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.

No comments:

Post a Comment