Archives for category: Silence + Solitude

Last Import - 07

A long string of cold rainy days have ended, and for the first time since I moved to Oregon in November it’s warm and dry enough to work outdoors. As a native New Englander, the ability to spend any time outside at all in January feels like a luxury, but after four years in California I’m spoiled on blue skies, and at the first sign of a break in the clouds, I dragged a rocking chair and my laptop out onto the patio to enjoy the sun for as long as it lasts.

The dark days have a strange effect on time. In California, it felt like I never had time to read, but afternoons feel infinitely long here, pulling me into a slow pace that is able to sustain deep attention. Recently, I read two books in tandem. The first, The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural by Wendell Berry, is a collection of essays and articles written in the late 70s and early 80s. The other, The Sound of Paper: Starting from Scratch by Julia Cameron is a desert book about the seasons of the creative process.

Though they seemed at first to have nothing in common they called back and forth to each other like bird song:

“And so energy is not just fuel. It is a powerful social and cultural influence. The kind and quantity of the energy we use determine the kind and quality of the life we live.” -Wendell Berry

“Creativity is energy. Energy can be safely grounded, asked to flow within our lives and within the boundaries we have set for it. Creativity can be as marvelous as electricity, illuminating the darkness around us.” -Julia Cameron

“The old solar agriculture, moreover, was time oriented. Timeliness was its virtue. One took time in having the knowledge to do things at the right time. Industrial agriculture is space oriented. Its virtue is speed. One takes pride in being first. The right time, by contrast, could be late as well as early; the proof of the work was in its quality.” -Wendell Berry

“We are out to accomplish a body of work, not merely one piece. This means we must take the long view. Just as a marathon runner considers his running career as a whole, training and pacing himself accordingly, so we must approach our art at a temperate rate...Just as the inhabitants of Taos Valley are charged with husbanding the land in their care, so, too, we are charged with husbanding our lives.” -Julia Cameron

Last Import - 17

I am not a fast writer, and so I am forced to either take the long view with my work or not work at all, trusting that 500 words or less  a day will eventually add up to a book, but I find patience easier here, and I wonder about the influence of environment.

My neighbors have an active bird feeder, and as I write this my neighborhood which is usually quiet on dark days is filled with bird song. The screaming starlings are impossible to ignore, but I notice them more than I normally would because I’ve been editing an article for Elizabeth C. Creely’s City Noise column about bird watching in San Francisco that will go up on Paper Tape on Tuesday. It is a profile piece about Dominick Mosur, an excellent bird watcher, who is actually more of a bird listener since many birds that call San Francisco home are small and good at staying out of sight. In a noisy urban environment, even with a trained ear and the ability to pay attention, hearing birds at all is a challenge.

In Oregon, a neighbor revs up a leaf blower, and the birds vanish. Even here it seems silence, like the sun, is a luxury we take whenever we can.

Last Import - 01

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beach in the fog

On Labor Day, Bodega Bay was covered in the kind of fog I didn’t believe in until I moved to California and saw it roll in from the ocean and swallow the Golden Gate Bridge. The beach-goers curled in on themselves like snails, hoods up, hands stuffed deep into their pockets while the Hacker and I sat on the berm and watched the waves appear and disappear, retreating a little less each time as the tide came in. It felt like interrupting a sad ritual, as if the people around us were at the beach on Labor Day in order to fulfill some kind of holy obligation. Heretics that we are, we left to walk along the Kortum Trail from Shell Beach to Wright’s Beach, a three mile journey there and back again.

While we walked the trail and then over ice cream in Sebastopol and late into the evening, we talked about blogging, identity, and writing novels.

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In late February I abruptly decided to give up the Internet for a month,* and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It was such a good experience that I’ve threatened to delete all of my accounts and go live in a shack in the woods with a generator powering a single electric lightbulb, but I’m sick of moving and pretty sure it wouldn’t be possible to get such a place within walking distance of BART. In all seriousness, mystics have long claimed that you have to spend some time away from people in order to learn how to love them, and I’ve found that this has definitely been true for me and the Internet.

Initially, the most surprising thing was how little my absence mattered. I’ve always been one of those people who religiously answers e-mail within 48 hours, and my decision to drop out was so abrupt that I didn’t have time to e-mail my family or put up a vacation responder. When I came back that first Tuesday, I expected to find hundreds of e-mails from angry people. While those closest to me were puzzled and a bit concerned, my social life didn’t go up in smoke because I didn’t answer my e-mail for a week. There wasn’t a mass exodus of Twitter followers (until I unfollowed dozens of accounts, but that makes sense). Blog hits went down slightly, but the quality of the refers went up, and I was able to go a week without news (other than what I was able to glean from physical newspapers I picked up in coffeeshops) without feeling like I’d dropped out of the world.

