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11/17/2005 Archived Entry: "My Yule gift of Silence"

MY YULE GIFT TO MYSELF this year is going to be Silence. Sometime around December 21, I'm getting rid of both my Internet connection and my land-line telephone.

This feels risky, scary -- and absolutely delicious.

I'm considering it a one-year experiment. No Internet? OMG! How can I earn a living, how can I maintain my friendships without being "connected"?

But on another level, it's simply a step down a path I've been on since I was a teenager and I hope I have the guts to take it beyond one unconnected year.

I've always considered the silent, contemplative life to be a very high calling -- and a calling that's beyond me.

If I had ever had a speck of conventional "belief" (and, I confess, if I hadn't been such a wild child), I'd have entered an enclosed contemplative monastery. Preferably the Poor Clares.

I'd probably have been kicked out (that obedience business, you know). But I'd have tried.

I love the Poor Clares. Their mission of surrounding the world with prayer has always struck me as intuitively sensible, worthy, and powerful, even as my logical mind says it has to be nonsense.

More recently, the ancient tradition of spiritual hermits, or solitaries, has been reborn in the West. Hermits also cast that golden net of contemplation over the world. But they choose their own structures and habits (habits in both senses of the word; one hermit I know wears the full, traditional nunsuit).

Many hermits are affiliated with religious bodies. Others truly go it alone, without any traditional affiliations or guidance from religious authorities. But in going it alone, they also open themselves to input from a variety of spiritual traditions. The hermits' newsletter Raven's Bread has writings from Catholics and Anglicans, but also from Buddhists and Taoists, New Agers, and others who never identify any affiliation.

That life draws my heart and mind.

I don't know that I'd be any better at the true spiritual-hermit life than at monastic life. I'm not a disciplined person. My brain tends to be full of chatter. I'm as distractable as a TV-brained toddler on speed. I try to be a good, honest person, but I'm still a selfish one; I want what I want. I'm lazy, too. And stubborn (though I suspect, not stubborn enough). Besides, any time I ever sit down to attempt anything like prayer, it usually comes out as a frustrated, "Where the &^%$# are you, God? And how come you don't just speak up like a sensible creature and say something that a reasonably intelligent, skeptical human being can understand?"

"Faith" R not US.

Yet all through my busy, active adult years -- with sex, drugs, rock n roll, relationships, politics, and the general noise of life -- a steady undercurrent has flowed. This undercurrent is a craving for solitude, spiritual exploration, and a contemplative silence that goes way beyond any mere desire for privacy or a little peace and quiet now and then.

Partly, it may be just a "writer thing." Writers need uninterrupted time to do their best thinking. I wouldn't want to try to draw the line between a spiritual quest and a writer's quest. They're entwined. I may never be destined to be a true spiritual hermit. But by damn, I am destined to be a writer. Hopefully, a better one than I now am.

Partly, it's also a rebellion against a world that simply demands more and more constant attention, communication, and adrenaline than is really healthy for human beings. (A writer quoted in Raven's Bread pointed out that spiritual hermits arise spontaneously when societies are most corrupt and under extreme stress -- that the very act of withdrawal into silence is a form of political protest.)

Partly, the drive I feel is numinous and inexplicable. As evidence of that: When I began writing this blog entry, I had absolutely zero intention of writing about nuns and hermits. None.

I intended to say simply that I wanted quiet time to write. I was going to add that the privacy violations of the e-world have become so intense that even if you make privacy a full-time job, you still get whacked over the head constantly and I'm sick of it. I'm sick of constantly having to come up with new strategies for coping with surveillance-and-control invasions, whether governmental or private.

I also intended to say that email has been my nemisis for nine years and I want total relief from it. I intended to say that, as miraculous as the "connected" world is, its drawbacks have begun to more than outweigh its virtues.

That I blathered, instead, about nuns and prayer says either that I'm losing my grip or that I really am being drawn to follow a path that I've attempted to avoid and deny.

Since my 20s, I've taken various steps to gain more peace, quiet, and privacy. I left the city. I left corporate communications. I left mortgages and debt so that I could live on less. But each time, I haven't gone as far as I really wanted to go. Well, how could I? Gotta earn a living, after all.

So I've always made exceptions. "I'll stop doing this sort of noisy, rush-rush work. But oh, I just have to make an exception for this client or under that circumstance." "I've got to get away from all this time-sucking email. But oh, I just can't be rude and cold enough not to answer that message ... and that one ... and that one ... and ..." "I won't answer the phone when I'm concentrating. But oh, this job is urgent. And that client is so nice how can I deny him? Just this once I'll drop everything for the sake of his assignment." Then the next week, or the next day, I have to drop all my personal plans and goals -- once again -- so that I can tend to the next "absolutely urgent" priority of someone else's. Or so that I can please myself by pleasing others.

I thought I was putting all this behind me when I left corporate communications. And in many ways, things are better now. But compromises are always the killers of dreams. And I am solely responsible for the compromises I've agreed to.

I could excuse myself by saying that those compromises have been necessary to earn a living. I could say that I don't want to let down anybody who values my writing. I could say that everybody wishes they had more peace and quiet, but be realistic: in the modern world, the chaos of constant connectedness and the "do it right now" mentality is inescapable.

All these things would be absolutely, literally true.

But maybe conventional "truth" isn't the only truth. I know it isn't the only truth.

The result of all my compromises is that, no matter how many steps I take to make my life more focused, the compromises I impose upon myself always lead me back to the same place: a place where I'm at the world's beck and call seven days a week, with to-do lists scattered on scraps of paper all over the house, with the phone ringing and the Internet clamoring for attention.

That is, the result of all my compromises is that, yes, I stay alive. But I'm avoiding the path that my heart has been drawn toward.

So this time ... damn the compromises. Out goes the phone. Out goes the ever-interesting, but ever-clamoring Internet. For the next year at least, I will do only those forms of work that can be woven harmoniously into a good, focused solitary life.

Yes, I still have to earn a living. I have no immediate plans to disappear from Backwoods Home magazine or S.W.A.T. in the near future, unless some angel comes along to underwrite a different form of writing. I'll keep doing book or article writing with JPFO if Aaron will put up with my relative unavailabliity, which remains to be seen. I am not going to "disappear."

I'll have Net access for three hours a week via the library. And I'll have a pre-paid cellphone -- which will only be on when my own priorities dictate.

I'll still blog several times a week on those library days, though the blog entries will be more inward-looking and less angrily newsy. (I'm hoping to persuade my fellow blogistas to pick up more of the slack on news and issues.)

After I disconnect, I will not be answering email for at least one year. Any email. Except the most absolutely necessary brief business email. But even that won't rush or interrupt me because it just won't be physically possible. There will be no exceptions. Not even for wonderful people -- of whom there are many in my life.

It's time to disconnect from all the daily noise and seek a deeper and less brain-rattling form of true connectedness -- whatever it may be.

I have to add here that I'm not doing this because I'm some sort of holy person, some natural-born contemplative. But for the exact opposite reason. I told the truth above; I'm extremely easily distractable. That's why I need so badly to strip away daily chaos and noise -- so I can have a clear space to do ... whatever it is I'm going to do.

Wish me luck. I'm gonna need it.

Now, for the next month, back to business as usual.

Posted by Claire @ 09:05 AM CST

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