a little something extra

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Sabbath 11

This week's chapter is called "Let It Be." (And yes, I'm hearing the Beatles inside my head right now... aren't you?)

"Let It Be" is actually one of my favorite Beatles songs, more for the yearning hymn-like melody than for the words, which I don't actually know. Perhaps I should go look them up and see whether they stand up to the tune for me... but on the other hand, I don't really want to know. Finding out that the words aren't great would detract from the song's overall appeal. I think I'll... let it be.

In this chapter, Muller makes a potent argument against the error of putting off rest until one is finished with one's work. First he notes that the Jewish Sabbath is set to begin at sunset. The sunset happens at widely different times of day as the year goes on -- I was especially aware of this during the summers I spent at northern latitudes in Ireland, and the winters I spent at northern latitudes in Minnesota. There's nothing quite like looking out your office window at 4 p.m. and seeing dusk light to point out that this is one time of year... then watching the sun go down at 10:30 p.m. six months later.

But Muller's point is that the Jewish Sabbath doesn't begin "when you're finished with your work on Friday." It doesn't even begin at the end of the *business* day, necessarily. It begins when the sun goes down -- and the timing of sundown doesn't have anything to do with "when we're finished."

He uses this practice as the thin edge of a wedge he then begins to drive in, to try to lever his reader away from the habit of postponing rest until one is finished with one's work. I think of the hundreds of unread plays waiting on my shelves, the essays yet to be written (and deadlines approaching), the research to be done for my next two productions, let alone any gesture I might make towards building freelance opportunities (because yeah, I need more work in my life...) -- it's hard to imagine being Finished with my work, in any permanent sense.

That is actually part of Muller's point, too -- that Finished is an illusion. He sees individual human lives as collections of tiny cycles inside the much larger cycles of families, societies, and even the ecological life of the planet.

I'm not so much in tune with him on that score, but I do concur that putting off rest until one is Finished is a futile effort. I aim to find a balance between finishing actual tasks before I rest -- I won't usually leave my office with a play only partially read, for example -- and resting in good time, leaving the next part of my work for the following day.

As I've been thinking about my responses to the past few chapters, I have felt like I've been too critical of Muller. Critical thinking skills are tools, and like any tools, they can be used for good or ill ends. While I do take some pride in my tools and keep them sharp, I do want to use my powers for good. So, I'm trying to cut Muller more of a break when he fails to read my mind (Really! What's the matter with him?) and take a larger view of what he's writing about. He doesn't have to get it perfectly right, in order to have something worthy to share.

One thing I noticed in this chapter was that as I read, my brain kept saying, "Spoken like a man who works for himself, Wayne." Much of my past and present struggle with rest has had to do with fear of losing a job. Muller doesn't seem to share that worry, so I perceive him as a person who doesn't have to answer to anyone for how much work he accomplishes. It's useful to me to notice how much fear about employment and money affects my decisions -- not just about rest, but about everything. Having gone through the biggest financial scare of my life in the past couple of years, I expect I may feel the reverberations of that fear for some time to come, but I'll feel them less and react to them less if I remain aware of the fear and keep it in realistic perspective.

Muller's exercise for this week is regular prayer -- simple and short, but enacted in a regular rhythm. He uses the Catholic Angelus as his example, a midday pause for a prayer that the faithful were taught to recite silently to themselves at the cue of a ringing churchbell. It is, in some ways, a revision of the exercise from an earlier chapter in which one was to take a mundane cue (ringing phone, or in Cristopher's case the use of a fountain pen) to take three deep breaths.

I object to the exercise because it presumes that there is someone or something there to pray to. (At some point, it would probably be easier going if I reconciled myself to this book's devotional slant. But I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for that if I were you, folks.) The exercise excludes, or at minimum, disregards, everyone who doesn't perceive or believe in a someone or something.

Happily, there will be another chapter and another exercise coming next week.

Interestingly, to me at least, the exercise that has stuck with me the most so far is the practice of guerrilla blessing. My time on the highways gives me lots of opportunities to bless other drivers and passengers, but I also frequently bless the people at my gym in the mornings. I need to start doing it with my co-workers, some of whom have tried my always dramatically limited patience in recent weeks, and with the playwrights who send me their work.

Cristopher's posting on this chapter appears here; Tripp's, here. (Tripp, please go look through the comments on Cristopher's post -- there seems to be a question before us.)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Tripp's Sabbath 10 post

Can be found here. He quotes Alice Walker, which is a cool thing. Enjoy your reading!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Sabbath 10

In this chapter, called "Hurtling Toward the Eschaton," Muller finally cuts loose with a full-fledged rant. No more quasi-poetic litanies about the nature of biological beings. No more coddling. Instead, Muller introduces an opponent which he seems to find worthy of heavier artillery.

