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they love it that we’re distracted

 

stencil graffiti of a person bending down in front of a tv screen -- their head is inside the screen. Around the image are the words Good morning, good morning.

there was a cat out on the porch just now, a shadow that smoothed across the morning deck, and stopped at Sophie’s water bowl. I watched her there, looking for bits of food. Then I turned to catch the kettle before it boiled, and when I looked back, the shadow had disappeared.

The morning is a quiet candle and a peaceful place. In two days we’ll get on a plane. In three days we;ll be in Dublin. Just now the temperature in Dublin is… I make myself not pick up the phone to check, not open a safari screen to check. It’s all I can do to remember how to do one thing at a time. The urge to look is a tightness in my belly and throat. Why do I just have to be sitting here typing? I could be reading a book and checking news and listening to news and have bread rising and doing all kinds of other things at the same time. I could be getting information right now — why that need? What’s the urgency about?

 

On Sunday, my sweetheart and I went for mani-pedis, which still feel like an incredible luxury to me. For twenty or thirty bucks, I get to sit in a chair that will knead my back and shoulder muscles, and a person will work at the hard callouses that all of my bare-footing makes, then massage my feet and calves with sugar scrub and oil and lotion and then paint my toes pretty colors. It’s an astonishing thing, so much offering, and all I can do is sit there and say thank you. At one point I looked around; besides my sweetheart and me, there were three other women sitting in these fat chairs and they were all looking at their phones while, at their feet, someone scrubbed or tended or massaged. At their feet, I mean, someone was touching each of these women in a way that was meant to bring some joy, some ease, some relaxation. I wondered whether the phone women were even aware of the sensation, or if they were made so uncomfortable by this act of intimacy that they couldn’t engage, couldn’t acknowledge. They couldn’t put the phones down. I’m not saying that anyone was unkind — everyone was friendly, everyone said please and thank you, everyone tipped, all that. I’m trying to get into a deeper dive here. Is it just about distraction?

We heard on the radio this weekend that people are feeling so oppressed by the number of podcasts they have to listen to that they are listening to them at twice the speed: hurrying through the storytelling, the artistry, so that they can get through it and get to the next one.

There’s something about all this entertainment we have at our fingertips these days, the sheer amount of it at the ready, and how we feel pressured to consume it all, lest we are unable to participate in the cultural conversation. There are whole newsfeeds in my apple news app about Game of Thrones — the show, the actors, the controversies, whether or not its feminist — and I don’t know what they’re talking about, nor do I especially feel a need to know. It it’s taking up room in the place where actual news could live. There’s a feeling of pressure that I am not participating if I haven’t watched The Wire or 13 Things about a Serial or whatever — I don’t even want to try to remember all the shows I’m supposed to be watching or people have told me I have to watch or listen to or that are getting all the press (even though if I tried, I know a lot of those show titles are lodged in my brain, taking up space where the phrasing for “Do you have custard tarts” in Portuguese would like to be).

I mean, there’s something about the amount of entertainment we’re expected to avail ourselves of, and what happens to a culture, to a people, that is over-entertained, that is forever entertained, that is continually distracted and even flooded with entertainment.  The government and planet are falling apart but we’re making sure that we’re home in time for GoT and (“home in time” — what does that even mean anymore? We don’t even get the myth of sharing this consumption of story and celebrity simultaneously, like we used to, everyone watching JR get shot or Mindy marry Mork or the folks getting airlifted from MASH 4077 or whatever — of course, now we can livestream rapes and car-crash deaths, and folks can participate in those at the same time, so maybe we’re coming back around. It’s like the Colosseum, and we’ve become those spectators again, or maybe (let’s be honest) we always were).

How do we remember how to focus on one thing at a time, to be in this now, and to create ourselves? We actually don’t have to watch these shows or listen to these podcasts or watch the now movies or the It youtube channels or continually scroll through the important Instagram feeds. We can turn it off. We can say no. But it can be hard to. Saying no also means saying no to our own distraction, our own desire to be out of our skin, our life our reality. How often have I said recently, Can we just go see a stupid movie and forget about what’s going on out there? We have a celebrity entertainer in the white house who knows exactly what he’s doing: driving the people to their screens — whether to watch him or escape him, it’s all the same result.

