The Joy of 24/6
A busy writer begins a personal Sabbath and finds himself profoundly grateful for the rest
In college I lived downstairs from an Orthodox Jewish girl who, on Friday evenings, would disappear from the regular flow of campus life to observe the Sabbath. I asked her once how she felt about missing out on the things that preoccupied the rest of us -- particularly the parties that I found so compelling. She told me simply that she was grateful for the rest. I am not a religious person. And I don't mean to trivialize my former neighbor's religious observances (which I know were far richer than she let on). But almost twenty years later I find that I have become a Sabbath observer, of sorts, too. And I, too, am grateful for the rest. Let me explain.
My observance began nearly two years ago, during a time when I was working at home, alone, and going out with friends nearly every night and most weekends. I was expending enormous energy on both my work and my social life, but neither was satisfying. In fact, behind my game exterior I felt an inchoate depression that increasingly left me lying on my bed waiting for clues to emerge from within me as to how it could be healed. The best time for this, of course, was on Sunday afternoons, when there was relatively little else to do. But even Sunday had its distractions -- brunches, movies, dinner parties. At first, I began cutting back on these selectively -- maybe go to dinner, but skip the movie. Eventually, I began avoiding any and all social obligations that required me to leave home that day. When pressed for an explanation, I would jokingly tell those whose invitations I was declining that I was observing a "personal Sabbath." Surprisingly, few balked at the excuse, and as the habit stuck, so did the term.
One can only lie around for so long, however. After a while, my passive introspection gave way to homebound activities that, with practice, acquired the quality of ritual. In the empty space my Sabbath created, cleaning became a cathartic process that I now actually enjoy. Once a month, I'll go so far as to roll up the carpets and mop the floors. Sometimes I even do windows. Cooking, another task I avoided, has also become a Sabbath fixture. In the fall and winter, when the days are short, I spend much of the afternoon preparing elaborate (for me) dishes, like chicken soup or lasagna. I eat these home-cooked suppers early and slowly, looking out over the backyard from my dining table as light from the setting sun streams in through the (clean!) windows. This summer, when my landlord gave me permission to plant a garden, Sundays became a day for doing big outdoor tasks such as turning the soil, planting tomatoes inside their cages, or building trestles for snow peas. Another Sunday ritual is the long walk with my dog, an aging collie mix named Emma. We live too far from the nearest park for her to walk there and back, but I've discovered that Sunday mornings, when other passengers are scarce, are one time when taxis will give us a ride.
Observing my Sabbath may mean making no plans with others, but it doesn't mean being entirely alone. While working in the garden, for example, I got to know my neighbors, a friendly couple who provided much-appreciated advice and encouragement across the chain-link fence that separates our yards. Sometimes, returning from the park, Emma and I will stop by the home of a couple I rarely see anymore, as they are preoccupied by raising two small children. The kids will let us in and we will play with their favorite new toys -- or with Emma -- until mom or dad wakes. Then, after a cup of coffee and some conversation, Emma and I will be on our way.
Everything I do on my Sabbath is informed by the singular condition of having large pools of time in which to do it. Nothing is rushed. Nothing is taken for granted. Everything fills its own space. And whatever doesn't get completed becomes, de facto, unimportant. Take magazines, for example. In the past, those that went unread accumulated into a reproachful stack. Now, whatever I do not read by Sunday night goes out with the next day's recycling; if last week's New Yorker hasn't caught my attention by the end of my Sabbath, it's unlikely to do so.
Every couple of months, I will break my Sabbath by going away for the weekend, say, or attending a birthday party for a longtime friend, but these forays always reinforce my commitment. However pleasurable they may be, they usually leave me feeling slightly disoriented: My week has lost its rhythm, my apartment is a mess, or I'm tired and feeling disconnected from myself. Over the past year and a half, I have come to see the utilitarian value of my personal Sabbath. It's a good thing to be well rested, well fed, and well organized. But, much to my surprise, I've come to recognize deeper components as well.
On a simple level, I find that my Sabbath puts me in a better frame of mind to appreciate the remainder of my week. These days, in contrast with two years ago, I often find myself feeling gratitude for my work and my social life. And gratitude, as I see it, is quintessentially spiritual. I also find spiritual comfort in the creation story upon which the traditional Sabbath is based -- that the world was created in six days, with the seventh set aside for rest. I find similar comfort in the commandment given to Moses in the Book of Exodus, "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy." For in both passages I recognize a connection between my Sabbath experience and centuries of observance by Jews and Christians. Even if the details of our observances differ, this connection lifts my experience from the personal to the universal. It connects me to other people like my neighbor from college.I wish I could recall the exact conversation I had with her all those years ago, because it occurs to me now that if she had said precisely, "I am grateful for the rest," she might have been playing a pun, meaning either that she was grateful for the opportunity to rest, or grateful for the rest of the week, or perhaps grateful for the community she shared as a result of her Sabbath. Of course, there's no point in speculating about someone else's feelings when I can speak of my own. When I say, "I am grateful for the rest," I mean it in all three ways.