Posts Tagged ‘William Powers’

A Quiet Afternoon for Reflection

February 22, 2017

hamlet

Latest 20 x 16″ Watercolor in Progress

This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

After hours of house cleaning and domestic chores, I was ecstatic to find a block of a few hours to paint late this afternoon before dashing off to an evening commitment. Because of an impending One-Man-Show, I have had this desire to return to a Blues theme for a new series of paintings. This one is barely off the ground, and already I’m second-guessing the composition. When such happens, I choose longer gaps for merely staring at the painting from across the room, rather than going full steam ahead.

As I drew and painted and stared for long periods from a distance at this piece, I listened with delight to some YouTube book talks given by William Powers, author of Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age.  This book has changed my life profoundly, convincing me that I don’t have to blog daily, and don’t need to live a life chained to my smart phone, anticipating the next alert.

This evening, I will present a brief talk at a monthly gathering that we call “the Salon.” This is a small group of people I adore who love to discuss ideas once a month. Most of the group is retired, having formerly worked in education, industry, politics and journalism. The topics are always approved in advance, and last month I volunteered to lead a discussion over William Powers’s book.  Hoping that none of the salon participants will look at my blog before this evening, I’ve decided to go ahead and post the substance of my presentation.

Thanks for reading . . .

Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age[1]

Shelley listened to an interview on NPR with author William Powers who had just published Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age.  She purchased two copies, giving one to me.  Henry David Thoreau, in the “Reading” chapter of his book Walden, writes: “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.”[2]  Over the span of my life, only a few books have marked new eras, and this book is one of them.  At any age, it feels gratifying, to think of turning a corner or opening a new chapter.

Hamlet’s BlackBerry, offers these words: “The simple act of going out for a walk is completely different today from what it was fifteen years ago. Whether you’re walking down a big-city street or in the woods outside a country town, if you’re carrying a mobile device with you, the global crowd comes along”[3]  I found this passage very confrontational to me personally.  It brought my attention to how obsessed I had become to being “connected” digitally, because of a smart phone that was continually beeping, always alerting me to my blog, facebook, emails and text messages—my life was being chewed up chasing all these prompts, and it took this book to point that out to me.

I am not sounding a negative note for our improvement of technology, this digital age. Technology has transformed my teaching in the high school classroom as well as teaching online at the university.  Technology has connected me to the art and business world.  Computers are wonderful as are smart phones.  But there are two elements attending this digital age that run counter to my idea of a quality life—one is the fast pace, and the other is the emphasis on connecting all the time with others.  The fast pace disregards the importance of time to mature ideas; the social connection neglects the importance of solitary space and depth to find oneself.

I am quoting a chapter title from the Powers book: “Digital Busyness is the Enemy of Depth”.  The point he makes is that when we spend our lives surfing the Internet, flitting from site to site, platform to platform, screen to screen, we are not experiencing the depths of life, but merely skimming over the surface of the media.  In 1963, Paul Tillich addressed the fortieth anniversary of Time magazine, pointing out that America “was a free society, to be sure, but one without depth: its ceaseless expansion, whether into outer space or on the production line, had created an almost irresistible temptation on the part of everyone to produce in order to produce still more.  Tillich exhorted the producers of cultural goods to stop moving in this one-dimensional direction—to come to a halt in order to ‘enter creation and unite with its power,’ in short, to add the vertical line of depth to the horizontal line of extension.”[4]

In his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig pleaded for a more contemplative life, and wrote: “What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua—that’s the only name I can think of for it—like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer.  The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement.  Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep.  The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks.  In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated.  “What’s new?” is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow.  I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question “What is best?” a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream.  . . .   Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of  its own internal momentum.  Some channel deepening seems called for.”[5]

A major argument proposed by this book is that digital connectedness sacrifices depth.  One does not contemplate the qualities and meaning of life when clicking on links and flitting from headline to headline, text to text, opinion to opinion. It seems that the only motivation for such a lifestyle is to feel connected to humanity.

