Thursday, December 24, 2009

Connection in an Age of "Text-tion": All We Want for Solstice is Some Friends under Fifty

Disclaimer: This title is not to be taken as an insult to my many amazing mentors!

I have 19 sets of personalized, glossy address labels from charity organizations, just from this holiday season alone (Anybody have an art project idea?) While these nonprofits rejoice at our signed checks, perhaps they'd be at a loss for words if we wholeheartedly offered them what's fast becoming the most valuable donation in America: our full presence, our time.

I say this as an observer, not a "Judge Becca Jane." I say this as someone who knows how much easier it is at times to give of my paycheck than my day planner most weeks; and as someone who's learned after many years of doggie paddling that I cannot realistically care about-- and give deeply to--every major ache in this world.

And yet, I'm struck tonight, the Eve of Christmas (when many of us are already tucked into homes with in-the-flesh folks we love) that overall,  most of us seem to be OK with doggie paddling in various areas of life. Mostly socially. 

Text-tion--what I call the habit of surface communication in its many modern forms--has become, somehow, our way of trying to "know" many people enough to feel...something. What that "something" is, I'm still trying to figure out. Most days, it leaves me a bit restless, overwhelmed even, mulling over friendships that used to meet regularly in person--or that potentially could.

The solstice always makes me ready for long indoor conversations. I'm not sure why people fear winter and this blessedly dark time of year. It's true that so much time to think can bring about many emotions we thought we'd "mastered"...or blogs like this one! But short, cold days also bring us a unique opportunity to reflect and fellowship more than we might on days calling us out into warmth. We must find warmth from other things.

My husband and I had a recent conversation about our life status: We're nearing our early 30's in a lively but transient college town (most folks don't stay past their degree years); no kids, lots of potential mentors over the age of 50, but not so many friends our age we see consistently within 75 miles. Invested in faith and politics, activism, environmentalism, philosophy, etc., we admit to being "intense" (friends, feel free to insert other adjs. here!) . We're beginning to wonder whether we'd have more friends if we weren't like this...Who knows.

For some reason, December has hit this isolated sense of social strangeness out of the park for us. Perhaps because this is the time of year all those yearly update letters on speed arrive--or that old friends come into town for that once-a-holiday season get-together, then disappear except for Facebook status updates--but to put it mildly, we've been bummed, we've been downright mopey at what seems to be an extra layer of red-and-green-themed surface relationships. No young married couple is an island, eh? Well, they can still feel like it.

Note: I realize the potential Grinchyness of this post and hope to be singing in blonde pigtails around a maypole and decorated holly tree by its end. I write whatever asks to be written, whatever has floated to the surface and buoys there stubbornly...So here tis.

Now, some of you might snif, "Well, geez. Something is better than nothing." That's what all these OSN (Online Social Networks) are banking on, anyway.

There comes a point after high school that you accept the natural separation from comfortable friendships; it's not an easy thing, but everyone's evolving, and it seems almost natural to seek out "new, new, new." Then there's those first few years after college when other folks are moving, settling into jobs, dreams, relationships, families that no longer involve any part of you, not even a tiny history. This is the harder change.

I can attest to the strangeness of realizing that chasing down old buddies now content on being "Facebook friends" is pretty futile when it comes to forming a deeper, consistent connection--or to the out-of-body feeling of being in a group of fourteen women talking about breast pumps and separation anxiety from babies home in bed, all while your little un-mom-not-sure-if-you-wanna-be-a-mom self sits and tries to think of something supportive and genuine to say...and realizing that breaking into this particular circle of friends would be as difficult as natural childbirth itself.

But what's not so strange is a longing to connect and commune with people. Sometimes, the friendship magnets obviously won't (or shouldn't) connect on the big blank white space we call maneuvering a full and challenging adult life.  But I know what friendship, with all its whirling and colorful ribbons tied brightly to my current self, feels like. It's glorious. And inspiring. And real as the changing light patterns coming in through the window.

And so I'm holding out for more of it, the real-as-sunlight, face-to-face adult friendship that takes a lot more than being stuck in the same study hall or dorm together. Even if it means getting a whole load of kindred spirtits when I hit 50...or get pregnant; seems to be the trend around here...

The question is, which will come first? 

ps- to anyone who sends us a Christmas letter, we do read 'em/keep 'em! And we'd love seeing you to talk about the year even more...

