Friday, March 31, 2006

Lenten Diary: Weeks Three & Four

Day 28: I am not much of a daily person. I’m good at occasional, a whiz at sporadic, but daily gets me every time. Outside of the activities associated with basic personal hygiene, I can think of few things I manage to accomplish on a daily basis. I do not like this about myself. Thus, the fact that I fell off the “daily diary” wagon back on Day 18 did not come as much of a surprise, but I am disappointed in my lack of consistency all the same. Yes, my primary commitment was to a radio fast and not to daily commentary on that experience, but I know that the lack of commentary belies a lack of attention to the exercise, and I am disheartened by my ephemeral attention span.

Day 25: Since abandoning the radio in my car, I’ve noticed that I tolerate—and sometimes even welcome—silence in other places as well…my office, my apartment, my conversations. I am glad to observe that noise, of whatever variety, now seems to me an interruption of the silence, as opposed to patches of silence being awkward and uncomfortable interludes amidst incessant ear candy.

This morning I attended church with a friend; her church is part of the Anglican Mission in America, and as such its services are liturgical. My friend mentioned that one of the things she appreciates about the services is that extended moments of silence are built in—there is time allowed for reflection and prayer. I had thought (quite ignorantly) that having each part of the service spelled out in the worship folder might contribute to a sense of hurriedness, as in, come on, it’s all there, let’s get through it. But instead I found that having a common “script” seemed to give everyone a chance to breathe deep, as in, hey, there’s no wondering about what comes next, so let’s just take this moment and be still. The moments of silence were not just time to “prepare our hearts for worship;” the moments of silence were part of the community’s act of worship.

Day 23: Today marks the halfway point. It has come quickly. I am actually more astounded that 23 days of this month have passed than I am that I have passed those 23 days in "vehicular silence." April is almost here already, and I feel the fool.

Day 17: I’m writing today’s entry by the light of a golden sunset…which feels quite odd, actually, because I drove through a bit of a snow storm on the way home. The meteorological juxtaposition got me thinking about seasons, and how what is welcomed in one (i.e. big fluffy flakes swirling to the ground on Christmas Eve) is scorned in another (i.e. “Huh, some Spring, grumble, grumble…) even though it’s the same thing. It’s all a matter of expectations, I suppose: when we get what we want when we want it, we receive it gladly. When we get that same thing at a time when we want something else, the proffered item arouses indifference at best, disgust at worst. But it’s the same thing.

I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this. I guess I’m just raising the question, are there “good things” that I am receiving with indifference or scorn right now because I am expecting other things?

Day 16: Lent is everywhere! If you are of the abandoning meat variety and are concerned about what to do should you have a sudden urge to run for the border, do not fret. Taco Bell has a handy poster featuring tasty meatless menu options that will not interfere with your Lenten observances.

Day 15: I’ve adopted Isaiah 30:15-16a, 18 as my anthem for this season: This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it. You said, ‘No, we will flee on horses.’ Therefore you will flee!” …Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Spring with Frog and Toad

Frog ran up the path to Toad's house. He knocked on the front door. There was no answer. "Toad, Toad," shouted Frog, "wake up. It is spring!"

"Blah," said a voice from inside the house.

"Toad, Toad!" cried Frog. "The sun is shining! The snow is melting. Wake up!"

"I am not here," said the voice.

Frog walked into the house. It was dark. All the shutters were closed. "Toad, where are you?" called Frog.

"Go away," said the voice from a corner of the room. Toad was lying in bed. He had pulled all the covers over his head.

Frog pushed Toad out of bed. He pushed him out of the house and onto the front porch. Toad blinked in the bright sun. "Help!" said Toad. "I can't see anything."

"Don't be silly," said Frog. "What you see is the clear warm light of April. And it means that we can begin a whole new year together, Toad. Think of it, " said Frog. "We will skip through the meadows and run through the woods and swim in the river. In the evenings we will sit right here on this front porch and count the stars."

"You can count them, Frog," said Toad. "I will be too tired. I am going back to bed."

Toad went back into the house. He got into the bed and pulled the covers over his head again.

"But Toad," cried Frog, "You will miss all the fun!"

"Listen, Frog," said Toad. "How long have I been asleep?"

"You have been asleep since November," said Frog.

"Well then," said Toad, "a little more sleep will not hurt me. Come back again and wake me up at about half past May. Good night, Frog."

"But Toad," said Frog, "I will be lonely until then."

Toad did not answer. He had fallen asleep. Frog looked at Toad's calendar. The November page was still on top. Frog tore off the November page. He tore off the December page. And the January page, the February page, and the March page. He came to the April page. Frog tore off the April page too. Then Frog ran back to Toad's bed.

"Toad, Toad, wake up. It is May now."

"What?" said Toad. "Can it be May so soon?"

"Yes," said Frog. "Look at your calendar."