Well, I don’t believe that being connected to others is the sole quality of life. In Anthony Storr’s book Solitude, the noted psychologist maintains that Sigmund Freud shifted clinical opinion toward the emphasis of social relations as a measure of human quality. Storr argues for the merits of solitude, that an intrinsic outlook does not mean that the individual is lacking in human quality. In today’s world, so much emphasis has been placed on connectedness that many feel they are inadequate or uninteresting if they do not continually post on facebook or Twitter, or find someone to call or text on their smart phones.  Many feel chained to chat rooms and blogs on the Internet, convinced that the more connected they are, the more well-rounded and healthy their lives are. William Powers urges: “However, the external validation provided by incoming messages and the number of times one’s name appears in search results is not as trustworthy or stable as the kind that comes from the inside.”[6] I would also point out a relatively new best-seller by author Susan Cain: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.

Is the fear of disconnecting a fear of loneliness or is it really the fear of irrelevance?  When I became immersed in my blog activity, I first regarded my daily posting as a matter of discipline, convincing myself that if I held myself to a daily deadline, like a newspaper journalist, that I would improve my disciplinary lifestyle in other areas as well. As time went on, however, I confess that what drove me was not a sense of discipline and self-worth, but rather the fear that I would become irrelevant and eventually forgotten, if I did not keep the blog fires burning by daily shoveling fuel into it via a new post.

The heart of this book argues that our age is not unique with the conflict between social connection and solitude, between speedy technology and plodding contemplation.  The author writes compelling chapters covering Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, Henry David Thoreau and Marshall McLuhan. What these great figures share in common is living in an age of technological advance with its temptation for speed, and they used it where it was beneficial, but refused to abandon their contemplative natures.  They consistently maintained that technology and shortcuts would not rule their lives.

In addition to the chapters of Powers’s book, I would suggest some of the New Testament Gospel accounts concerning words and practices of Jesus of Nazareth.  His words from John’s Gospel:  “The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”  Think on those things for a moment: there are forces that try to steal from our lives—all we have is a measure of time, and whatever is taken is never recovered. Jesus said the thief takes, but he has come to offer abundance. Think about that rhythm—losing and gaining. And let me share a few examples from the life of Jesus that illustrate these rhythms.

After a full day of pouring out his life for the crowds in Capernaum, Jesus rose the next morning seeking restoration.  He departed for a solitary place, and there prayed. When his disciples finally caught up with him, they said, “Where have you been? Everyone is looking for you!”[7]  But of course.  That is why he left; he had already given, and now it was time to recover.

This rhythm of public ministry and private retreat is a thread running throughout the Gospel narratives. Jesus did not hesitate to urge that practice upon those whom he loved. There is a time for pouring out our lives, and there is a time to restore.  When his apostles finished their first preaching tour, they came back to him overflowing with success and enthusiasm.  They had given, and they were enthusiastic, but exhausted.  His words: “Come aside with me to a solitary place where you can rest awhile,” because there was so much coming and going that they could not even stop long enough to eat. [8]

When Jesus went to Bethany to visit in the home of the sisters Mary and Martha, Mary sat at his feet with the other men, transfixed by his spoken words.  Martha was prattling about the kitchen. “Jesus!” she urged, “Don’t you care that I have no help in here?  Tell my sister to come and help!”  His answer: “Martha.  Martha.  You are distracted over many things.   One thing matters.  Your sister has chosen that one thing, and it will not be taken away from her.”[9]

When the digital age distracts us to follow the myriads of links, meetings and tasks throughout each day, then we should remind ourselves of this: You are distracted, harassed by many things.  One thing matters.  Don’t let them take away from you that one thing.  It is O.K. to disconnect from this connected world from time to time and find yourself in the quiet gaps of solitude.

I believe that this rhythm of social and private has kept me alive and vital over twenty-eight years in a public classroom.  Yes, I have known burnout, but I also have known how to recover.  I have witnessed complex changes in technology and social networking and I have always heard that call for acceleration.  But that is not my life.  I still live for the reflection, the quiet, the delicious moments of solitude.  And I always seek for ways to make time for those things that matter the most.  All we have is a measure of time.  Ralph Waldo Emerson got it right when he wrote: “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”

 

               

[1] Presented at the North Arlington Salon, February 22, 2017.

[2] Henry David Thoreau, Walden (New York: Penguin, 1983), p. 153.

[3] William Powers, Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age (New York: Harper, 2010), p. 15

[4] Wilhelm Pauck, Paul Tillich: His Life and Thought  Volume 1: Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1976),  p. 274

[5] Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (New York: Morrow Quill, 1974), pp. 15-16.

