The New Year: Resisting Action

As I learn to follow my own nose around the land instead of depending on Finn to set both pace and direction for my daily wander, I am coming face-to-face with some interesting lessons on the pull of inertia, and the challenge of creative thinking. I’m also finally grappling with my uncharacteristic (and to myself inexplicable) reluctance to rush headlong- into the Centers for Community Digital Exploration, the heart of my new nonprofit, Digital Explorations. I haven’t even pulled a website to its feet, yet I had imagined I would just dive right in and open the first center in my hometown as a pilot project and then see if such an idea could take off virally. The must-have-something-to-offer-every-day attitude.

In his 1966 Discourse on Thinking, Martin Heidegger wrote, “…man today is in flight from thinking;” (p.45) we spend our time in calculative rather than meditative thinking. We want to do instead of looking at the larger implications of our doing.

happy new year

I’m learning. This new aloneness –without Finn– has me interacting differently with the land, the sky and its inhabitants. No spirited dog asking if we can please please please go hunt for rocks in the stream or frogs in the pond or head to the neighbors’ to see if their dogs are out or go along this way because there are surely turkeys over in the far field today or that way because can’t you smell the deer/coyote/bobcat/fox that was here a moment ago? I have to depend on myself to go out in the frigid cold in the first place. There’s no one to remind me (by a push of the head under my arm or a paw on the knee or a drop of a bone in my lap) that it is time to leave the book I am reading, the story I am writing, the project I am planning.

How extraordinary. I hardly know where to go. It is a new awareness that I have to develop.

by the barn

I thought it was exhaustion from years of throwing myself against the Academy walls that had me lay out a year of learning and listening and exploring before action. I secretly thought –and still do– it was self-indulgent and incredibly privileged to have this time. Nonetheless I imposed on myself a bit of the Buddhist “Don’t just do something, sit there.” Moving my office from the college to my barn studio means hours daily in gorgeous solitude. Losing my cellphone over a month ago stepped me even further into silence. I could choose a silent online experience, too, and engage only when I felt compelled to reach out or to learn via my networks.

I’ve never gotten so much done. In every part of my life. And yet, it’s hard to see the results in tangible places. Yet.

In the December issue of Orion Magazine,
Anthony Doerr writes a humorous account of his dark twin “Z”:

“Information, information, information—it’s all sustenance for that rawboned, insatiable, up-to-the-second twin of mine. I can stand in a river with my little sons beside me pitching pebbles into a deep, brilliant green pool with a flight of geese flapping along overhead and the autumn sun transforming the cottonwoods into an absolute frenzy of color—each leaf a shining, blessed fountain of light—and Z will start whispering in my ear about oil prices, presidential politics, the NFL.

What, Z wants to know, are we missing right now?

Addiction, neurologists say, changes the physical shape of our brains. Each time old Z finds another text message, another headline, another update, my brain injects a little dopamine into a reward pathway.

“You’ve got mail!” squeals the computer and—whoosh!—here comes a shot of dopamine. “

Inertia can come from doing too much. This is nothing new. On blogs and Twitter, people express their yearning for balance, their desire for more time for non-work pursuits–the North American plague–addiction to must-be-doing-a million-things-all-the-time-but-bemoan-the loss-of-quiet-slow-time. We seem to find meaning (or escape from meaninglessness) by moving fast, conquering, being the first, the most, the best. Little moves forward as we twirl around and around. Addiction to online spaces and practices can lead to this same kind of spinning in place, a stunned laziness if we simply acquire more and more surface information and relationships and do not stop to analyze, to synthesize, to reflect, to apply, to question. I wonder why so many people are suddenly following me on Twitter, people who do not interact with me on blogs or at conferences. Will they also find their way into deeper conversation with me on blogs, the in-between moments at conferences? For me Twitter is a way to deepen the connections with thinkers and writers and artists I can interact with and learn from in other spaces as well–hopefully face-to-face at some point. I follow people I don’t know if I see that I can learn from them in a blogging or wiki space, too–that a Twitterer new to me is willing to push my thinking.

winterwater

I am learning to read widely yet deeply just as I have recently become a spare eater though a lover of food and a passionate cook. I am slow reader, playing attention to the how as well as the what of writing, and I am beginning to hold still with my creative works before sharing them. Moving more deliberately helps me to get more done. It’s the same with shopping–my rejection of Big Box stores (I have NEVER been in a Walmart, for example), sprawl-malls, McDonald’s (still a fast-food virgin at age 51) comes from a deep belief in the local, in the recycled, in excellence. But do I avoid such places because I can afford to do so? Because I don’t have to work two jobs to support my kids? I wonder. I’m beginning to bake our bread (following Bryan Alexander’s lead) and make our pasta out of local ingredients (the savings defrays the higher cost of other local, organic foods). But it takes more time, people argue–really? How about all that time I save not driving to the mall? Or following a gazillion people on Twitter? Or surfing the Web (or TV)? (I ingeniously let my network do much of that for me–heheheheh.) Patience Gray, writing in her marvelous 1988 Honey from a Weed wrote:
“Good cooking is the result of a balance struck between frugality and liberality…It is born out in communities where the supply of food is conditioned by the seasons. Once we lose touch with the spendthrift aspect of nature’s provisions epitomized in the raising of a crop, we are in danger of losing touch with life itself.” (p.11) I want to remember this while also wanting to help rural communities explore the communicative and creative potential of the Web. Frugality and liberality.

