Balancing Connection With Disconnection

I’ve been pondering this interesting conflict we’re experiencing now, and hoped to write a piece on it. But after a few hours working on an idea ahead of that one,  I took a woods walk. Normally I don’t like to disrupt my morning creative time, but on rain days I will if the only rainless window of time choses to interrupt me.

While in the woods, I listened to an On Being podcast, where Krista Tippett addressed this dilemma beautifully, resolving my interest in developing the topic. One of her listeners posed this question:  “How do we disconnect physically while remaining emotionally, socially, connected to others?” to which Krista’s replies were well-reasoned and on target. Among other thoughts, this one resonated with me:

So one thing I’ve become aware of —  that I’ve never thought about before — is how much energy we actually draw from each other, raw energy, at a primal, animal level, when we are in the room together. And that doesn’t communicate through the screen — the view of someone’s face and, to some extent, the emotions that can be read and responded to there, the voice, which I feel is so embodied.

Those of us growing up in our formative years before the shadow of technology permanently set itself across our culture, see this technology of connectedness we’re exploiting to good purpose as a miracle and a savior of sorts. Imagine how this time would be without it, and without the Internet, evils and halos alike. We are immensely fortunate to have this sanity lifeline in these days of isolation.

And while, as a classic introvert, I’m not only handling this time pretty well, but my work is prospering because of it, there are still those moments:

What’s interesting to me, too, about this is that I am such an introvert. And there’s part of me that’s very comfortable being alone. But this thing I’m talking about, this is not an introverted thing. It’s not an extroverted thing. It’s a human thing; it’s an animal thing.

If you’re not already subscribing to OnBeing, it’s worth it to do so. But in case you don’t, here’s a link to this episode you can listen to or read the transcript on her answer to the question about connecting in times of disconnecting.

Media Off, Nature On

Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense. – Gertrude Stein


No stranger to the siren, healing call of a media blackout, I’ve used this technique countless times to regain my senses. While we practice social distancing (shouldn’t we be calling that “physical distancing” since we’re socially engaging so much online?), perhaps the time’s come for a little media detaching, too.

One’s motivation for shutting off the usual channels is easy to find. I cannot recall a moment in my history when the noise and levels of information and misinformation, of facts and blatantly false truths, of a federal government so intent and addicted to lying to us and following self interests over people’s lives than standing up and, well, leading us out of this nightmare, has screamed “turn it off” as much as now.

Truth is, once unplugged from traditional and most viral forms of news, you’re not really isolated from what’s happening. I used to struggle with the dichotomy of wanting to isolate from external noise and remain informed. Either through email or online research or word of mouth, you’ll hear about what’s important to know, even if the TVs unplugged, the newspaper’s cancelled, you’ve walked away from Facebook and Twitter, and you’re avoiding the Internet’s ground zero for a tug-of-war between good and evil, truth and lies:  Google. Some people can separate the noise from the essence and find the kernels of truth, but I’m not one of those it seems. Or not one who’s willing to invest enough time to dig that deep and prefer to spend my time on other pursuits.

I remember the first time I enacted a media blackout during the 2004 election. After the debacle and theft of the 2000 Presidency, the noise just became too much to endure. I stayed informed during Obama’s run, but in 2016 the nightmare of the election and constant barrage of reasons this candidate was unfit on so many levels to run our country, and a media that seemed to act more like a game show with an agenda to make money than tell it like it was, a media blackout saved my sanity. Sadly, as a long-term NPR listener to that staple of true reporting, I blacked them out too since they also seemed to have gone over to the “news as entertainment” agenda.

The antidote (for me at least) to reverse the impact of media noise where verbal diarrhea and fantasy masquerading as facts abound, is turning to nature. Long walks in nature help tether you to sanity if you stay plugged in, but become restorative in reconnecting to your thoughts and ideas, suffocated and unheard by the flood of news and information from every direction.

