This interview is one part of a series written by our 2020 CBF Summer Ministry Intern, Emmaline Rogers.
John Avis lost more than he’d planned to when the pandemic shouldered its way into his life. He was nearing the end of his last semester teaching at the Memphis College of Art, which officially closed its doors in the middle of May. He estimated that 26 of the remaining 34 students at the college were in his Friday seminar titled “Myth of the Bohemian Artist.” Even though some in-person classes did resume after their spring break in early March, he did not return to the classroom; instead, he stayed home and attempted to adapt his syllabus to an online format. Like everyone I’ve spoken to who had to endure online education either as a teacher or student, he didn’t enjoy it. He’d taught some of the students in his class for all four years of their college lives, and there was “no being able to give them a hug and send ‘em on their way,” he told me. Graduation was on May 9th, and on May 15th he received his official letter of separation. “All that was a real challenge, it still is.” He’d taught there twenty years.
For past couple weeks, he and his wife have kept their grandkids Monday through Friday so that their son and daughter-in-law can have a more work-conducive environment as they work from home. “We just have a good time each day,” he said. He and his wife spend about an hour every day doing something intentionally edifying with their three grandchildren, projects and games to “stimulate critical thinking,” but then let the kids play for the rest of the day. His wife, he told me, is a retired kindergarten teacher, which he cited as an advantage: “working with young children comes naturally to her.” Their most recent project was an archeology kit for the kids to dig up little fossils and dinosaurs. The youngest just turned three and still takes a nap in the early afternoon, so they let the other two watch some TV while she sleeps. The grandkids love to read, too, he said, “so [the eldest has] been reading Stink [Moody] books and Captain Underpants. We just have volumes of children’s books anyway, I’m a big collector of children’s literature myself.”
His wife, he said, has been struggling with the isolation. “It’s been I think harder on her than me,” he admitted. Before the pandemic, the two of them would watch the grandkids before and after school, often going to pick them up from school as well. The pandemic brought that routine to a screeching halt. “So that was a challenge, to basically separate ourselves from them.” He, his wife, and his son’s family had planned a summer trip to the Gulf Coast that they’ve had to cancel. “That was real disappointing,” he said. “[My wife’s] question has always been, you know, when can we get back together, when can we get back together, when can we get back together.” He later said, “The dogs help a lot. They’re great company.”
John has three dogs, two shih tzus and one poodle/terrier mix they recently adopted named Winslow, after John Winslow Irving. “Winslow loves to walk so we usually walk him two, maybe three times a day…” On these walks, John will take his phone so he can take pictures of flowers or scenic pieces of nature. “That’s been both time for distraction and reflection,” he said. Since quarantine started, he has only been to two places: Memphis College of Art to pick up severance documents, and to Walgreens. Winslow rides with him when he goes through the Walgreens drive-thru, and the two of them will stop on the way home at a small, unpeopled park with a lake. The two will go for a walk there; “[Winslow] gets a kick out of that,” he said.
When I asked him if he’d cooked anything exciting since the pandemic started, he laughed, leaned back from the phone, and called to his wife to ask if he’d made anything special. I couldn’t hear her response, but he called back to her a second later to ask, “Well, what was your favorite?” He chuckled into the phone before she responded with “grits.” He then explained to me that he had been the head cook and kitchen manager at Red Lobster when he was an undergrad, so he loved to cook. Recently his wife “wanted breakfast for dinner” so he made stone-ground blue grits. He then listed off a few other meals that made my mouth water, all in a very casual tone as if to say that it really wasn’t anything special. One such item was eggplant parmesan which he spoke rather mournfully of, since he “pulled it out of the freezer.” “When I make eggplant parm, I make eggplant parm,” he said. “It’s no frozen dish.” “We usually go out to eat once a week, and we miss that,” he told me. “Usually on Fridays we would just take a day and go somewhere, just take a day trip…We’d drive over to Decatur, Alabama, there’s a barbecue shop up there that I like…or [we’d] go up to Covington and Ripley, Tennessee, or down to Oxford, or whatever, and we haven’t don’t that. Not being able to go out like we normally do…like I said, it’s been harder on Janet than it’s been on me.”
I asked John how the pandemic has affected his faith, and this was his response:
I‘ve found a great deal of solace in reading the Psalms and try to maintain a certain consistency in my prayer life. Each night, I begin my prayers by reciting the Doxology (“Praise God from Whom all blessings flow”), the Lord’s Prayer, and the Gloria Patria (“Glory be to the Father”) before getting down to the heart of the matter – raising up my fears and concerns for my family, my church family, our country and its leadership – BUT – there are times, I am just tired, fatigued, questioning, and just don’t have the energy to pray . . . I’ll start, but then just fade away and then feel guilty for losing focus.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” And we can cling to that promise; there will be disappointments and failures, but we cannot lose hope. I cannot help but think that King, who was a minister, based that line on the book of Romans where St. Paul wrote: “3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5a and hope does not put us to shame . . .” [Romans 5: 3 – 5a, NIV]
And Emily Dickinson tells us . . .
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all . . .
And at the same time, I cannot help but think of those closing lines in the poem “Ulysses” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson –
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.