Every day we’re faced with the decision of how and where to focus our attention. Sustained attention may be the most endangered resource in our modern age. We often forget that we have a choice about how we spend our time, as well as how we use technology. No one is requiring us to live harried lives in a reactive state, constantly struggling to stay on top of emails, texts, deadlines, and our overfilled schedules.
Writer and poet Christian McEwen understands the relationship between time and imagination better than anyone. Her new book World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down makes a potent plea for us to live deeper, more deliberate lives. McEwen shows us that making art isn’t about squeezing yet another activity into an already overflowing schedule. It’s about making time for play and scheduling fewer activities and slowing down—creating what McEwen so eloquently describes as “a rich sufficiency of time.”
Though McEwen currently lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, she grew up in the Borders of Scotland “in a big old-fashioned house” with “beautiful shabby rooms and scented gardens” and “a perpetual drone of adult anxiety about school fees and taxes and the latest heating bill.” “Marchmont was a kind of paradise,” McEwen writes in her book.
We climbed to the top of the huge Victorian wardrobe, and leapt down, squealing, on the squashy beds. We seized the cushions from the sofa in the music room, and ran and skidded on the polished floor. We threw ourselves at the house with everything we had, meeting it, head-on, with our entire bodies…
There was breakfast and lunch and tea and supper, all at regular intervals. There was church and tidy clothes and remembering to do your homework. But there was silence too, and solitude, and calm, where clocks and watches mattered not at all: lying in the long grass behind the raspberry canes, listening to the roo-coo of the pigeons, self dissolved in wonder, lost in light.
McEwen is a reader’s reader and is skilled at weaving in the work of other writers like Virginia Woolf, William Stafford, Adrienne Rich, John Berger, Walter Benjamin, and Adam Gopnik. Her bibliography alone is worth the price of the book. Drawing on the stories of artists as diverse as Meredith Monk, Frida Kahlo, Walt Whitman, and Auguste Rodin, World Enough & Time is an intelligent, poetic antidote for anyone suffering from what McEwen calls “hurry sickness.” (And who among us, doesn’t suffer?)
I’ve been savoring Christian’s book all summer long and was delighted when she agreed to share an excerpt from World Enough & Time with Gwarlingo readers as part of my new series, The Complete Creative, an in-depth series that will examine practical topics like money, social media, artist retreats, presenting yourself online, and grant writing, as well as a range of deeper, more complex subjects like fear, procrastination, technology, community, time, and limitation. (If you want to read the entire series, be sure to sign up for a free email subscription to Gwarlingo).
Christian works as a freelance writer and workshop leader. She has taught poetry to teachers through the Creative Arts in Learning Program at Lesley University and also worked as a writer-in-the-schools through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative and ALPS (Alternative Literary Programs).
Her most recent anthologies are Jo’s Girls: Tomboy Tales of High Adventure, True Grit & Real Life (Beacon Press, 1997), and, with Mark Statman, The Alphabet of the Trees: A Guide to Nature Writing (Teachers & Writers, 2000). A collection of her poems, In the Wake of Home, was published by Meadowlark Press in 2004.
If you enjoy the below excerpt, I encourage you to pick up a copy of World Enough & Time. It’s the perfect book to keep by your bedside, and it would also be a worthwhile selection for book clubs and other group discussions. The book is available now in trade paperback from Bauhan Publishing, as well as on Kindle and Nook. You can also purchase a copy through your favorite bookstore on Indie-Bound. (More trade paperbacks will be available at Amazon soon).
From Chapter 8 of World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen
The Space Between
When you are lost, go deeper into the woods. -Maia
Empty and Alive
In the fall of 2006, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) published a map explaining where to find tranquility. Among its defining categories were the ability to hear bird song and to experience peace and quiet, to see natural landscape (including natural-looking woodland), and to be able to identify the stars at night.
Tranquility belongs to a long list of shadowy essentials to which our culture pays lip-service, but to which we are mostly oblivious, among them, rest, sleep, silence, stillness and solitude. What I am describing is a certain vibrant emptiness, what the Japanese call ma. Ma is found in the silences between words, in the white space on a page, in the tacit understanding between two close friends. The Japanese school of Sumi painting says: “If you depict a bird, give it space to fly.” That ease, that spaciousness, is ma.
The western world is filled with things, crammed to bursting point with noise and movement and color and excitement, which to us mean wealth and vigor. From childhood on, we learn to distrust all the varieties of ma, and to replace them, as far as possible, with their opposites. We value action over stillness, light over shadow, sounds over silence. But in Asian cultures, such quiet resonance has value in and of itself. It is seen as generative, sustaining, something one can trust. As Lao-tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching:
We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.
We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.
Twenty-five hundred years later, Lin Yutang declared that a room, like a painting, should be k’ungling, or “empty and alive,” explaining that it is the unused space that makes a room habitable, just as it is our free time that gives our lives their shapeliness and ease. It comes as no surprise that the Chinese character for “leisure” should be made up of “space” and “sunshine” – the pause, the attitude of relaxation, is what creates the gap that lets the sun shine through.