No matter what time you get out of bed, go for a walk. The demons hate it when you get out of bed. Demons hate fresh air. – Ingmar Bergman

The one regret in unplugging from media (but can be easily caught up on later) are on the fascinating research and learnings from the science of Covid-19 and the eye-opening reports of how quickly the Earth is reversing human’s damage since global human impact is a fraction of what it was mere months ago. From the clear water in the Venice canals, to the countless sunken wrecks now visible below the surface of Lake Michigan, to how quiet the Earth’s become as surface seismographic sensors are now reporting tremor levels once only gained from sensors buried deep beneath the planet’s surface, it’s an amazing thing to witness. The science is showing our efforts to reduce humanity’s burden on the planet can make an enormous difference. Whether we’ll learn the lesson and civilization adjusts its actions, or we’ll go overboard in returning to (and possibly exceeding) our bad and wasteful ways, only time will tell.

In the meantime, I’ll continue my media blackout (admittedly sometimes more of a grayout) to keep my perspective, sanity, and ability to live each day without fear, while focusing on doing my work. I can, and should, dwell on only things I can control, and listening or watching things I have no control over is not how I want to live each day.

Dream

Free stock photo; sketch filter applied

In my dream, I was walking the familiar wooded paths nearby on a crisp, bright, winter’s day. Yet, something was different.

Being the only one patiently walking these leave-covered trails winding through hardwood trees was nothing new. Not hearing any road noise from nearby highways, however, was new.

Soon I stopped to let my mind wander. I gazed out through the tall standing, hibernating trees, silently awaiting nature’s spring command to “leaf forward.” As I stood there in my thoughts, a large, black crow flew down and landed on a limb near me.

  1. Crow: “Caw. Caw. What are you doing out here, human?”
  2. Me: “I’m walking as I usually do on a beautiful winter morning. What are you doing out here? Hunting for food?”

The sleek, jet black feathered crow hesitated and picked at something in his feathery coat with his big, jet black beak.

  1. Crow: “I flew down to see if my eyes were true: it IS a human walking.”
  2. Me: “Why is that a surprise, crow?”
  3. Crow: “Because there’s none of you left on Earth. Now it’s just nature and natural things, as intended.”

As those words sank in, I was not fearful, but surprised. It explained the absence of the usual noises, plus why I saw no one as I walked through my housing complex on the way to the woods.

  1. Me: “I’m the only one left? How can this be? And how would you even know that?”
  2. Crow: “Caw! Caw! Caw! Because you humans finally did yourselves in for good. The pandemic, so poorly prepared for made even worse by letting people out of homes too soon. Then more got sick and died. Then you stayed inside, then you let more roam too soon. Death, stupidity, death, stupidity. It’s a cycle we nature citizens have watched from you humans for so many millennia. Caw!”

I pondered on the Crow’s wisdom and insight, not wanting to believe it was true. But I could not deny or defend humanity’s poor behavior throughout the centuries and our creative ways to self-destruct and ruin the Earth.

  1. Me: “You may well be right, Crow, but I still have hope. Maybe I’m not the only one left. Maybe others are out there and we can start again, this time knowing how to do things better?”
  2. Crow: “We’ve been watching and knowing it was only a matter of time. If not something like this virus, it would be humans killing humans in senseless, total annihilation war. We wondered which would come first, or if you’d finally destroy nature enough to make the Earth unsurvivable for your kind.
  3. We nature beings are not sad it happened this way. This time, while you tried to protect humans by staying in for long periods, the Earth healed quickly. We thank you for that and leaving us with a clean world to thrive in.”

We both remained silent and unmoving. Soon, with a final, loud “caw” the crow extended wings and slowly ascended into the sky.

Then I woke up.

Pandemic Perambulations

The trek to Trader Joe’s last week felt like going to Disneyland, but instead of Mickey Mouse and Goofy greeting me, gloved workers festooned with decorative face masks happily welcomed me in. Good to get out, drive, take in fresh scenery, and walk through the wonderland of newly stocked shelves loaded with that most privileged and appreciated commodity in these dark times: food.

Compared to daily walks around the complex or in the nearby woods, driving somewhere feels like I’m channeling Steve McQueen as he rides his motorcycle in his escape from the WWII prison camp. He eludes pursuers over hill and dale, but eventually gets caught trying to jump that final fence to freedom. Alas, like McQueen, I also have to return and continue the days ahead in semi-solitary confinement.

These periodic food runs and frequent walks outside the home remind me of things I miss doing and likely took for granted back then. The ability to go out on a whim, explore a museum, or think nothing of driving over an hour to Ohio for that pan of amazing coffee cake were delights I did not fully appreciate then. How could I, when they were anytime, anywhere options? Now it feels like a naughty pleasure to get out, triggering some religion-induced guilt for enjoying it so.

