In Quasi Mode

(Chatter letter from the Editor, May 2012)

When I was nursing my son, my compulsive multitasking kindled a desire for the only other thing I was able to do in a glider: read The Classics. Maybe it was my sudden brainlessness — oh, the irony — or the fact I didn’t have a paying job, but I was going to tie up one of my life’s (questionably valid) loose ends. I started with “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” I mean, the Disney movie was hilarious. The book, however, turned out to be a melodramatic tragedy that could only compete with my stretch marks for epic proportions. By the time I had read halfway through, my skin had become damp and pale and my brain had started pealing with bells that might or might not have been the result of sleep deprivation. Oh the bells. There were so many, many bells.

When our family moved to a new house a couple of years ago, we discovered it was about five minutes from a church with a bevy of bells, if you will, that tolled every hour in full voice, and also chimed the quarter hour. I can sing the melody in my sleep. I still wonder sometimes if there is a present-day Quasi Modo living at Saint Stephen’s and if he could use someone to pick up his dry cleaning every now and then.

It appears church bells have been part of society for a long time. Before mass communication, bells were the only way to gather a village together — heathen and devout alike — for emergency meetings or the weekly stag hunt. (Are stags still a thing?) In World War II in Great Britain, all church bells were silenced, to ring only to inform of an invasion by enemy troops. The practice and hobby of bell-ringing is sometimes known to non-ringers as campanology. I didn’t realize this could actually be a hobby, but I suppose if you felt the need for a past time and happened to have access to a belfry, that there are worse ways to spend your time.

My favorite thing about our neighborhood bells is how they are able to put me instantly within the context of the world. Bells chime, and I remember it’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and that everyone around me is also living the 3 o’clock hour. Bells provide a distraction, not like Facebook or the relentless buzzing of my email, but a mechanism by which I can pull my head above water and survey the long calm of Right Now; a way to lasso the present and bring it close for inspection.

The bells’ power lies in their commonality. I set an alarm for one reason or another, but it is just for me, set by me, and turned off by me. Bells, however, apply publicly, whether you want to be reminded of the hour or not. They tell us that we all need a conscious way to mark time — everyone from the garbage man and the kid walking his dog, to the earnest woman nursing her son while reading The Classics. Bells remind us we are all in this thing together and that this thing, whatever it is, is going by in a measurable way.

Perhaps the Saint Stephen’s bells are one of the ways God answers my prayer from Psalm 90:12: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” When I number my days, I see how things really are and how fast they are moving. I see how dust-born and dust-bound I am; what a miracle it is to be here at 3 p.m., then again at 3:15, then again at 3:30. I break my stupor and see the stage, the set, the costumes, the other characters, and the Director in his chair. I have a moment to breathe, to ask, “What’s my line, again?”

Even though I’m not nursing anyone right now, I still think I should ponder the bells and read the great books, and I suppose the next most logical thing on my list should be “For Whom the Bell Tolls” — if I can handle another stretch-mark-worthy saga, that is…

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