It is easier, perhaps, to write such definitions in one’s private notebook, and agree wholeheartedly that they feel right, than to include such luscious emptiness in one’s daily life. And yet it is unquestionably true that people are able to work better and more creatively when they are calm, unharried, free of stress, and that this is, at least in part, a matter of choice. “No man will ever unfold the capacities of his intellect who does not at least chequer his life with solitude,” wrote Wordsworth’s friend De Quincey, and Kafka too has much to say on this: “You don’t need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, simply wait. Don’t even wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
A Lyttle Peece of Spunge
The last few years have produced a surge of thoughtful books attempting to tackle that “wackiness,” among them Maggie Jackson’s Distracted, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, and William Powers’ Hamlet’s BlackBerry. All three pay tribute to the pleasures and efficiencies of the new media, while at the same time recognizing that something crucial is being lost to us: what Powers describes as “a quiet, spacious place where the mind can wander free.”
Some of our difficulties arise from the sheer multiplicity of the data we now have to process (as Gertrude Stein wonderfully said, “Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.”) But the waterfall of data is the least of it. What really matters is the shaping power of the technology itself. The human brain is astonishingly plastic: a fact that can give us tremendous joy, as when we finally learn to ice-skate in our fifties, and that can also be a genuine liability, as when we give ourselves over, heart and soul, body and spirit, to the dazzling authority of our screens. As the Internet comes to seem increasingly indispensable (occupying the place of our local cinema, our research library, our post office and radio and daily newspaper), it begins to alter the very character of our minds. Nicholas Carr explains, “If knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet.”
The Net encourages us to do everything at the top possible speed, and at the same time, to keep on changing focus. As Carr says, it is, by its very nature, “an interruption machine.” We glide and swoop for small tidbits of information, and then speed off again across the ether. Once interrupted, most of us take about twenty-five minutes to return to our original point of focus, usually attempting at least two other work-projects en route. No surprise that as we skim and scroll and surf, our patience and concentration should diminish. What is at issue here is the nature of memory itself.
Computer “memory” is literal and predictable; it does not alter over time. Human memory is considerably more fluid. We need time to muse and dream, to mull, to ruminate, to sort through our own insights and associations. In the words of the philosopher William James, “The connecting is the thinking.” Without space for that free-floating receptivity, short-term (or primary) memory is not transformed into the long-term (or secondary) kind. Our memories are not consolidated. We mislay the tiny details of our lived experience, the originality and satisfaction of our own opinions.
I experienced this for myself in May 1980, when my father died unexpectedly of a heart attack. I was living in California at the time. Hurled back across the Atlantic for the funeral, beset by immediate practical necessities, inundated by family stories, the few weeks prior to his death melted away like the morning dew. I still don’t remember much about that particular spring. My psychic landscape was drenched and splintered, ravaged, rearranged. The short-term memories never did take root.
We need, wherever possible, “a space between,” a gap between ourselves and our technology, in which we can, quite literally, recover our core selves. “Hamlet’s BlackBerry” was the aide-memoire or seed-book of the day, made of specially coated paper or parchment that could be wiped clean after use. Our minds and psyches also benefit from such “erasures.” William Powers describes just such a set of “Tables” in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, on display along with their original instructions, “To make cleane your Tables, when they are written on, Take a Lyttle peece of Spunge…”
Into Great Silence
Back in 1948, the Swiss writer Max Picard published a small book called The World of Silence. For him, silence was not “merely negative…not the mere absence of speech.” Rather, it was a complete world in and of itself. It made things whole again, gave them some of its own holy uselessness, “for that is what silence itself is: holy uselessness.”
Without a steady background of silence, it can be difficult (literally) to hear oneself think. Just as a room can be both “empty and alive,” so silence too can be restorative, a source of calm and clarity and even wisdom. That we know this on some level, and deeply hunger for it, was shown by the reception given to Into Great Silence, a documentary about Carthusian monks, which opened in New York City in the spring of 2007. Scheduled to run for only two weeks, the show was extended indefinitely. Harassed New Yorkers lined up to watch the monks as they went about their daily lives: chanting, praying, gardening, chopping vegetables.
The Carthusian Order was founded by St. Bruno in 1084, at what is now the monastery of La Grande Chartreuse, and includes both choir monks and lay brothers. All live lives of silence, speaking only when it is truly necessary, and for a few hours, recreationally, every Monday. When filmmaker Philip Groning approached them in 1984, asking if he might make the documentary, they asked for time to consider his request. Sixteen years later, they called him back to say yes. The anecdote has the makings of its own New Yorker cartoon. And it is true that the monks are not without humor. One of my favorite scenes shows them trudging up a snowy hill outside the monastery, then sliding back down one by one, their long robes billowing, the sky echoing with their laughter.
But there is a seriousness too, derived in part from that long silence, in the young monk reading his daily portion of scripture; the aged tailor smoothing the white cloth as he cuts out a robe; the cobbler gluing a new sole onto a heavy work-boot, and nailing it firmly down. For a moment, as they acknowledge the camera, it is as if the woman in a Vermeer painting had suddenly set down her jug, or folded up the letter she was reading, and turned to glance at you, the light still flickering on the wall behind.
I watched the film on a rainy Thursday afternoon, with an audience of perhaps thirty other people. Most of us came alone, and sat scattered in twos and threes along the empty rows, each preoccupied with our separate lives. But by the time the film ended, something had changed. We had become, however briefly, a community, united by the silence and the long hours of attentive looking, as if something of the monks’ tranquility had entered us as well. The light trembled on the surface of the holy water stoop, and slowly returned to stillness. A bell rang out across the empty sky.
You seek me and you shall find me. Because you seek me with your heart, I will let myself be found.
More information about Christian McEwen and her work is available on her website.
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