Toad looked at the calendar. The May page was on top. "Why it is May!" said Toad as he climbed out of bed. Then he and Frog ran outside to see how the world was looking in the spring.

[Story from Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel. Dedicated to Charity - thanks for "pushing" me out of bed this morning.]

Happy Spring, everyone!

Monday, March 20, 2006

Lenten Diary: Week Two

[For background on this post, read this.]

Day 8: Like so many things in life, I suppose what you get out of silence is a direct result of what you put into it: fill it with hectic thoughts, and of course time spent in silence will be no more restful or regenerative than time spent assaulted by any number of auditory stimuli.

Day 9: Habits are funny things. Some just creep in, unnoticed until we try to break them. Others stubbornly resist forming. Some are silly, things we’ve adhered to for no better reason than it seemed a good idea at the time. Some inhabit ritual, and we feel empty or incomplete without performing the familiar actions.

This exercise has got me pondering habits, and where some of mine have come from. I took (most of) my Driver’s Ed teacher’s instructions seriously (even though it was hard to take her seriously because she’d doze off when we’d watch those filmstrips in class and we all suspected she might be narcoleptic). One of her instructions was to turn off everything in the car before turning off the engine—that meant the heater or air conditioner, depending on the season, the windshield wipers, the lights, and the radio. “That might be a lot to think about now,” she told us, “but with time it will simply become a good habit.” Now, I don’t remember her presenting any compelling evidence to convince us that this practice was significantly beneficial to car or driver, other than maybe not having your wipers get stuck in mid-wipe making you look like a distracted fool, but for some reason (probably the overachiever people pleaser in me) I took that instruction to heart and to this day faithfully disengage all in-car accessories before turning the key.

And so, 9 days into my radio fast, while I no longer punch the knob at blast off, I still reach to turn the radio “off” before killing the engine, in some cases actually turning it on and startling myself.

Day 10: Though already more than a week into Lent, tonight in the quietude of a Wisconsin farmhouse I worshiped my way through an Ash Wednesday liturgy I’d found online. Like Lent, high church liturgy is largely foreign to me. I come to it inquisitive and hopeful, with a collection of second-hand criticisms and blanket statements tucked in my back pocket. Tonight the progression of passages, prayers, and affirmations imparted freshness and purposefulness to what had become stale and awkward. Funny, that’s what I’ve heard people say of liturgy. In truth anything can become stale if we disengage our hearts and dull our minds.

Day 11: Today I started reading The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath. Sometimes I am rather obtuse; sometimes I stubbornly disregard; sometimes God gets my attention by choosing a melody and playing it in surround sound. I hear that one tune all around me, issuing forth from numerous instruments, until the divine orchestration is undeniable, and He has my attention.

I don’t remember where I first saw an ad or a review of this book; I only remember that I read the description and heard the melody again. I am literary by nature; books are natural companions when I explore new and unfamiliar territory. And so I acquired the book, and have begun to read.

Today Chapter One began the harmony, a conscientious confirmation that the melody I heard was not merely my imagination, and that it is time to join in the chorus.

Day 12: Today I had the pleasure of sharing my drive back from Wisconsin with two dear friends: meandering, meaningful conversation punctuated by moments of comfortable silence.

Day 13: Frederick Buechner says that we are less alive as human beings when we do not allow times of silence in our lives.

Day 14: Today a heavy and anxious heart drove me to prayer as I crossed town. I miss the times when gladness and lightness of spirit drove me to prayer too.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Rural Retreat

Two night stay with friends in Wisconsin farmhouse: $70

Lunch at the famous Baumgarten Restaurant & Cheese Shop: $9

Tour and tasting at the John Huber Brewing Company: $2

A weekend with no agenda: Priceless

There are some things you can do at home. For everything else, there's roadtrips.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Escape to Wisconsin

In a matter of hours I am headed here, Little Sugar River Farm, to spend the weekend with 5 dear friends. I find myself eager for wide open spaces, earnest and heartfelt conversations, fits of laughter, and moments of beauty.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Lenten Diary: Week One

[For an explanation, see previous post.]

Day 1: I started the engine this morning and reached to punch the radio knob like always, remembering my commitment at the last second and snatching my hand back as if the knob glowed red-hot.

I was uncomfortable with the silence before I was even out of my apartment complex. Waiting at a light, the click-clack of the turn signal was almost deafening. These next 45 days will be stretching indeed.

Day 2: Last night while traversing town I reached forward and punched preset #2—while the radio was off, mind you—as if looking for another variety of silence that would be less, well, quiet.

Day 3: So far most of my thoughts while commuting revolve around this choice. I have entertained the thought at least a dozen times already that I am crazy for having decided to do this. I’ve wondered, “Was it really conviction that prompted me to make this commitment, or just a lofty self-improvement idea I pitched to myself while feeling particularly pious?” In fact, I’ve debated this so much already that I am writing Day 3’s entry on Day 2 because I spent half the drive home composing it in my head. It’s my diary…I can cheat if I want to.