[6] Powers, p. 46.

[7] Mark 1:35

[8] Mark 6:30-32.

[9] Luke 10:38-42.

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Zu die Hütten (to the Hut!)

January 30, 2017

grid-2

My Favorite “Store-Off-the-Grid”, (where I sit in the mornings and enjoy my coffee)

Being back in my home is good tonight. Mozart plays softly in the background. The hot tea is soothing. I love my writing desk and library area. But in my mind’s eye, I’m still at the “store”, my favorite hideaway when I can get out of the city. I probably posted in earlier blogs (I don’t go back and read them much) that I’ve been reading a great deal about Martin Heidegger. I have zero interest in the details of his political leanings, but am intrigued with his philosophy that includes amazing insight into art, poetry and pre-Socratic thought. And I have always been intrigued with stories surrounding the cabin he had built adjacent to the town of Todtnauberg where he frequently withdrew to study and write. He did not enjoy life in the city of Freiburg where he lived and taught in the university. He later turned down the Chair of Philosophy offered to him in Berlin, because it would prevent his frequent withdrawals to his cabin. As for myself, I’m glad to have a home in the suburbs of Arlington, Texas, four minutes from where I teach. But I love so much more these three-and-a-half hour drives out of the city to a remote spot in the country, to a dirt road where no one drives by, to a spot of absolute quiet and solitude. It is in that place that my soul has been restored repeatedly. All my life I have dreamed of such a location.

heidegger-house

Martin Heidegger’s Cabin in the Black Forest

thoreau-window

Reading Thoreau’s Journals inside the “Store”

I want to respond to a passage from Adam Sharr’s Heidegger’s Hut, having finished reading the book this weekend:

. . . it is possible to consider the hut and house as talismanic for two positions decisive in Heidegger’s biography, which Albert Borgmann terms “provincialism” and “cosmopolitanism.” These positions are often considered in opposition. Tropes recur by which advocates of each position attempt to dismiss the alternative. Cosmopolitans dismiss the provincial as invidious: introvert, inbred, prone to exclusion, and reliant upon romantic myth. Provincials dismiss the cosmopolitan as deluded: bound up in abstract systems and priorities, entranced by the fickleness of fashion, setting itself and its self-appointed heroes on false pedestals. Although such polarities are inevitably caricatures, and provincial and cosmopolitan positions always remain more nuanced, their identification can be helpful.

I love it when someone writes what I’ve thought about for years, and writes it so well! For twenty-eight years, I have been a citizen of both worlds–teaching in the suburban neighborhoods of a large city and withdrawing as much as possible to remote sanctuaries. Being single, I love the privacy and quiet of my home after a day in the classroom, and when I can leave the city, I look for the quietest places in the country. My life’s work has been in the public schools full time and the universities part time. When I retire at the end of May, I’ll gladly accept the offer of a neighboring university to continue teaching part time, some of it online. I am so thrilled at this new chapter, the idea of  no longer being under contract from 7:15 till 3:15 five days a week.

My public life in the classroom has been mostly scintillating throughout the decades–I have had an overwhelmingly positive and affirming crowd of students (probably 99.8% respectful and inspiring, only the occasional “turd”). Being an educator has allowed me to remain a student for life, which is what I truly craved–I hated the thought of leaving a life of scholarship behind after completing graduate school. How wonderful to be paid to study, to learn and share daily the things that matter to me. I cannot say enough about the richness of teaching in the areas of religion, art, philosophy and literature. Life as a public educator has been very rewarding to me.

At the same time, I must confess that I am drawn to reading books like Anthony Storr’s Solitude: A Return to the Self, Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, and William Powers’s Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, along with the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Long ago I came to terms with the reality that I like being alone, and crave space for such times. I have always believed that I could do my job better if I had time to withdraw and recharge my batteries. Fortunately for me, life has provided those opportunities and for the most part I have been able to avoid burnout.

