The soul finds its own home

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“That odd capacity for destitution, as if by nature we ought to have so much more than nature gives us. As if we are shockingly unclothed when we lack the complacencies of ordinary life. In destitution, even of feeling or purpose, a human being is more hauntingly human and vulnerable to kindnesses because there is the sense that things should be otherwise, and then the thought of what is wanting and what alleviation would be, and how the soul could be put at ease, restored. At home. But the soul finds its own home if it ever has a home at all.”

— Home, Marilynne Robinson

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And with that, today I am headed to my old home to watch my sister get married to one of my good friends. What an unexpected blessing! The weekend will be one crazy, happy whirlwind, and I can’t wait to celebrate with and for them. See you next week!

The loneliness of the web and the lines that need to be drawn

I feel like I haven’t had a lot to say here lately. We have been having very busy weeks and there seems to be no end in sight. I find myself retreating to books more often, to experience the reprieve of listening to someone else, instead of dredging the internal well for something to spit out here.

I never want to be online when I am home; it makes me feel lazy, pathetic, lonely. The Internet often makes me feel like that, as I’ve mentioned before. I feel like I am wasting my entire life and then that I am incredibly far away from real people and that I will never be close to them again, that artificial ties are all that we have at our disposal. (I was extremely upset when Guion showed me Google’s promotional video of their prototypical glasses, so you can wear your computer on your FACE and never have to talk to a real human again. Super Sad True Love Story is becoming an imminent reality.) I am as dependent on the Internet as the next person, of course; I love the opportunity of keeping multiple blogs, of pinning every damn dog I see on Pinterest, of the immediate accessibility to every conceivable source of information… but it makes me very tired.

I crave Guion’s company when I come home. A human! With a face, hands, words coming out of its mouth in real time! How refreshing. His daily life/work requires less of constant computer usage than mine does, so I am positively crazy for him, that flesh-and-blood connection, right when I get home from work. He’s used to this by now and accustomed to my grumpy face if he sits down on the couch to read Pitchfork when I’m around. I’m possessive of his human attention. His is a far nicer screen to stare into.

There’s not much more to say on that front, except that I am thankful for this outlet, which does not make me feel guilt or pressure. We are moving in three weeks and six days and it’s basically all I think about, because that house, that sprawling garden, that promise of a dog of my own, will give me infinitely more reasons to avoid my laptop.

 

How everything turns away

(Yeah, I know, everyone’s read it, but read it again! It’s worth it!)

"Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," by Brueghel.

Musée des Beaux Arts
W.H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Happy Friday. Maybe this beautiful little poem is grim, but it’s also such a gentle and compassionate way to think about people, to remember that suffering is happening all around us, “while someone is eating or opening a window or just dully walking along.” Hope your weekend is filled with those kinds of realizations.

On living in nature

If you see or communicate with me at all on a regular basis, you know that we found a house to rent in May. I’m over the moon about it for a number of reasons, the primary one being that we can soon adopt a dog.

The little white house comes with a sizable fenced-in backyard for the dog and extensive garden plots all around the side of the house. Our landlord, the owner, is a prodigious gardener and we have inherited the pleasant charge to care for her garden. (I am presently reading Barbara Kingsolver’s farm memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and I am chastened by her simple observation that the vast majority of us couldn’t grow our own food if our lives depended upon it. It’s now a partial motivator to learn a lot about gardening.) The house is also a short walk to vast forest trails that take you into a 280-acre park, the crown jewel of the town’s park system.

I am excited about the prospect of living here and the house’s self-contained exhortation for us to live outdoors. It will be an especially marvelous place to live in warmer months. We don’t spend a lot of time outside now. Our current apartment is on the second floor of a giant old house, situated on a busy street. We share a front porch with our housemates and our backyard is small and mostly inaccessible. But this place? It’s practically crying out for us to be outdoors at every possible opportunity. Adopting a dog will be just another big motivation to develop a closer relationship with the outdoors.

A side view of the garden at our new place.

A close relationship with nature is not common these days. I spend eight hours a day at a computer at work. Then I come home, make dinner, read, and go to bed. I am ashamed to admit that there are some weekends when I don’t even go outside. My relationship with the outdoor world has been diminishing ever since I left the free university life and got a full-time job, a phenomenon that I suspect many of you may relate to.

I know that living too much indoors is bad for my body, but I’m beginning to suspect that it’s also bad for my soul.

A book I recently read reinforced this thought. I just finished reading Nicholas G. Carr’s short treatise, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. In sum, the Internet is not doing great things to our brains; our memory and powers of concentration have shrunk to depressingly miniscule levels. The following passage is an excerpt of a study he cites about concentration:

The people who looked at pictures of nature scenes were able to exert substantially stronger control over their attention, while those who looked at city scenes showed no improvement in their attentiveness. “In sum,” concluded the researchers, “simple and brief interactions with nature can produce marked increases in cognitive control.” Spending time in the natural world seems to be of “vital importance” to “effective cognitive functioning.”

There is no Sleepy Hollow on the Internet, no peaceful spot where contemplativeness can work its restorative magic. There is only the endless, mesmerizing buzz of the urban street. The stimulations of the Net, like those of the city, can be invigorating and inspiring. We wouldn’t want to give them up. But they are, as well, exhausting and distracting. They can easily, as Hawthorne understood, overwhelm all quieter modes of thought. One of the greatest dangers we face as we automate the work of our minds, as we cede control over the flow of our thoughts and memories to a powerful electronic system, is the one that informs the fears of both the scientist Joseph Weizenbaum and the artist Richard Foreman: a slow erosion of our humanness and our humanity.

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Carr’s summation of this study resonated with me. I feel better about myself when I’m not on a computer. I feel more centered, whole, and focused when I’m outside. A simple walk suffuses me with feelings of peace and joy and goodwill on earth to men. In short, I feel more human outdoors. I am busy, distracted, and anxious inside. I also love the peace of our home, but it is a distinct feeling from the peace that nature lends me. I can’t find it anywhere else.

These are a lot of disjointed thoughts, but I really just wanted to tell you that I’m looking forward to living outside come May.