Day 4: Today my drive-time thoughts actually focused on something other than the lack of sound; however, my reactions to the silence were swapped out only to rehearse my “to do” list for the day, so I can report no great leap forward in profundity.

Day 5: During the drive to and from church today, the silence felt “proper”—like an appropriate act of reverence. I hummed the service’s closing hymn on the way home, and smiled.

Day 6: Thanks to the proliferation of campaign signs (particularly “Zaruba for Sheriff”), and to Allison for planting the connection in my head on Saturday, I had the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” playing in my head the whole drive home today (“Zaruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take ya…”). I grasped at other thoughts and songs to edge it out, but it was no use, and so the song ran its course, several times over (“Key Largo, Montego, baby why don’t we go…”)

Day 7: I wonder how much I could accomplish if I spent less time drafting “to do” lists and more time just doing what needs to be done. I’m beginning to see that one of the reasons I’ve felt so stressed lately is that I’m always thinking about the next thing that needs to be done, so much so that I lose any satisfaction that might be gained from completing whatever I’m currently working on.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

46 Days of Vehicular Silence

Having grown up Baptist, the practice and tradition of Lent were never emphasized in my family or my church. Ash Wednesday was just another event printed on wall calendars but not actually observed, like Boxing Day or the Summer Solstice. The whole thing was, and still is, curious to me. While a waitress at IHOP during high school I remember wondering what it was about Lent that compelled people to order fried fish at a pancake house. Now that I know a little about Lent, I muse on the irony that IHOP’s fish fry was an “all you can eat” deal, clearly frustrating the Lenten call for fasting and moderation.

I still do not really understand Lent; I confess I’ve not taken the time to conduct adequate research into the tradition. What I do know is that Lent, the season between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, is about fasting, and the “popular” focus of Lent is usually on giving up one thing. One thing that is a given, a comfort, maybe even an addiction or idol.

If I had February to do over, I would spend a lot of time in quiet prayer and reflection, contemplating the discipline of voluntary sacrifice, and maybe also some time at the library or sitting down with a priest, getting the meaning and tradition of Lent straight in my head. As it is, February flew by and I spent most of it staring at a computer or hunched over a manuscript, exhausted, finishing one job only to resolutely start another.

And so I was startled when Mardi Gras beads popped up everywhere and I heard radio personalities polling people on how they were going live it up on “Fat Tuesday.” I realized then that I had less than 24 hours to determine if I was serious about this Lenten fasting deal, and what the surrendered substance would be.

I dabbled with the thought of giving up coffee or chocolate, as those seem to be in vogue among things to surrender, but to choose either of those seems too ascetic; there would be no real heart issue involved for me, just stoic deprivation in the face of fatigue and hormones.

I’m not sure when the idea came to me to give up listening to the radio in my car, but I do know a little of where it came from. I’ve come to the realization lately that turning on the radio each time I drive somewhere is a literal “no-brainer”—turning it on is mere reflex, and the guffawing morning show hosts, droning traffic reporters, chirpy commercial voices, and oft-repeated songs ensure that I needn’t think for myself while going from point A to point B. Some of my discomfiture at this revelation is simply pride; I resent that I am shackled to that little knob, punching it in Pavlovian fashion at the ding of the seat belt reminder. But the real reason I’m prompted to give up FM is because I realize I’ve become wary of silence; I’m afraid of what I might hear in it, and I feel threatened by what it will ask of me.

I’ve done so-called “media fasts” in the past for a day or sometimes even a week, but what I’m proposing here is pretty extreme, at least from my vantage point. I average at least an hour in the car each day, commuting to and from work and around town. For the next 46 days that hour or so will be spent in silence but for Paloma’s engine, the stuff rolling around in my trunk that I should really corral in some manner, and the muffled ambient sounds of suburbia. I will be alone with my thoughts. And so I’ve decided to record some of those thoughts in a Lenten diary chronicling my 46 days of vehicular silence.

Is sharing what you’ve given up for Lent like divulging what you wish for when you blow out your candles? Does the telling somehow deprive the act of its sacred mystery? Or is there bravery in the telling, in opening yourself up to the accountability of inquiring minds? As I’ve said before, I don’t know that much about Lent, so I’m a little fuzzy on the protocol. At the risk of violating tradition, I’ve decided to share my Lenten diary here, one week at a time.

There’s something about making this public that dares these next 46 days to make a difference in my life: to make me stronger, more comfortable with myself, less distracted, not so worldly, more given to prayer and reflection. Of course there’s a chance I’ll just endure the hush for this season and then go right back to where I’ve been, bopping along to catchy rhythms and insipid lyrics, shuffling stations to avoid commercials, turning up the volume to tune out my doubts about who I am, what I’m doing, and where I’m going. Except I don’t want to go back there; it has not been a happy or restful place. And so here’s to moving forward, in silence and expectation.