In the first of her “Little House” books, Laura Ingalls Wilder describes a Sunday afternoon in her grandfather’s youth. He and his brothers had just built a sled, but the Sabbath had begun before they could give it a trial run. Held inside for Bible study, the boys could not focus on the catechism. When their father fell asleep, they slipped outside to test the new sled.

With all three of them aboard, it gained speed so quickly that they could not stop or turn when a pig stepped into their path. The sled scooped up the pig, and it joined the ride squealing shrilly. Its cries woke their father and, when the sled run ended, the pig fared better than the brothers. It took off into the woods while the boys – after sundown – were caned for violating Sabbath rules.

It’s hard now to envision spending a day each week governed by the lengthy list of Sabbath prohibitions from that era: no vehicular use; no cooking or heating meals; no reading save for religious texts; no shopping; no games, play or crafts; and no smiling or laughing.

Religious strictures have loosened and fewer people are governed by stringent Sabbath rules. So we should feel free to shape restorative rest days of our own design, creating what Abraham Joshua Heschel called a “palace in time.”

Yet few of us do. Without that unequivocal commandment to rest, it can be hard to step back from endless “to do” lists. We all now swim in a lap pool of 24/7 productivity. Choosing to sit on the sidelines for a day can seem inefficient and indulgent.

If we’re not required to rest, why should we consciously step back from our customary activities, hitting the pause button in fast-forward lives?

Contemplative time is valuable, writes minister Wayne Muller in his book “Sabbath,” precisely because it dissolves “the artificial urgency of our days” and “liberate[s] us from the need to be finished.”

“Sabbath is a time,” he writes, “when we retreat from the illusion of our own indispensability.”

For most of us, that retreat must involve unplugging, letting the screens in our lives go blank, and trusting that the work of the world will continue and our “social networks” will survive for a while without our contributions.

What a sabbath time offers, Muller suggests, is a return to humility. The word itself traces back – literally – to the earth, its etymological roots intermingled with humus. In sabbath moments of rest and reflection, we center ourselves in place.

No season grounds us quite like winter. The clear, compressed days that surround the winter solstice offer a palette of colors – especially at the day’s bookends – that can stop us short. The work of slow growth occurs in hidden depths, reminding us that rest is built into the fabric of life. It becomes easier to give ourselves moments of dormancy, knowing how essential that incubation time is to health and growth.

The clarity and intensity of winter can also renew us, recharging our souls in a way very different than summer’s lazy-long days. Wilder’s grandfather had the right instincts: Sledding is a perfect winter sabbath activity. Play outdoors brings us face-to-face with the elemental world, spun breathless with the exhilaration of being.

The depths of the winter night sky put our own small lives in perspective. Mary Oliver captures this sense in her poem “Wild Geese.” Beyond our stories of personal drama and despair, she writes, “the world goes on” with its endlessly shifting collage of sun, rain, and shadows. If we listen, the call of wild geese can remind us that we belong to a greater “family of things.”

Being part of that vast family carries a responsibility, one that can feel like a weight, given the depth and breadth of environmental ills. In a recent conversation with author Terry Tempest Williams (online at, Maine conservationist Roger Milliken spoke of his struggle to “let go of that place of doing and drop into a place of being part of the natural world … [before asking] ‘what is mine to do?’ ” In his work for sustainable forestry and conservation, he has found that time outdoors offers the “sense of spaciousness” needed to direct his efforts, providing answers that do not come from working “faster, harder, smarter.”

Williams echoed his reflections, citing her conviction that “Earth is asking us to slow down, to pay attention and to listen.” Speaking before a room of activists, she affirmed how quiet time outdoors grounds her own work in community, her ongoing effort to effect “a change of heart.” Work toward sustainability rests on a foundation of wonder.

Once, Williams noted, there was the “simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.”

Marina Schauffler, Ph.D., is a writer who runs Natural Choices (