Sunday, March 2, 2008

Give me a break--or a Sabbath

Years ago while driving in England, my husband and I encountered a "no" sign by the side of the road. Trouble was, it didn't tell us what not to do. Did it mean no parking? no overtaking? no hitchhiking? no tractors?

I grew up in a Sabbath-keeping community. Every Friday at sundown, a nonspecific "no" sign seemed to hover over our town. We knew it meant no working--that was straight from the book of Exodus. Our parents were pretty sure it meant no TV (except when JFK died on a Friday), no radio (except for stations that broadcast classical or religious music), no newspapers (though we could read religious magazines).

What about play? Well, probably not your usual games (so my friends and I invented "Bible ping-pong," where you shouted out a memory verse every time you served). Certain games had been developed for our limited market--Going to Jerusalem, Bible Seek--but they were about as exciting as Chutes and Ladders.

That left us with interminable nature walks. Sitting around the house with our parents and their friends. Or, more likely, hanging out with our own friends, gossiping and plotting what we would do as soon as the sun went down Saturday night. Sabbaths were long. God must have invented them to give us a taste of eternity.

In retrospect, these days of enforced inactivity sound idyllic. Maybe we didn't appreciate them because people had not yet learned how to be maniacally busy. Our parents worked hard, but they were usually home, off duty, by dinnertime. They did not generally help us with our homework (in those days, it was assumed that school was for the students, not their parents), and they rarely carpooled us to extracurricular activities.

For that matter, we didn't have all that many activities beyond the school day. A sandlot baseball game now and then, a "young people's meeting" at the church Friday evenings, a weekly piano lesson (generally within walking distances, and we walked a lot)--that was about it.

The biggest difference, though, was that we didn't live electronically. The personal computer had not been invented, so we did not have e-mail, blogs, facebook, computer games, blackberries, or Google-assisted net-surfing. Our ears were free of ipods and bluetooth headsets. We communicated by handwritten letters, which took from three days to a week to cross the country, or by telephone; and the only way to move around the house while talking on the phone was to buy an extremely long coiled cord which inevitably got tangled up in whatever else we were trying to do at the time.

Multitask was not a word.

We had Sabbaths then, and we didn't appreciate them. We are on call 24/7 now (and proud of it!), and we are desperate for relief. Check out Mark Bittman's excellent article in today's New York Times, "I Need a Virtual Break. No, Really," in which he recommends restoring sanity by keeping a secular Sabbath. Writing this on my computer on a Sunday morning before church, I think he's absolutely right.

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