Stuck in Punxsutawney, Again


Whether they are cheerfully sort-of-deist or in-fact, stone-cold, out-and-out Jesus Freaks, Quakers of a certain generation, across the spectrum, agree that the movie Groundhog Day is scripture. Today, with all of us living Groundhog Day all the time during COVID, Friends are advised to share this scripture with newcomers. “Here,” you want to say, “Just watch this on Amazon Prime about three times and see if it doesn’t go all meta on you.” The meta part, of course, is where it turns out we’re all Phil Connors, the protagonist of the movie, who is stuck in an endlessly repeating day and an endlessly repeating script.

Like Phil Connors in the movie, I don’t particularly have to work. It’s not that I’m rich; but there’s a long, complicated substitute teacher story of early SSI and a little unemployment, and then summer break, and then COVID. The point is, I don’t have to work now. I don’t have to get the kids off to school (they’re in their 30s) or milk the cow. I don’t have to go to the mill with my lunch-pail swinging in my hand, whistling an Elizabeth Cotton song, “I don’t have to get out of bed” (which I almost didn’t this morning).

In Groundhog Day, as the reality sinks that Phil is doomed to an endless repeat of a not very special February day, he wanders off into crazy-land and outrageous behavior. Bill Murray plays this role, and he’s really funny with it, but it stretched him as an actor, too, because in the dark underbelly of his despair, the character tries multiple suicides to get out of his predicament . . . and that doesn’t work either. He wakes up again every morning in the same bed, just fine, with the same inane Sonny-and-Cher song blasting from the clock radio, and the same cheerful D.J. reminding him, “It’s Groundhog Day, campers; so dress warm, because it’s cold out there!” Every damn day, it’s real cold.

Phil Connors suffers the prison of himself. Like me. As a follower of Jesus, I could tell Phil what I’ve learned about that prison: lessons from recovery, from divorce and remarriage, from pilgrimage, from charity, and from reaching out to others stuck in prisons worse than mine. I could share from my heart about how the emotions of religious fervor drain away, and how theology starts to sound like ducks quacking, and how the dead certainty of one’s utter unimportance and utter aloneness in this world sinks into one’s bones like ice on a headstone. As a follower of Jesus, I would talk to Phil about what I call dry prayer, prayer without much hope, or faith, or even much understanding about what the words are supposed to mean. Just “help” and “I hurt” and “please” and eventually maybe “thank you.” (Anne Lamott writes about this beautifully; you should read her.)

I am saying those prayers while cleaning the garage and while I complete my new workbench in there (from scratch!). I’ve said these prayers while admiring the spider-ladies in the rhododendron by the front door and complimenting them on how big and fat they’ve gotten this fall. I have said these prayers while taking socks and waters and Neosporin and peanut butter sandwiches to the folks who live in the intersection by the gas-station. I have said these dry prayers while recording Sunday morning music for my wife, who has a real job zoom-pastoring a Friends church. Rise and shine campers. Amen, and amen.  

Derek Lamson is a Eugene guitar-player and writer with a side-hustle as a substitute teacher. He is a member of Eugene Friends Church, where his wife Ruba is pastoring.

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