Tuesday, January 8, 2013

fewer screens in 2013

Hello. My name is Cindy, and I'm an Internetaholic.

It's been a while since I made a New Year's Resolution, but this year's was plain and simple:
Fewer screens in 2013.
The resolution was also enigmatic, for there are many sorts of screens. The most obvious, though, is the computer screen (and, by extension in our household, the television screen). I'm not alone in admitting that I'm addicted to the Internet. My muscle memory, upon touching a computer keyboard, automatically takes me to Facebook, before I've even thought I'd like to visit the site. My impulse, when I'm in the middle of many other tasks, is to check my email, even if I know I don't have the emotional or mental energy to reply to any notes that may have come through. If I'm the slightest bit bored, or if a sentence doesn't come easily while I'm writing, my fingers type in blog addresses to look in on, without my conscious mind really realizing it.

Television, too. At the end of a day of teaching and researching and writing, taking my introverted soul out into the cold air and rooms full of people, I am tired. The easiest thing to do is to sit still and watch something amusing or pretty. I like the stories, but I also like the ease, the way I can just take TV shows or movies in. Sometimes in the afternoon I feel myself craving it--not looking forward to the plot developments in a favorite show so much as longing for the passive, warm experience of being pacified by the sounds and images.

These addictions have certain negative consequences. I feel my own attention span atrophying. I get burny eyes and headaches from spending too much time staring into lit screens. My breathing shallows, and I realize at odd moments that I've been holding my body tense while reading this news article or watching that video. I feel the pressures of a strange, real-time competition for attention that Twitter seems to invite, that implication that there is not enough to go around, so I'd better repeat myself more wittily! And of course, there's also the endless temptation to avoid doing the work that is actually before me, because it is hard, and the click-away Instagram page is so much more appealing.

But there is also the inverse, the good that I recognize when I am away from the screens for long stretches. There are mornings, for instance, when I look up and four hours have passed, and I've completed lecture plans--using my computer, even--without once turning to a distraction. A particular, and rather profound, pleasure follows such periods of focused work. The joy that streams through my body when I go on a long walk is similarly pure. The absorption in an afternoon of cooking and tidying, or an evening spent with friends and Scrabble or Settlers, a coffee date with a new friend in that glow of sharing our stories--these periods bring a sure, centered sort of satisfaction that I don't often find in my meandering time online or my slack-jawed staring at a moving picture.

Reading is another activity that seems to do different things with my ego, my psyche, my soul. Case in point: I spent the month of December absorbed in the writing of Adrienne Rich as I prepared to write about her Later Poems Selected and New: 1971-2012 for the Englewood Review of Books. This is not a short book: at more than 500 pages, it was heavy enough to give me a persistent ache in the muscles that support my thumbs while I held it open. The book contains selections from all the slim volumes Rich published between 1971 and her death last March, including several recent poems.

Reading Later Poems was, for me, actually re-reading--a pleasure of its own that I hope to write about soon. I'd studied Rich for the second chapter of my dissertation, which has since morphed into a chapter in my first book manuscript. That project meant reading all of Rich's writings, repeatedly, with an absorption I hadn't previously experienced in my life. (I did break up the poetry readings with Hemingway's Movable Feast and a French chef's memoir of daily life--odd interlocutors for a radical American feminist, I'll admit.)

Responsible for Rich's last volume, the companion to her Early Poems: 1950-1970, I vowed to read every page before rendering judgment. I read those poems with keen attention and a certain kind of frenzied commitment that comes with a deadline, in the space between end-of-term and holidays. Most readers will doubtless take it at a more leisurely pace, perusing a poem or two before bed, or on public transit, or in those quiet rainy afternoons that call for read-aloud verse. In fact, a collection like Later Poems really deserves such slower attention, the span of time that allows readers to savor each poem's provocation (be it aesthetic or political) on its own terms.

But the peculiar experience of reading so many poems, composed over such a series of decades, in such a short period of time, in moments that I otherwise might have been checking posts or statuses or articles, shaped more than just my sore hands. I felt myself buoyed by the language. I felt myself seeing the world differently, noting the nuance of a gesture, the texture of a phrase. It wasn't just the poetry as poetry--though my language, when I sat down to write, had shifted somehow. It was also Rich's persistent themes: the responsibility of a global citizen, an American citizen; the frailty and beauty of friendship; the importance of unruly imaginations; the refusal of cynicism but also of passive acceptance. I was reading Rich when I heard about the terrible shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary and about the inspiring courage of Idle No More. Her poems became my context. Consider, from "Draft # 2006":
They asked me, is this time worse than another?
I said, for whom?
The insistence, in this poem and others, on considering the degree to which we argue from our own experiences, imagine everyone else to be like us, extrapolate the common good from what we perceive to be good for ourselves--it shook me. It changed me, as I wept over the news. In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, as people jumped to debate gun control, I heard snatches of "Usonian Journals 2000," in which Rich describes the turn-of-the-century phenomenon of friends avoiding topics on which they disagree, since we've lost the capacity for civil debate:
The fade out / suspension of conversation: a syndrome of the past decades? our companionate immune systems under siege, viral spread of social impotence producing social silence?
Snatches of poetry hummed in the background of my mind as I worked out my sorrow over social impotence, social silence. They didn't soothe, exactly, but they were very good for thinking with.

I could say a great deal more about Rich, but for the purpose of this essay, my realization was a simple one, a commonsense one, that I still feel the need to state. We are shaped--prodded, wounded, polished, honed--by that to which we give our attention. The material we take in weaves into our hearts, into our desires, and works itself out in our perspectives and attitudes and actions.

This is true both in terms of content and in terms of form. I mean: reading Rich's poetry, which is unabashedly political, affected my outlook on the world. And reading poetry, with its extraordinary emphasis on language and metaphor, exercised the muscles of my mind and imagination. What we read, or watch, or look at, matters a great deal.

I also mean that reading a thick tome of poems, rather than reading real-time updates, or watching four hours of sitcoms in a row, exercised my attention. It was harder. It required more of my participation, as I worked out meanings. It slowed me down. I started breathing more deeply.

I am not giving up the Internet, or television. I have dear friends around the world with whom I like to keep in touch through social media. I like to sit next to J sometimes and watch a show and laugh out loud together when our brains have turned to mush from two 14-hour workdays. I use the Internet for work, for research and emails from my students, for sharing my myriad opinions and learning about others.'

But I am thinking long and hard about how all the time and attention I give it (however shallow, or fragmented) shapes me. How does it shape my outlook, my desires, my actions? Inspired by a dear, brave friend who took a bigger plunge, I am committing to a more purposeful, disciplined use of the Internet and social media, in particular. Fewer screens, for me, means more real-time interaction with friends, more novel- and poem- and essay-reading, more writing, more practicing at living a good life rather than reading about other people's. I aim to break the muscle-memory habits that have me typing and clicking over to sites I don't even realize I want to see. The blogs I follow are a gift, but I don't need to read them all every day. Twitter? We'll see.

Addiction is a powerful force. But so is imagination, and community, and glimpses of a better, fuller, more vibrant way. Here we go.


  1. Also, saw this today and think it relates to a broader cultural moment: http://www.designformankind.com/2012/12/the-rebirth-of-slow-blogging-and-a-new-direction/

  2. If *remembering* your New Year's resolutions is half the battle, then your catchy little rhyme will surely help. Thank you for this thoughtful and thought provoking post!

    1. Laura, I didn't even realize at first that it rhymed! But then I did. ;o)