*photo credit: muha on flickr

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Why Wendell Berry Won't Answer Your Emails & Other Small Tornados

Winter does not come gently to SE Ohio. Our house sits on a SanFran-like hill, and today brought gales worthy of Bronte sister plots-- gusts that keep you standing at a window with your cup of ginger tea observing a once familiar yard turned ominous. 60 this morning, temps will dip into the 20's after midnight. This is weather that demands attention. Reverence.

Perhaps it's fitting that I'm writing this entry during a windstorm. After weeks of barely scraping by (teaching + taking my own grad school classes), I finally have a break-- and my mind is throwing a hissy fit about it.

How we weigh our worth against the fullness of a dayplanner...

I have trained my life to be one big spiral of motion and stimulation. Though I have taken courses in mindfulness and attend a Friends' (unprogrammed) Meeting, "slow time" still intimidates me to the core.  Rarely do I go a day without some combo of radio, phone, car, NetFlix, and/or Internet.

According to a recent article from "Our internal sense of time is believed to be controlled by the dopamine system. People with hyperactivity disorder have a shortage of dopamine in their brains, which a recent study suggests may be at the root of the problem. For them even small stretches of time seem to drag... Our constant Internet scrolling is remodeling our brains to make it nearly impossible for us to give sustained attention... Like the lab rats, we keep hitting "enter" to get our next fix."

At one point this past year, I did Tai Chi in the mornings with NPR on in the background. No joke. Now, this is as oxymoronic as it gets. One cannot "center down," cannot root herself to calmness/balance while listening to strategic stories about car bombs and sex scandals. And yet, I was determined to try!

* * *

Since my last post, I've connected with old college friends. We hadn't seen each other for seasons. Just one night of talking face-to-face reminded me why I never want to distance those I care about by keeping them one-dimensional on a computer or cell phone screen.

The same goes for emails. There is something so unique, generous, mindful about letter writing. To this day, checking the mailbox makes me giddy (that is, when our mailbox is still there in this shiesterly college town).

My parents lived briefly in a country that had no working mail system. For two years, my parents were short emails and 4-minute conversations over crackling telephones. Emails were precious, but they didn't make me cry or laugh like the few letters carried back by visitors did. Seeing a person's handwriting is like having them sitting there with you, reading along. When we write a letter, we do it deliberately. (How many things in life do we truly do deliberately, without multi-tasking?) We sit down, think about form, tone, pacing, even pen color. An email--for the most part--is quick and dirty. Informational. And its privacy, its true intimacy? Dicey.

The photo above is a family heirloom: letters from a great-aunt in the air force before, during, and after WWII. Will we save & treasure our emails like this? A discussion on this topic (12/9/09 Diane Rehm Show)

A few years back, a group of friends wanted to visit the author, activist, and farmer Wendell Berry. Berry is a prolific writer-sage whose distance from technology is generous. For decades, he and his wife have welcomed visitors on Sunday afternoons during certain months of the year. In order to visit the Berry farm, one has to write snail mail and wait for a reply. For a writer of such magnitude to stick by his pen and paper so vehemently inspires and baffles me. It reminds me that writing letters is, in many ways, still a form of respect, being willing to be in the moment...

That trip to see Wendell Berry was one I will never forget. He resisted our eagerness at first, but his wife drew us 'round their farmhouse table, offereing pie and coffee. And then it started: talk of the world, how we ached for its reconciliation, how we wanted change and justice. And how, perhaps, words could start this change.

Today, as wind brushed the locust trees against the house and "Wagner Opera-d" for me to "do, do, do...something!" I sat by the woodstove and made homemade cards. No music. No newscast. Just me, the wind, and my slowed-down-onto-paper musings. Revelations come in small tornados, but they also come when we face the self, sit down, let things cool and settle, surface.  I wrote letters because I wanted to give someone a little corner of the current me. I remembered how my Grandma taught me cursive, how my "R's" still slant like hers...

I signed my own name.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

To be or not to be..."Plugged In"

My first attempt at rhubarb pie (I'm a "late bloomer" in the baking department, as far as Mennonite ladies are concerned).

