We’re Not Anywhere

I was privileged this week to attend a poetry reading and lecture by poet Dana Gioia at Biola, and it was exquisite (I still look back on a 2008 poetry reading of Gioia’s at St. Mary’s in Oxford as one of the aesthetic highlights of my life).

Gioia shared several quite insightful thoughts about art, creation, and how we might become better artists/poets/writers. One of his observations particularly struck me. He said that one thing that most great writing, poetry and art share is a deep connection with and observation of place; that the best creators are usually the ones that are most connected to places and most attuned to the culture, people, customs and environs of the world around them, and particularly of the roots from which they’ve sprung.

Gioia lamented that when he observes people these days (mostly, but not exclusively, younger folks and “digital natives”), they seem place-less. They aren’t rooted in physical space or at all interested in observing the world directly around them. Rather, they live their lives through screens–computers, phones, televisions, tablets, connecting them in a mediated and abstracted way to anything and everything they wish. The world is at their fingertips; and yet, ironically, the real world right in front of them is hardly worth their notice.

He described a phenomenon we’ve all encountered (or, cringe, participated in ourselves): people walking in beautiful forests or down vibrant city streets with their iPod headphones in their ears, or their eyes glued to a phone. They’d rather escape into a private world of music, drowning out the sounds of nature or city life; they’d rather text or email as they walk, rather than look into the eyes of passersby or reflect on the curiosities of proximate physical existence.

Even as I write this (at Starbucks), I see it all around: about 20 college students sitting around tables mere feet from one another, and yet seduced by their own media bubbles, their attention focused on laptop screens, phones, their ears plugged by headphones. I’m frequently guilty of it myself. So much of my life as a writer is staring at screens, locked in to a world of text and www windows  for hours and days at a time.

I’m part of a generation that has “access” to more of the world than any prior generation in human history. Through our RSS feeds and Twitter streams of nonstop information, we zig-zag from one article to another, from music videos to streaming movies, stopping occasionally to chat, skype, or email someone on the other side of the world. Or maybe we pause for a reflective second to survey the collective outpouring of a thousand 140-character condolences when a celebrity none of us knew died in a hotel few of us ever will enter.

Gioia’s thoughts have convicted me, stirring up in me a sense of loss I’ve felt before: that our screens and media have gradually eroded our perceptiveness and (worse) our curiosity about that which is beautiful and interesting in the air and spaces in which we abide.

Before coming to Starbucks to write this post, I made a stop at a quiet rooftop garden on Biola’s campus, where for an hour I just sat on a bench and was present, observing the world around me–an activity all too rare in my life. I marveled at the beauty, silently taking it in: a hovering, buzzing hummingbird dancing around the blossoms of Salvia spathacea; the weightless purple-grey cloud cathedrals above; a palm tree shimmying with the wind in the sky, rustling like a cheerleader’s pom-pom unsure if it should cheer.

Oh what wonder there is in every moment and every place, if we only take a moment to explore and observe!

I want to be connected to the places that define me. And I do want places to define me. I want to understand the world right in front of me; not just through the screens 1 foot in front of my face.  I want to take note of the little things, relishing them as God-given invitations to worship: the way that a smell in church this morning brought me back so clearly to a memory of my cousins’ house as a boy; the way that the air feels in Southern California on a cool February day: faintly moist and salty, blown over from the Pacific, a refreshing contrast to the dry desert scents ushered in by Santa Ana winds.

I want to be a better writer, thinker, human being, because I’m as floored by the mystery and majesty of my neighborhood’s native succulents as I am with whatever trendy Tumblr everyone is sharing on Facebook today. The Internet makes it easy to be alert to everything that’s going on in the world, to know what all the important people are saying; but I think we must remember that we can get all that and more in the smallest of things, well observed–even in a grain of sand, William Blake might say.

Thank you Dana Gioia for reminding me to not take the world around me for granted, and to sometimes shift my gaze from rectangular screens to the planes and horizons beyond.

I’ll conclude with a poem by Gioia which seems fitting (from his award-winning volume, Interrogations at Noon):

“A California Requiem” 

I walked among the equidistant graves
New planted in the irrigated lawn.
The square, trim headstones quietly declared
The impotence of grief against the sun.

There were no outward signs of human loss.
No granite angel wept beside the lane.
No bending willow broke the once-rough ground
Now graded to a geometric plane.

My blessed California, you are so wise.
You render death abstract, efficient, clean.
Your afterlife is only real estate,
And in his kingdom Death must stay unseen.

