Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The unexamined moment

A lot has already been said about the differences between isolation and solitude, confinement and privacy, loneliness and being alone. The first term in each set suggests a negative situation imposed against one’s will or desire, while the second seems far more positive and far more a choice. All but the most extreme extroverts (or sociopaths) wish to be alone at least some of the time—and if you don’t believe me, get on a bus and sit next to a stranger when there’s a perfectly good empty row further down the aisle. (I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. It’s just weird and wrong.)

Yet in a time when almost everyone seems to be living at least part of their lives before an online audience, I begin to wonder just how much we still value these concepts. Yes, a whole lot has already been said about the way social media have turned us into a population nearly incapable of doing anything for its own sake. There’s not much point in my adding to that lot, especially on a public blog meant in part to depict aspects of my life for an online audience. Still, though, it’s worth considering just how rare a thing true solitude has become.

When I stepped out into the yard this morning, I realized: I’m alone. That’s not terribly strange by itself, but the thing is I’m really alone. Our property is surrounded on all sides by farmland, and this year three of the four sides are walls of corn. Even though the fourth side is a soybean field and not nearly so private, the closest property is almost a mile away. Nobody is around to see me or hear me. This has never been true of any place I’ve lived since I was a very young child. Solitude tends to be something we have to seek in a room with the door closed; if we want solitude outside, we have to leave home. And then of course we’re back to social media; in the room with the door closed, if being alone ever devolves into loneliness, we can always connect online. Away from home, we can take comfort in knowing we’re just a selfie away from sharing this moment with others.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. People are social. Loneliness sucks. But it occurs to me that perhaps what we really lose when true solitude becomes scarce isn’t the chance to escape other people so much as the ability to escape ourselves. Social media isn’t simply about showing our lives to the world; it also means creating an image of our lives for our own viewing. That’s nothing new; we’re always creating one persona or another in different situations, even if the situation is simply trying to make sense of who we are. Yet despite the fact that it would seem like our every waking moment is spent broadcasting our words and images to the world, the truth is still that most of the time we spend on earth passes by unnoticed, unremarked upon, and ultimately forgotten. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing either. In fact, I find it can be a very good thing.

The expert through-hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis noted in her memoir about hiking the Appalachian Trail that in the woods, there are no mirrors. What this means is that in the wilderness, you are your actions, not your appearance. Everyone out there looks like they haven’t changed clothes or bathed in weeks, because they haven’t. Something about this appeals to me—well, not so much the non-bathing part, but definitely the part about actions over appearance. I’ve always been troubled by the expression “making memories”; there’s something disturbing about experiencing a moment mainly for the purpose of looking back on it later. I do believe the unexamined life is, if not completely worthless, at least less interesting. But you can take examination too far, to the point where the experience itself is less important than the image you create of it.

A lot of what I see posted online focuses on what we see when we look in the mirror. Ours is a society that thrives on making people feel inferior for one reason or another, so for some people it becomes crucial for survival to combat this with an assertion of self-worth. I get it, believe me. At the same time, I think equal emphasis should be placed on also looking out the window, and then out the door, and then walking out the door and being in the world, even if you never share that experience with anyone. Quite a lot happened while I was out in the yard this morning, and yet really almost nothing did—nothing worth a tweet or a selfie, not even worth more than a fleeting mention in this blog. That’s valuable to me.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The thing with feathers -- and very sharp teeth

Every year around this time I get ready to teach a week-long novel writing course for high school students. Every year, without fail, I dread it so much I can hardly sleep. It isn’t the students—they are always a pleasant surprise, intelligent, humorous, eager to learn. Of course, they are voluntarily enrolling in an English Studies camp in the middle of their precious summer vacation, so there aren’t a lot of rolling eyes or entreaties to be let out early. Some days I can hardly get them to leave the room when the time is up. No, the problem is that they truly are enthusiastic about this subject—and I’m not always so. In the current state of the world, it has become increasingly difficult for me to believe that writing fiction is a good use of time—or even a benign one.

Oh I already know all the arguments. I’ve used all the arguments, trying to justify the study and practice of literature to people who think books are useless. I can name hundreds of books that made an enormous positive impact on the world, and an enormous personal impact on me. But for each of those, there are countless others that did no such thing. They were entertaining, sure, and that’s not nothing. The mind needs nourishment just as much as the body does. But these books don’t just spring up out of nowhere for the sole purpose of providing fleeting stimulation. There’s a whole lot of money at stake, and whenever that’s the case, well, reader beware.

Have you ever been reading and stopped to wonder why you happened to be reading this particular book? If you’re fortunate at the moment, you’ll say “because it’s good”; if you’re slightly cynical, you might say “because the writer got lucky.” If you’re really cynical, a.k.a. me, you’ll say “because it tells you what you want to hear.” You couldn’t stand in a Barnes & Noble, if there are any left, and throw a copy of one the heavier Harry Potter books without hitting a popular piece of fiction featuring a young protagonist who discovers special abilities, becomes a powerful leader, and instigates a successful rebellion against an evil tyrannical regime. Cool! But which part of that do we really enjoy the most, the overthrow of tyranny or the fact that a seemingly ordinary being is plucked from obscurity to become famous and powerful? In other words, is it the politics or the personal wish fulfillment?

We can pretend all we want that it’s both; we can say these books are motivating young people to care about important social issues; we can even point to young activists in the news lately who have definitely taken a stand and risked a lot in doing so. But I would argue that those are different things. Those young activists were directly affected by the issue they’re fighting. The rest of us just read about it. And if even factual news coverage of an event fails to move us to take action, do we really think fictionalized dystopian versions of our world will do so?

Time for me to commit a possibly unforgivable act of blasphemy, at least in certain circles: Take The Handmaid’s Tale. “Terrifying!” say readers. “Sure!” says Moffitt. “But so was Jurassic Park, and yet we still go on about our lives without worrying about velociraptor attacks!” Every time someone raves about Atwood’s brilliantly nightmarish world and what a tremendous lesson it provides for us about misogyny and oppression, I think, well yeah, but you know what else does that? This world. No, in this world women in Massachusetts aren’t named Of-man’s-name and forced to wear Flying Nun hats and habits, so our outrage about those particular details are a little unnecessary. However, I do believe there might be one or two other things to consider in their place. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed a great many of Atwood’s novels and I full well realize that she is also an activist and not just an author. Yet there is still something disturbing to me about how delicious it feels to be outraged by a work of fiction—compared to how exhausted and hollow I feel to be outraged by the world around us.

I’ll get over it. I’ll rally my psychic forces and go in there and get them so fired up with excitement for the craft of writing they’ll want to hug me. Some of them will hug me. Some of them may stay in touch with me years later, like the young man who interviewed me for a school project and, thanking me for my answers, added “You’re the reason I want to become a writer!” And I’ll have to smile and pretend like a dinosaur-sized chunk of my soul hasn’t been ripped out and chewed to bits, because I can’t do it, you see, I can’t take this away from them, this hope. It is still hope, however misguided, and I guess I have to be glad they still have some.