Turning all of it off is a different decision entirely. Turning it off and watching bird tv or cat tv or cow tv or street-outside-the-window tv, or reading a real book (one off a screen, one with pages you turn, I mean) uses your brain differently. I feel less scattered, less neurally fragmented, and less frantic, when I put the phone down.

I don’t know what I’m saying. I guess I’m recommending the slowing down, as I always do. there’s a frantic in me right now that I’m talking to, and it’s not a media-consumption frantic, it’s a too-much-to-do-before-we-leave frantic, but frantic is frantic, and if I don’t know how to settle, how to get present, how to focus on one thing at a time, then the frantic just continues. step up into what wants to be.

In the book World Enough and Time, Christian McEwen speaks not just to our oversaturated media landscape, not just to how hard it is to focus on something as ridiculed as poetry when we’re overtaxed in every part of our lives, but also on how necessary slowing down and focusing is for any creative person. The experience of reading her book models the slowing down, the slipping from lily pad to lily pad, the meandering brook and the meandering thought, invites me to remember what it felt like when I was a younger person and I could leave the house with nothing on my mind but meeting the day exactly as it was, letting the day find me, letting myself follow whatever wanted to happen. I didn’t think about it that way when I was little, though. Often it looked like being bored — I’m bored! there’s nothing to do! and our parents let us be bored, or they had too much adulting to do to worry about our boredom, and out of our boredom grew something new, a new game or an investigation of the back area behind the garage and what all was living under those rocks or a book you made yourself out of crayons and paper you folded in half and punched with a hole punch and threaded together with that fat cottony string.

Boredom creates space for creativity. We don’t call it boredom so much now that we’re adults. We call it leaving room open for something to happen. We call it just breathing, or taking a walk, or going for a run or a bike ride or a swim or just sitting in the living room and watching out the window. We even call it, some of us call it, going to our jobs.

Of course, if we have a device in our hands that can deliver entertainment directly to our brains every second of our lives, of course, boredom never ever has to be a problem anymore. And that’s something that those in power are counting on, I think. revolutions are creative practices, after all.

(never mind what it is we’re “entertaining” ourselves with — the violence, the rapes, the racism, the terror.. this has become what we choose to watch. We willingly inflict it on ourselves. We take it into our bodies and brains and call it entertaining, we call it edifying, we say it matters somehow. There’s a reason we can listen to news reports about hundreds of people dying in a suicide bombing without breaking down in extraordinary grief, without recoiling in terror, and can just go on about our day. There’s a reason, and that reason is serving somebody not us.)

Calvin was talking about this twenty years ago. and his critiques were old even then.

It’s not so much that I’m anti-technology or anti-entertainment or anti I-just-need-to-get-out-of-my-head-for-awhile (god knows)  — it’s more that I want us to allow for space for those threads of curiosity and wonder to emerge. We need room for day dreaming as well as night dreaming, we healing, creative beings. We need room for our attention to be drawn to the hummingbird at the feeder, which is much less likely to happen if there’s a jump-cut car chase on the screen.

They design these shows to capture us, you know. You know this, to knot us in, to keep us watching. It’s their job. That’s fine, they can do their job. We don’t have to always say yes. Sometimes it’s an act of radical self care to set the entertainment down and let ourselves be in the world, even for the space of ten deep, fierce breaths.

It comes as no surprise that those people who choose to pause at regular intervals report almost immediate effects in therms of personal well-being. William James is especially eloquent on this. “The transition from tenseness, self-responsibility and worry, to equanimity, receptivity, and peace, is the most wonderful of all those shiftings of inner equilibrium…and the chief wonder of it is that it so often comes about, not by doing, but by simply relaxing and throwing the burden down.” Rhythmic creatures that we are, it makes sense that we should choose to do this in a predictable way, whether in the form of feasts or holy festivals, or at regular secular intervals. The pause is delicious in and of itself. But repeated, rhythmic pauses, like our contemporary weekend, pauses that can be anticipated and relied upon, are ten thousand times more precious. – World Enough and Time, Christian McEwen.

