Oslo to Longyearbyen
June 14, 2013
I have to admit, it is a strange thing, perhaps a completely insane thing, to fly across the United States and then across the Atlantic Ocean, and then all the way to the northernmost point of Norway, and then back across the Atlantic, (bypassing Iceland, land of the best musicians on the planet) to land on an island no one except Philip Pullman has heard of, which is really an archipelago, to meet a group of artists who are complete strangers, and then climb aboard a ship and sail without any idea where you will be going or what you will be doing for two weeks.
It is such an insane idea it appealed to me unequivocally, and was in fact, something I knew I needed to do. Needed because my life is a study in extremes: the extreme of analytical, day-bound problem-solving, and the extreme of self-abandoned expression. The extreme of day is my job, which arms my wallet and (theoretically) allows me to spend the non-work time writing, which is the expression part. Unfortunately, the extremes get out of balance, which leads to a kind of relentless, low-level despair.
I am not the first creative person in the world to struggle with this problem of money versus passion, nor will I be the last. I can’t in good conscience feel sorry for myself either, because I have the option to struggle: something a lot of exhausted and hungry people wish they had. At the same time, it is hard to live a life knowing that there’s a thing you want to be doing, that you love, that you were made to do, but you can’t do it because you have to do this other thing so you can earn your lettuce and tomatoes and fish, your bus pass and your deodorant and your tennis shoes, your electricity bill and garbage service and toilet paper.
If you’re lucky, the thing you feel passionate about doing is also something people want to pay money for. Alas, poetry is not one of these things. The nice part is, it’s always been this way, and I can look back to the times when the poets in various lands had to make verses for their bread, and had to rely upon their cleverness to somehow entertain the king but not insult him enough to earn an axe to the neck, or be locked up for annoying important people. It does bring to mind an interesting question: is it worse to die quickly by one’s poetic wit, or slowly? Better to wear rags and rhyme for a cup of wine… or wear H&M stare out your years into computer screen, riding an office chair into infinity? Both are tragic, but only one is a current option.
Before this trip, I had been feeling the weight of this balance of extremes more keenly than usual. Not that I wasn’t getting any poetry written, but when the day world gets too much advantage over the world of disappearing into writing, I begin to feel like a sleepwalker. And when I don’t write, my vision begins to narrow, and I start to believe that the struggle is meaningless.
I begin to listen to an internal voice that tells me the world is nothing but routine, and that what matters is whatever conflict or fear-of-the-day is being blasted through the internet or blaring out of all the big-screen TVs mounted in the hospital cafeteria and the surgical waiting rooms. When this state begins to get a foothold, it colors everything it touches with a veil of futility and exhaustion. I become too tired to write. And by tired I mean soul-tired and gut-tired. The drive doesn’t disappear, but it converts to a kind of guilt-tipped, pointing finger. It is not a joy but another responsibility that I’m neglecting. Not writing means I am wasting my life.
I had reached a point, before this trip, when I had to wear headphones most of the day to survive the onslaught- that generalized aggressive energy of news, traffic, bills arriving for things I did not buy or subscribe to, email spam, emotional spam, people fighting over parking spaces or running other people over in crosswalks, or strangers hulking along the street projecting menace, or hopelessness, or desperation.
After awhile, faced with that level of assault to the psyche, it’s hard not to become hard. And the hardness is double-edged, because to write, to really fall in and write, becomes an exercise in trying to shrug off an increasingly more permanent armor in order to get at the vulnerable parts of the self- the only parts that can shape-shift into the work. Some writers combat this hardening by drinking, or going off on psychedelic road trips, or maybe some of them cope with the pressure more eloquently. Some of them just toss everything to the wind- walking out on their jobs, picking up and moving, giving away all of their possessions, in the hopes that upending a world that has settled into an ugly configuration will allow it to re-settle into a more liveable shape. I used to do that. I used to box everything up and get rid of most of it and get in my car and drive across the country. Then I’d settle in a spot for awhile, and the build-up of this struggle for creative balance would build up to the breaking point again.
At some point, I got too old, and frankly, too stubborn to uproot again. I wanted things in life that don’t survive when you transplant them. I wanted to cling like a limpet to San Francisco, the most ungrateful mistress there is. But this meant that I could not grandly disrupt the world every time things began to get routine. What happens, now that I stay put and let things continue to build up and wash over me? I get bent out of shape, and begin to believe in the most depressing versions of reality: that people are awful and the world is mostly violent and hopeless. And then I rebel against that idea, because it is simply not true. And the irony of it all is that I’m doing all this rebelling against myself: the hopelessness and the answering rally against a dark vision of the world is all non-verbalized. It’s a little diorama of war inside my head, visible only to me, and felt only by me. And if I’m not writing, there is no way to let it out.
However, I don’t believe that this sense of overwhelm I struggle with is entirely self-made. It is also the result of an atmosphere of constant distraction.
