Questions in the quiet

At the end of the workday yesterday, my boss called to talk something through. And I was surprised at my relief in hearing his voice. In this time of social distancing, or for some quarantine, we’re relying more heavily on our online tools, and I think also quickly discovering how inadequate they are.

A friend who lives nearby came over later and sat two metres away in my backyard. We talked for 45 minutes before it got too chilly. Was this high risk behaviour? I hope not. But it’s amazing how, only days into the shrinking of our worlds, it felt invigorating, a physical high. She tweeted after about how good it was, and I replied, “Two metres is the new hug.”

I’ve been doing workout classes online, live streams on Instagram, and a friend remarked how these are better than the pre-recorded videos. The sound isn’t great, and there are awkward angles and mistakes, but somehow they’re much more alive, more human. There’s a sense of doing something together instead of alone, a sense of connection, even if it pales compared to physical presence. It’s interesting that many of us spent so long trying to smooth reality out of our online presences, to create a carefully controlled alternate dimension, and now what we crave is the mess we pushed out of the frame.

I live with my partner, and so get regular human contact, and yet still I’m realizing how many voices, how many physical presences, have dropped suddenly from my life. The morning chorus of birdsong suddenly a solo.

The world is so quiet, so still. Few trucks rumbling by, no honking of horns, no laughter from the street. The spring bulbs are pushing out into a sort of museum of humanity—that same careful spaciousness, that same hush. But what are we curating now? What are we trying to preserve? What is worth our attention, our awe, our contemplation?

I think a lot about what we will take from this great disruption when life returns ton normal. I can hope a love of our fuller humanity, of our local networks, our everyday interactions, our freedom to move, our fragile planet. Will we have a new grasp on the essentials of life? And how long before we take them for granted again, before the full chorus of birdsong is just background noise?

It’s impossible to say. For now, I’ve decided cataloguing absence is a kind of appreciation too. Maybe even an inoculation we didn’t know we needed.

Shallow End, No Diving

Every weekend I have to do a long bike ride for triathlon training. And every weekend, I suffer from a sort of partial amnesia, where I forget this is something I really like to do. There are often scheduling conflicts, the weather can be challenging, the window is short before the bike paths are more stressful than useful. Yes, but objections pop up like groundhogs. And so sometimes I don’t go. But more often than not, I do, and more often than not, the fog of amnesia dissipates. I think, Oh rightThis. 

I remember my love for the fresh breeze off the lake, the boats bobbing in the harbour, the gardens I pass on the way down. For the air flowing over my skin, the white rush of wind in my ears. For seeing other people, groggily walking the dog, or cycling, or running, people up and doing it. These are my people, my secular Sunday congregation.

I pushed and pulled my pedals along the lakeshore, seeking momentum but thinking about the power of inertia. Our new, internet saturated lives reward a kind of listlessness, a lazy casting about for stimulation. Our bodies slouch, and our brains do too, until the next hit of novelty, the next refresh, the next app or site or update. It’s a condition that troubles me, even as I give into it almost hourly, especially if I’m stuck at a desk. Interacting in the real world, with our bodies, or even with deeper, concentrated thinking, is somehow intimidating. It seems like too much. But then once you start, once you get your stride, you think, Oh right. This. 

I’ve written about the importance of beginning when it comes to bigger projects, but I’ve been thinking about the little ones too, the dozens of beginnings a day that we can shy away from: begin the laundry, begin the deep work, the book, the run, the gardening, the dinner. There’s no anxious listlessness, no vague dissatisfaction, no searching for the next thing. There is just the doing. Which is not to say we should never rest (I spent a couple hours yesterday afternoon tired and just reading), but engaging with whatever you’re doing on a deeper level, even if it’s resting.

When I’m working I find those periods of deeper engagement the most satisfying—they are by far the best part of my work. But even still, I lazily resist them, puttering about with little tasks, shuffling through various social media accounts. Looking for the easier hit of dopamine. And this microresistance seems to me a sort of technologically sponsored social malaise, a thing that keeps us from doing our best work, being our best selves, even from being fully satiated. Those lethargic lapses are me at my most unhappy. They are not how I want to punctuate, or even define, my days.

How to combat this? Keeping my devices on a longer leash. Maybe even an Instagram detox. (At just the thought of it, I hear a chorus of yes, buts.) But maybe most important thing is to stop debating, stop delaying, stop stalling and distracting, and just begin. Trust that the engagement will come. Dive headfirst into the cold water, knowing that a minute later, you’ll be baffled at all the time you spend standing on shore.