THE SLOW WORD MOVEMENT
Yearning. I am yearning for slowness, for spaciousness. I am yearning for connection, for intimacy. I am yearning for inspiration.
In short, what I am yearning for is the antithesis of my email in-box.
As I type this sentence, there are exactly 7,169 active messages in my main mailbox, with hundreds more – make that thousands – stored in 26 folders in the left hand side bar. I rarely receive spam (I’m guarded about where and how I post my address), so most of those messages are legitimate. Why so many? I am plagued by multiple-professionality disorder; substantial tributaries from a raft of roles; Managing Director of the literary journal Whole Terrain (divided in past, present and future volume forks), teacher and advisor, facilitator and leader, consultant and contract worker, entrepreneur and impresario.
Lost in the flood, backed up behind my Grand Coulee Dam of an email account, are occasional messages from friends, those who haven’t given up on me for being such a poor correspondent. I keep telling myself I need to take the time to answer those I care about from a meaningful and spacious place, but I seize up inside each time I open my in-box and try to take it all in. Overwhelmed with guilt about how long I’ve let contact slide, I can’t seem to find a way to say anything at all. Isolated and inarticulate, I dream of a kind of connection I can barely recall.
Though my response to this condition may be somewhat extreme, the condition itself is not at all unusual. Our correspondence shores are awash in wave after wave of Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, Google alerts and instant chats, let alone email messages (which somehow begins to feel almost quaint in the face of the myriad new ways we’ve created for sending 140 characters or less to each other). Drained by the day-to-day effort to keep up with the practical end of my message streams, overwhelmed by my inability to respond to those dear to me, forlorn and wordless amidst the growing isolation, I escape from one technological conundrum with another technological fix. I practice Trashy Movie Therapy.
When I was a kid growing up amidst my post-nuclear fallout family, I would stay up late at night after everyone else had turned in and watch obscure movies and reruns of schlocky TV shows relegated to late-night TV territory. I gravitated towards adventure stories, romances and science fiction. I desperately wanted to believe that heroic effort or sublime beauty could rescue a person from emptiness and endangerment. Over the course of my adult life, during times of personal struggle, familial illness, and romantic entanglements, I can tell you exactly what I was watching as an antidote from this death, that breakup.
With the advent of high-speed internet and streaming video, it has never been easier for me to access an eclectic range of moves and TV episodes to soothe my savaged psyche. If there is irony in my salving the wound of one internet-based phenomenon with another, I embrace the contradiction. I still gravitate towards the tried and true themes. For example, in Roswell, a TV show produced a decade ago about three teen aliens and their human friends dealing with the constant threat of discovery I found a near ideal mix of sappy romance and sci-fi adventure.
Now in my middle years, I can still relate more to the theme of “teen alienation” than I can to that of existential mid-life crisis. I’m in no danger of buying a red sports car or running off to the Caribbean with my curvy, much younger secretary, but I still feel that longing to know my true home and my core purpose in life, to belong – really belong – with a group of friends who are trying to make the world a better place, and to laugh and cry at the painful absurdity of a society that just doesn’t get what we all desperately need.
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But there was a time when connection seemed the operative word to my existence, when I maintained a thoughtful correspondence with a far flung circle of friends who mattered a great deal to me, and for whom the world mattered. Greg, for one example, has been a faithful correspondent for more than 30 years. Jammed with ideas and plans for adventures, illustrated with sketches and maps, I have saved each and every one of his cards and letters. We once spoke of amassing our mail into a book, convinced that our words which charged each other’s worlds might be a gift to a larger public hungry for our wise and whimsical epistles.
Then there is Katja, whose correspondence was both a storm that swept through my existence and a miracle that blessed me. For a time, we chose to express our deep friendship through exchanges of art, poetry and email (back before the days of the flood, when many of us used email mostly for writing friends, back when recipients were excited to receive a long message rather than cursing under their breath). It was never a chore to write Katja; I could hardly stop, there was always so much to talk about. I believe it was in our correspondence that I first found my true voice as a writer, one shot through with passion and insight, suffused with beauty, and marbled with humor.
But somewhere along the line I found it harder and harder to make the time to write Greg, and Katja and the dozens of other friends that have defined me as a human being. Without those anchors in my life, sometimes I feel more lonesome surrounded by people I don’t have time to connect with, than when I’m alone in a late-night insomnia haze, with time at last to think of the ones I love. Could it be that without my correspondence, I have truly become an alien?
I have an old friend that insists that she and her family are extraterrestrials descended from ancient travelers from the Pleiades. When she told me this years ago, I bit my tongue and refrained from belittling her conviction, but these days I’m not so sure she didn’t have a reasonable explanation for that pervading sense of not quite belonging, of yearning for purpose and connection beyond the mundane surface of things. Though I am resolutely from this planet and revel in my earthliness, I have to wonder if perhaps most everyone else I know has become an alien from the Planet Facebook, the Google Galaxy, the Moons of iPhone, or the ever expanding Twitter-verse.
