As Sand In An Hourglass…

Yesterday, I listened to a great lecture on time and the way we manage it (or, rather, pretend to do so) on the Kindlings Muse. You’ll need to listen to it if you want all of the good stuff (and believe me, there’s plenty), but here are some of the more thought-provoking aspects of the talk.

Western culture is a slave to the clock. Karen and I have been discussing what to place over the mantle in our new apartment. We saw a large clock a few days ago while shopping, and immediately agreed on a resounding negative. We don’t want time to be the focus of our lives, and certainly not our living room. That partly resonates with the artistic personality, I guess: what you’re working on is much more important than “what time it is.” Moreover, though, I think I just instinctively push back against the concept of attempting to quantify something as intrinsic to our existence as time. As the lecturer points out, humans can’t imagine a life without time: we’re bound by it. Only God exists outside of time, having created it and therefore not being subservient to it. Western culture, however, joins the rest of the industrialized world in obsessing over time and punctuality. With that comes pressure (another point of the lecture): deadlines, pressure to rush through necessary events in life (like being alone and meditating) in order to be at a meeting on time…you get the idea. I see this as limiting us in many aspects of our lives. Take education, for example: I constantly go back through a peruse the material of the things I’ve received education in, because I still participate in them: Scripture, psychology, theatre, communications. As time progresses, I realize there are enormous implications and aspects that I didn’t completely unpack while I was in school because I wasn’t permitted time to do so; the course imposed a deadline on papers, etc. Languages are the worst for me: I dropped out of my first Greek class because I couldn’t keep up with the pace, a pace I felt the class was conducted upon largely in order to be considered a graduate level course. Had things slowed down, I would have grasped the material much better.

I understand that some cultures, especially island cultures, have a much more laid-back concept of time. Events may be scheduled for 3:00 p.m., but they actually begin when everyone arrives. I can already feel the pressure leaving me as I imagine this. The natural argument here is, of course, that less will get accomplished. Yet, this leads to another point of the lecture: we’re overwhelmed with things that need accomplished, not to mention information to be absorbed and the fact we are constantly in communication with each other. At some point, we’re forced into so many different things that we can’t do any of them well, even if we do make conscious efforts to set boundaries. Perhaps a lower expectation of accomplishment wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

I won’t attempt to summarize the entire talk here, but the result has been changing the way in which I view time. My perspective has shifted when I look at the clock. I think the implications from re-examining both our concept and our usage of time are literally life-altering.

Of course, that assumes we have time to reflect on them.

Now, Where’s That Gonna Go?

So two weeks after moving into our new apartment, things are taking shape and beginning to feel like “home,” or at least as much as an apartment can. Most of this afternoon was spent with final tweaking, and unpacking books to place them on the bookshelves, the placement of which we had finally decided. Karen and I both have our share of obsessive-compulsive tendencies (I prefer “organizationally gifted”), and we like to organize our bookshelves by book type: plays together, fiction together, childrens’ lit. together…you get the idea. As we were placing old textbooks onto the appropriate shelves, Karen pulled out a text on “Principles of Marketing” from my undergrad, and asked succinctly where to place this as it didn’t match with anything else we own.

The textbook came from a marketing class I took in my last year of my undergrad, when I had (erroneously) stopped 6 credit hours short of my theatre degree, and declared a psychology minor to accompany my other major of communication. Having thus made the decision I would later regret to bow to the questions of “what kind of job are you going to get with that?”, I was looking for a way to make my communications degree more marketable, and I took a marketing class. A little over a year later, I stumbled into the psychology field and have made my living that way ever since, even though I’ve never been able to get theatre out of my blood. God has a sense of humor.

All that to say, I’m glad that a marketing textbook doesn’t fit in with anything else we own, because I hate the concept of marketing. What I realized tonight, though, is that it is an unfortunate necessity in our culture.

The realization came as Karen was distracted and drawn (as will inevitably happen) into reading the books she was trying to place onto shelves. She read some amazing passages by Douglas Coupland, from his book Life After God. I was struck by the ironic connection to our discussion over the marketing textbook, because I would never have picked up this book to read it. The cover is one of the worst designs I’ve ever seen (ironically not the one pictured in this Amazon link; our copy has a baby in a swimming pool. Horrible). My loss, because the passages Karen read aloud were some seriously amazing prose, and I now have every intention of digging into Coupland’s work further. Had she not gotten me past the cover, however, that would have never happened.