So, what did happen?

I was able to focus. The first day I tried to work without the Internet, I timed how long I could go while working on a project without reaching for my phone to check my e-mail (and remembering that the shortcut was gone.) My record was two minutes. Seriously. Two minutes. My current record? Eight hours. Enough said.

I got shit done. Since March 1st, I have read eleven books, written ten short stories, created three text adventure games in Twine, learned how to solder, started making actual progress on learning how to code, and did (with a ton of help from Leander) my first Arduino project, a board that detects the moisture in my sage plant and turns on an LED when it’s time to water it. (Because I am a serial potted plant killer.)

I stopped hiding. Checking your phone is an incredible way to avoid awkwardness. Sitting alone at a restaurant? Check your phone. Crazy dude who’s muttering to himself sits down next to you on a bench? Check your phone. Waiting on the sidewalk for a friend to meet you? Check your phone. The story you’re writing feels uncomfortably true? Check your phone. Eventually, I installed some puzzle games on my phone, so I would have the ability to look busy when just standing there was clearly making the people around me feel uncomfortable, but for the first week I made it a point to just sit there feeling awkward. And, you know? It wasn’t so bad. I learned things. Such as this: Did you know that little old ladies will stop and talk to you if you’re sitting alone with a cup of tea and don’t look occupied? Dropping my phone meant dropping my defenses. I am vulnerable to eye daggers from workaholics on the train now, but I also receive kindness from strangers on the street and (try to) give it in return.

I feel better about myself. Telling people how they don’t meet up must generate a lot of clicks because going without the Internet felt like a chorus of thousands telling me how much I suck went silent in an instant. I am never going to read (or write) a numbered list of things I should do ever again.

I am more picky about what I read. A month ago I was tracking over 200 RSS feeds. Today, I track 18. I had three screens of channels in Flipboard. Today, I have four channels (Google+, Google Reader, Twitter, and Tumblr). The number of accounts I follow on Twitter has gone down by half, and I mute most of the rest. I don’t read things I “should” anymore. I read things I enjoy.

So, what now?

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure.

Doing a lot of things is a great way to convince yourself that your life is worthwhile. A month ago, it was easy for me to think that if I have a ton of e-mail, it must mean I’m important. The truth was (and continues to be) incredibly humbling. When I don’t check my e-mail for a week these days, it takes me less than an hour to get to inbox zero, and most of that time is spent swearing at spam and writing to my family.

I don’t want to just go back to the way things were. I don’t even want to think about the frantic posting schedule, the hurried e-mails I wrote subjected everyone to because I was tired and pressuring myself to perform. I was a giant ball of stress and anxiety.

And yet, I have room now for what the Internet is good at. I can’t wait to catch up on my friends’ crazy adventures and, because I took some time and stepped away, I have things of my own to share.

*Technically, I have been without the Internet for more than a month, but I set aside Tuesdays as Internet days (mostly for e-mail and making sure Paper Tape didn’t catch fire) and spent a few days obsessively refreshing the Google Play store giving moral support to Leander when the Instructables app he built was released. So, saying that I’ve been without the Internet for a month is probably the safest bet.

In many ways, it feels to me like the writing program I finished last year is a meal I’m still picking out of my teeth, but lately, I’ve noticed that many of the most important things I learned in the program have less to do with writing than living life well.

One such tidbit came from the program director, Paul Selig, who encouraged us to tune into higher frequencies. I’ve been thinking a lot about that advice the past few weeks, thoughts that began to crystalize one weekend as I stood looking out on an empty landscape in Central California where the land is so flat you can see the mountains to the east and to the west hundreds of miles away.

People don’t take vacations in Central California unless they’re visiting a casino. For travelers, it’s usually just a way-station between the Bay Area and Tahoe, but that’s exactly why I chose to stay there over President’s Day weekend. I took a vacation in Central California for the same reason people go out to the desert to look at the stars. With no other lights competing against those distant lights, it’s easier to see them.

In an episode of Stephen Fry in America, he stops in San Francisco to ask Jonathan Ive (the designer of the iPod) why he and Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the WWW), both Brits, choose to work in America. In his answer, Ive talks about the fragileness of new ideas and how the optimism of Silicon Valley helps them thrive.

Kindness to new ideas is one of the things I love about the Bay Area, but it’s easy to think that all an idea needs is optimism and a lot of hard work. Sometimes, though, a new idea isn’t fragile. It’s just quiet or far away. Just like it’s easier to hear a quiet voice in a silent room or tune a radio to the right station when the spectrum is clear, sometimes, all a new idea needs is a little space.