The boundaries of the personal and the public are disappearing. People talk on their cell phones while they are in a public toilet. They talk on speakerphone on the train. They speak louder than they would normally, without any filter or thought of the people around them, because when you are talking on a cell phone, the world around you becomes secondary and somewhat unreal. I think this is just a simple matter of our capacity for attention. When you talk to someone on the phone, you try to filter out distractions around you- like other people, who nevertheless are forced to listen to you and are then distracted by your conversation, because human beings hone in on voices and language. We try to listen to one another, even if the person talking isn’t talking to us. Meanwhile, we are distracted from whatever it is we are doing: trying to read? Trying to text someone? Trying and trying and trying…. to concentrate, to not be distracted. Public space used to be considered shared space, and therefore a place to be considerate of others. Public space is now rapidly converting to portable personal space, and the people and things in public space are basically furniture.
And the rising gestalt is to further blur these social boundaries by not just offering the services and technology to be in constant and immediate contact, but to begin to expect it from everyone. If someone doesn’t answer and email within say, 30 minutes, you might text them, or call their phone, or both in rapid succession. For some people, 30 minutes is way too long. This isn’t just in personal life: it has extended into the workplace, where email has created a constant, unorganized flow of questions, open-ended conversations with ten people cc’d, and the expectation of immediate response. People check their “work” email from their beds at home, or when they are at dinner with a friend. There is no longer a sense of place connected to function… which is one of the basic concepts behind behavior.
A good example is a dojo. People build dojos to train in martial arts, and there are rules of respect and codes of behavior that apply only when you are in the dojo: inside the dojo, you keep things clean, you show respect to the teacher and each other, you listen more than you talk. These rules are not arbitrary or cultish: they are there so that learning and training can happen. If you change your mindset to fit the place, eventually, the place evokes the mindset.
Outside the dojo, these rules don’t apply, and you can go back to your “non-dojo” mindset, to be and do other things. Similarly, work used to be work, and home was home. At work, there were certain expectations of behavior. Rules that made it possible to be productive. Then you go home and those expectations are released. Of course there are notable exceptions: doctors, mothers, I’m sure other people can think of more… but the basic idea holds- we need a way to shift from one mode of being to another. We need moments of respite. We need thinking time, play time, talking time, working time, sleeping time, reading time. Unfortunately, the urge to complete a task, or to be responsible, or to answer a call from some other part of life is very strong, and is now enabled everywhere we go. The impulse to check, check, check the email or the phone, is as strong of an impulse as wanting to smoke a cigarette, but there is a much higher tolerance (and no proven negative health outcomes- yet) for the addiction of constant distraction.
Just before I left for the Arctic, someone asked me if I would be able to answer email while I was away. I said, “No, we will be off the grid. No internet.” This person then insisted, “But surely the ship will have radio, will have satellite?” My response was disbelief: “I don’t want to be in contact. That is the point of going to the North Pole.”
Am I the only one that that feels exhausted and sickened by the constant barrage of phone and email and media? Actually, I’m not. And there is a growing number of people beginning to recognize and address this problem that Christopher Butler has aptly termed, “Hyperity,” a state of overconnectedness which he described, way back in 2010, as an effect that causes stress, mistakes, lowered IQ, and lowered productiveness.
Of course, anyone who has tried to wean themselves off checking their phone and email knows that distraction is oddly compelling. It is both the cause, and the band-aid, for the feeling of being overwhelmed. I think the thing that has frightened me the most over the last few years is realizing that it has become harder and harder for me to concentrate. I am so used to a scattered way of working and thinking, that I can’t do one thing at a time anymore. At the gym, I ran on the elliptical machines while playing Candy Crush Saga on my iphone for an hour. In May I was doing this pretty much every day. I listened to podcasts while playing Candy Crush Saga, while walking down the street.
At work, I listened to the news with headphones on while answering emails and scanning documents, and working with five other pieces of software- toggling from window to window and function to function. Yes, studies show that multitasking doesn’t work, but for a decade we’ve been trained not just to work this way, but to live this way, and the world is still demanding we do it.
The good news is, when the technology is off, and put away, and there is no chance of “just checking it for a sec,” it is still possible to disconnect, or rather re-connect. After traveling for two days alone without text messages or cell phone contact with home, I felt a kind of peace starting to take hold. Yes, I felt lonely, but that is not a bad thing. To feel lonely is also to look forward to seeing people again. And if there is any one thing I could say is missing from life that is causing the bulk of my struggle with balance… is that I have forgotten what it feels like be in a quiet place where there is nothing to do but look around and see and feel, and then decide to do something. Not be compelled to do something. Not be prompted or reminded or expected or worried or pulled in a direction by nervous or reflexive/reactive energy to check on, check on, check on something… but to act deliberately and with curiosity… to walk out into a new landscape where all signs point to possibility, and to choose.