Saturday, March 30, 2013


Furious activity is no substitute for understanding. H.H. Williams

As this season of Lent comes to a close, I'm remembering a Lenten discipline I took on several years ago. The Episcopal priest where I attended church suggested instead of giving up something for Lent, to take something on. I love food—its flavor, scent, and texture, but often bolt it down, giving it scant attention. I decided that during Lent I would savor my food.

Next day I made a favorite breakfast, a cheese omelet. I noted how pretty it looked on the plate and picked up my fork. But an interesting news story was playing on the radio and I strained to hear it. I shut the radio off and picked up my fork again. I remembered then I had to turn on my curling iron so I could get ready for work. I dashed upstairs.

Back at the table, I sat down and took a bite. Oh! What about the clothes I'd forgotten to put in the drier the night before? I dashed downstairs.

That's how it went. Up, down, up, down. I'd had no idea how splintered I allowed myself to be during meals. It took me a full week to learn to sit still and eat breakfast as my sole task. The benefit? Food tasted wonderful.

I'd meant to take on all meals during that Lent, but breakfast was all I could manage. After Lent ended, I kept the practice of eating breakfast mindfully. But it can still be challenging. This morning, NPR began an interview with someone I admire and I didn't shut the radio off. I could have delayed eating until the interview was over; instead I absentmindedly emptied my plate.

I think I had a good breakfast, only I can't remember what it was.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Gregarious by nature

We're a gregarious species and want to be with others, especially at certain times. When in labor. When hearing a grim diagnosis from a doctor. During a heart attack. At the moment of death. Encountering a grizzly. When fighting hypothermia.

We want companionship during less dramatic moments, too, like when we celebrate accomplishments or count desert stars on a summer night. But, whoa! We start equating alone with bad. The desire to be with others pushes aside another natural yearning—to find solitude.

We believe, for instance, that people should not be alone on holidays, so generous people try to include others in their celebrations. We can hardly imagine that a stressed person may prefer to sleep till noon on a day off, stay in pajamas, and eat a frozen dinner.

Our uneasiness with silence keeps us connected to radios and headphones. We lose our ability to enjoy a purple and orange sunset if we are by ourselves. In its extreme form, people become terrified of being alone.

In crowded places in the world, finding space apart is difficult. Here in the American West, it doesn't take us long to find an isolated spot where we can hike, think, and pray. Time after time, I find that when I give solitude the same respect that I give togetherness, I'm rewarded with a renewed spirit.   

Saturday, March 16, 2013


I have a school teacher friend who everyone describes as inspiring. She recently accepted a position coaching other teachers. But when I suggested she has a passion for teaching, she resisted the idea. 

“It's important to me,” she said. “It's my calling. But I don't have a passion for it.”

We associate passion with hot feelings. We are passionate when we tango, passionate when we cook with curry, passionate when we join protests. But we may balk at using the term to describe a longtime commitment, and it's almost impossible to think of applying the word to our search for silence. 

Silence is cold. We know that from reading fiction. Characters confront each other with chilling silence, tramp in silent, frigid fields, or tremble at the icy silence of a deserted hallway. It's weird to consider that some of us actually have a passion for silence.

When first exploring that need we often experiment with silence observed in community. Participants come back from such events with a desire to incorporate times of silence into their everyday lives of work and family, but it isn't easy. Our culture associates silence with recluses or the oddly religious who live in monasteries. We feel strange asking our close people to grant us times of silence, and worry it will hurt them if we crave solitude. 

But with effort, we can rehabilitate the word silence, in our own minds at least. We can embrace that it's cool. We can embrace that it's hot. We can give in to our passion for it.