For the first six weeks of a stay-at-home order, I served daily shifts as a chaplain on a 24-hour-a-day national prayer line created as a response to the Covid crisis. During the early morning, late afternoon, and again in the evening, several dozen chaplains in other time zones and I answered phone calls weary people made to an 800-number looking for relief. For two or more hours strangers invited us into a baffling intimacy amidst real isolation and social distancing.
I inquired about their location as a conversation opener. No matter where the person lived, each caller felt close. “I’m talking on the couch in my living room,” one lady from upstate New York said. Her radio’s volume was louder than her voice but we managed. She feared losing her faith by not going to church. She had never prayed anywhere else and wasn't sure if the prayer line would work to kindle her faith.
An elderly man sat uncomfortably propped up in a hospital bed in Mississippi, gulping with fear and a deep, dry wheeze. “I don’t know if I will have to go to the ICU,” he worried out loud in a mellowed southern drawl. His urgent pleas matched the intermittent code blue alerts I overheard on the hospital PA system in the background. “Could you just pray that I can go home with my dog?” His mood brightened when I asked about his schnauzer, Millie. I felt comforted, too, by listening to him talk about Millie burrowing alongside him in the easy chair.
One client outside Cleveland, Ohio lamented the emptiness at his kitchen table, unable to fill the space left behind after his loved one departed. His melancholy mixed with a flurry of sounds forever bouncing around in my mind from decades around our kitchen table—at the same table where his life now joined with ours. I imagined him sitting across from me at this vintage formica set we’d found at a garage sale. A lonely elder in Cleveland taught me how objects retain intangible goodness that can perish as memories recede. We prayed that love would not drift away too.
In between calls, my attention drifted to a puddle in the driveway. The puddle appeared with the pandemic after melting snow pooled with a sheen of feathery hoar frost one morning. Its steady but ever-changing presence became a stand-in companion during the isolation of 2020. I’d look out the window at the puddle as daytime air warmed the water and find myself rapt by the glittery frost flattened into a scrim of matte gray that mimicked the overcast sky. Sometimes a sparrow would drop down from the electric cable and walk around the edge, assessing the puddle. The bird would lap the chilled water and return to its perch, ascending effortlessly in one swift gesture.
The puddle intrigued me. As opaque as a stilled pond, I saw its potential locked up like hope frozen in time. The shallow water out the window on my right became a contemplative partner that connected me to life beyond the confines of our house in northeast Iowa. Our bodies, made in God’s image, are 60% water. Our lungs are roughly 83% water. We are watery beings reflecting the divinity that gave us life yet we’re lodged in a specific time and space.
The fluid canvas spread across the driveway directed my daydreams. I imagined watering holes where massive creatures lowered themselves gracefully into the coolness of an afternoon. Some days my worried mind emptied onto the agate-studded shores of Lake Superior where sky greets water on the far horizon. Watching the sparrows stand the same way I do at the puddle’s edge, I wondered about the colors of water that only their eyes can see. I wasn’t thirsty enough to drink puddle water but my needs led me to the edge too.
“We can excite one another’s imagination toward good,” writer Christina Baldwin commented on her blog that first Covid spring, “so that when we wake up empty and frightened the first thing we see is how we are held and what we are learning.”
Sometimes I’d answer the phone and receive prank calls, vindictive comments about God, salacious chatter, or a hang-up. Yet each time I heard people express their anger, panic, and desperation it taught me about my own grief and loss. Everyone we knew was at risk; Covid updates dominated most conversations. I honored how differently we suffer in each prayer as the comments of aggressive clients attuned my understanding. Occasionally a caller reciprocated and prayed out loud for me. Each prayer became an extemporaneous psalm tailored to one sacred moment together.
I let two late night callers talk all they wanted since our conversation kept them from pursuing suicide plans. The next evening, despite algorithms that randomized and matched hundreds of callers to volunteer chaplains, I recognized the voice of one man on the line. We both gasped, bewildered to be together again. He had been drinking the second night too. Long silences revealed how hard he tried to justify what he called the “nonsense” in his life. Prayer helped both of us survive what we couldn’t understand.