Similarly, I was strolling through the local Barnes & Noble last winter and ended up purchasing a copy of Origin by Diana Abu-Jaber (again, not the cover art in this Amazon link…my copy has a white minimalist winter scene that reached off the shelf and grabbed me). I highly recommend the book, which I ended up very drawn into, even though I wasn’t looking for a crime thriller at the time. This one, as it turned out, was of extremely high literary quality. I stumbled onto it because of the cover. Marketing worked here as well as it would have in reverse of the horrible cover to our copy of the Coupland book.

I see marketing having positive and negative effects on us. At the end of the day, I don’t see our culture working without it, but it still ultimately leaves a bad taste in my mouth, because I think it leads to a notable absence of authenticity. The whole idea of selling art and finding a “target audience” is somehow repellent to me, but I see the necessity of it, I suppose. That’s why I’m the writer and not the agent, I guess.

It also lends a fresh credence to that old adage of not being able to judge a book by its cover.

The Degradation of Language

My commute home to our new apartment takes me past a small chiropractor’s office that’s situated right off of the main “strip.” They have an old-style sign at street level: you know, the kind where someone actually comes out and moves letters around manually, instead of the gaudy digital light shows that have become all too prevalent for U.S. businesses. The content of this particular sign struck me more than its design, though:

“Let us care 4 ur spine.”

As I alluded to in my last post, I’m a bit of a technology addict. As such, I certainly utilize text messaging; SMS is the best way to communicate in some circumstances. As the trend has evolved more toward text-based communication, be it email, blogging, Facebook wall posts, or Twitter, there seems to be less voice calling going on, or at least there tends to be less in my world. I’m proficient in text “language;” the short-hand that makes tapping out a message on a standard phone keypad quicker. I also understand that, in many cultures, texting is considered more polite than taking a voice call while with friends or in public.

Since when, though, did it become socially acceptable for advertising to be reduced to text-message language?

I guess I see it as a time and place for everything. When texting someone, I have no problem using the abbreviations that mark SMS language. When typing an email, however, or even tweeting, or in essentially any other written form of communication whatsoever, I stay away from it, because I struggle with the decline of the English language. I struggle with the fact that students in public school systems today think in SMS language. And not just students. I once was asked to proofread a script for a dramatic sketch, written by an adult, that used “lol” in the dialogue. How, exactly, is a character supposed to deliver that???

I’m not opposed to texting, but I think there is a much more limited acceptability thresh-hold than we currently ascribe to it. When it is used in road-side advertising, we’ve passed that thresh-hold. When we permit language to be abbreviated on a consistent basis, we lose the poetry of the language, the nuances of the words, the beauty of the semantics. We allow our language to be degraded into odd character combinations that are the equivalent of misshapen limbs on a deformed body. With the decline of our language follows the decline of our culture. God knows, we’re seeing enough decline in that already, as falling literacy rates and non-existent reading habits of both teens and adults prove. After all, why read a book when you can play a video game, right?

Perhaps when a culture has reached a point where such fast and immediate communication is necessary, we’ve passed a point of no return. I hope not. To think optimistically, however, we cannot permit ourselves to be so hurried all the time that we feel the need to abbreviate and chop up every word and sentence for the sake of expediency, or, even worse, for the sake of what is “cool” at a given time. In doing so, words become cadavers, not living symbols of an existential meaning beyond themselves as they were intended to be. American language and literature is already the object of disdain from most other civilized cultures around the globe. Should we ever hope to move beyond that, we must learn the limits of when to cut short our words.

If any picture is “worth a thousand words,” then how much must it survive on each one of those words? How important must each one be? Hoping against the arrival of a day when we all speak (God forbid) in numbers and algorithms, our words are the most precious way of communicating the contents of our souls. And, if we lose those words, I fear we lose a piece of those souls…or at least the ability to know them as closely…as well.

Virtually Addicted

Karen and I moved into a new apartment last weekend. We’re fortunate enough to have been able to “upgrade” into a larger living space, and, sore muscles and normal stressors associated with moving aside, the positives far outweigh the negatives. Of course, as tends to happen when dealing with utilities (I won’t mention which one, but my Twitter followers already know), there’s been a delay on, of all things, Internet connection.

We could be connected anytime between now and next week.

