Monday, August 20, 2007

It's a Mystery

The Sudoku Murder,” read the title on the ‘New Books’ shelf. It was only a matter of time, wasn’t it, before someone cashed in on the craze and started a gimmicky series of mysteries designed to appeal to sudoku fans? And this one beat Death by Sudoku (another inevitable title) to the shelves by a good three months. But what can you really say about sudoku puzzles? Once you figure out the half dozen or so solving strategies they are pretty mechanical. Addictive, but mechanical.

So I wondered if it would ‘work’ for a novel, even a formula mystery novel. From the cover copy it did not sound too bad, though, so I brought The Sudoku Murder home from the library yesterday, and am here to report: it was ‘not too bad.’ *

About puzzles, mediocre novels, and other such diversions, I have ambiguous feelings. Oh, I know it seems that my feelings are ambiguous about everything these days! But I’ve never been good at recognizing the difference between relaxing, enjoyment, and taking a break; and escaping, addiction, and running away – much less been happy with my choices. This is one of several reasons I avoid vacations, seldom take all the ‘comp time’ coming to me, and often dread weekends – I find it a lot harder to manage down-time than structured time, at least to manage it in such a way that I feel good about myself and the world and don’t have regrets when it’s over.

This does not mean I never goof off; I still consume those sudokus and crossword puzzles, just about every day. I read 2-3 books a week, sometimes more, and a lot of it pretty un-taxing stuff. When I retired my last computer, after just a few years, its records showed that I’d played thousands of games of spider solitaire. I waste a lot of time. I may “think too much,” as my sister reports, but I can also devise (sometimes very elaborate and/or effective) strategies to avoid thinking about things. There are of course some diversions that are healthier and more helpful than others, but if you aim too high it doesn’t work. If you are too ambitious in your play it is no longer play, have you noticed that?

To some extent I used my trip to the Balkans this month to get away from thinking about my own sticky problems, at least to avoid thinking about them directly. There I could instead bury myself in the project and in the lives of those I was working with. I really enjoy that kind of thing and am pretty useful at them, so it’s not a waste – but those unresolved personal issues were still here for me when I returned. Did I think they would go away?

Did the break help? Maybe it did. I’m not sure. What is the real goal, the desired result, of ‘getting away,’ and how can you know if you have achieved it? Maybe it varies from person to person. Perhaps I need to learn to recognize the signs in myself. What does it look like when I am refreshed, renewed? Or when I’m not?

Part of the answer to the tension between goofing off and doing something with your life may be in moderation. If there was a real recipe to happiness, for me, it would probably involve doing something meaningful – and something meaningless – every day. Whether it’s a work day or a holiday, whether you’re ‘on a mission’ or bumming around the house, don’t let a day go by without some mix of both purposefulness and aimlessness!

Well, I don’t know. I still have all these questions about what it means to be healthy and sane and well-adjusted, which from this weird season of life are hard to answer. And maybe God’s word to me in this time is still:

Hush. I’m there with you. I am the one who redeems and transforms and I will, but in the meantime, there’s grace, don’t feel bad about being where you are, and who you are, both of which are just fine with me.

I spent some time recently with a gentle, sensitive young man, only about half my age, who for the first time is facing up to some disturbing things he sees in himself and in the way the world works; he is doubting his salvation and perhaps even the goodness of God. After he told me about it – and I was in my official counselor mode, intending just to draw him out, to hear his story and listen to him – he asked a few questions about what was going on with me. I practically slapped my forehead realizing what a thread of similarity ran through our struggles. I hadn’t seen it, and hadn’t shared it with him until we were almost out of time. But my friend was encouraged to hear he was not alone. “Misery loves company,” he said with a smile. We both want peace but recognize that doubt and questions may be an important part of the journey of faith.

Friends gave each of us these words from scripture, along with their acceptance and prayers:

Come, let us return to the Lord;
For he has torn us, that he may help us;
He has struck us down, and he will bind us up.
After two days he will revive us;
On the third day he will raise us up,
That we may live before him.
Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord;
His going out is as sure as the dawn;
He will come to us as the showers,
As the spring rains that water the earth.

Hosea 6:1-3

I was going to share some of what Joan Didion had to say on related topics in her book The Year of Magical Thinking but we’ve reached the 1000-word mark so I’ll save it for another day.

* Mystery readers, if you’d like a good novel on a math-and-numbers theme to pass away some summer hours, pick up A Piece of Justice, by Jill Paton Walsh.

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