I am determined to sit on my hands a while longer yet, and spend the next six months working with communities on the storytelling projects, going to (un)conferences that promise to push me, and continuing to read deeply across lots of fields as preparation for this huge endeavor. I’m listening to Edward O. Wilson who writes in Consilience:

“Every college student should be able to answer the following question: ‘ What is the relationship between science and the humanities, and how is it important for human welfare?’
Every public intellectual ad political leader should be able to answer that question as well. Already half the legislation coming before the U.S. Congress contains important scientific and technological components. Most of the issues that vex humanity daily…cannot be solved without integrating knowledge from the natural sciences with that of the social sciences and humanities. Only fluency across the boundaries will provide a clear view of the world as it really is, not as seen through the lens of ideologies and religious dogmas or commanded by myopic response to immediate need…..A balanced perspective cannot be acquired by studying disciplines in pieces but through pursuit of the consilience between them.” (1999, p. 13)

He also says that creative thinking is characterized by “knowledge, obsession, daring.” (p.64)

We so good at “obsession” and less so at “daring” and “knowledge.”
Obsession but not Addiction? Daring but not just to be daring? Knowledge across boundaries but not feverish information surfing? Creative thinking, not inertia?

Alex Reid writes about
throwing out a first-year writing course syllabus completely and starting over. That’s rich daring–the kind I would like to emulate by questioning my instincts–all of them– about setting up the centers.

Of course all this could just be me excusing an addiction to the silence, to the stillness.

I hope not.

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7 Responses

  1. Many paradoxes here, many areas for fruitful exploration, both articulate and silent. One of my favorite verses in the New Testament comes to mind, a verse that always stops me short: “And Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” That little phrase “all these things” is a universe in that story, and it follows, very poignantly, the story of Jesus in the Temple, a perfect example of teacher- and student- and subject-centered learning….

    I also think about the new book edited by Sherry Turkle, “Falling for Science: Objects in Mind.” In the mindblowing epilogue, Turkle writes that computers typically get used for velocity, when their real strength is possibility.

    And I wonder when obsession results from passion, and when it crowds passion out.

    And finally I think about the strangeness of how words can convey silence even though they are anything but.

    Thanks for this post.

  2. Barbara,

    What a perfect quote from Heidegger, whose complex understanding of authenticity never seemed more relevant, as are his idea about truly existing within a moment of crisis or chaos, which I always found exhilerating and frightening.
    I have to say it, I always feel a bit implicated when reading your posts, primarily because they really challenge a predominant logic that has this sense of now, progress, move forward, more, etc. that is dangerous and in many ways guided by a logic of consumption. At the same time, we’re consumption babies, unlearning consumption is possibly one of the most difficult things I could imagine, I have been putting off blood test for 8 months now because I don’t want to have to fast for 12 hours—how’s that for decadence?

    I also wonder if the new forms that seem to call for a kind of information addiction may not be fodder for a whole new way of thinking language, images, poetry, etc. Is the way we read, consume, and interact with media finally catching up with the forms that have been dominant over the last three decades, i.e. film, video games, internet communication, etc. This is just thinking out loud, but why do so many of the right way to reflect and pace oneself always come back to reading and remaining quiet? What about the chaos of environment, images, media in general—therein lies for me the rapid pace of a city on fire—and I like it far more than the solitude of an unquiet mind. As usual, your posts push me to the edge of not only my thinking, but often my identity—and that is why you are so important to my online habit 🙂

  3. Gorgeous solitude. Silence. These are, indeed, privileges in the times we inhabit, times evoked so well in Jim’s comment. But so long as you emerge from the cave every so often to bring us beautiful images like those above, thoughts to play with, the fruits of your contemplation, then your privilege is more than well-earned, and I can’t imagine any of us begrudging it to you.

    I’m off to play with the word “Consilience”, like a dog with a particularly smelly object found on a snowy walk…

  4. @Jim For my part, I think there’s room and necessity in the world for the acoustic and the electric, the silent and the raucous. It’s all about the Pete Townshend, and of course about the bgblogging. Three years ago it was, and I vividly remember my first encounter with Barbara en fuego for blogs and blogging. Talk about an alter call.

    My own mental platform these days is about the intertwingling of doing and knowing and speaking and remaining silent. Weird platform with unpredictable results–that’s a good thing, I think.

    Barbara, you rock my world.

  5. Gardner, Jim and Ed–

    Thanks for responding.

    Gardner, thanks for saying “paradoxes” rather than contradictions (!)–Jim points to the clear shortcoming of my thinking here, something I am acutely aware of as I spend hours working on a multimedia project. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the new Turkle. When I kid, one of my brothers was gonzo over Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin–he and I shared a wall, and I learned how to enter the complexity of their beautiful, noisy music through that exposure. I know it informs my own turn to silence. 😉

    Jim, I agree about needing chaos, too, and noise and worry about all this attention given to slow blogging if it gets all touchyfeely and self-congratulatory. I turn to the bava for inspired, passionate dynamism laced through with extraordinary depth. You are never implicated (except through your love of the donut, perhaps). Perhaps because my own head is a tumult of thought and image, and my own personal way of being in the world outside of my silence is to be noisy as all get-out, I am in deep need of silence.

    Ed, have fun with consilience. And thanks for the feedback. I often wonder if I am merely mumbling nonsense or the blatantly obvious.

  6. […] Will sees value on blogging less. Beth offers great detail to address 3 broad goals. George reflects on going for more depth. Barbara eloquently looks her way and meaning. […]

  7. A wise man I know once said, “As soon as you commit to a goal, all the obstacles between you and achieving it rear their very solid heads.”

    For many of us the biggest obstacle is inertia – probably a result of the mind saying, “that is an outrageously audacious goal… who are YOU to think you can do it?”

    Another enormous obstacle for those of us who spend a lot of time in our heads, is the opportunity to disappear into the folds of one’s own navel as we contemplate every angle of the problem.

    I don’t know if you live alone now that Finn’s gone, but to get things moving it really helps to converse out loud with another soul, even a dog. I have a walking buddy without whom I’d have disappeared up my own ***hole long ago.

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