How Writing Helps Us See (and Photos of Fall in Boston)

I’m in Boston now and the trees are changing colors.  I love fall colors, especially as someone who grew up in a place where the use of the words “colors” and “fall” in the same sentence usually referred to a spectrum of ephemeral yellow hues sprinkled among forests of green cedar trees and darker green live oaks.  When I was in New England this time two years ago I was dazzled by the reds and yellows and oranges, the hills aflame, and the leaves that danced in the air on cold winds from the north as I rode the commuter train into Boston.  But this time, I’ve hardly taken note.  Why?  Because I lost the habit.  It happens that quickly.  I wrote hardly a word for two months and I forgot how to see.  Writing puts me in the habit of looking for what stands out in this world, or striving to see what’s beautiful and unusual in the ordinary things that surround me.  When I don’t write, I forget to notice the details.

Sailing on the Charles River

Since I stopped blogging a couple of months ago, I’ve come to realize the ways in which blogging changes how I think, what I attend to, and how I decide what to write about.  Take my post on Monday, about pain.  I don’t think I would have written that after having blogged for a month, because by then I would have returned to my old habit of trying to lace my writing with optimism and hope.  I would be thinking about how others would receive my words and not just about how I felt, and it would occur to me that maybe nobody wants to hear about pain and other such matters that have no simple resolution.  Maybe I would be wrong to make such assumptions, but I fall easily into the habit of obsessing over what I think other people would want to read.

Boston Public Garden

Is it OK to think about “audience”?  I think so.  It’s import to think about what other people would want to read, how they’ll react, whether my writing will brighten their day or trouble them—because if I think that the people who read my writing want to be happy, then I’ll try to make them happy, and in the process I’ll lift my own spirits.  If I think that they want inspiration, I’ll try to inspire them and so inspire myself.  If I think that they want to contemplate, then I’ll have to contemplate, too.  So yes, audience matters.  Thinking about audience helps me focus my thoughts and senses, to winnow the chaos that sometimes besieges me.

Writing begins with the meticulous gathering and cataloging of the world’s oddities.  In this sense, all writers are collectors—of thoughts, feelings, experiences, memories.  Their function, more than to write, is to see what most of us don’t have time to see and to tell us about it.  Nothing helps me to see better than to think about the people with whom I want to share my tiny collection of oddities.

Boston Public Garden

The Old Trinity Church at Copley Square, Boston

Boston Public Garden

Along the Charles River, Boston

Along the Charles River, Boston. Who doesn't like ducks?

ALSO along the Charles River, Boston

*All pictures are from Fall 2009.

 

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Reign of the Gadgets: The Illusion of Personal Choice

The gadgets that keep me company—the iPhones, iPods, tablets, laptops, and TVs—poke at me from every direction.  “Listen,” they say, “look at me.  Stroke my keys, brush the dust from my screen.  Please, please use me, need me, and never put me down.”

Whenever I choose to leave my apartment to spend a few hours reading and sipping coffee at the bookstore, I cast a glance at my iPad and wonder if I ought to bring it with me.  “Of course you ought to,” the iPad says to me.  “You need to check e-mail and Facebook and you must know in real time whether anyone has commented on your blog.”

Owning the iPad has created in me a need to own an iPad and hover over my virtual self with a compulsion that borders on obsessive.  Of course, this argument is with myself, not my iPad.  I wanted to go to the bookstore to occupy what Shirley Heath, Stanford social scientist, calls an “enforced transition zone” into which the outside world not only does not, but cannot intrude.

In the “enforced transition zone” I regain my freedom.  I’m allowed to become lost in myself rather than in the collective of the connected world, where temptations dangle in front of me and images, ideas and suggestions lodge themselves in my mind from moment to moment.

I don’t feel like I chose to buy an iPad, or to join Facebook, or to own a cell phone.  They chose me, and they marshaled the “decisions” of a billion people all over the world to inveigle me into making a choice that no longer feels like a choice.  These devices and services are part of the fabric of reality, and to abstain from them would be to pretend that I don’t walk on solid earth, that I don’t breathe air like the rest of humanity, that I exist on an island and that I have no need of human contact and community.  I can’t choose to opt out of life itself.

In Search of Happiness: Recreating the Past

A few years ago I read an essay by Paul Theroux in which he wrote that we spend our entire adult lives trying to rediscover those moments of perfect happiness that we had as children.  To this end, we gravitate toward certain types of people, places, and experiences in an effort to recreate those tiny, intangible slices of perfection that lie strewn across the landscape of our youth like fallen leaves.  Now, I’m not in total agreement with Theroux’s thesis because it implies that our search must always yield nothing but clumsy approximations of what once was.  It also assumes that everyone has a happy childhood, which of course is not the case.  Moreover, I’m sure most people share with me the belief that we can match those childhood memories by creating new, equally blissful ones as we age and mature.  But at the very least, I think he’s on to something.

My best memories from childhood are of family road trips to Michigan, Florida, New Mexico, Colorado, California, Oregon, and Montana, together with weekly visits to our local Barnes and Noble.  Although in the beginning I was always a little annoyed at how long it took to reach our destination, eventually I came to appreciate the journey itself at least as much as the arrival.  Long drives taught me patience and nourished in me a love of idle thought and contemplation.  Too much patience can lead to excessive idleness, just as too much idle thought and contemplation can lead to inaction, anxiety, and depression.  But if tempered, each of these tendencies can be a good thing.  I know for a fact that I still haven’t achieved the proper balance, but I’m working on it. 

As with road trips, initially I hated going to Barnes and Noble every other day, every week, but before long, an hour or two in that bookstore every few days turned me into an explorer.  My parents would wander off to their favorite sections, my dad either to the science fiction or the technical isle, my mom to the art section.  They would look at my sister and me and say, “About an hour.”  Usually that one hour would become an hour and a half, and that hour and a half would become two hours.  After about fifteen minutes I would hunt down one of my parents and ask, “Can we go now?”  They would always answer with a concise, unsympathetic, “No.”  It was after those first fifteen minutes, once I knew there was no way out, that I began to really explore the bookstore and the mountain of information and excitement it had to offer.  At some point, our trips to Barnes and Noble became my favorite part of each week.

Now, at age thirty, the one thing I yearn for most of all is travel, and I don’t mean travel by plane (although I fly quite a bit), but travel by car, or bus, or train–the kind of travel that allows me to see in greater detail what lies between my point of origin and my final destination.  This kind of slow travel allows an opportunity to become acquainted both with the countryside and with other people in a way that air travel generally does not.  I learned more about human beings in one bus trip from Yosemite National Park to Fresno, CA than I’ve learned over the course of weeks spent in some places– because travel by bus forces people to talk to each other for extended periods of time.  It provides a perfect opportunity both for “idle thought” and meaningful conversation with strangers I’ll see only once in my entire life, but whom I’ll never forget.  These are people, and more importantly, types of people, whom I never would have met had I not set foot on a bus. 

And since I can’t always be on the road, usually I satiate my hunger by heading to the bookstore and perusing the aisles for something new–some book or author I’ve never noticed before, or even an old book I had long forgotten about.  In other words, the two things I want most of all are to travel and to read–to wander into bookstores and lose myself amidst an endless maze of books and knowledge and wisdom, to make my away through the arteries of our country and our world in search of interesting places and interesting people.  In short, I want to recapture my youth.  I want to be happy.