Stoplight as soulcraft

First slide

“In the middle of life,” writes poet Tomas Tranströmer, “death comes to take your measurements. The visit is forgotten and life goes on. But the suit is being sewn on the sly.”

In the lead-up to the day on which my measurements were taken, my 80-mile round-trip commutes had devolved into a monotonous blur. My head bobbed up and down with the newest email, text or call. Nearly every stoplight or stretch of 10-mph traffic was an occasion to glance down and check. One month’s phone bill indicated 4.8 GB of data use. I nearly rear-ended or sideswiped other cars a few times, and evaded traffic citations — barely. I was getting a lot done. 

Then, came the visit. Acute abdominal pain left me hospitalized for two days. After I was discharged and the issue was resolved, all I could see were limping, bent-over people everywhere. I was newly sensitive to noise and media. Each day of good health was so bright with relief that the phone seemed largely devoid of power.    

Silence stalked me as I left hospital Room No. 256B and got into the car; it enveloped me on the Metro; accompanied me to the office; surrounded me at unexpected moments of the day and night. After work one day, I went on my first office-to-home, 40-mile silent retreat, never touching the phone. Then another. And another. On these retreats, I called my wife and responded to calls from the kids — but otherwise, silence reigned. 

First I began to hear my car’s engine. Then one day I caught the muffled voice of a homeless man talking with the driver behind me at a stoplight. I heard myself breathe for the first time in about a decade, and it was uninteresting. 

The promise of those first retreats nearly flamed out. On the Metro or in the car at stoplights, the memories of old consolations returned: all the radio, podcasts, interviews, lectures, and audio books’ unfolding plots. The banter, the news, the learning: all of these worlds were a screen swipe away; these worlds were spinning forward without me.     

The stoplight was becoming an unlikely place of soulcraft. I began to jam the phone under my pocket Bible on the passenger seat. On some 40-mile retreats, the phone seemed to pulsate from beneath the Bible and my thoughts slowed to a leaden sludge. On other retreats, the phone’s presence vanished in the face of a memory of my aunt who recently died; a Stevie Wonder refrain that came to mind; a prayer for my children. Faces and voices took turns hovering in the hushed cell of my car. Some retreats led me to brood, and again the phone’s screen flashed, newly suggestive. 

Like a professor, silence began to instruct me. This pedagogue was at once faithful yet unpredictable; persistent yet mercurial. On some retreats, I was instructed to think about my deficiencies. On others, silence asked me to inventory the past day — in search of the good. On some days, prayer rose like a phoenix from the ash of my distraction, as silence told me to share in another’s heaviness or joy. Each retreat was unlike the one before.

On one early morning retreat, two pileated woodpeckers swooped in front of me. I braked, suddenly motionless as they began to play hide-and-seek on opposite sides of a nearby oak trunk. I lingered until they took their game deeper into the forest. In the still silence of another retreat, the phone rang. It was an old friend, calling from his morning commute a thousand miles away.    

The inbreaking splendor of a pileated or consolation of a friend’s voice are exceptions. Most retreats, I am finding, are bare and unadorned. So far, the unruly zoo of my thoughts seems largely untamed by these attempts at stoplight soulcraft. 

Life goes on. The visit is not yet forgotten. The suit is being sewn on the sly, but silence is measuring my life anew.

Johnson is associate director of the St. Thomas More Institute.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018