Once outside, I think I must be in a Twilight Zone episode, that one where everything looked normal and in place, except there were no people, anywhere. On some days, walks in the woods feel like I’m the last human on Earth. Except for the distant sound of highway traffic, it’s not a stretch to have those thoughts. But wait…up ahead, someone masked and gloved approaches. So I’m not the last. Soon those thoughts give way to the new, autonomic social distancing dance, once clumsy, but now just is.

My growing list of basic things now grateful for, perhaps not as much as before, finds walking at the top. Rewind back to 2004, my year of back surgery to correct a problem that evolved into being unable to walk without severe pain. After post-surgery recovery, there were still moments when I mentally wrestled with accepting I wouldn’t walk well again, but eventually those thoughts dissipated.

Since then, I’ve always been grateful for my recovered ability to walk freely, possibly that most precious of human abilities that opens doors to so many experiences and enables self-reliance. My love of hiking and walking, it seems, would not be denied and ever since, have been grateful for every step I could take.

“The geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out of an inner journey. The inner journey is the interpolation of the meanings and signs of the outer pilgrimage. One can have one without the other. It is best to have both.” – Thomas Merton

The power to move from here to there, without mechanical conveyance, is a marvel and a lifelong art form. The fluidity of muscles moving in harmony with joints, driven by the lung’s unselfish in- and out-breaths in rhythm with the heart’s life-pump, are as mysterious and amazing as any modern technology.

As I walk and earn that magical moment, what those who jog call “runner’s high,” all cares slip away and only the moment is in focus. The sensory delights of surroundings combine with the meditative and therapeutic value of a good walk completes the experience. Having the capability and opportunity to walk freely during these dark times is my daily taste of freedom…for now.

“An Eskimo custom offers an angry person release by walking the emotion out of his or her system in a straight line across the landscape, the point at which anger is conquered is marked with a stick, bearing witness to the strength or length of the rage.” – Lucy Lippard, “Overlay”

“I stride along with calm, with eyes, with shoes,
with fury, with forgetfulness.”
– Pablo Neruda

THE Book to Read Right Now: “Keep Going” by Austin Kleon

BUY THIS BOOK NOW.

For all you short-attention spanners, that’s all you need to know. Go to the links at the bottom and get your copy (and consider buying several to gift to creative friends).

If you’d rather know a little more first, then read on.

I can’t think of a better book to have, absorb slowly, and reread often than this little survival gem by Austin Kleon (a brilliant mind that connects things and calls himself “a writer who draws”). Subtitled “10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad,” it came out last year well ahead of our current fun times. In essence, if you’re a creative type–and doesn’t matter whether hobbyist or pro, or writer, sculpturer, painter, sketcher, reader, gardener, etc.–this book is a survival guide for you.

How much do I love this book? Every morning I read at two books without fail: Keep Going and The Daily Stoic. While the latter is split into 365 digestible bits, Keep Going promise “10 ways…,” but in reality, as I’m taking in bite-size, mentally absorbable bits each day, I’m getting a good 30 days of reminders and tips that are making a difference.

What will I do at the end of 30 days with Keep Going? Start back over at the front. My reading copy is marked up a lot, with many pages dog-eared to remind me of special gems.

Austin probably wrote this in 2017-2018 and published it in April of 2019, well ahead of any knowledge of the weird times we’re in. Yet it’s spot-on appropriate to help get us through these days and continue our creative work, whether simply for pleasure or as our profession.

Do it; I promise you won’t regret it. Grab a copy now via one of the links below (not affiliate links). The second one is for my local indie bookstore. I’ve been shifting away from Amazon and instead buying from Literati. Yes, books are full price there but shipping during the crisis is a mere $1, so that helps. But the extra cost is worth it to me. I want them to be there (or any local indie bookstore) once we’re out of the current phase and into the new normal phase. And that won’t happen unless we dig a little deeper and change our habits and buy from a local indie bookstore.

Amazon link to buy

Ann Arbor’s Literati Bookstore link to buy

Or buy through the author’s site.

