Sunday, February 20, 2011

look, listen, live


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“Woke up, fell out of bed,
Dragged a comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup,
And looking up I noticed I was late.
Found my coat and grabbed my hat
Made the bus in seconds flat
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke,
And somebody spoke and I went into a dream
Ah.”


~ John Lennon, A Day in the Life


Consider how well you know the sound of your own voice. In unstrained tones, without restraint. And recall the appearance of your unhurried handwriting. These manifestations attest to our observations and developments of thought. Vital signs of the soul’s engagement with reality require light, air, solitude, nurtured with vigilance. A string of 11 days comprised 10 workdays, during which I’d greatly looked forward to the respite that followed. With a bright early start, bookbag, coffee thermos, and my typewriter on the car seat next to me, I set off on the road. First the news and weather forecast, then I switched to recorded music, over which I began to talk- prompting me to shut down the sound system. Apparently there was a lot for me to discuss, wavering between a recap of the week, collected quotes, sights, and sundry observations- all connected by my witness. In his memoir of his childhood at sea, Frank Bullen wrote, “I grew up with a habit of providing my own company, holding long conversations with myself aloud.”

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As highways unfurled before me, my voice connected all the subjects and matters that had saturated recent days. Noticing other drivers on their various cellular devices, it occurred to me how they resemble those who talk to themselves. Maybe that’s what they’re actually doing. Generally, impressions related to those who speak aloud without a detectable counterpart draw reference to mental imbalance or antisocial behavior. But perhaps all those cruising bluetoothers are doing us self-talkers a favor- as long as we can’t hear them. And that’s just it: solitude along a trail or in one’s own vehicle provides context for an interior oratory that is very much like journaling. Developing an inner line of communication makes for a broadcast that is more interesting (to us) than much of what’s on the radio. Talking to oneself in the car is the perfect opportunity to be extremely tedious. Just think of all the tedium our minds absorb through an ordinary week! Then once the mind is de-saturated, the discourse works down to more enduring thoughts. The more uncompromised the privacy, the more honest our observations. Indeed, it is more than in our human interactions that we can reflect upon what we’ve noticed in our inflections. For years, I’ve peppered my journals with paragraphs that begin with “I heard myself say...”

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To be able to hear the voice within- let alone the Holy Spirit’s call- there must be some form of silence. Away from commotion, clear recollection happens quite naturally. But it means changing the pace. During my years of repairing photographic processing machinery, I’d note how the best and most efficient processors had an “automatic standby” switch. This meant that when there were no prints fed into the machine to develop, all the cogs and roller-transports would pause- even the water pressure dropped, preventing waste; but all the liquid temperatures held, ready for new material. The mind’s automatic standby takes shape as “breathing room,” and I’ve derived this from travels, meandering walks, and even glancing from a window. And journaling. Liminal spaces are well worth defending.

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A few days ago during a stretch of travel on a Boston subway train, I looked around and noticed many passengers engulfed in their smartphones and palm-sized texting components. At the point when the Red Line emerged from the tunnel to traverse the Longfellow Bridge, revealing the sparkling Charles River, I saw how phone-engrossed all these people were. Flashy little electronic tethers divert so many from allowing their minds to muse and wander beyond practical dimensions. Those liminal spaces for open-ended thought are endangered as they erode- such as on subways, or even in elevators. These are brief and transient situations when the mind has a chance to stand by. We may be looking out through a subway window, or at an elevator floor, but the mind’s processes are digesting. Perhaps there had just been an animated conversation- good or bad. Maybe the elevator ride followed a layoff- or a hiring. And that little setting of temporal time and space is where the mind can do its version of breathing. One person’s obsession can surely become another’s obstruction: many of us have walked behind gadget-possessed pedestrians who waver and halt at centers of sidewalks and streets. (Much has already been said about “distracted drivers.”) Those who are lost in phone function mode are neither looking nor listening, and are unconscious of what’s happening around them. Trading stories with a colleague about popular communication-device-dependence, she observed, “in this culture we’re in a constant state of fight-or-flight.”

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By contrast, I recall strong impressions after my first-ever visit to a Quaker meeting for prayer. Being a graduate student with a 200-mile commute, amidst employment, teaching, and field work, the silent ambiance was extraordinary. Describing the shared extended contemplative stillness in my journals, I referred to the experience as disarming and confrontational. There is nothing to hide behind; not a single ritual or ceremony to be learned- save for the discipline of attentively quieting oneself. I’ve grateful kept in touch with the community, visiting them occasionally, and always in awe of their literature.

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With the idea of vanishing liminal spaces in mind, it amazes me to see how many churches subvert environments meant for prayer with unrelenting sound and visual overstimulation. Never knowing quite what to do in these places, and being a polite guest, I’ve been glad to have a notebook and an imagination to preserve some thoughts. Otherwise, the experience resembles that of fast-food, complete with feigned abundance and ephemerality. Hardly a threshold moment between the earthly and the limitless.

But, alas, few of life’s avenues bypass daily dietary demands for flashing screens, incessant news-crawls, and white noise. Damaged attention-spans become unable to settle in front of great works of art that invite our gaze and can actually bear up to scrutiny and dreaming. As with the Quaker meeting, I’ve often pulled one of those little wicker chairs up to Rembrandt paintings at the Louvre, savoring the artist’s presentation of transcendent mystery. Surely, this is no anti-high-tech rant, but rather an affirmation for those of us post-moderns who dare to ponder and muse. Blessed are the pensive, for they shall inherit subtle perception and an ability to read between lines.

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Inevitably, each of us must confront self and Source. There’s every good reason to do that while at the heights of one’s energies and form. In this regard, due to my own circumstances, I’m grateful for my very early start. All that attentiveness, adventurousness, and jotting comes in handy. Facing his unjust incarceration, the ancient Boethius bested his irrevocable fate with philosophy and faith. His Consolation of Philosophy, enduring across millenia, attests to how a well-rooted soul can be raised up and “freed from the darkness of deceptive emotions and enabled to recognize the true light in its splendor.” Boethius was among those who found consolation amidst suffering, and the strength to bear it. For us, the living, the ladder of contemplation raises our sights above little devices and space-fillers, toward blessed vision. Pursue the path to the end. Be consoled by life-giving words, imagery, and ideas. Begin and recommence by noting your own voice.

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4 comments:

notagain said...

I love your photographs - they are almost exactly what I would take myself in the same place

Anne said...

"Watch the scenery!" was my dad's constant command when we'd travel as a child. Your words about the travelers on the subway who were distracted by their mobile gadgets brought those words to mind. I like your term-"cruising bluetoothers"!

Your words also brought Henri Nouwen to mind as you sat in front of a Rembrandt painting just as he sat in front of Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son.

I wish you much peaceful silence in which to contemplate the voice of the Holy Spirit in your life, my friend!

PamelaArtsinSF said...

This post is lovely. The pictures are wonderful and I hear what you are saying. Many times I remember when people would sing in the car instead of talk on the phone....and I wonder if being alone with your own thoughts will be a something people still do in the future...I love technology but in it's own place...
Your photos are making me want to visit the east coast.

MTCoalhopper said...

I have one thing to say about talking to yourself while driving: get a digital voice recorder. I, myself, rant and rave and rage while stuck in traffic. There is some good observational humor in there, but I can't just pull over and jot any of it down. Documenting (and editing) comes later, when I can take the dust cover off the typewriter...