At age 62, I am more sensitive to the noisy clatter of school hallways, the public school obsession to call meetings, and the growing paperwork, records and accountability demanded, often by a bureaucracy that continues to create “positions” designed for compiling data and checking boxes on reports. I have never had respect for elected politicians who pass laws governing an educational enterprise that they have never themselves understood or spent time studying. And I have noticed with disdain throughout the years that they continue to pass more laws designed to cripple the work of conscientious educators, and then use the data designed to prove that public education is faltering so they can convince tax payers that schools would be better if they were run by private businesses. I have had the pleasure to work for a district that is far better than any state or federal agency can evaluate with piles of data. And I have been fortunate to work inside of schools with administrators that let the teachers do their jobs. Real education occurs inside the classroom when the teacher is freed up to study his/her area of expertise and design creative ways to share this with students primed to learn. All thinkers know this. To sum up, I am getting out at a good time; most likely I stayed too long . . .

gridlock

Leaving the Store . . . Until Next Time

I have not been posting on the blog with much frequency of late. But after this weekend, I still have plenty on my mind, and I’m glad to have this avenue of expression. So thank you again for reading . . .

I make art to understand.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

The Quiet Within

November 9, 2016

Alone with my Books

I force my mind to become self-absorbed and not let outside things distract it.  There can be absolute bedlam without so long as there is no commotion within, so long as fear and desire are not at loggerheads, so long as meanness and extravagance are not at odds and harassing each other. For what is the good of having silence throughout the neighborhood if one’s emotions are in turmoil? 

Seneca, On Noise

Within you there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at anytime and be yourself.

Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

It’s about treating your mind as you would a private garden and being as careful as possible about what you introduce and allow to grow there.

Winifred Gallagher, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life

I am nearing the end of a string of delicious hours in the quiet of my study tonight.  My reading has been broad, but probably the best moments were spent in William Powers’s Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age.  Thanks to one of his chapters, I’ve returned to reading Seneca, and tonight uncovered a lovely article written by Jennifer Bowen Hicks: “Whispered Wills and Words That Bleed: On Transparency of Thought in the Essay” (http://www.creativenonfiction.org/brevity/craft/craft_hicks38.html).

An evening like this was long overdue.  The value of the lessons from Hamlet’s Blackberry, for me, is impossible to exaggerate.  Time is too precious to spend abundantly on the Internet and social media.  As Powers argues, flitting from link to link eliminates real depth from life, from introspection.  Every four years, I manage to get pulled into election chatter, and in the final months devote what is no doubt hundreds of hours to reading articles on the Internet and listening to news outlets.  Then the election comes and goes and I come away feeling I need a serious bath, a cleansing.  On this, the day after, I have stayed away from social media almost entirely–almost.  And now I am retreating to the wilderness to find that sanctuary I have been missing.  I need to recharge some batteries and reset my compass.

Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are honest, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Philippians 4:8

For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.

Proverbs 23:7

Thanks for reading.

I make art in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

Finding Sanctuary Inside a Coffee House

September 4, 2016

coffee tree

Tree Sketch from inside the Coffee House

That’s what depth comes to, really, taking all the stuff your mind has gathered in its travels back inside, to sort through it and see what it all means.  To make it your own. The only way to cultivate a happy inner life is to spend time there, and that’s impossible when you’re constantly attending to the latest distraction.

William Powers, Hamlet’s Blackberry

Late into Saturday night, Shelley Allison and I rode the new Dallas Streetcar to the Bishop Arts District in South Oak Cliff. Finding a relaxing space inside Espumoso Cafe, I opened Hamlet’s Blackberry and re-read the Marshall McLuhan chapter. I took heart in reading that McLuhan was not a linear thinker, preferring a more “mosaic” approach to presenting his ideas. Thinking back over three decades of classroom activity, I confess that I was never known for systematic and linear thinking myself. It’s probably too late to change that now.

During this holiday weekend, I have enjoyed the slower pace and the broader space to think through some matters worth thinking through. One idea that assesses my past is encapsulated in the quote posted above. While I don’t regard myself as a deep thinker, I nevertheless know that I have taken the contemplative life seriously at least as early as my college years, perhaps even sooner. Throughout my student as well as teacher life, I have found no satisfaction in bell schedules, deadlines and large group discussion formats that hindered rather than enhanced thinking. I have always known myself as an introvert, suited better to quiet spaces and sufficient time to work on ideas that matter. My years as a graduate student provided those spaces and times, and I have missed those kinds of work schedules since I graduated in 1987.

