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"Will you play a game of Monopoly with me? Every one else is really busy."
It was a rainy Sunday afternoon, and my son Joe was standing at the door of my home office looking less than hopeful. Even a 10-year-old knows better than to approach a place of work expecting to find a playmate. But his older brothers were doing homework and his dad, almost always good for a game of chess, was grading papers.
So I was Joe's best bet for entertainment, never mind the fact that I was sitting in front of a computer myself. The only problem? There were 14 work e-mails in my inbox, I had a deadline the next day and all the school uniforms were dirty. Also, there was no bread in the house.
I looked at Joe with real regret. "Sweetie, I have way too much to do today," I said.
"But it's the weekend. Can't you do your work tomorrow, when I'm at school?" he said. "Please?"
Maybe it was that forlorn little "please," uttered with hope but absolutely no confidence, that got me. Maybe I was just tired and looking for an excuse to be completely unproductive. Either way, I changed my mind. "Okay, I'm in," I said. "You roll first."
Later, after Joe was in bed, I caught myself humming as I rummaged through the foot-high stack of unsorted papers on my kitchen counter. I should have been annoyed, even frantic; it was 10 and I still hadn't found the fourth-grade permission slip that was due the next day, much less washed the dirty uniforms or made it to the grocery store. But I wasn't annoyed. I wasn't overwhelmed. I was actually happy.
While I was looking through those papers I uncovered a church flyer for a lecture called "Sabbath Rest and Delight." The picture on it showed a woman leaning on her elbows in a field of grass and wildflowers, her head thrown back, her eyes closed, her mouth parted in a dreamy smile. The picture didn't do much for me. (When I see someone lying in the grass, I don't think, "Ah, happiness." I think, "Whoa, chiggers.") But the words rest and delight struck a chord: Until that afternoon I couldn't remember the last time I'd experienced a real Sabbath, a day set aside for rest. Apart from church -- and, let's face it, getting an entire family dressed and mobilized is no picnic in a blooming meadow -- Sunday at my house is a day for laundry, school projects, grocery-shopping, and getting a head start on the week's work. Not exactly rest, much less delight.
And it's not just me. For most of us these days, it's a 24/7 world, where the stresses of the work week invariably bleed into the weekend. As journalist Steve Bailey noted last September in The New York Times, even vacation homes are wired for telecommuting. "Is there anything sadder," he asked, "than someone working on a laptop at the beach or at a picnic table?"
And even when we don't spend vacations and weekends getting ahead at a paying job, we're spending our "off" time ferrying kids to soccer games and birthday parties, running errands, or tending to the other myriad tasks required of a spouse, a parent, a daughter, a neighbor, a citizen, a friend. None of these activities are bad, of course, but we forget that good and meaningful activities can wear a person down as insistently as work does. "In the relentless busyness of modern life, we have lost the rhythm between action and rest," points out Wayne Muller, author of Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives. "The more our life speeds up, the more we feel weary, overwhelmed, and lost....The whole experience of being alive begins to melt into one enormous obligation."
My great-grandmother, an Alabama farmwife, would never have understood this dilemma. It's not that she was a stranger to hard, bone-wearying work: Six days a week she rose before dawn, worked all day long, and was busy doing handwork late into the night. (You should see the hand-tatted lace tablecloth I inherited from her.) But on the seventh day she rested. She wouldn't even cook or crochet on Sunday. The same woman who viewed wasting time as a sin was content to doze all afternoon and feed her family sandwiches for supper. For her, "Keep holy the Sabbath" was a God-ordained injunction against the weekday trap of making every instant count.
It's tempting for people today to believe their great-grandparents never encountered the urgency life invokes now. A hundred years ago there were no grocery stores open on Sunday, no Internet beeping the arrival of e-mail, no cell phones on vibrate even during meals. And yet weeds grew in farm furrows just as energetically on Sunday as on any other day of the week, and tomatoes continued to ripen for canning, so there must have been a great temptation, even for our ancestors, to get a head start on the week ahead.
