Learn and Let Learn

My wife often works weekends.  Generally this involves trips to New Jersey, and since my unconventional schedule means we see each other awake only a brief time during the week, I often tag along.  The colder months of the year, and general economic caution, mean things to be done around the house can wait.  Most of the locations where she works have nearby bookstores, but even a guy with proclivities like mine finds it hard to spend more three or four hours in one place, even in such a welcome environment.  It finally occurred to me that one need not be a resident to find shelter, and free wifi, in the public library.  I’ll pack my laptop, and if it’s going to be a full day, a sack lunch, and head to the library for a change of scenery.  It has led to a kind of renaissance for my spirits.

Public libraries generally do not house the books I read.  The source of my jouissance has rather been discovering how well used the libraries are.  In both affluent and more modest neighborhoods, people willingly spend part of their Saturdays in buildings dedicated to learning.  Not all are there for the books, but they seem comfortable surrounded by them.  We gather in a temple to the human mind.  And everyone’s generally quiet.  Mentors coach young people who want to learn.  Some even dress well, as if the library might be a place to be seen.  In a nation where education is under attack, I always leave refreshed without spending a penny.

Such opportunities are a rarity.  Before the library opens, if we happen to be at her venue early, I may need to find a Starbucks.  They more or less assume you’ll consume to utilize their free wifi, but beyond that a day at the library comes without cost and considerable gain.  A variety of ethnicities are always present, and nobody’s right to be here is questioned.  It’s a microcosm of what we could be as a nation, had we the will, the desire to learn and let learn.  People generally have a difficult time with silence—just ask any introvert.  I suspect this is one reason not everyone shares my enthusiasm for a cloistered experience of a Saturday.  Libraries are where we’re forced to be relatively quiet to respect the needs of those actually there to read.  Hoi polloi prefer to be loud, as any bar on a weekend afternoon will reveal.  But the libraries remain, and even in their own way, are buzzing hives of the life of the mind.

Hearing Nature’s Voice

Silence is a rare treat.  I enjoy music and witty repartee just as much as the next guy, but silence is revelatory.  At home and in hotels I sleep to the sound of a white noise generator.  You can’t predict the sounds of neighbors, and my hours are askew from those of the rest of the world.  Here at the lake, things are different.  I awake early, hoping to catch the sun as it trips over the mountain tops across the way, lighting successive peaks before it reaches the near horizon.  It is utterly still.  Perhaps it’s the interference of humans in the habitat, but crepuscular animals seldom wander past.  The stillness is divine.  For some the lake means loud jet skis and buzzing motorboats.  I come here seeking silence.

Our daily lives lack peace.  Even when things are good there are always more things to be done.  We cram as much as possible into days impossibly short, giving at least eight out of every twenty-four to those who deign to pay us for our efforts.  Sleep is troubled and interrupted.  There are noises in the night.  You can’t hear your soul.  As the first rays seep into the valleys across the lake the birds begin to greet it.  Their conversation may interrupt the silence, but it doesn’t break it.  Silence is finding one’s place in nature.  Taking time to be still.  To listen.

Thirty years ago I first came to the lake.  My wife had been coming here for years already before that.  There have been many changes even in my short time here.  I can, however, hear eternity in the silence, for forever is a whisper, not a shout.  As I watch the morning mist arise, skate, and dance over the surface of the water as still as the very mountains that cradle it, I strain my ears to catch any sound.  The twirling wraiths are as silent as they are ephemeral.  They spin away the last minutes before the whine of an early morning fisherman’s boat begins its sleepy journey to the deep water in the middle of the lake, herald of other daylight noises to come.  I will await tomorrow’s unction of silence, and although the baptism may be secular it’s redemptive after all.  Nature knows far more about the human soul than any measurements might reveal.  You only have to listen to hear it.