High school schedules separate subject matter by bell schedules, with less than ten minutes to transition from one class to the next, and transition the students must. For thirty years I have deplored that format, though forced to work within it. As a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Rollo May frequently strolled the neighborhood park after lecture classes under the theologian Paul Tillich, so he could think deeply, sorting out the content of those life-changing truths delivered in the lectures. On occasion, I myself have skipped particular convention sessions, because a joint-session orator would rock me with his/her public address, and I knew I had to find a quiet space in a lobby or coffee shop in order think through, sort out, and apply the notes I had scribbled hastily as the address was delivered. That activity was far more sacred to me than going into the next session to pursue a new topic, thus shelving the precious words just delivered.

In my personal life I have always read, indeed devoured books by the stack. This is more easily done during summer recess than during academic semesters. Now that I am entrenched in a new semester, I refuse to stop reading outside of class, and refuse to let my job push out this sacred activity of thinking in quiet spaces. Fortunately, I have one ninety-minute planning period per school day where I can pursue this ativity. And I’m even more thankful for this current gift of a three-day weekend to pursue my passion. During times like this, the smart phone is turned off and put away, and the laptop stays home. Thank you, William Powers, for getting my attention last year, convincing me of the value of unplugging from time to time. Social media can wait.

Thanks for reading.

Good Morning, America

August 12, 2016

loco (2)

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear, . . . 

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to no one else.

Walt Whitman, “I Hear America Singing”

Good morning again, blogging and facebook friends. I unplugged from your company a couple of weeks ago, needing some time away to sort out some unsortable issues. After a week, I experienced little success in sorting, and then didn’t really know how to return to you, and still don’t, actually. Wayne White, a loving friend from high school days (http://www.doubledacres.com/), used to open his daily facebook with the warmest greetings to us all, and I still feel the warmth from reading his posts. So, here is my hope this morning to leave words of good cheer for anyone needing such. Wayne always encouraged us to spread the love, so I shall try.

A number of watercolors have been completed since I last posted, including the one above. This is a larger work by my scale (16 x 20″ unframed), and recalls a good moment from last spring while I was judging and workshopping at a plein air event in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, one of my favorite American towns for painting.

This summer has provided the luxury of grazing amidst many lush literary pastures.  A host of luminaries have shined a light before and within me throughout this sojourn, and I love them all for sharing their literary gift. During a joyful re-reading of William Powers’s Hamlet’s Blackberry, I revisited this passage:

Depth roots us in the world, gives life substance and wholeness. It enriches our work, our relationships, everything we do. It’s the essential ingredient of a good life and one of the qualities we admire most in others. Great artists, thinkers, and leaders all have an unusual capacity to be ‘grasped’ by some idea or mission, an inner engagement that drives them to pursue a vision, undaunted by obstacles. Ludwig van Beethoven, Michelangelo, Emily Dickinson, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr.—we call them ‘brilliant,’ as if it were pure intelligence that made them who they were. But what unites them is what they did with their intelligence, the depth they reached in their thinking and brought to bear in their work.

Balancing social encounters with a quiet contemplative life has made this entire summer truly unforgettable, with a host of splendorous emotions accompanied by a commensurate number of stumbles, bumps and bruises. That happens, and we should welcome it. After all, we know the sentiments of Henry David Thoreau as we continue to pursue the phantom of fulfilment throughout this Odyssey:

I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtledove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travellers I have spoken concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who had heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.

We know of that which Thoreau speaks. Each of us still tracks that phantom whose memory continues to haunt. And as Whitman observed, each of us sings our own carol.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

 

A Thoreau Saturday

August 29, 2015

image“Home” means so many things. On the most basic level it’s simply a location, the place where one lives. It’s also the physical structure, the house or apartment that is home. Last, home refers to the environment that’s created inside that structure, a world-away-from-the-world offering refuge, safety, and happiness.

It’s this last idea of the home as sanctuary that’s absent from most thinking and decision making about technology.

William Powers, Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age

Saturday could not have come sooner for me. The first week of school was exhausting, but successful, and by the time Friday evening arrived, I saw the weekend as a luxurious gift. I spent hours in a comfortable reading chair last night, enjoying my journaling and reading, while looking up occasionally at my recent artwork tossed all over the sofa across the living room from me, and feeling a sense of accomplishment.