Throughout the weeks, the puddle acted like a scale model of the universe, tutoring me about the ways water has shaped our small place in time. Water tapers to the thinnest edges as gravity, pressure, and volume conform it to the earth. On our farm, we drink paleowater drawn up from aquifers lined with carbonaceous rock. As a child, our son crouched in our driveway’s ivory limestone gravel, harvested from local quarries, searching for fragments of fossil invertebrates deposited by the tropical waters of the Western Interior Seaway. On summer nights when the puddle was clear, moonlight filled the shallow pool.
A heavy downpour forced the puddle to overflow its usual boundary until wet patches in the long driveway connected. Water slid eastward and slightly downhill, shining between the field rows heading east, giving shape to the globe of the world. Ancient watercourses rose again. Buried for half a century and channeled through drainage tile that conserves surface flow, excess storm runoff made the grassed waterway a swift river for the afternoon. Floods inundated nearby lowlands and creeks when massive storm systems emptied the Midwestern sky. Old watershed pathways lingered for a day above ground. After the storm, the puddle stretched out, supplying a few days’ worth of water for the birds. Even the black mama cat who lives as a squatter along this mile of Wagner Road came into the yard for a drink.
Watching birds bathe refreshed me as if I, too, had been cleansed of grief’s residue. They step deliberately into the water as if wading into the ocean from the beach. The bird shakes each leg, perhaps testing the temperature. Liquid baths reshape and prime their feathers. They throttle and preen with miniscule muscles in a high-speed splash. Their beaks toss water up into the air like goofy jugglers, faster and faster as droplets fall, totally immersed in a frenzied shimmie shake. Staying at the window brought joy around me. If I went outside, the birds would fly away or hide in the foliage of nearby trees.
One morning something landed in the puddle, surprising me as much as if word balloons that read “Plunk!” and “Kersplash!” had also appeared. I couldn’t see what but something landed in the water. Ripples calmed flat, then nothing moved. The slim puddle has a limited ability to hide anything. A tiny button head popped up on the opposite side and just as quickly ducked underwater. I studied the surface. The fins of a small wake tugged my gaze from one side to the other. Suddenly a classic swimmer’s frog kick propelled the creature halfway to the lawn.
A frog? I laughed out loud. How did this tiny frog even find this puddle? Back and forth, around the edges, across the stretch again, the frog swam enthusiastically. We might see three toads a year, usually in the damp muck that collects behind the machine shed doors. Spring peepers call out each night from the ditch beyond the window. This one had ventured far from the pack. Suddenly it disappeared into the grass. My penalty was to stand at the window and admit that I’d taken this small view of the world for granted.
After my term on the phone line ended in May, puddle studies kept me company as Covid evolved from a crisis to a fact of life. In mid-summer, the puddle shrank flat like a hydrologic diagram, suctioned dry by evaporation into the atmosphere and percolation into the soil below. Exhausting itself, the shape became a musty, lime-green scum. A sludge of crusted grit gathered eroded leaf shreds, mower clippings, small insects, and stones. I wondered where the smaller birds found liquids when their oasis devolved into a wasteland. Puddles and drain tile outlets are the only standing water on our ridge.
In 2021, I waited eagerly for the puddle’s return with the onset of spring rains. The puddle did not stay long; the new year morphed into more pandemic loss. My heart sank as the forecast for a drought summer became reality. Eventually, all the small birds of the yard disappeared once their fledglings launched out of the windbreak. They no longer stood on the electric cable or balanced on the barn’s gutters. By summer’s end, we were short 11.5 inches of rain for the growing season. We all needed a puddle.
So many people had lost so much as the pandemic dragged on—loved ones died alone, traditions cast aside, routines became meaningless. In our house, we had been spared; we had adapted. Now I had lost something that seemed only important to me. If a lake or an ocean disappeared, surely people would care. But a puddle? I didn’t know who I could tell about my grief. It seemed pointless to pray; surely the puddle would come back. I didn’t have a Plan B for living without water. We all—the birds, the black mama cat, the prayer line callers, and me—need living water, even if it’s something we slosh through on our way to everything else.
Cover image by Chandler Cruttenden.