The foe? Progress.

Muller draws a connection between the millenial mindset of first-century Palestine, representing a widespread expectation that the world would soon end and the concomitant events described in one's religious tradition would come to pass, and the devotion to progress that Muller found just as deeply characteristic of his own time and culture. He notes that devotion to progress tends to result in an unwillingness to give up forward motion, even temporarily, in favor of rest.

While I see Muller's point, my mind goes immediately to what I perceive as exceptions, or data points that lie outside the scope of his acknowledgment in this bit of writing. For example, if my work concerned feeding other people, and my resting resulted in their going hungry, then damn straight I'm going to have a hard time stepping away from the millstone. If my work concerned protecting people, and my choice to rest resulted in their being injured or killed, then yes, I would resist putting aside my vigilance. As it happens, my work involves nothing nearly as directly vital as either of those examples. So my quickness to come up with exceptions and objections may just be my workaholism talking.

But then Muller goes even a step further, suggesting a theology that comes close to reincarnation. (For the record, I don't believe in reincarnation, but I don't have a problem with the belief as others hold it.) First he describes the "theology of progress" as a mad rush towards the future where rest and peace reside, but which we can never reach because when you get to the future, voila, it is the present!

Muller then says, "What if we are simply living and growing within an ever-deepening cycle of rhythms, perhaps getting wiser, perhaps learning to be kind, and hopefully passing whatever we have learned to our children?... What if this single human life is itself the jewel in the lotus, the treasure hidden in the field, the pearl of great price? What if all the way to heaven is heaven?"

Well, okay. "Single human life" palliates the comparison to reincarnation. But clearly, Muller is much more willing to be satisfied with his life, than I am with mine. The conditions of his life may promote that satisfaction, and the conditions of mine may thrust it away. But this book isn't about the conditions, it's about what one can do within them. If I find Muller's imagination sometimes lacking, that's not really the point -- it's up to me to have sufficient imagination to figure it out.

I'll leave you with the exercise, which can be boiled down to two words: Go Outside.

Well, feh, Mr. Muller. I'm a confirmed indoor person. You go ahead outside. I'll catch up with you next week.

Cristopher, whose enthusiasm for this chapter far outstrips my own, has posted here. Stay safe until that central Texan ice melts, Cristopher; I remember how crazy things can get on the roads! Tripp's posts usually go up on Mondays; when it appears, I'll put in a link.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

yay for JetBlue

I'm planning a trip back to the East Coast in a few weeks, to attend wee Drew's christening. The original plan was to fly out on Saturday, attend the christening festivities on Sunday, and come back to California on Monday. I had it all worked out -- approval to take a personal day off that Monday, airline reservations made during JetBlue's winter sale, etc. etc. I would be back here to start rehearsals for a new play at work on Tuesday, all refreshed.

Well. You know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men... apparently it also applies to dramaturgs. After I had made all my personal plans, the first rehearsal got moved back to Monday.

This is where we get to the "yay, JetBlue!" portion of our message. I don't usually do much corporate cheerleading. But through JetBlue's exquisitely clear website, I was able to change my flight to the previous day, at a later time, and still get a direct flight back to my nearest airport... all for less money than most other airlines charge for even thinking about changing a flight.

So. Drew can't talk yet, so let's all say it for him: Yay, JetBlue!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Sabbath 9, and checking in

The project that has intermittently populated this blog over the past couple of months started when Tripp and I started reading Wayne Muller's book Sabbath "together," reading the same chapter every week and blogging about it on Sundays. Cristopher shortly joined the project, so now it's a three-way co-reading among San Antonio, Chicago and L.A.

Gentlemen, the holidays did a number on this practice, so I'm checking in with you this week about how to go forward. Tripp, are you still in? Cristopher, where are you in the reading? [Ed. note -- after publishing this post, I went to Cristopher's blog and found his posts on chapters 8 and 9, so it looks like we're in synch with the reading.] Are there any adjustments either of you would like to make to this practice? The simultaneity of reading the same chapter every week was a big part of the charm for me, so I'd like to continue that if we can.

Meanwhile, this week I read the chapter called "Inner Music." Great! I thought. Tripp and Cristopher are both musicians, as am I; this is bound to be juicy.

Well, Muller then didn't mention music once in the chapter. Psych!

Instead he continued discussing the way that organisms cling to circadian rhythms, even when the external signals are being manipulated by researchers, commercial growers, or anybody else. As soon as the manipulation goes away, the organism reorients itself to a roughly 24-hour circadian rhythm of activity and rest. Okay, Wayne, we get it!

One thing that did spark me in this chapter was Muller's mention of the garden Linnaeus planted, including plants that would open and close their flowers in succeeding hours of the day. By glancing at the garden, he could always tell what time it was.

