We gather here this morning with our faces set forward and open and ready to walk together into a new year. Kids are back to school and we, too, have that first day of school feeling: new beginnings, fresh, crisp air, feeling the wheel of the year turning, huddling together for warmth and strength and companionship for the hard work of being human.
One of my special spiritual hopes for our ministry this year is that we may recognize the everyday insanities within which we can all get caught so easily: I hope that that we can recognize and gain perspective on those insanities, understand them, and combat them with communal spirit and support. These are not new insanities, but I have been lucky enough to see them through fresh eyes by virtue of my having spent ten weeks last year out of the United States.
I have told you a little bit about my five weeks in Nicaragua, but I'm going to remember that time again. I lived with a family in San Juan del Sur, where I woke up at about 7 AM every morning to the sound of Lucila sweeping the kitchen and concrete yard around the house, roosters crowing, the children getting ready for breakfast, and the town around us waking up. We ate red beans and rice for breakfast, sometimes with fried plantains. I went to class at 8 AM.
When I returned for lunch at noon, we ate more beans and rice. I read a novel and practiced my Spanish with my family. The children played around in the yard. The adults cleaned or cooked or were busy with some practical task. Unemployment is something like 50% in Nicaragua (officially 4.9% plus underemployment of 46.5% in 2007), so a lot of adults are home.
People generally do not have cars. They do have televisions. There are computers at cyber cafes in the town, but they are used only by white European or North American tourists. There is no mall. There are no neighboring towns to easily explore, no "other" grocery store to go to to pick up the item you couldn't get at the nearest Stop & Shop. There is no Stop & Shop. You don't read the paper because there is no paper. Neither are there magazines coming in the mail, and you can't go buy one at the bookstore, because there is no bookstore. There is a small library, mostly used for children.
And yet, my entire time there, I never heard a child say: "Mom, I'm bored."
Estoy aburrido, mama. I never heard it. The writer Anne LeClaire, in her book Listening Below the Noise, muses on this same phenomenon with a Fresh Air Fund child she and her husband invite to their home on Martha's Vineyard. She writes,
One day when it was raining and none of us wanted to play one more game of Candy Land, he sat looking out the window.
"Are you bored," I asked, eager that he return to Brooklyn with happy memories of this time.
"What's that?" he said.
"Bored," I repeated, but he just looked puzzled.
How to define a word he had no concept of?
… I recalled my own childhood and the hours I spent alone. Reading and riding my bike and investigating the woods and cornfields and the hayloft in the barn. Long minutes spent staring at clouds or cows. At what age, I wondered, do we develop a low tolerance for quiet time? When do we begin to call it boredom? When do we begin the excessive yearning for entertainment and diversions?
One of the things my Nicaraguan family did a few nights was to walk down to the beach and watch the sunset. The sunsets in San Juan del Sur are famed for their flaming, dramatic beauty. I watched them every night I was there. One night, as I walked back up the dark streets of the town with my family after watching the sun go down in a slow melting of soul-searing pinks, oranges and reds, I realized that the sunset was the most dramatic point of our day, and that was a wonderful realization.
And I'll tell you why.
First of all, because it was free and equally available to everyone.
Second, because it was natural and healthy not involving a thrill produced by Hollywood or any other manipulative media that exists to stimulate me and addict me to its highs. I didn't buy it in a cup from Dunkin Donuts, either. This high was so gentle that there was no crash when it was over.
In fact, and third, because those sunsets provided such a slow, peaceful and silent drama, very few of us would even recognize anymore that it was a drama. The sunsets in San Juan del Sur made me realize that as an American, I am trained to think of peak experiences as full of excitement and "Wow" factor: Wow, I just did this cool thing. Wow, I just bought this fabulous item. Wow, I just ate this AMAZING meal! Wow, I just met this totally hot guy! Wow, we're going to this once-in-a-lifetime event. Wow, where are we gonna go this weekend? It's got to be somewhere SPECIAL!
Peak experiences. We crave them. I begin to suspect that we may even be addicted to them. We feel that we owe them to ourselves, and to our children. Wow, what camp can we send Junior to? Where can we take the kids on vacation that they'll remember with a WOW for the rest of their lives?
Do you realize how much stress this creates?
So many highs, and then the inevitable crash. The disappointment. The "Mom, I'm bored."
Try telling your family that you're going to eat rice and beans for every meal for a month. Tell them there will be no mall in that month, no shopping for anything, no special events, no activities. No video games, no driving around to see friends. They would feel deprived, wouldn't they?
But what if those things were simply unavailable? What if we didn't have an infinite variety of entertainment and diversion and highs available to us at all times? Would we feel deprived, or relieved?
I don't know, but I imagine that we might begin to regard peak experiences as an unearned gift that comes unbidden when we pay close attention to the world, to our lives -- rather than something we should hunt down, purchase, expect or demand.
I am learning a lot about this from my 2-year old beagle, Max, who is just as ecstatic exploring the woods behind the parsonage today as he was yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that. Every morning, afternoon and night he puts his snout to the same places in our yard and in town, and every time he does so is a peak experience for him. He has one of the most sensitive noses of any mammal, and therefore there is always something new and exciting for him to encounter. I have no idea what's so thrilling as I watch his white-tipped tail fan the air, but I do know that it would be wise if I, too, developed a "beagle nose" and gave such close attention to my daily surroundings.
Forty years ago this past July 20, Buzz Aldrin was one of the two astronauts who landed on the moon. In his memoir, Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home From the Moon, Aldrin recounts his descent into depression and alcoholism when he returned to Earth. Being the second man to step foot on the Moon made him an instant celebrity, a hero who rode in ticker tape parades and who received invitations to meet royalty and attention from the international media. Aldrin came from a family background of clinical depression, having lost both his mother and one of his brothers to suicide. Perhaps the slide into a profoundly debilitating depression and addiction was inevitable. Perhaps the intense (and literal!) high of the lunar landing and the subsequent attention and whirl of activity was the cause of its onset; a kind of gravitational pull from the peak to the valley.
Whatever the case, I consider Aldrin's story both inspiring and cautionary. So many of us see our lives as a series of ups we are supposed to achieve, balanced uncomfortably with lows we will be forced to endure. We are coached from an early age to strive for big things, big achievements, peak moments. To win the game, to drive the fast car, to pump the air with our fists in victory day after day: booyah! I had a great work-out! I ran a marathon! I climbed a mountain! We won the game!
Life would indeed be dull if we had no peak moments at all, but to desire them in such an aggressive way and in such quantity is a particularly American insanity. Those who seek, and experience, peak moments in quieter ways, in steadier fashion, possess great wisdom. It is likely that such people also have a healthier nervous system and better digestion than those who do not yet know how to cultivate a more peaceful and grounded way of seeking life's highs.
In conversation with a new Nicaraguan friend I said that I was very drawn to the Nica people's sense of cool, of grace, of being in the moment. He said, laughing, When you go through the hell of decades of brutal dictatorship and revolution and volcanoes erupting and destroying your cities, you don't need any more dramatics. We are happy just to have an ordinary day.
My re-entry to American life was hard both times I returned to this country after having been away for well over a month. I could not believe how fast everyone was driving, how much they were doing, how little time we all seemed to have, how easily we breezed past each other in our own little bubbles of self-importance. I think you know what I mean. Some of you already have the gift of beagle nose. Some of us are still trying very hard to learn it. I hope we can help each other.
And so, these marching orders, given in love from the poet Gary Snyder:
The rising hills, the slopes,
lie before us.
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
In the next century
or the one beyond that,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.
To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:
learn the flowers
Shall we try to live this together?