Like Max and Liz, Maria and Michael, and the other Roswell characters both alien and human, I yearn to know my true home and struggle to identify my trusted comrades. I yearn, both literally and figuratively, for correspondence. To correspond is both an intimate act of communication and a reciprocal ability to respond. An English woman I once knew in Seattle used to pronounce the word intimacy as “into me see.” True correspondence is a clear window into each other’s deeper being. It is not an easy intimacy to achieve in 140 characters or less.
I used to write real letters, you know, those old fashioned missives crafted with pen, paper, envelopes, stamps. I might be writing them still, but an illness I had years ago left me with residual paralysis and a lack of dexterity that turned already bad penmanship into the handwriting equivalent of crazed chickens scratching in the barnyard. With that form of correspondence no longer a viable option, I turn to the internet for answers. But the question I am struggling with is just how do I create islands of slowness and rivers of connection in a medium that is predicated on speed and riddled with distraction?
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The first thing I noticed was the growing inability to recharge when drained. Later on it was the shutting down to interaction, every couple weeks or so, then more frequently, nearly every other day. Towards the end, several times a day depending on what I was trying to do. Somewhere in there the blackouts started. First thing in the morning when I’m usually bursting with energy and then – there was nothing; no substance, no resolution, no meaning to be had. I had not resorted to this in over seven years, but it was finally time to get a new laptop.
I thought carefully about my choice, sought advice from my friends. In the end I went with a Dell Inspiron (perhaps it was the creatively suggestive name) loaded with everything I would need to support my writing life, but buoyed by extra RAM, all the better for web streaming. I upgraded to a larger attached monitor as well, convincing myself I needed the extra screen real estate for the graphics and posters I produce for various literary/performance events, but yes, I must confess, for my viewing pleasure as well.
My old laptop had suffered a damaged pin in the connection to the power cable and battery, so it couldn’t run without being plugged into a docking station. Overnight it became a desktop. We prize our laptops, tablets, and smartphones for their mobility. But in being tied to a computer that worked in only one place, I discovered that the true benefit of such mobility for me was not so much in being able to do the same kind of work in many different places, but in having different places for very different kinds of work. In my laptop’s glory days, I would compose early mornings in one café (one well chosen for its lack of internet access with all its seductive distractions), edit late afternoons in another, and do my paid work from my work office in between. Evenings were for pleasure, the mixed blessing of streaming video to happily distract me from the flood of unanswered email.
Anchored to my neo-desktop though, every activity I undertook on my computer was undertaken within the same narrow context. As I grew more stressed and troubled over those immobile months, it struck me that perhaps confining all my online life to one single place was creating a fundamental confusion, as if each different kind of activity was bleeding into every other. Composing a letter, I might find traces of bill-paying seeping into my sentences. Editing a poem, part of my mind might still be surfing the web news. It’s not unlike the scenario I described in ‘When Words Matter,’ where the context of where we physically are can permeate our writing as well as our reading. Perhaps to renew correspondence with the special people in my life, I needed to create a special place for that writing.
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I have a comfortable chair in the corner of my art studio, next to a kind of altar strewn with rocks, shells and bones gathered from beloved places, surrounded by charcoals and pastels sketched over the years. I decided to set up my old laptop there. Though the screen was now permanently dark and the hard drive no longer up to the heavy lifting of top heavy software and high speed internet, it was quite fine for email. It sits now under the chair, lid closed, waiting patiently in its docking station. Working the external keyboard, plugged into my old monitor, it hardly feels like a computer any more. It feels more like a typewriter with benefits.
I only turn it on now for correspondence and at that not every day. Sometimes a week passes before I can slow down enough to write from a spacious and connected place. Early on in my experiment I found myself telling stories to friends about what I could see in the room; the fossil rock from an tumbled old stone wall in Pennsylvania my sister Barbara and I had found; the wild state of mind I was in when a particular drawing burst out of me. It reminded me of how my old hand-written letters used to flow, close attention to my surroundings interpenetrating warm feelings for dear friends. If living, writing, reading in the Internet fast lane strips time and place from our communication then perhaps I was finding a way to reintroduce them to my correspondence. <<add meaning section?>>
The Slow Food Movement began in the late 80’s in Italy as a counter to fast food and sped up life, linking the pleasures of the table with an abiding commitment to local community and environments. And so I start the Slow Word Movement with my writing, and you with your reading. First, take note of your surroundings; the vagaries of the weather, the slant of sun or shadow of moon. Look to either side of you, soak your senses in whatever you encounter, touch the ground at your feet, tickle the sky. Now look on the inside of you, following the signposts to the person you really are.
Now read this sentence.
Now write your own.