I would have left then. I had made my one
Obligatory visit to the dead.
But as I turned to go, I heard the voices,
Faint but insistent. This is what they said.

“Stay a moment longer, quiet stranger.
Your footsteps woke us from our lidded cells.
Now hear us whisper in the scorching wind,
Our single voice drawn from a thousand hells.

“We lived in places that we never knew.
We could not name the birds perched on our sill,
Or see the trees we cut down for our view.
What we possessed we always chose to kill.

“We claimed the earth but did not hear her claim,
And when we died, they laid us on her breast,
But she refuses us—until we earn
Forgiveness from the lives we dispossessed.

“We are so tiny now—light as the spores
That rotting clover sheds into the air,
Dry as old pods burnt open by the sun,
Barren as seeds unrooted anywhere.

“Forget your stylish verses, little poet—So
sadly beautiful, precise, and tame.
We are your people, though you would deny it.
Admit the justice of our primal claim.

“Become the voice of our forgotten places.
Teach us the names of what we have destroyed.
We are like shadows the bright noon erases,
Weightlessly shrinking, bleached into the void.

“We offer you the landscape of your birth—Exquisite
and despoiled. We all share blame.
We cannot ask forgiveness of the earth
For killing what we cannot even name.”

10 responses to “We’re Not Anywhere

  1. From someone who feels strongly defined by place, I hope you find, and hold on to, that gift.

  2. “Gioia’s thoughts have convicted me, stirring up in me a sense of loss I’ve felt before: that our screens and media have gradually eroded our perceptiveness and (worse) our curiosity about that which is beautiful and interesting in the air and spaces in which we abide.”

    I feel this too. And I worry sometimes that we are headed down the same path of the humans in the film Wall-E, completely and utterly mesmerized by a digital world that is so detached from reality, from each other. I wonder if it’s possible if this generation will ever achieve a balance between the pull of technology and being truly present in our world?

  3. Yep. I am a default consumer. (Which I wrote about recently: http://handmaden.com/2011/12/21/default-comsumer)

    It takes work to reverse it. I appreciate your thoughts and the challenge to be observers, and as a result, more thoughtful creators.

  4. Great post, I have been thinking about this same thing.

  5. Reblogged this on musings in montage and commented:
    This is from the pen of someone I admire, Brett McCracken who blogs at http://www.stillsearching.wordpress.com. This kind of made me wish in a big way I was at that poetry reading.

  6. Great post. And timely, too! Today, in a social media course, we had a Skype session with one of the nations fore-most online marketers. We discussed the opportunities of an ever-advancing socially connected society–from a business, marketing, content-sharing perspective. And he had a lot of great things to say about how how web 2.0 has and will impacted society.

    After leaving the class a few of my peers and I started buzzing with excitement about what the future would hold for those of us who are “pre-cognitively” adept to handle the advancing social-world. Our conversation eventually turned it’s focus toward asking questions about these advancements and their implications for relationships, environment and (the hot-topic) privacy.

    I, too wonder if there will be a happy medium.

    Thanks for the challenge.

  7. I have recently come to appreciate exactly this through meditation on The Thin Red Line (just watched for the first time after Tree of Life was a defining experience in 2011 for me). I think TTRL solidified this lesson because of the extreme contrast of the horrifying destructions of the battlefield and the sustained leisurely shots of the beauty.

    Those two Terrance Malick films have taught me how to sense the glory of creation all around me.

  8. Superb, Brett. Thank you!

  9. Pingback: Loon’s linkage (February ’12) « The Common Loon

  10. Christopher Benson

    Hi Brett,

    Thanks for sharing about Dana Gioia’s talk at Biola, which is now available to watch on YouTube. His lament about being displaced reminds me of what Craig Bartholomew has said in his recent book, “Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today”: the great crisis of late modernity is not so much meaninglessness as it is placelessness. Or, better yet, we should observe their relationship to each other, as Walter Brueggemann argues: “There are no meanings apart from roots.”

    Your rooftop garden meditation on Biola’s campus reminds me of a resolution for mental health by Clyde Kilby, a former professor of English at Wheaton College and C. S. Lewis scholar:

    “I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what C.S. Lewis calls their “divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic” existence.”

    * Christianity Today: “Where Am I? The Middle-Class Crisis of Place.” An Interview with Craig Bartholomew.

    • Wheaton College: Clyde Kilby, “Resolutions for a Life Well Lived.”

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