Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Summer Doldrums


They seem to hit me about the time the okra is putting on. The daytime temperatures range in the too hot for comfort range. The humidity is somewhere in the outrageous zone. My work load insists that I push myself out the door in the morning and I’m sweating before I complete the short walk to my truck. Before I finish the first lawn I look like someone turned a hose on me and gave me a good soaking. Needless to say, the okra usually rates a low priority and gets picked infrequently resulting in a lot of pods that are too mature and woody to be good for anything except soil building material. It’s a pity too because we really like okra.

It’s hard to sense any sort of spiritual inspiration when the general order of the days and weeks of summer in this sub-tropical zone calls for generous amounts of perspiration without a lot of exertion. I’ve noticed this pattern over the past several years and have come to recognize it, and its lesser counterpart that comes around in the middle of winter, as part of the annual cycle of my own personal normalcy. I’ve come to see that the summer doldrums are clearly marked on the chart of my life. There’s no way to navigate around them. I simply have to head into them, watch as my sails go limp and hang lifeless, drift through them in day to day slow motion, and wait for the fresh breeze that will always eventually come.

Life in these doldrums isn’t a purely lethargic one. Life goes on. It just happens that it goes on in some ways at a slower emotional and spiritual pace and I appreciate the fact that even people like Thomas Merton had spells when nothing seemed to flow in the direction that he thought it should.

When I first started noticing the effects of the doldrums several years ago I thought I was depressed and couldn’t figure out why. Then I went through the old guilt-tripping thing - layering on a generous supply of the “you ought to be doing this or that,” something that I account to the decades that I spent in Evangelical Fundamentalism. Somewhere along the way I realized that in the doldrums it’s enough to do just what needs doing, and it’s a really good time to do some things that usually get neglected at other times – like going fishing or reading a book or two just for the mere pleasure of it.

These seasons in the doldrums have a way of showing me that I’m not an invincible Peter Poppins – Practically Perfect in Every Way. They force me to take time to slow down, think, dream, and count my blessings. They have a way of reminding me how fleeting and short life is and of the futility of so much that we spend ourselves on and doing just for the sake of proving to others that we have secured some reasonable standard of living in an economic environment that’s fast going to hell in a hand basket. [This same self-proving malady also, I think, has a way of imposing itself on our conception of our spiritual being and relationship with God.] The fruitful thing about the doldrums, for me anyway, is they always have a centering way about them that leads me to fresh levels of rejoicing and thanksgiving. Perhaps this is because they make me realize that it’s not me, or the things that I’m doing, that is the wind in my sails.

I like to consider the doldrums to be God-sent still air and waters that engulf and interrupt my day to day, week to week, month to month goings on that have a way of going on entirely too long before they are providentially interrupted. I have, in a sense, by my own organized routine, set myself up for these seasonal interruptions since I don’t seem to be able to find a way to manage scheduling regular times for holy leisure. Joan Chittister, in her chapter on Holy Leisure, reminds me that “Benedict calls us to mindfulness. No life is to be so busy that there is no time to take stock of it. No day is to be so full of business that the gospel dare not intrude. No schedule is to be so tight that there is no room for reflection on whether what is being done is worth doing at all. No work should be so all-consuming that nothing else can ever get in: not my husband, not my wife, not my hobbies, not my friends, not nature, not reading, not prayer. How can we ever put on the mind of Christ if we never take time to determine what the mind of Christ was then and is now, for me?”[1]

I knew the chances of catching anything was slim to none since the tide was set to be at its lowest point but I took my cast net and a fishing rod and drove to a little fishing pier that I know of at the upper end of Weeks Bay. A week earlier I caught ten nice mullet off this pier with my net and I figured that I could at least sit on a bench and look at the water. I threw my net quite a number of times and caught nothing fit to cook. I did catch a couple of trash fish that I tossed to the Pelican, I don't know its gender but I call it Gus, that hangs around the pier looking for hand outs. I left my net on the pier and walked to the truck to get a drink of water.

As I sat in the truck a large Great Horned Owl lit in a pine tree not far from me. I sat there watching it and thought it strange that it would be moving around at 4:00 in the afternoon. After a few minutes the owl flew off. I went back to the pier and tried my luck with my rod for a while until I hung a snag and lost my hook. The owl had flown only a hundred feet or so and was sitting in a dead pine. Every few minutes it would say something in owl that I had no way of understanding but I enjoyed listening to it talk.

I walked back to the truck to retie a hook and noticed a gaunt fellow about my age picking through the trash cans pulling out whatever aluminum he could find. He looked like the contents of something that comes in cans had just about gotten the best of him. I suppose a lot of people would have been put off or frightened by this fellow but he was minding his own business and not bothering anyone. Who knows what hard trials and circumstances bent him into this shape? But for the grace of God there go I? I used to think that way but I’ve come to the point that I reject that line of reasoning. To assume that is to assume that this poor fellow doesn’t merit anything more than he’s got to deal with.

I prayed for him while I retied. As I walked back to the pier I was joined by a young man and two small boys that came to throw their nets, something they apparently hadn’t done much of. The young man was very polite and referred to me several times as “sir.” I must be looking my age. I fished a while longer, pointed out the owl in the nearby tree, and then gave the three of them all the room on the pier to practice throwing their nets.

Life’s not so bad in the doldrums.

[1] Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled From The Daily, p.105

[Photo: Cast net fishing in Mobile Bay]