Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

25 July 2010


I am usually under stress, I discovered years ago when I went on sabbatical. It took the experience of rest to make me recognize its opposite.

In all of the jobs I have had, most of the women I have known have figured out when they are going to retire. They know the exact year, without having to figure it up when you ask them. Perhaps the men do as well, but it is the women who talk about retiring. They fantasize about it—fantasies I like to call job-icidal ideation, the primary symptom of a mental illness whose name I have not yet invented. It is a common mental illness, I think. Perhaps the most common of our culture.

Once, in a meeting of other professional women, I mentioned a sick fantasy I have about lying in a hospital bed, rendered suddenly stress-free by cancer or paralysis some other act of God. Probably some of my listeners were struggling with loved ones laid low by illness, I thought as I spoke, and I was regretting the words even as they emerged from my mouth. I often do this. Especially under stress. But the response of my listeners surprised me. They nodded. Vigorously. Several women said that they had had the very same fantasy. The hospital bed. The silence. The IV drip sustaining one effortlessly. Visits from family and friends only during visiting hours. The hushed messages of encouragement.

Perhaps the stress of reconciling the demands of home and work is not a gender thing, but I have read somewhere that working women, contrary to men, typically eat at their desks, still working, or else don’t lunch at all, and I have noticed that this is true of most of the women I know. They can’t stop working long enough to sit and joke around in the school cafeteria with our male colleagues and eat a decent lunch. I also don’t see them walking around with gymbags, as the men do. A few women work out, of course. They give up lunch to fit in aerobics or body pump. Or they get to school early early to join the morning class. I know because I have joined them, lunging and thrusting half awake through driving songs about love and power. What’s love got to do with it, do with it? Often I would find myself singing it as I rushed to class and then a core curriculum meeting and then back to my office to be there for the two hours we are required to set aside for our students each day. By then I am starving, so I make some microwave popcorn and eat it as I grade papers or prepare class for the next day.

Two of my female colleagues do go home for lunch. Both are about to retire. They go home for lunch, I like to imagine, in anticipation of the time when they will be able to rest and enjoy life every day.

While I was on sabbatical, I ate lunch. Outside, if it was nice weather. A salad fresh-picked from my garden, most times, dressed with the merest teaspoon of olive oil, a scattering of salt and sugar, and vinegar. I could see our dogs in the outer reaches of the yard, lounging in the sun.

“Here, Tessi! Here Erica! Moe dog, come here!” I called to them. But they just lay there, or loitered a bit nearer to my iron table and dozed off again.

Who knew that dogs spent the day sleeping? It’s true that all the aphorisms say they do—a dog’s life, let sleeping dogs lie—but I knew our dogs, before that year, only in attitudes of frenzy. Jumping up at me. Wanting fed. Tripping me in their excitement at getting to accompany me to the mailbox. In my year at home, I learned the secret of their perpetual good nature, and it is this: Dogs spend their days AND their nights at rest. They live, I have come to think, as God would have us live. At rest. Worry free. Not waking at 3 a.m. to write an essay, as I am at this moment, or fantasizing about having terminal diseases, but at peace with the world, saving their frenzy for something worthwhile. Fellowship. Food. A walk in the sun.

Kris and I have been reading Isaiah. It is a grim book, mostly, hard to enter first thing in the morning, which is when we typically do it: a list of bad things that will happen to this people or that, to us, if we don’t live the way God wants us to.

For the first twenty books or so, I understood this living right as the usual sort of righteousness we are called to follow: not worshipping idols or intermarrying with idol-worshipping foreigners, not staggering from wine or reeling with beer or being “heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks” (5:22—it’s really in there!), not making widows our prey or robbing the fatherless.

It was hard to get convicted by anything Isaiah said, I found. This is nothing new, though. Isaiah’s own listeners had the same problem. Even after Isaiah took to preaching in the nude, which you’d think would make anyone perk up and pay attention, his listeners just mocked his words.

Then we got to this electrifying passage in Chapter 28. Isaiah’s listeners are mocking him, babbling his words back to him like little children, just words in meaningless-sounding streams:
Do and do, do and do,
rule on rule, rule on rule,
a little here, a little there.
In Hebrew, the jumble of words sound even more mocking, like the meaningless sounds we make when we are mimicking someone we think a fool, as indeed some scholars think is what Isaiah is recording in this passage:
sav lasav sav lasav
kav lakav kav lakav
The passage is evidently difficult to decipher, as the various English Bibles come up with wildly different translations—but Isaiah’s response to his audience’s mockery clears it all up, to my view. “Very well then,” he tells them,
with foreign tongues God will speak to his people,
to whom he said,
“This is the resting place, let the weary rest”;
and, “This is the place of repose”—
but they would not listen.
So then, the word of the LORD to them will become:
Do and do, do and do,
rule on rule, rule on rule,
a little here, a little there.
So that they will go and fall backward,
be injured and snared and captured. (28:10-13)
And that is precisely what has happened. Here was genuine prophecy. Having rejected God’s offer of rest and repose, we do and do and do and do, following our rules, adding a few more tasks and a few more rules each day, until we are injured and snared and captured in a web of doing, no longer even capable of rest, despite our best intentions. In lunging forward, we fall backward. Our best attempt to grasp the old promise becomes a dream of hospital beds and then death, the ultimate rest.

1 comment:

LaLa said...

I love this patty. It makes me want to lay down right this minute. ahhhhhhh