I haven't heard of anybody duplicating Linnaeus' feat, but there are two other kinds of gardens that stick in my memory. One is a "Shakespeare garden," that includes plants and flowers mentioned in Shakespeare's plays and poetry. The one linked in this paragraph is near the outdoor Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, where the Public Theater does its famous Shakespeare in the Park productions during the summer.

The other is the Garden for the Blind at the San Antonio Botanical Garden. I didn't know about it until a friend took me there while I was still in grad school, more than ten years ago now. We had gone to the Botanical Gardens, and after much wandering around, my friend suddenly said to me, "Wait here." He headed off across a footbridge, then shortly came back, took my hand and said "Close your eyes." We went back across that bridge and came into a garden that is designed to be experienced by touch, scent and sound, which thanks to his foresight and guidance was exactly the way I experienced it. Pretty amazing.

Muller's exercise associated with this chapter is classic Zen meditation, focused on the breath.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

moment of random cuteness

Apropos of nothing at all, I recently came across this image and just had to share.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a baby sloth. Doesn't it look like it should be a muppet?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Signs of the times

Walking through the Church of What's Happenin' Now, Northern Outpost (COWHNNO) this weekend, I noticed the pastor's office door for the first time. Upon that door was posted a sign -- just a regular piece of 8 1/2 x 11 inch office paper turned landscape-wise, with the following text printed in big black letters that I had no trouble reading without my bifocals on:


The more I learn, the more I like this guy and the church he's affiliated with. His sermon last Sunday consisted of reading a letter he wrote to a Long Beach city attorney, explaining why he refused to cooperate with the city's order that the COWHNNO stop letting homeless citizens sleep in the protected area behind the fence that surrounds the building. Other churches have won lawsuits over the same issue, citing helping the poor as a fundamental expression of their religious beliefs, thus protected by the Constitution and the laws that support it.

At the end of the sermon, the congregation stood up and applauded. Thing was, the sermon wasn't theatrical. It was passionate and clearly stated, but there were no histrionics. So I believe that the standing ovation was an expression of full concurrence and support of his decision on behalf of the church, not an overflowing of emotion based on his performance of the sermon.

Here's a link to a short statement he wrote describing liberal Christian theology as he understands it and the COWHNNO tends to practice it.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Sib of the Week

Laurie is one of my imaginary friends.

My imaginary friends are those I know through my online community, but have not met in person. Once I meet someone in "real life," they are no longer imaginary.

Laurie has recently returned from doing field research in a far-off place. She's finishing a doctorate, and now that she's back in the U.S. I can hope to make her non-imaginary someday.

Anyway. Laurie's most recent blog posting concerns her decision to call her younger brothers more frequently. I used to be magnificent about calling my siblings, from the time I went away to college and used to time my calls home such that my youngest sister and brother might be home and awake.

For a while, I implemented the Sib of the Week system. Conveniently, my sisters and brother number four, so I could call one of them each weekend, and everybody would get one call a month. Sometimes, to avoid long games of phone tag around people's busy schedules, I would give them a heads-up: "Hey, you're Sib of the Week this week! When should I call you?"

But over time, the Sib of the Week system disintegrated. Now I can go for many days without my non-work phone ringing. So here's the question: should the Sib of the Week system go back into action? And how could responsibility for initiative be shared?

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Changed the template.

I got tired of trying to read my own stuff in light letters on a dark background.

Sabbath 8. Really this time.

With this next chapter, we move into the second major section of the book. The section is called Rhythm, and the chapter title is "The Rhythm of Creation."

Muller opens this chapter with a story from his own life that is considerably longer than anything we've encountered so far. This is a welcome change. I didn't particularly feel like I needed to know more about Muller, but when the longer story came, it felt good. The story is of a severe bout of pneumonia and the year-long recuperation period that led to the initial realizations that ultimately took form in this book.

From discussing the micro-rhythms of his recovery in good days and bad days, periods of activity followed by no-choice naps, Muller broadens out into a discussion of the rhythms that he perceives in everything that is created. This retreads some ground from the earlier part of the book, but this doesn't annoy me as much as last week's example.

He includes the image "The fruit contains the seed, and the seed contains the fruit." which puts me in mind of 1970s psychedelic animated cartoons... shows you exactly when my formative years fell, doesn't it? But silliness aside, the image is potent. Everything we do has the future embedded in it, but the thing we do now and the future are not alike. There are times that will be full and abundant (fruit), and times that will be hard, small and seemingly immobile (seed). Over and over.

