Loving the least of spring’s gifts

In the swampy region where I live, spring doesn’t exactly arrive on the doorstep with a bouquet of daffodils. More precisely, it announces itself with a sump-pump alarm going off in the middle of the night, in adjustments to toilet-flushing, showering, and laundry routines, and, in general, the presence of mud and water outside.

P1020533While those who reside on higher, dryer ground seize the first mild day marking the end of winter to enjoy a walk or a trip to the park, we rural swamp dwellers laser in on what the spring thaw is doing to our drainage systems. We monitor sumps, septic systems, and fields, and hope for a favorable wind direction and a return to normalcy.

This is not to say that we miss spring’s kinder side. In fact, I think we may enjoy the smallest, most humble harbingers of the season more fully than others do its splendor. Just as my religious tradition’s Lenten practices of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer cleanse the senses so that we hear and see more clearly, so a little bit of water-related discomfort and deprivation goes a long way toward enhancing our appreciation of the least of the season’s gifts.

A friend’s email informing me that her snowdrops, which in the past have bloomed as early as January, finally had opened gave me a surge of joy, as did the sight in my own garden of a patch of lemon thyme that had survived the winter. P1020544I felt the same excitement in discovering dianthus foliage, still surrounded by snow, and a spray of leaves at the base of the rue plant that last summer had been a host for Giant Swallowtail caterpillars.

Although little else was growing amid the matted remnants of last year’s garden, I could delight in observing the state of transition everything was in – the melting snow receding to reveal moss-covered paths and clusters of leaves P1020554under water looking as if they had been arranged beneath glass. In other places, trees reflecting on the standing water formed a striking backdrop for the sounds of blackbirds announcing their return, adding their voices to those of the nuthatches and black-capped chickadees who have been here all winter.

These scenes, stripped as they were of the lushness we witness in late spring and summer, nonetheless contained a kernel of hope that something unseen was in the air and about to materialize.

Those of us for whom spring intersects with the 40 days of Lent experience something similar as we use this time of year to detach ourselves from that to which we have become attached. In the decluttering of our souls, we gaze at a barren landscape and sense what has been hidden from us in our hurriedness and preoccupation with doing and achieving. We begin to hear, taste, see, and know that something is coming – and that it will be good.

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The habit of being quiet

Some of the most serene people I know have a habit of being quiet at home.

Whether they live alone or with other people, these souls seem to prefer and practice living without the constant background noise that pervades many of our dwellings.

One such person rises each morning and makes it a point not to turn on the radio or television while getting ready for her job in a busy, production-driven office. Another who is at home during the day also keeps the radio and TV off, lets an answering device catch most of her phone calls, and, if she does play music, chooses soothing chants.

For these quiet-keepers, the stretches of silence and stillness in their lives spill over to those they meet. Despite whatever stress threatens to disturb their peace, both manage to convey a sense of repose in which they are receptive and willing to listen to people. In conversations, they do not interrupt or finish sentences. They ask questions that reflect a genuine interest in the other person. Being in their presence is peaceful and affirming.

Such people are models for me as I seek to live more quietly, yet struggle with a temperament that is more prone to jumpiness than calm. (My quiet mother lamented throughout my early life that I was in “perpetual motion.”) My profession did little to settle me down, thrusting me into an atmosphere of nearly constant stimulation that fed those natural tendencies. Today, removed from that setting, I sometimes still find it challenging to maintain quiet while working out of my home. In that, I do not seem to be alone. Increasingly, it seems, many of us think we need some kind of ambient noise to be productive and creative whether it’s music or an app like Coffitivity, which delivers the sounds of a coffee shop to our computers. Coffitivity, by the way, claims research shows that ambient noise, like the sound mix of “calm and commotion” found in a coffee shop, can aid creativity.

I have written with some success in such settings, yet I find value in silence. So for me, instead of giving in to the impulse to break it by introducing sound, I am working on developing more of a taste for quiet.

Rather than turn to electronic sound or even the kind of visual noise the Internet offers with its insistent invitations to look at a picture, video, or the latest trend, I am challenging myself to accept and live with the discomfort silence sometimes brings.

In the 40-day season of Lent, which began this week, I am joining others who are fasting by unplugging some of their media connections to admit more silence into our noisy, distracted lives. Unsettling though this can be, I am hopeful that, as I experience the hunger of silence, I will begin to cultivate a mind and spirit that is less cluttered and more receptive to the gentle whispers I fail to detect when I stuff myself with the junk food of noise and information.