It's a strange and wild world when even Lehman's Non-Electric Hardware Store ( has an active Facebook page. I grew up about two miles from this celebrated Kidron, Ohio business and know the founding family themselves (Did I mention that my big sister helps write the catalog among her job duties?). Anywhere in the world, you can usually find a Lehman's connection (somewhat like the Kevin Bacon "degrees of separation" game" ( For example, while on honeymoon to Ireland, my husband and I stumbled on a castle being repaired using, among other things, Lehman's products! The store also had a tremendous rush of business around the Y2K extravaganza, and today's economy scare seems to be only strengthening its customer base. But I'd venture to guess that it's not the composting toilets or world's largest canning jars that bring in most curious tourists from around the globe...

Could it be the drive to re-connect--to each other, an out-of-practice family recipe, or the time we forget we still actually own? I believe this reconnection with the past helps us plant ourselves firmly in the present; by sifting through what worked "back then," we can choose what can be used again in 2009. Growing numbers of us long to keep chickens, grow vegetable gardens, and use wood stoves, for instance. Now, I'm not saying we should all buy wring washers again (though my Grandma refuses to get rid of hers!) But in all seriousness, what do we do the "slow way" anymore? How much technology is "enough," and how has "plugged in" communication changed the way we "know" ourselves, friends and families? What information craved can't just be "googled" or "wiki-ed" in some form or another ( Now, I'm no 70-year-old typing sourly away here, and I don't mean to sound like I am (and--for the record--I happen to know some 70-year-olds who would throw their blackberries at me for this hasty comparison). But as I reach towards age 30 and my second year of marriage, I've got to question the overall success of time-saving devices that make our "multitasking on espresso" lifestyles possible...Are we happier adults because of all we can do and have at our fingertips; are we truly content?

The above are big ol' questions, and ones I'm deeply rooted in myself. Coming from a tradition that used to be totally--and strictly-- off the grid, striving to slow down and "unplug" when necessary should be easier for me...So why is it a daily battle?

One reason? I'm an academic; I'm addicted to knowledge (Another confession: I'm working on my 4th degree, just for the sheer love of writing, teaching, and reading.) Some days this fuels me--on others, it weighs me down. To "keep up" in the world of technology and communication is literally impossible. I watch my college students attempt this feat, and it's pretty much a full-time job (At least this would explain all the texting going on around campus and in the classrooms, right? Sit and people watch pretty much anywhere; everyone's "plugged in" to something or other). And yet so much of the world (and our lives, let's face it) are spent adding to/absorbing things fueled by electricity. We're plugged in to a heck of a lotta white noise...and the speedier that things get, the (fill in the blank here) we are. (For me, that blank would include things like "sleep-deprived, cranky, unhealthy, surface.")

Thus, I am challenging myself--as a Mennonite now living and working in a progressive college town AND as a creative writer--to examine/narrate the way my life strives to find simplicity, mindfulness...and all things intellectually stimulating.

To place it in a tidy wee nutshell: How do I choose to connect my life to other people and ideas? And, am I really that different from other American folks striving to slow down, refocus? I am a piece of taffy between various cultures: the Mennonite side of me wants to sometimes throw my laptop out the window, to stop striving and "be still"; but the writer/composer/college teacher in me asks for more communication, community, and opportunity in unexpected places (even--mostly--via a computer keyboard).

The 2009 OED "Word of the Year" was "unfriend," thanks to Facebook. Here, I draw the line. Here, I have to say, "Really, oh glorious and ever-evolving world?" (

Perhaps you will find the following "confessions" as interesting (and sometimes disturbing?) as I did:

My Quaker husband and my Mennonite self own:
 -17 things in our upstairs alone that need electricity to function (including, right now, three computers) 

I admit today to spending more time on Facebook & email than doing the following:
1. Meditating/Praying
2. Exercising
3. Cooking
4. Napping
5. Talking to my friends/family/students on the phone or face-to-face 
6. Revising/submitting my work
7. Being romantic with my husband

...and now I'm too depressed to add another thing!

"Slow/Simple" things I refuse to give up:
1. snail mail
2. hard copy books
3. baking/cooking (did you know that houses in certain areas of the country are now built without kitchens?)

4. walking to a destination  if it's possible
5. writing out a song on staff paper
6. that (sometimes agonizing) hour of Quaker Meeting for Worship

The thing about discoveries and writing them down is that they become more 3-D "real" somehow. So the next step will be staring these self-discoveries in the face...

To end with the words of Wilder:
                Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute? 
                                          ...The saints and poets, maybe they do some...

I'm no saint, not even close--but I am a poet determined to listen to the world more carefully.   

Hello, life. How can I help you today?