By the start of October, more than 700,000 people had died of covid-19 in the United States. A recent memorial on the National Mall takes this absence and renders it tangible. Better than an open letter, more sinew than a ghost. On the even grass before the Washington Monument, there were hundreds of thousands of white flags—a national surrender. I could plant a flag for my grandfather, who died of the virus nearly a year ago. But the gesture feels thin. Not that the memorial is a bad idea: It may provoke in the viewer feelings of sadness or regret or the emotion that arises in response to an absence, an emotion I cannot name but that is as close to fatigue as it is to grief or nostalgia. I don’t know what exactly I would want from a memorial—whether it’s catharsis or meaning or something else altogether. I thought several hundred times this year, Maybe I should go to church.
This will be news to my parents, my childhood pastors, basically everyone in my life. I haven’t gone near one as anything but a tourist in about a decade. My parents raised me to be a strict conservative Christian, blending fundamentalist and Evangelical tendencies. Conviction is my inheritance. And as an adult, I have preferred atheism to a generic spirituality because it mirrored the bright lines of my upbringing: God is or isn’t. The universe, I had decided, contained nothing but bright light and the vacuum of space. So why, after two years of plague, did I want to know if it hid anything else?
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