Lenten aspirations

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After tonight’s Ash Wednesday service, Lent begins. It is a season I look forward to, even though it is one of somberness and reflection. I look forward to it for several reasons: Learning the beauty of the liturgical calendar as a recovering non-denominational, cultivating a spirit of anticipation alongside nature, and recognizing our daily need for God, even in the most mundane things.

For Lent last year, I resolved to not eat any synthetic sugar, to pray and meditate daily, and to memorize a poem and a psalm with Guion. The last two didn’t really happen and the first one should just be a life resolution, but I did focus more on that one.

This year, these are my Lenten aspirations:

  1. Per my previously announced desire to commune more with nature, I am going to spend at least 20 minutes a day outside. That sounds like a pitifully small amount, but I believe that it will actually be hard on weeknights. That’s my goal, though. I feel closest to God when I am outside and yet I don’t spend a lot of time outdoors. This is something I seriously want to change and Lent is the ideal season in which to start. I’ll be watching and waiting along with the earth.
  2. Memorize Psalm 16. For REAL this time.
  3. Stop my bad conversational habits: Gossiping and interrupting people. These ought to be year-round aspirations, but I like the boundaries of Lent for its focus on these specific surrenders.
  4. Stop reading snarky/mean-spirited blogs.
  5. We are establishing a mutual goal of not being online when we’re home together. I’m also very excited about this.

These aren’t ambitious goals; in fact, they are things that I should be doing constantly. As Liz E. reminded me, though, we’re not seeking Lent surrenders to brag or to highlight how spiritually ambitious we are. Rather, we observe Lent to say: Here I am, waiting. Make me more like you.

On living in nature

If you see or communicate with me at all on a regular basis, you know that we found a house to rent in May. I’m over the moon about it for a number of reasons, the primary one being that we can soon adopt a dog.

The little white house comes with a sizable fenced-in backyard for the dog and extensive garden plots all around the side of the house. Our landlord, the owner, is a prodigious gardener and we have inherited the pleasant charge to care for her garden. (I am presently reading Barbara Kingsolver’s farm memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and I am chastened by her simple observation that the vast majority of us couldn’t grow our own food if our lives depended upon it. It’s now a partial motivator to learn a lot about gardening.) The house is also a short walk to vast forest trails that take you into a 280-acre park, the crown jewel of the town’s park system.

I am excited about the prospect of living here and the house’s self-contained exhortation for us to live outdoors. It will be an especially marvelous place to live in warmer months. We don’t spend a lot of time outside now. Our current apartment is on the second floor of a giant old house, situated on a busy street. We share a front porch with our housemates and our backyard is small and mostly inaccessible. But this place? It’s practically crying out for us to be outdoors at every possible opportunity. Adopting a dog will be just another big motivation to develop a closer relationship with the outdoors.

A side view of the garden at our new place.

A close relationship with nature is not common these days. I spend eight hours a day at a computer at work. Then I come home, make dinner, read, and go to bed. I am ashamed to admit that there are some weekends when I don’t even go outside. My relationship with the outdoor world has been diminishing ever since I left the free university life and got a full-time job, a phenomenon that I suspect many of you may relate to.

I know that living too much indoors is bad for my body, but I’m beginning to suspect that it’s also bad for my soul.

A book I recently read reinforced this thought. I just finished reading Nicholas G. Carr’s short treatise, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. In sum, the Internet is not doing great things to our brains; our memory and powers of concentration have shrunk to depressingly miniscule levels. The following passage is an excerpt of a study he cites about concentration:

The people who looked at pictures of nature scenes were able to exert substantially stronger control over their attention, while those who looked at city scenes showed no improvement in their attentiveness. “In sum,” concluded the researchers, “simple and brief interactions with nature can produce marked increases in cognitive control.” Spending time in the natural world seems to be of “vital importance” to “effective cognitive functioning.”

There is no Sleepy Hollow on the Internet, no peaceful spot where contemplativeness can work its restorative magic. There is only the endless, mesmerizing buzz of the urban street. The stimulations of the Net, like those of the city, can be invigorating and inspiring. We wouldn’t want to give them up. But they are, as well, exhausting and distracting. They can easily, as Hawthorne understood, overwhelm all quieter modes of thought. One of the greatest dangers we face as we automate the work of our minds, as we cede control over the flow of our thoughts and memories to a powerful electronic system, is the one that informs the fears of both the scientist Joseph Weizenbaum and the artist Richard Foreman: a slow erosion of our humanness and our humanity.

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Carr’s summation of this study resonated with me. I feel better about myself when I’m not on a computer. I feel more centered, whole, and focused when I’m outside. A simple walk suffuses me with feelings of peace and joy and goodwill on earth to men. In short, I feel more human outdoors. I am busy, distracted, and anxious inside. I also love the peace of our home, but it is a distinct feeling from the peace that nature lends me. I can’t find it anywhere else.

These are a lot of disjointed thoughts, but I really just wanted to tell you that I’m looking forward to living outside come May.

The way of nature, the way of grace

Last night, Guion and I went on a date and saw Terrence Malick’s highly anticipated and highly regarded new film, “The Tree of Life.” It’s been a long time since I saw a film in the theater, and whoa. What an experience. Jonathan and I have been talking about it since before it came out and we’d been exchanging reviews and our own thoughts and guesses about what the film might be like. “The Tree of Life” stretched patience and attention, but it exceeded my expectations.

I’m not even going to attempt to write about the film as a whole, because I do not think I am capable of such a task, but I’ll share a few lasting impressions.

Early in the film, a voiceover from Jessica Chastain, who plays the mother, explains that in life we must choose between “the way of nature or the way of grace.” Her character clearly chooses the way of grace, living in compassion and kindness toward all people and living things. She is ethereal, charming swallowtail butterflies in the yard, and she is generous with love, cradling her sons in the aftermath of their father’s vengeance.

It is tempting, therefore, to characterize Brad Pitt, who plays the strict father, as embodying “the way of nature.” He lives by a harsh code of perfectionism and demands such high standards from his sons. But Guion and I agreed that Malick didn’t cave to such an easy dichotomy. Pitt’s character grows in complexity over the course of the film. He is not purely the villain. Though it is not his first instinct, Father is also capable of choosing the way of grace.

Overall, “The Tree of Life” struck me as a visually rich epic poem: A series of meaningful images strung together to create a deep, moving whole. Those who need linear plots in art will be immensely frustrated by this movie. Malick isn’t trying to tell you a story; he’s trying to show you the creation of the universe.

Malick, who previously taught philosophy at Ivy League universities, asks all the big questions. Is God watching us? Does God care what we do? Why are we here? The questions are asked directly, often by the protagonist, the son Jack, who grows up to be Sean Penn. Jack and his mother weave their prayers throughout their lives. It is a film, simply, about God. And God’s involvement (or lack of involvement) in the creation and sustenance of Earth and all its inhabitants.

We left the theater hushed, speechless. I was hesitant to speak. I saw the moon disfigured by the clouds and thought about the glory of God in a way that I had not done in a long time. I could be wrong, but I think that’s what Malick was hoping I would do.