Things I Learned While Away from My Computer
Blogging after a long break means my words feel as wobbly as a toddler learning how to walk. But here I am.
I’ve spent the last month reading voraciously, walking miles, getting sleep, reconnecting with friends and family, working out more regularly, and spending a lot of time staring off into space. It’s been good and necessary and I came away with a brain filled with thoughts and ideas and no sense of what to do with it all.
I’ve always been a “This Old House” kind of goal setter. In the course of a few episodes or hours, I plan to completely rip out my old life and become someone entirely new. Someone who doesn’t binge watch bad 80s television or eat an entire bag of Ghiradelli Peppermint Bark Chocolates in one sitting. I will no longer be the person who whinges on about writing and drags myself begrudgingly, bitterly, to the gym. I will like people in general and not avoid them like the plague. And it will all happen…tomorrow.
On one of my random library strolls, I discovered Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently by Caroline L. Arnold. While I’ve read similar approaches, her process resonated with me.
Learning to meet small goals, to not let their scope creep through ambition, and to whittle things down to the smallest component, is an exercise in patience. It’s walking as far away from the insta-fix mentality that afflicts late night ads and reality TV as possible. I’m in week three of meeting small goals and it is difficult only in the sense that I must resist my urges to go big, to fall victim to my enthusiasm and unrealistic expectations.
Sound and Fury
There’s a lot of dying and death near me now – aging pets, aging relatives, the roller coaster of illness and recovery and diminishing returns. Winter is only tentatively here – killing everything in sight, but without the civility of covering it up with a blanket of snow. Nothing meets this head-on better than reading Shakespeare. Drafty, damp castles, ribaldry, murders, and words, words, words.
I’m no intellectual heavyweight, so I was delighted to discover the No Fear series of Shakespeare’s plays. It includes the full text of his plays with plain English on the opposite page. So far I’ve gone through Hamlet and Macbeth. So much of our literature, even our conversation, finds its origins with Shakespeare. For people who love words, whether written or spoken, Shakespeare is worth revisiting. It’s Julius Caesar and Richard III next – apropos of our current political climate.
The Politics of Anger
The news during my break is enough to crush one’s heart. Two mass shootings. The cultural dominoes tumbling down over grabby hands and penis exhibitions. The continuing government’s trend towards authoritarianism and the willful embracing of that by a portion of the population, regardless of moral or ethical conflicts.
The natural and unnatural disasters seem to grow exponentially by the minute. Before I took a break, I imagined all forms of apocalypse, found myself ideologically entrenched and rigid, depressed by the widening crevasse between my beliefs and the beliefs of others.
Somehow, it’s different now, because the question I’ve begun to ask in earnest is: what is helpful? Was it useful for me to read the news twice a day, get enraged and depressed and frustrated about things over which I had little control? Did I act upon those feelings in such a way as to change it?
Shortly after the 2016 election, I did what I felt were the right things. I contributed to organizations that supported causes I value, which are being threatened: reproductive rights and women’s healthcare, the environment, and civil rights. I started volunteering to work with English learners at a local public high school, feeling like I was cancelling out a couple of white nationalists in my efforts. I sent emails and made phone calls and wrote self-righteous, heated letters to politicians.
Still, I was depressed and felt little sense of relief from any of my actions. Nothing I’d done up to this point seemed to make a difference, except for the thing I was actively doing. Giving money, emailing, and leaving phone messages (rarely did I reach a person) – these are all relatively passive things. Working with English learners had a real time payoff every time someone proudly showed me a great paragraph they’d written or told me when they’d gotten their first part-time job.
And then, there is this inexplicable thing – a softening in political attitudes and a desire to not be so angry. Anger made me stupid. My thought processes and words had become twisted. I had to step back and regain my composure. I started with my own words. I paid my teenager money every time I swore in front of her and after the first ten bucks, I stopped. I love a well-placed swear word, but my anger had eroded even basic civility. It gave me a sense of entitlement – to rant, to not even try to sound like a reasonable person.
Next, I sought to neutralize the click bait nature of online or televised news. I used a site blocker on my browser to block the news sites I visited frequently. I still read the news online, but now I have to make a deliberate decision to turn off the blocker and many times that decision is to leave them blocked – the delay makes me mindful. I read most of my news delayed now, by getting The Economist (a serious bang for the buck, but get out your reading glasses – the print is small) and The Atlantic (edifying long form writing). It’s amazing what changing the immediacy of news can do for one’s day.
Reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Mother of All Questions reminded me that anger cannot stay anger – it has to be something else. In Ms. Solnit’s case, it became some outstanding writing on complex issues. I read an article in The Atlantic, “Conservatism without Bigotry” (online title “Republican is not Synonymous for Racist“) by Peter Beinart that has made me really think about how we talk to each other and how to move beyond the shouting of memes at one another. There are so many rational, reasonable voices to counter the provocateurs who seek to divide us.
My brain reservoir has been replenished. I am well-rested. And I have a lot of things to write about. I’m glad to be back and I’m looking forward to reconnecting with my fellow bloggers, having conversations with readers, and doing my part to contribute a civil voice to the internet.