I am loving this book by Powers that I have nearly finished reading. The current chapter is over Thoreau, and how he fled the modern telegraph and railroad sensations to live quietly in Walden woods. I feel that my home is an escape from the daily flood of data and deadlines that harry me throughout the school weeks. Home offers shelter in the evenings and weekends, and a chance to feel that I have gotten back to my real life. Reading this book has been a godsend, because the author discusses ways to keep social media from driving your daily agenda, hence taking over your life. Since I started reading it, I have become painfully aware of how much time daily I have given to facebook, texting, email, blogging, etc. and less time to reflection over what I actually want to do with my life. The book has been a precious gift, and William Powers has offered us genuine spiritual wealth in his writing.

Recent 20 x 24" Laguna Madre Watercolor in Progress

Recent 20 x 24″ Laguna Madre Watercolor in Progress

Today, I am hoping to go deep into this painting that I started this past week. Daily I feel the call that it puts out to me, and I want to engage in growing it to its fulfillment.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

Focus

August 19, 2015
Pre-Dawn Drawing and Thinking

Pre-Dawn Drawing and Thinking

Of the mind’s many aptitudes, the most remarkable is its power of association, the ability to see new relationships among things. The brain is the most amazing associative device ever created, with its roughly 100 billion neurons connected in as many as a quadrillion different ways–more connections than there are stars in the known universe. Digital devices are, in one sense, a tremendous gift to the associative process because they link us to so many sources of information. The potential they hold out for creative insights and synthesis is breathtaking. The best human creativity, however, happens only when we have the time and mental space to take a new thought and follow it wherever it leads.

William Powers, Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age 

Waking at 4:40 this morning in the predawn darkness came as a surprise, as well as a reminder that I had retired to bed early last night, exhausted by the past 48 hours of work-related activity. Returning from my restful two-week St. Louis vacation, I plunged immediately into the headwaters of new semesters at Texas Wesleyan University and Martin High School. After two days of meetings and conferences on both campuses, I collapsed and slept very well last night. So, refreshed and unable to return to sleep, I stretched, smiled into the darkness, rose and headed for the shower.

Rapturous solitude has enveloped me the past two hours, and I am smiling inwardly, knowing I still have two hours before my first meeting today. Coffee, sketching, reading and journaling have managed to combust some energy and enthusiasm for this new day. I now sense the percolating coffee pot as a metaphor for what my brain is doing. And drawing a sea shell has been relaxing, helping me ponder over things that matter in my life.

This book was given to me as a surprise gift over the weekend (how timely, just as school is beginning!), and I cannot say enough about how it has seized my attention in the richest manner. Throughout my adulthood, I have believed that a creative life demands solitude and a controlled focus that filters out distractions from a myriad of sources demanding attention. From my graduate school days, I have been excruciatingly aware of the difficulty of thinking and maturing ideas when deadly schedules filled every hour of every waking day. I was told that it would never get any better, and that I must learn while still in school to get control of this. I was told the truth. At age 61, I can honestly testify that my life has never slowed down, that work schedules and appointments have always demanded attention, and I never found a way to add a 25th hour to the daily schedule.

Six years ago, I added something to my daily work schedule: I took up this blog about the same time that I purchased a smart phone. Since then, every day, this phone has jangled to get my attention that something is happening somewhere–email, text message, phone call, private message, facebook, blog response–and I responded as failthfully as possible until I found myself in a spot where I worried that if I skip a day posting on my blog, I would become irrelevant. The digital age had managed to take over my life. How serendipitous for this book to arrive now, at the fulness of time.

William Powers does not trash our new technology. Rather, he argues that it serves us best when we create space for the richness of a “connection” to sink in, to take root in our lives, rather than clicking on to the next response, the next, and the next, etc. He’s right. The richness of a creative life evolving is still right there for the taking, but it requires some time, some quiet, some space, some slow down. And the digital obsession can crowd out creative expression just as effectively as a crowded social schedule, or working too many hours at jobs. Thirty-five years ago, I learned that I would think better and perform better as a graduate student if I would set aside a quiet time and space to sort out my thoughts and write reflectively, instead of cramming in one or two more books for research and footnotes. It became imperative to stop and let the ideas compost so they could flower into something precious. Today, I seek ways to turn off the digital machine periodically so I can sort out the gifts presented to me and see if I can find a more creative way to express these ideas and images, and so enrich my world and ours.

Thanks for reading. I’m not sure where this new insight will take me, but I trust it.

I make art in order to focus.

I journal always when alone.

I blog, knowing I am never really alone (and I like that).