Walking composition

Movement and stillness

I wrote this post in my notebook early in the morning, by inadequate candlelight. In a gap through a neighbor’s larch trees and lodgepole pines, the planet Venus glowed for a while. Clouds came in eventually and it disappeared but not before it reminded me of one of my favorite things about living in a place where you can (for now) see the stars: If you’re up early in the morning, especially if it’s too early and you can’t sleep, and it’s a clear night, you can watch as the stars shift position and be reminded that it’s not the stars moving or the sun coming up but this massive, delicate planet spinning through space, held only by the relationships that gravity enforces.

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We stayed at a forest service cabin last week to give ourselves a reprieve from election updates, at least for a couple of days. (A break for me, that is. I can’t begin to describe how much of a mess I usually am on election days. We still have a good absentee ballot system, so for once I decided to take advantage of it and get outta Dodge.) It was one of the best, most restorative decisions I’ve made in a long time.

I brought a backlogged pile of magazines along, and all the adults ended up sitting around the woodstove in the evenings, reading The Atlantic under the low yellow glow of propane lights. I helped my daughter finish a sewing project from the kit I’d bought her in the spring. My kids and their cousins played cards and read books and took photos with an old digital camera I’d dug out. We went for walks and had a bonfire and my brother-in-law stuffed us with tremendous meals.

We go camping a lot in the summer, so it’s not as if I don’t regularly spend time in places with no cell service. But camping is more work than the cabin turned out to be, and I don’t usually have time to sit around reading by the campfire while the kids sleep.

Without the constant work of tent camping, the amount of space that my phone’s existence takes in my head became alarmingly obvious. Even if it’s off or in another room, I know that it’s there, all the messages to respond to and news to check. And that’s after I’ve deleted all of my social media accounts. Sitting around the cabin in the evenings with no possibility of internet or cell phone service anywhere, my mind felt like it whimpered with relief, curled up to take a nap, and came out refreshed and ready to give its attention to the sunrise, or my daughter’s sewing, or eight issues of The Atlantic.

Pico Iyer, who pays attention to at most five minutes of news per day and preferably only two, has a wonderful short TED talk on the rewards of stillness: “Sometimes making a living and making a life point in opposite directions.” Iyer does not own a cell phone, a car, or even a bicycle, and writes for five hours pretty much every single day. And still he grapples with modern distraction. Shakespeare, he pointed out, didn’t have to deal with 200 emails per day, and the Stoics weren’t on Facebook.

Maybe we should all have the right to a regular digital detox. My mind is constantly frazzled, even though I live in a place where I can see the stars at night and go for regular walks. I didn’t want to leave the forest cabin, it was such a relief to be away from the demands on my attention for a couple of days. How must millions of others’ minds feel?

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Iyer goes on a three-day retreat to a monastery once per season. He says in his TED talk that he feels guilty about it, about leaving his wife behind and not answering all the emails. But, he says, “as soon as I get to a place of real quiet, I realize that it’s only by going there that I’ll have anything fresh or creative or joyful to share.”

I felt guilty about escaping to a forest service cabin when so few people have that kind of option, especially in places where the right to vote is so constantly under attack. But I came back more ready to work for a better world instead of worn out by following the second-by-second anxiety of the news cycle. And can keep in mind, at least for the moment until it’s worn away by daily life, the larger realities of our existence.

The stars are not moving. We are.*

*That’s not entirely true, as our galaxy has its own rotation, but for the purposes of what we see in our night sky, it’s the shift in perspective of Earth’s movement versus stars and the sun moving across the sky that matters to me.

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Some stuff to read or listen to:

  • I was stalking Twitter the last few days, to my deep regret because Twitter is poison for me and that’s why I deleted my account in the first place a couple years ago. But because I was stalking and finally reminded myself I could go stalk people I actually know, like, and respect, I’m able to share these two threads: One from N.K. Jemisin (possibly my favorite living writer) via Chris La Tray on progressives’ inability to effectively storytell (salty snacks!); and the other from someone with Rural Organizing on the difference between what rural voters want versus what the Democratic National Committee thinks they want, h/t to the excellent journalist and Butte native Kathleen McLaughlin.

  • Not all, or even many, of you will be into Star Trek, but you still might get a lot out of this interview with Reza Aslan on the Star Trek: The Pod Directive podcast. It’s about religion and an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that I’ve always been particularly fascinated by, “Darmok,” where the Enterprise crew meets a people they’ve never met before and can’t communicate with them. Now, this is pretty much unprecedented because the universal translator (inexplicably, as the podcast hosts discuss) makes communication between all peoples possible. However, the people they meet turn out to communicate only by metaphor and story, so while the words make sense individually, together they mean nothing to the Enterprise crew. Anyway, Aslan’s breakdown of how profound this episode is and its application to our failures to understand one another goes far beyond fun Trek trivia (though there’s plenty of that in the episode):

“People that are not you are trying to tell you their stories, and they’re trying to tell you over and over and over again, and the thing that’s holding everything up is certain people are refusing to hear those stories. They don’t want to go deeper than, ‘The thing that you’re saying, it makes me uncomfortable, so I’m tuning it out entirely.’”

  • In a non-public thread of book recommendations, I remembered how much I loved reading Darius the Great Is Not Okay, by Adib Khorram. Probably the best book about depression, especially for a teenager, I’ve ever read, and just a wonderfully told story. It’s technically young adult, so a fairly quick read.

  • I am absolutely not into running, but loved this piece in The American Scholar about running, pushing yourself too hard, Aristotle, Camus, and coming to terms with mortality.