Of course, Muller brings this back to more advocacy for regular periods of rest -- that is, after all, the overarching subject of this book. He closes the chapter with the opinion that observing sabbath time is not intended to be "a burdensome requirement from some law-giving deity -- 'You ought, you'd better, you must' --

and this makes me hope that Tripp will respond to this post. In many of his early posts, he noted that he wanted to create a Sabbath "discipline," and I argued with him briefly that that approach made Sabbath into work, which was the exact opposite of the point. Then I backed off, because I thought, "Who am I to tell someone else how to manage their sabbath, or any other part of their life? Let him do it his way. Maybe I'll learn something."

So Tripp... how's it going?

This week's exercise is called the Sabbath Walk. It is, essentially, to take a walk without an agenda, stopping when you feel like it and starting when you feel like it.

Of course, because Muller is Muller, he waxes fulsomely on about things like "a leaf, a stone, a color..." Fulsome he may be, and more focused on time spent outdoors than I ever will be. But the exercise feeds into something I've set an intention to do anyway: to walk in my city once a week.

I have the habit of staying home, born of the need not to spend money and an abiding distaste for the place I had been living until this past summer. But since I moved, I want to get to know the place I'm living. And God knows this is the world's friendliest climate for walking.

So, today after church I had 45 minutes to absorb before the library would open. I walked a number of blocks in downtown Long Beach, along streets I had not traveled before. It wasn't at all the Sabbath walk Muller envisions, because frankly I can't afford to be that relaxed while walking alone. But I don't intend to do this one of Muller's exercises anyway. I'll move along and see what the next one offers me.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

My Beautiful Nephews

Two little brothers, sitting on the couch.

Connor singing an aria. We're not sure yet whether he's going to be a tenor or a lyric baritone.

Sabbath 7

Darnit, I thought this was Sabbath 8. Ah well.

Cristopher has already posted his response to this chapter and its exercise. Tripp is out of town and laboring in the grip of a strep infection. So I suggest we all say a prayer for his swift and easy recovery, and cut him a sabbath-like break.

The chapter at hand is entitled Dormancy. It is, largely, a rehash of points Muller made earlier in the book, about how a cyclical period of rest enhances the health and life of all kinds of organisms, delivering up such interesting statistics as these:
  • A woodchuck's body temperature may drop more than thirty degrees Celsius [during hibernation]. That's a drop of 54 degrees Fahrenheit, for those of you playing along in the U.S.!
  • The jumping mouse's tiny heart, which normally beats between 500 and 600 times per minute, slows to 30 beats per minute during hibernation.
I know. How did any of us make it to the year 2007 without knowing the resting heart rate of an average jumping mouse?

In truth, I'm mocking Muller because he's repeating himself, and because I found a lot of unnecessary God ladled all over this chapter. Apparently when I read it I was not in the mood for more God -- or, more accurately, I was not in the mood for more of another person's opinions about God.

The exercise, however, is a big big winner. Here it is:

The Sabbath Box

Make a Sabbath box. When you set aside time for Sabbath -- whether it is an hour, a morning, or a day -- put in the box those things you do not want to use. For some, a computer or telephone will be too cumbersome, but something symbolic -- an address book or a floppy disk
(shows that this book first came out in 1999, eh?) -- can serve as a physical reminder of what we leave behind when we enter sacred rest.

You can also use the Sabbath box to hold all the things you feel you have left undone. Perhaps write on a small piece of paper a word or phrase that signifies a particular worry or concern you would like to leave behind for the time being... Whatever remains to be done, for now, let it be. It will not get done tonight. In Sabbath time we take our hand off the plow, and allow God and the earth to care for what is needed. Let it be. Then, at the end of your Sabbath time, be aware of how you open the box, and how you respond to what you receive back into your life.

I like this exercise a lot. Now, I already have a basket on my bookshelf which is the designated spot for my keys, my cell phone, and my sunglasses if I had them on when I walked in the door. When I come in, I drop those things there. Never anywhere else. This is one of the many systems I've built up to defend myself against my own absentmindedness and tendency towards entropy. It works. This basket is also where I put anything that must go out with me the next time I leave the apartment -- outgoing mail, etc.

So I had a habit I could just enhance into what this exercise called for. I'm especially moved and pleased by the idea of laying down perpetual cares and things left undone, and as Muller says "letting God and the earth care for what is needed." This is a lovely thought for a solo person who feels the weight of her present and future entirely on her own shoulders. It's also a lovely thought for a person who is always afraid of forgetting to do something. All in all, this exercise is a winnah!

To be fair, I must note that where I placed an ellipsis in the exercise description above, Muller calls for a little ritual of lighting a candle and speaking aloud with friends or family the cares one is laying aside. I cut it partly because it seems a little precious to me, unlike some of Muller's other candle-related suggestions. I also cut it partly because there's nobody here to speak the cares aloud to/with/for.