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.

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