My great-grandmother didn't give in to the temptation, but I do.
Or I did, until that rainy Sunday when my little boy invited me to play Monopoly. That's when it hit me that one easy, overlooked cure for the slightly breathless way I go through life might simply be to honor the Sabbath. What would it be like to set aside one whole day -- or even an afternoon -- to rest? To read on the porch swing, play games with the kids, take a walk in the woods, or have coffee with a friend?
Rest. Delight. Are such things even possible in the 21st century?
Absolutely, believes Lynne M. Baab, author of Sabbath Keeping: Finding Freedom in the Rhythms of Rest. "The meaning of the word Sabbath is 'stop, cease, desist, pause, rest,'" she points out. "The Sabbath is a concrete, practical, doable way to build rest into our schedules."
For Baab, it's not as important which day of the week serves as the day of rest. What matters most are the emotional and spiritual effects of taking a break from work. Baab recommends starting small, by choosing one task (e-mail, say, or laundry) to ignore for a full 24 hours. Taking a whole day is best, she says, but even an afternoon away from the full to-do list can do you good. As much as I long for the ancient, sundown-to-sundown concept of Sabbath, this advice comes as a relief to me. Because after sending my kids to school in dirty uniforms two Mondays in a row I finally concluded that Sunday evening really, really needs to include at least one load of laundry. (Do it once and you're one of those flaky moms who can't quite get it together; do it routinely and you're just a loser.) Allowing a full 24 hours for contemplation and relaxation might have to wait till I get the hang of this Sabbath thing a little better.
At some point I hope I can learn to squeeze what must be done into six days and to jettison altogether what isn't crucial, so I can have both a day of rest and a week that doesn't begin in a frenzy. After all, it's pointless to go to bed all rested and happy on Sunday night if it means turning into a harpy from hell on Monday morning because the lunches aren't made and the permission slip hasn't reappeared.
But since even a half-day Sabbath can be useful, according to Baab, I can still use Sunday night to pull myself together for Monday. And, it turns out, my Monopoly game with Joe was about right for a beginner. And so was the coffee date I had with a friend the next rainy Sunday. And so was the walk I took around a nearby lake the Sunday after that. So what if it wasn't a whole day away from obligations? The lake was so beautiful. I came home exultant. And each Monday I started the workweek feeling as though I'd actually had a break from the week before.
Last Sunday, however, I wanted to try something more obviously restful. So I stretched out on the couch with a book, a luxury that momentarily felt almost sinful in the middle of the day. Then I promptly compounded the evil of idleness by falling asleep. When I opened my eyes, Joe was standing there, looking down at me.
"Hmm? " My eyes were already fluttering closed again.
"What are you doing?"
A pause, while Joe contemplated this unfamiliar idea. "Are you sick?"
In fact, I was the exact opposite of sick -- I was peaceful, I was awash in peacefulness -- but that's a hard feeling to articulate, and not only because I'm not exactly familiar with it. It's just that before the words could form on my tongue, I was already asleep again.
And it was heaven.
LHJ readers describe their ideal day of rest.
"I start with a cup of tea, brewed in a teapot and poured into a china cup. I stir in cream and sugar then gaze out a window, sipping and savoring. Anything that happens after that is bound to be good."
Lisa Lessley Briscoe
"I pull out the big suitcase with the broken zipper that stores the memories of my youth, and look through the photos."
"A Sunday-afternoon nap erases the whole week's worth of fatigue and stress."
"I don't get a lot of face-to-face time with my friends. To just sit across from one another and talk is something I cherish."
"I go for a walk. I find that wherever I'm walking, down a forest path or in a cityscape, I'm drawn away from my own thinking to a peaceful place where I'm simply experiencing. And from that place I feel restored."
Jennifer Graf Groneberg
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, June 2009.