Silent Light

One of the first things I notice during and after a snowstorm is the silence. Part of it, I suspect, is the dampening effect the blanket of snow has on ambient sounds, but another part of it is the lack of usual frenetic human activity. Here in New Jersey it often feels like being in a perpetual motion machine. People are always going some place. Movement is constant and even if I have to head to the airport at 3 a.m. there is other traffic on the road. We are all too busy. Snow has the power to make one stop and reflect.

We live on a fairly busy street since we’re just a couple blocks from the county hospital. Further along our street in the other direction are the county jail and social services offices. People are going by constantly. When yesterday’s snow began, the traffic died down. For once people seemed to take forecasters seriously—driving would be dangerous, and the snow would keep coming well into the night. By mid-afternoon we had more snow in my town that I’d ever seen at a single time during my decade in New Jersey. It was as if winter came in a single day. But it was quiet. Very occasionally a snow plow would rumble by, but most of the day our busy street was deserted. A few kids ventured out, but not many since this was a blizzard (the definition of which is that wind is strong enough to lift snow off the ground and make it airborne again). The silence was almost disorienting. It was like living at Nashotah House once again.

DSCN6193

Silence has long been understood to be a spiritual virtue. Both eastern and western religious traditions recognize the value of listening. The noise may be internal or external, but it is nearly constant. Taking time to try to shut it out, if only for a few minutes a day, can be a spiritual exercise. A snowstorm can help to quiet the constant reminders that we have to do this or that, or that we have to be here or there. During a snowstorm we only have to be where we are, and we only have to do what we’re doing. Soon enough the roads will be cleared and the traffic will begin again. Until it does, however, it is worth exploring what the silence has to offer.

None Too Human

Apropos of nones, CNN’s Belief Blog ran an opinion piece about the nones earlier this week. It seems that Rep. Kyrsten Sinema came out of the closet as a none at her swearing in. Nones are among the fastest growing non-religions in the world. I suspect a lot of it has to do with the internet; those who subscribe to no particular faith have discovered that it is okay to do so. Or not do so. It is so easy to see, online, that lots of others think that way. Many of these people are not atheists, and many describe themselves as spiritual, but the problem seems to be with organized religions. Religions are, of course, human inventions. Our experience of the world doesn’t ever seem to key completely to science or expectations of fairness or justice. Some of it may be due to illusion, or delusion, but we get the sense that something serious may be going on here. Many formal religions have tried to systematize something that can’t be tamed or taught to perform on cue. And since religious leaders are only human, there should be no surprise that they come fully loaded with the cadre of human weaknesses.

Despite claims of epic voyages to Hell in a small, wicker conveyance, things in human terms aren’t as bad as they used to be. Sure, the economy continues to mope, and far too few people are far too rich, but generally we’re living longer, we’re healthier (or at least bearing up better under conditions that would’ve rendered us unhealthy decades ago), and we’ve got lots and lots of toys to play with. Maybe we’ve reached a level of contentment that blocks out that quiet voice begging for attention. It is a still, small, voice. One of the things I notice is that quiet is hard to find anymore. Our gadgets beep and chirp and mutter and belt out rap or soul or rock in just about any venue where people are found. Religions have generally been nurtured in places of silence. We’ve become the nones.

The anti-atheists have done a good job equating non-belief with moral turpitude, but the ethical atheist is not hard to find. Religions have always been concerned with morals. At least since the Enlightenment, however, philosophers have weighed in on ethics, often without a theistic underpinning. The idea, according to humanists, is that we agree to certain moral expectations by our very humanity. Some don’t play by the rules, to be sure, but most of us do. Some with, some without a deity or deities telling them to do so. Once you sidle away from the angry New Atheists, you can see that atheists can be good people. Looking to blame evil on lack of belief is too easy and consequently misguided. Conservative Christians, progressive Muslims, atheists, polytheists, and nones all have their humanity in common. We are, or should be, no matter what our faith commitments or lack thereof, humanists.

Already empty, or about to be full?

Already empty, or about to be full?