That is how I felt yesterday while trying to keep the Sabbath. Okay, I should stop calling it the Sabbath. The Sabbath is Friday evening to Saturday night, but I like the way it sounds. I like the word itself, that soft "s" stretching by way of that short "a" into the muffled "b" and dropping off then with that "th"--a sound that seems to dissolve into the air, never ending but lingering so that you can never quite put your finger on when the sound disappeared.
Don't get me wrong, I wasn't anxious because of my appropriation of a word that didn't quite fit what I was doing. I was anxious because I didn't know what I was doing. Or I didn't know how to do it--how to take a day of rest.
I started the day with a written exploration of what I would be doing. In his introduction to William Stafford's Every War Has Two Losers, Stafford's son Kim writes about his father's unique daily writing practice:
Most of us read or hear the daily news, beginning each day with a dose of another person's truth. My father had a different way: to create the news of our common life by writing your own.
So I started the day in a new William Staffordish way--I didn't turn on my computer; instead, I sat with my notebook and wrote. Then I went to church with my daughter where I felt out of place and strange. Maybe it was the longer and more crowded than usual mass or the personal attestation to stewardship in the church by two lovely people who are not public speakers. Maybe it was simply because I couldn't figure out if keeping a sabbath meant that I should have stayed home instead of getting into my car and driving to church.
After mass, I went to lunch with my mother, brother, and daughter. That felt wrong too. When my mother asked, we were standing outside the church the cold wind causing us to fumble with out coats in an effort to get the zipped. I said, "No, we're just going home." But that little voice inside of me, the one who is never quite sure I'm doing the right thing or doing it correctly with the appropriate amount of vigor or subtlety heckled me--you can't have lunch with your mom? how is that not in keeping with a day of rest? you won't be cooking. you will be spending time with people you love? And within seconds of my initial "No," I was starting my car and my daughter and I were driving to Hovey's where I ate a huge plate of biscuits and gravy and hash browns. And it was lovely. We talked, we ate, and we talked some more.
And the next thing I knew I was at Sear's looking at televisions. We need a new TV. Our TV is 15 years old and so dark at times it is difficult to see the action on the screen, but as I stood there in the store, my daughter pointing at the huge 40in TV, I realized that this was not what I had intended. I hustled the 11-year-old away from the television and we made a quick exit.
Once home, I was anxious. I wanted to sweep the floor. We have pugs, and if they do nothing else at all, they shed copiously. When the light comes through the windows on the south side of the house you can see monster-sized tufts of dog hair clinging to table and chair legs, floating in corners, and peeking out from under the couch and that inch and a half of space between the kitchen cabinets and the tile floor. But sweeping was part of the work I said I wouldn't do.
I wanted to do laundry because six people live in this house, and laundry is one way I have of making order out of the chaos. But laundry was part of the work I said I wouldn't do.
I wanted to look at the computer, to catch up on my emails, to read the news, to see what the weather was going to do, but the computer was part of the "work" I said I wouldn't do.
I picked up An Altar in the World, because Barbara Brown Taylor's book is where the idea of "keeping sabbath" first occurred to me, and I realized that the title of the chapter on keeping the sabbath was called "The Practice of Saying No." Taylor asserts that by
practicing [the sabbath] over and over again [people] become accomplished at saying no, which is how they gradually become able to resist the culture's killing rhythms of drivenness and depletion, compulsion and collapse.
Saying "no" was a concept I could get my mind around, so I took a bath.
At 1:00 in the middle of the afternoon, I took a long, hot bath. And I began to read Mira Bartok's beautiful book, The Memory Palace, her account of growing up with a schizophrenic mother. It is not an account of how she survived this mother and her illness, but rather a loving tribute to art and beauty and finding hope in the quietest of places. It is in many ways, a book about saying "no" on a much larger scale than my exercise on January 16th.
And I let the bath water get almost cold before I got out because I knew I was going to read this book all day. The book was going to keep me from the anxiousness that threatened my ability to keep "Sabbath." And anyway, I wasn't going to call it "keeping Sabbath" anymore anyway. I was going to call it a "Saying No" day because that made more sense to my life.
When the water was cold enough that it was uncomfortable, I stepped out of the tub onto the bath mat and dried off, and instead of reaching for the clothes I had laid out, I pulled my pajamas from the peg where they waited.
And then I went to the couch where my husband sat watching football. And I took a nap. Then I read some more. And when my daughter asked if she could have a friend over, I said "no."
I can't say I didn't itch to mop the floor or put a load of laundry in. I can't say that I didn't find myself dusting the black coffee table in the living room, but each time I said, "no." And by the time I went to bed I had accomplished nothing worthy of reporting in a world where success is synonymous with doing five things at once.
But I didn't go to bed until I finished Bartok's book, and I can't remember a day where I allowed myself to read until I couldn't read anymore.
It's Monday morning, and my nine-year-old son, home for MLK Jr. Day, is up and wants some breakfast, so "no" is going on hiatus for a while, but I'm leaving next Sunday open.