Be easy with yourselves today, ok? Thank you for the space you make for your dreamself, your curious self, your wondering self. Thank you for the words in you.

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“as alive as any animal”

Yesterday, the poem asked: What do I do with my body if it’s not a secret? Today, the poem says:

This soup is alive as any animal,
and the yeast and cream and rye
will sing inside you after eating
for a long time.

– from “Bread Soup: An Old Icelandic Recipe” by Bill Holm

Today, I am anxious to get off the computer. I want to be in the garden. I want to read about sourdough starter, about cool vs. warm rises, I want to bring my second attempt at san francisco sourdough bread back up to temperature (it rose in the fridge overnight) so that I can put it in the oven and get breakfast going. I want to learn about soil textures and compositions, learn how to tell what nutrients the soil’s abundant in based on what weeds are growing there. I want to learn about soil amendments and natural fertilizers. I want to figure out the best way to grow watermelons here in Oakland so that a certain young man isn’t disappointed again this growing season. I want to go to the local organic nursery and pick out native plants and organic varietals that will thrive during this coming thirsty summer. Then I want to go to an urban recycling center to find a big bucket to catch shower water (while the water’s heating up, say) to help water the garden. And a bird feeder. And a top for the bird bath.

There’s a lot I want to do these days that doesn’t involve sitting in front of the computer — or even a notebook. The work I want right now is a different sort of bodily work. It’s whole body work. Kneading, digging, bending, planting, pulling work. It’s listening to longer rhythms than the immediate insistence of twitter of facebook will ever allow. It’s thinking ahead: ok, if I want this bread for dinner, tomorrow, then I have to start it now. Or : Ok, if I want to plant this weekend, then I better spend these weekday afternoons weeding and preparing the beds– and that means spending time outside working in the sun rather than hunched here over this little computer.

That is to say, the thinking these days looks less like, What do I need to do to grow my business?, and more like, What can I do today to grow a life?

This is a fairly significant shift in my thinking, needless to say.

There’s a book I love that I discovered while I was a Hedgebrook a couple of years ago — World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, by Christian McEwen. (Sneak a peek up there at Amazon, and then buy a copy directly from the publisher here.) I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately (I’d flip through it again, but my copy has walked away from the Writing Ourselves Whole library — that happens sometimes) — McEwen describes how necessary it is for creative folks to slow down, feel our rhythms, be all the way in our lives. Through personal anecdotes and examples from hundreds of creative folks, McEwen makes the case for a slower — rather than fast and multitasky — creative life: she describes the artist’s need to wander (literally and figuratively), to have space for silence and dreams, to do one thing at a time, to have space for deep connection with others and room in our lives for alone time Not everyone will resonate with her arguments. I myself bought a copy of her book as soon as I returned from Hedgebrook and dipped into its pages whenever I needed to counter the voices in my head (not to mention all those business-coach types out there on the interwebs) clamoring at me to do more and go faster and do it all now now now now now.

So I am listening to that part of me that wants to do other work: the building a life work. And what I notice–as I give my attention to the people I love and the garden and tend to a puppy’s hurt foot and dig up oxalis out of the raised beds and make lists of plants I absolutely must get into the ground this year (so many more than will fit in this small yard, mind you)–is that I don’t have to force myself to write when I sit down to the notebook or this little computer: the words begin to percolate around the edges. They are fermenting in the deep and bready parts of me. They are finding their own slow rise back to into my fingers. They come again to be as alive as all these other animal parts of me. I feed the words in this slowing down, even as it looks, on the surface, like I am turning away from them. This is a good kind of creative parenting. This is making a life I can live in.