Pandemic Paranoia and Perplexing Porch Pirates

I usually don’t get paranoid about much of anything, but you know, it’s a new world out there now. I can wrap my mind around the new norms: no shaking hands, six+ feet apart, masks in public, wash my hands so often my new friend is hand cream (not something that’s easy for a guy to accept using…a lot), and so on.

Since receiving packages at home is a bit risky for theft, last fall I got a private mailbox set up for the shop business and conveniently, a safe drop for personal packages. Mr. Pandemic wrecked that brilliant plan, so I’ve shifted everything to come to the house now.

But wait…how many people have TOUCHED these packages? Or sneezed on them? Perhaps these goodies from Amazon and elsewhere are just silent taxi cabs for Mr. & Mrs. Covid19 and their darling two million offspring to hitch a ride and then onto my hands. And even though I’ve gotten much better about not touching my face, I am a guy, so you know: takes us longer to do the sensible thing.

Rewind three weeks ago when my overly process-oriented mind developed a way to take the risk probability of package contamination so low it’s out there four of five digits past the decimal point. Here’s how the conversation went (south, some would say) in my head:

Me brain: “Wait, can’t viruses live on stuff for like, days and days?”

Inner logic-man: “No, the CDC already said risk is super low on mail and packages, and at best, they survive for 24 hours on paper, which is, in essence, your incoming packages.”

Me brain: “But how many DOZENS of people, most likely those near-zombie-like postal workers forced to slave away in the sorting centers when they should be home waiting to cut cards with the Covid devil to see if they live or die? And those UPS drivers: never trust someone who wears all brown. And brown socks with shorts? Really?”

Inner logic-man: “But even so, the risk probability is so low that it’s likely very safe.”

Me brain: “Not taking chances. I’ll develop a process to disinfectant the box outsides, AND everything inside, too!”

Inner logic-man, sighing: “Whatever, dude.”

And so I started my “keep my packages from killing me cuz I love to order online” process. I call it “Operation Armedreadon.” Here’s how it (now) works, after evolving the process through trial and terror:

  1. Waste several hours sitting and watching for the package drop, despite having an app that shows me about when it will arrive. Nevertheless, diligence is protection. Because, you know. Porch Pirates.
  2. When said package arrives, wait for the delivery person to leave the scene, based on the principle that every one of them has Covid19 and likely bubonic plague and Ebola too, just for grins. Six feet? Hell, 60 feet, please and thank you.
  3. Open front door and enter the contamination zone, armed with only freshly washed hands and a sharp knife. Occasionally I forget I’m still in pajamas and bathrobe, but that isn’t important right now.
  4. Using only the forefinger and thumb on each hand (to limit contagion, and when, er, if this rule’s violated, I have to go back inside and wash hands again and restart), carefully position package so I can slit the tape to open the box. Again, just using those digits and the knife.
  5. Now unceremoniously dump contents onto porch (remembering to be quick since contagion’s time clock is ticking a deadline countdown to absolute contagion). All this time M.C. Hammer’s “You Can’t Touch This” is my ear worm to remind me DON’T TOUCH THE STUFF INSIDE CUZ YOU JUST TOUCHED THE BOX.
  6. Again, using two of my sacrificed four hand digits, deftly carry the box to the recycling bin at the end of the building, cut the rest of the tape, and drop in the big blue box that’s helping to save the planet.
  7. Returning to the house, deftly use the remaining, non-contaminated fingers to open the door, then…you guessed it, go wash my hands. And the knife, too. I do know where’s it’s been, so…Must…Be…Sanitized.
  8. Now I go back to the porch, smug knowing that any Covid19 cooties are dead by now and retrieve my goods.

“But wait…don’t you sanitize the inside stuff?” you’re probably thinking. At first yes, but now, through countless packages and even more countless bumblings of clumsiness (you try doing something with a sharp knife and a box using only two fingers and see how your patience thrives), I figured those have gone days and days without being touched. No self-respecting virus would dare live that long.

And those ever-watchful, ever-opportune porch pirates? Ha! They cruise around looking for lonely boxes. This process totally confuses them because instead they see some new socks, a bag of Ricola cough drops, a new book or two, a bag of coffee beans, and on a good day if I’ve won the Amazon Lottery for Vitamin C, a bottle of that.

Plus, I think there’s fewer Porch Pirates roaming the high seas of empty roads these days because, you know, they touched all those boxes and surely most of them have died off from Covid19 cooties by now.