The streets are lined with people shouting all at the same time. As I propel my insulated capsule along my 30-minute commute, my armor does not muffle the shouts — countless voices in a clamor, everybody casting bated hooks at every passerby. I hear each loud word distinctly.

Shouts, printed on billboards. Shouts, flashing neon in windows. Shouts across storefronts, emblazoned. One shouts from a flag unfurled behind a propellered plane. They seek to persuade me that I am needy, and they’re quick to offer happiness. They illustrate mystical experiences, guarantee sexual adventure, tease salivation with sweet and sour lures. Some promise justice after asking if I’ve been wronged — and maybe I have been, let me think. These might seem friendly, but many are mere flattery and false promises — and they’re all intent on the same thing: my money.

All of these are messages preached from a pulpit, verses in a liturgy for a church I have rejected. This is the Faith of the Self, a creed that complicates every expression of freedom and justice in the foundational American script. It’s the constant insistence that I am incomplete and that I can be made whole if I just buy what they’re selling. (And look — is that an Empty Billboard to an Unknown God!)

You need. You need. You need. We will make you happy, hiss the serpents of a thousand fonts, these seducers in a thousand stock photos.

But you know this.

And you might also know what I am only now beginning to learn. I learned the value of reading at a very early age, and the value of seeking out a bargain at the very same time. Ever since my eyes have had their own voracious appetite for text, compelled to seize upon anything that might give me the satisfaction that I got something I wanted or needed for less than the advertised price. So my eyes take it all in, scanning every sign, seeking an advantage. All of it. By habit. Unconsciously. I’m not aware of it as it happens, but if I stop and think about it I can feel the toll it takes. I might just look at the road as I drive, but I’m exhausted after driving through the city. It isn’t just the traffic — it’s the text, the endless assault of attention-seeking adjectives and claims. Every sign is angling to persuade.

Reading every sign, I do not see the more substantial thing: the gift offered outside any urge to advertise. I do not see the necessary, nourishing beauty in its indifference. I do not receive the heavens’ declarations, for I cannot hear the still small voice that translates their announcements. I do not read the sign language of trees in breezes. I do not tune in to the transmissions of birdsong, or their gestures of graceful suspension. Invisible goes unseen, the space that is offered, the moments between notes — the sigh, the pause, the occasions for a Word not bound by letters or punctuation. Instead, it’s bumper stickers and billboards for suckers.

So I crave corridors of trees that quiet all of the clamor. Like those that shelter the path around Green Lake from the roar of the city: paths crowded and busy with people, busy with their talk — but such talk. Human voices in earnest conversation, not competitive agents of consumer culture, not the seductive invitations of saleswomen, not the urgent appeals saying Fear! Fear! Take what we offer and your fears, those we have just kindled in you, will cease! Instead, intimacy. Storytelling. Questions.

So I choose these corridors and practice prayers, weaning myself off the titillation and terror of text. Text. Text. Text. Turning attention to the origin of images, to the things that are diminished by the exploitation of imitators, I receive the light, I read the scents, I taste the textures, I attend in ways that awaken all of my being into eyes and ears. I attend to the indifferent creation, where Christ plays in countless spaces and waits for me to discern a dance.

But it isn’t so easy. I’ve been conditioned by the constant stream — the blaring and the subliminal — that has made Self-Awareness my Default position. Runners that pass me spark surges of insecurity, jealousy, even anger at how they remind me of how far short I fall of any physical ideal. “Comparison is the thief of joy,” says the hummingbird tattoo of a friend at the top of her class; even she, in what others measure “success,” in the adoration of fans and the applause of crowds, suffers that flinch. It’s an American right: the pursuit of happiness. And yet, in framing our experience that way, happiness is always out of reach, and so we are always striving. Joy, by contrast, is always freely offered, a reassurance, a contentment, found only in what is given with no expectation of return.

Road trips are, for me, no longer about a point at which to arrive. They are a search for the sigh of an open road — a road, open. Open to trees. Open to sky. Open to hills and to space and to birds. Roads unlined with alphabet signs, and obscuring walls, and the self-consciousness of mirrors. Roads that allow for signs of life. I’ve become a slower driver, quick to move aside for those who suffer urgency. The journey is the reward.

Is this why I am reluctant to wake after sleeping? In dreams, I rarely read signs. I rarely hear an advertisement. And I am rarely ever still — I am moving, often through landscapes. Moments after waking, when I’m grasping at fading fragments of a world that felt charged with meaning, I am dragged back down into the urgent, the tyranny of messages, calendars, reminders, and alarms.

I do not read in the shower. So, of course, I want to stay in that stream of elemental sensation. It is a stronger language. It asks nothing of me.

I rarely read something during a movie, except during trailers and ads. I love being lost in the film. Especially if it knows the language of pauses, of spaces, of sky.

This tree before me now, as I rest here on this park bench, it tells a story here in a thick web of stories. Somehow, burdened early, it grew horizontal to the ground, warped for years, and then suddenly released to answer light’s call. It grew straight, tall. I marvel at how the weight of such a skyscraping tree is held up by that bend at its base. Somehow, in that season of suffering, it grew strong enough to defy the pull of the earth and to support a weight of years beyond most others around it. A living word for me, I suppose, if I consider it. If I know how to read. I recall a song: “Must we choose to be slaves to gravity?”

I look up through the branch-weave of birch and aspen and cottonwood, through windows: one frames a mountain of snowdrift cloud, and blue clouds of fog are burning free of that somehow, wisping away. Another frames pale blue, another bolder blue. I hear bald eagles; they’re soaring out of frame in a larger, fuller world.  I look down into the undergrowth and see tiny pink ribbons tied around tiny stalks. Generous children and their guides have been here planting, striving to ensure that this stand of trees along the lake line continues to speak, the manuscript always revising. I receive shade, surprise, suggestion, all in the color and ease of the gossiping leaves. The only investment I’ve made is to go, to be, to receive.

Someone strides through, between me and the trees and the glitter of the lake beyond. They stare, of course, at the tiny glass frame in their hand. I see, for a moment, myself in most hurried journeys. I see myself driving. I see myself in the supermarket. I see myself scanning the shouts. And I’m reminded of all I’m not seeing. I want to leave town.

When I drive north the I-5 corridor from Seattle through Mount Vernon, I rise into a winding span just before the descent into Bellingham. High hills, dark with evergreen. Fog rises and tumbles and dissipates, turning all the world to rumor. Light surprises. Shadows suggest. This is music I was meant to receive. It goes on playing whether I attend to it or not. It loosens me from the tethers and tensions of self-awareness. I breathe more freely. I become permeable, half-suspecting that this is what it will feel like when the last buckle snaps and I rise into an offer I cannot refuse, no strings attached, no bill brought to the table.