“A Prize I’ve Won by Not Doing Something”

Written earlier this week, before I left for FFW:

This article, called “The Hunger Game and How to Win It,” resonated with me on many levels: the fact that the author David Gessner has a self house, for one, which is something I covet. But also in this tangled-up stuff about achievement and possessing stuff. And hunger:

We have turned [our] insatiable hunger on our own land, swallowing, goring, fracking, drilling so that we can have more and so that we can fuel the vehicles and machines that transport us elsewhere. One of the reasons I find it hard to be too fully moralistic about this behavior is that I share it. In my own work –which is writing — I am always hungry, wanting more and better, and I recognize in my own ambition the same never-sated animal that I see in others. Long ago, I sent a letter to a neighbor on Cape Cod who had built a monstrous trophy house. I wrote: “You’re obviously an ambitious man and in that we are alike. While your workers hammer away up on the hill, I hammer away at my keyboard. Like you, I dream of creating something big, something great, and like you, I sometimes feel that my passion for this controls me, and not me it.” So you see, I am not writing about hunger as an outsider, not Spock looking on puzzled at a world full of Kirks.

And yet that does not mean that I believe that this gets me, or us, off the hook, that we can let our inner Kirks run wild and shoot phasers in the air and make out with every Nurse Chapel they run across. The next sentences in my letter to my neighbor were these: “But we are more in control than we admit, than it’s fashionable to say these days. I don’t suggest the laughable premise that we are rational creatures, or that reason controls our lives. What I do suggest is that our imaginations can be nudged, and work best if nudged earthward.”

He goes on to talk about the ramshackle cabin he built, and how a nest of wrens took up residence thanks to the fact that he neglected to screen up a gap between the door and the roof:

My life feels better, more intense and elevated, having this new family around…

For my part, I am not ready to retire like a Zen monk to my shack. I am still hungry for things. A Pulitzer Prize would be nice, for instance, and after that maybe a Nobel. But right now I am enjoying a different sort of prize, and I can’t help but think this is a prize I’ve won by not doing something.

That is a wonderful characterization of Sabbath, so the quote grabbed me. That’s grace, isn’t it? The goodness that comes to you when you’re not pursuing it.

But I also related on a literal level: our family, too, hosts a family of birds. I wrote about them in Sabbath in the Suburbs. They live in the exhaust vent of our range hood, and they show up every year. Because every year we forget to plug up the dang hole.

I try to be honest in the book about the difficulties of choosing a day of rest over so many other things—things like installing a finer mesh over a hole, so our stove’s exhaust fan doesn’t blow out because the duct is clogged with twigs and leaves and baby birds.

But I like the way David Gessner thinks about it. After all of this time spent Sabbath-keeping, I still have a lot to learn.

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