue, and we have gone from not always remembering what day it is, to questioning whether it is morning or afternoon, the almighty To-Do list sets our self-expectations very high.

While reflecting on my lofty ambitions in this state of reduced capacity, it dawned on me that this time was not only unlike any other we have ever lived through, it does not even resemble time as we standardly think of it. The usual meaning, Chronos, refers to time that can be measured in hours, days, and weeks. The counterpart to Chronos is Kairos, a time not measured quantitatively, but rather defined as a “fitting” or “proper” season for God’s purpose. The word is used 86 times in the New Testament alone, referring to occasions of opportunity or propitiousness such as harvest or the coming of God’s Kingdom.

The word Kairos indicates things coming to a head (in fact, the root word, kara, is from the Greek for “head”). In this era where we find ourselves having to look out the window to determine whether its day or night, it often feels as though things are “coming to a head”; that we are living in an indistinct field of God’s time rather than the familiar, pre-packaged, conveniently parceled days we are used to.

So, what are the purposes of this particular time that is different from our normal Chronos? God has different tasks for each of us; we have different callings to transform our uneven days and weeks into opportunities. These individual tasks, such as sewing things (as in my case) need not be quantified simply as “a quilt made for a grandchild” (check!) but rather as a message of love — an object that might mean something to him years down the road, as he goes to college with it and remembers that his grandmother (maybe long departed from this world) cared for him. 

Another task these fractured bones have allowed me to undertake has been scanning old family photographs, and processing boxes full of my grandmother’s memorabilia recently sent (okay, over a year ago) to me by my cousin. The boxes contained dresses, old wire-rim glasses, kitchen utensils, a non-working waffle iron, doilies, pieces of lace, broken umbrellas, nightgowns with large holes, a worn-out rainhat and rubber covers for high heels. It was “time” to sort and archive these things, as the task hadn’t seemed to fit into ordinary time.

I learned how to wash and iron antique fabric, but the most important lesson came from getting to know this grandmother, who was 80 when I was born. Through seeing the mementos she saved of her husband (who had been much older — a Union Army veteran) I started to feel like I was beginning to know her in a new way. I surmised that her favorite color was blue, and that she had a habit of saving anything if she thought it might be useful someday – a habit we share. I could tell that she made a lot of her own clothes (as there was extra fabric with some of the dresses); that she enjoyed sewing as I always have.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned was how much she meant to the cousin who sent it. Her father had walked out when she was a baby, and our grandmother spent a lot of time with my aunt and her two children. My cousin had a difficult relationship with her own mother, and the fact that she saved even the worn-out nighties of this grandmother showed me what a comfort she was to my cousin in her difficult childhood. Again, through the Kairos lens, the things we create and the things we save become more than mere objects — they become mementos of love.

In sorting through these things and other treasure troves (a nice way of putting it) in our basement and closets of grown children, I learned that this time of lockdown is really all about cleaning out closets. In sorting through the things of our past lives, we have to make the decision to part with some things, to repair those that we deem worth the time, and to put things in order so we can find them to use them.

This time has instructed many of us to start reassessing what habits and behaviors serve us, and which do not. We have learned new things about which friendships are worth making sacrifices for and which ones are less so. Recently, someone I know was talking about relationships that sadly end, and I wanted to point out that while interactions between people may end on a chronological calendar, relationships still exist in the memory. These can even continue to blossom after death, as with my relationship with my long-deceased grandmother through her mementos and my cousin’s memories of her. 

There is an image of life that sees our daily events as the threads that make up a tapestry. We see the rough side, with the little threads hanging out that don’t seem to make up a pattern at all. We can dimly see the shapes of the picture on the front, but not clearly — and with all the mess of the threads that don’t seem to fit. But God sees the right side of the tapestry, with each of the threads (our actions, conversations, anxieties) having a purpose that will contribute to the picture as it is meant to be seen. And we may all hope that together we will see the purposes of our small daily concerns at the end of the world.

As Kipling put it, in his poem, “When Earth’s Last Picture is Painted”, we are all artists in a way, while in the next life we will no longer be limited by Chronos

And only the Master shall praise us, and only the Master shall blame;
And no one will work for the money, and no one will work for the fame,
But each for the joy of the working, and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They are!

Sarah Phelps Smith

Sarah Phelps Smith, Ph.D., is an art historian and critic who has taught at University level. She lives in Ohio and takes students to study Renaissance art on site in Italy.