A Month of Saturdays

The word Shabbat derives from the Hebrew verb shavat (Hebrew: שָׁבַת). Although frequently translated as “rest” (noun or verb), another accurate translation of these words is “ceasing [from work].” The notion of active cessation from labour is also regarded as more consistent with an omnipotent God’s activity on the seventh day of creation according to Genesis. Other related words are to shevet (שֶּׁבֶת) which means sitting or staying, and to sheva (שֶׁבַע) meaning seven. (Wikipedia)

I am in the second week of a month-long sabbatical and I have been trying to do shavat (ha!). Here are some things I’ve been up to:

  1. Waking up slowly with my children in a big pile.
  2. Visiting farm stands.
  3. Playing music.
  4. Enjoying long and meandering walks.
  5. Swimming in creeks, ponds, rivers, lakes, and oceans.
  6. Talking with my wife on the porch with no reason to stop.
  7. Sitting perfectly still.

And on we walked. Suddenly we heard a voice crying, “This is the sea. This is the deep sea. This is the vast and mighty sea.” And when we reached the voice it was a man whose back was turned to the sea, and at his ear he held a shell, listening to its murmur.

And my soul said, “Let us pass on. He is the realist, who turns his back on the whole he cannot grasp, and busies himself with a fragment.” (Kahlil Gibran, “The Greater Sea”)

A few days before my sabbatical began my phone went kaput. Everything gone. Long text threads. Contacts. Notes. Emails. Photos and videos. There are things I am grieving, but mostly it was a baptism.

I suspect this machine is mostly full of fragments. It’s as if I keep holding it to my ear listening to its murmur and crying, “This is a life.”

I went to visit my grandmother who lives in an eldercare facility in a nearby town. I don’t think she knew who I was but she was excited to see me and spoke continuously for a long time. Precious few words were discernible but she was expressive and she knew exactly what she was saying. It reminded me of conversations with my toddler son. She said my life was worthwhile. She is a saint and I sat with her until she fell asleep and then a little longer with nowhere else to be. It is a good place to practice sitting perfectly still.

On the seventh day of the month, I turned forty. I have been thinking a lot about Moses and his song. I have been feeling as though I am at least halfway.

Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90)

I quickly reverted to my (evidently) more natural state in at least two ways.

Working full-time in an office requires me to know what time it is and to be ready to do whatever the clock says I should be doing. Shabbat, for me, has not involved clocks of any kind. Nor calendars. Nor schedules.

That’s not to say I’m not dealing with time—quite the contrary. I’ve had the sense more than once that a way of being which relies on the sun and moon and the length of a candle or a conversation or the number of cold beers in the cooler is far more reasonable than sixty ticks.

A friend who was recently told he has cancer described the time following his diagnosis as thick. This is the right idea. Eye-contact. Savoring food and drink. Setting it right. Lingering. Permitting a thought to spool all the way out before you let it go. Numbering days, I suppose.

The second way I’ve reverted is that I am almost always outside. Working full-time in an office involves—as you might suspect—being in an office. And when it comes to offices, no one has a finer one than me. It would be impossible to exaggerate how much I love being there and doing what I do with the people with whom I get to do it. The space is truly wonderful, but it it still unavoidably indoors.

Realistically, I’d say I’m averaging about twelve to fourteen hours per day outside. It’s really good.

Nature is orderly. That which appears to be chaotic in nature is only a more complex kind of order. (Gary Snyder, “The Practice of the Wild”)

One simple outcome of all this outside time is that I’m falling in love with our little piece of earth all over again. To be here at all hours of the day means I’m seeing new light and plants and insects and hearing new birdsongs. This evening as dusk was dimming I sat in the field and watched two bats wheeling far overhead—flirting or fighting or feasting, I don’t know. They kept colliding and one would zag the way they do and they’d flutter apart and then collide again.

I’ve become aware of a shift in my thinking about our place and my participation with it. For many years now I’ve been thinking of it terms of a farm. Nothing industrial or even conventional, but a place where the application of traditional knowledge and thoughtful engagement can and occasionally does yield good food.

It seems that now—at forty or whatever—I am thinking of it mostly in terms of preservation. More like a nature reserve. It may sound subtle but, for me, this shift has been profound in terms of planning and practice. My friend and I were camping at Back Bay and late one night after surfing we rewatched Fools & Dreamers and something just clicked: this is it.

So I’ve been studying the Sami people in Norway and Sweden. Their woodland way—moving the deer. And also the Swedish concept of fäbod—of summer pasturing. I’m fascinated by this particular work of girls and young women—high in the boreal forest. Their way is comprehensively aesthetic. (Did you know this ecosystem, what in Russian is called the taiga, is the largest forest on Earth—bigger even than the Amazon!)

Next, I will spend time with the Basques.

Rachel Carson wrote, “I am not afraid of being thought a sentimentalist when I say that I believe natural beauty has a necessary place in the spiritual development of an individual or a society. I believe that whenever we destroy beauty, or whenever we substitute something manmade and artificial for a natural feature of the earth, we have retarded some part of our spiritual growth.”

This idea of substitution has been looming large in my thinking. And I wonder: what makes something artificial? Is it a question of material? Of the amount of time invested? I’ve rewatched An Invitation for Wildness a couple times during my sabbatical and believe there’s something important in the idea that what Carson calls “natural beauty” is not antithetical to what she calls “manmade.” Might it be that participation is the path to the sort of beauty that leads to spiritual development?

Participation in such wild and natural systems—as a contributor, not merely the beneficiary—is a remarkably pre-industrial way of being. For me, it is at least a part of the answer of what we should be doing when we are actively ceasing from our labor. Modern humans are so dislocated and we’ve lost so much Traditional Knowledge, it leads Susan Ertz to say, “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”

I suspect the remedy for this dis-ease is the unique spiritual growth unlocked by what we might call the natural features of the earth.

I have been spending time sweating in our garden. I’m building a small stream to hold and provide water. This is such a good collaboration with the shape of the earth and with gravity. The will of water is clear and constant—it is orderly in its nature. This work brought to mind a favorite passage from a Berry essay:

“The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around.”

There are thunderstorms rolling past to the north and east. I cannot hear them, but I can see the lightening in the clouds. The sound of the frogs is almost overwhelming—their lust drowns out any distant rumbling. The pony is tossing her head in the paddock, irritated by the electricity in the still, heavy air. Here’s to the active cessation from labour. Here’s to the whole I cannot grasp. Here’s to gaining a heart of wisdom.

Let tomorrow come tomorrow. Laugh. Sleep. Not by your will is the house carried through the night.

Order is only the possibility of rest. (Wendell Berry, “Healing”)