After my initial withdrawal pains and lifestyle adjustments (Panera Bread has seen a lot of me this week), Karen and I had a conversation about my information addiction. Besides the logistics problems of keeping up with bills, etc., I realized that a huge part of my panic was a lack of constant access to information, not being able to call up my RSS feeds, blogs, and tweets on a moment’s notice. Karen accuses me of being addicted to the news, and I think likely I am. I wonder at times how much of this is an addiction to information, and how much is legitimate.

I think there is much to be said for the ability to be connected with, and exchange thoughts and dialogue with, people around the globe, people with whom we wouldn’t normally have contact. I don’t think there’s anything voyeuristic about that, I think it is a great ability we have in the modern age. Technology gives us the ability to expand our “community” significantly.

To recognize the “teachable moment” in all this, though, I realize that I am, perhaps, addicted to news media. I realize that it doesn’t necessarily make me a better person to be a more informed person in all areas (especially politics). And, I realize that I’ve lived with limited access just fine.

It is interesting to panic at the thought of spending a week without Internet access at home. After all, we’re blessed enough to not have to worry about living without food or water, as many around the world are at this moment. In fact, the fact that we are able to upgrade our apartment in current economic conditions would be the envy of many. I try to keep that in perspective through the day as I feel aches to know what my friends are tweeting or blogging. Perhaps, a week of forced lifestyle changes is a good thing for me.

After all, once the withdrawals are finished, the addicted person is always better off in the end, right?

Embracing the Fearless

Several of my recent posts have involved the passing of my grandmother…I suppose that has been my process of unpacking the event and working through the grief process. Karen made an interesting point to me upon reviewing those posts: I’ve never said that Grandma “died,” I’ve always said that she “passed.”

As I think about this, I realize that I made a conscious decision to use that phraseology, because, working under the assumption that Grandma was a Believer means to work under the assumption that she isn’t “dead,” but has simply “passed” into the spiritual realm and (temporarily) out of the physical. Perhaps that is why my mourning was, if intense, very brief, because there is no death to mourn in the eternal sense of the word, only a momentary separation.

As often happens, I was directed (call it providence) into specific reading as I’ve been working through this, and, wouldn’t you know it, the theme for issue 14 of The Other Journal is “Death and Dying.” Under the same providence, I “stumbled” onto this article discussing the manner in which we treat death culturally, and the parallels (and eventual conclusions) to the thought of St. Francis of Assisi on the matter. While worth the read, I’ll warn you that it leans a little on the side of theo-speak. The conclusion simply follows St. Francis’ initial fear of death that evolved into his referring to death as his “sister,” and accepting the passing from this realm to the next as a gift.

Really, I think this is fitting, because, as I’ve struggled with the sanitization and compartmentalization of death in our culture (and the resulting impossibility to truly mourn the loss of a loved one), I’ve realized that, stopping just short of embracing death, I actually long for the spiritual realm, to see what is beyond the limits of our physical existence as we pass from this existence into a fuller existence. I’m utterly curious as to what Grandma is experiencing now, because I know that life didn’t stop for her, it simply transitioned. Life became fuller for her on that evening around 9:00 p.m. two weeks or so ago.

I suppose I’m left questioning the fear of death, the existential grasping for life in the present as though there is nothing beyond. While the characters I mentioned previously in Beth Henley’s The Wake of Jamey Foster inhabited their search for life fully, they did so in fear of a perceived abyss that lay ahead.

The character of “Thirteen” is experiencing a similar struggle on House, as she grasps for a hope in life in the few years she has left due to a terminal illness. We see the poignant struggle to cling to each moment in the present for fear of what the future may bring.

Yet, if the truth of Christ means anything, it is that this is not necessary. It means that, while He certainly yearns for us to inhabit this life fully in the present, and that He is walking in the present with us, it means that the future is not something to be feared, either. Death, as Assisi would have likely concluded, is a gift, a transition from a fallen state of existence into the beginnings of a complete state of existence, the same one that He inhabits.

So, I still can’t say that Grandma “died.” I believe that she has truly “passed,” and, to echo Paul’s occasional sentiments, I find myself looking forward to the day when I pass into what is next, also. Even more, however, I long to inhabit the present passionately and fully, knowing that I am not doing so alone, and that, in doing so, I will be having an effect on the fuller life that I will eventually experience, right alongside my grandmother.