I recently started running again.
After months (could it have been years?) of hit and miss exercising—mostly walking around the neighborhood or occasionally using the NuStep at the YMCA with Mom—I laced up the running shoes and decided to get back to running shape. It was Saturday, May 12, 2018. I know because the app on my phone I’ve been using to help me train logged the run. In 28 minutes, 16 seconds, I walked and ran (mostly walked) 1.92 miles. My average pace was 14:42/mile.
Not exactly the kind of start I’d wanted, but a start. Or better, a restart.
I’ve written about my on-again/off-again relationship to running a few times over the years. How I’ve overcome great obstacles (remember the stories of my temporary paralysis and my stage-four cancer?) and even minor spills to return over and over again to running. Maybe I should be embarrassed by how often I come and go from the hobby, and I do wonder if one of these days, I won’t be able to go back at all. I dread the day that I try and try to get back into running shape and my body refuses to be toned and tortured. Maybe that’s the day I’ll try to start swimming again … but that’s a post for another time.
Just like with running, I find myself in a similar relationship with blogging. I’ve had stretches where I’ve written almost daily posts, the writing muscles having been whipped into shape by nothing more than sheer discipline and stamina. I’ve also had stretches, like the one I’m attempting to break now, where posts are separate by days, and then weeks, and sometimes even months. Since I haven’t actually written or published a blog post since January, this might be the longest stretch yet.
And I’ve been wondering, as I’ve attempted to sit down and write this post for weeks now, if maybe I’ve waited too long. Maybe I don’t have another blog post in me. Maybe my days of calling myself a blogger are officially over.
But then an idea hit, a thought, a way back in. And mostly it had to do with you, with my readers. And believe it or not (this is no writer trickery, I promise), it happened on a run.
As I slowly move my way back into shape, one way I encourage myself to get outside for a run is the promise of a good podcast. I have a few I listen to as I weave back and forth along the sidewalks near my home: Good Life Project with Jonathan Fields, The Next Right Thing by Emily P. Freeman, Ann Kroeker: Writing Coach, and On Being with Krista Tippett.
In a recent On Being episode, Krista interviewed cello virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma, whose been a favorite of mine for years and who right now is playing quietly through Pandora on my smartphone. In their conversation, Yo-Yo talked about the ways in which he’d had to interpret and understand life across cultures (he was born in France to Chinese parents), and how now, he interprets music across time and space by playing the works of composers and collaborating with musicians from many genres and eras. But then he talked about the experience of actually being on stage, of performing his music for an audience.
“When I’m on stage, all of you that are in the hall are my guests. I’m the host of a wonderful party. You’re all my guests, because I have the floor. While I’m on stage, you are all my guests, because that’s sort of the unsaid agreement,” Yo-Yo said. And his impression that he’s the host when he’s making his music got me thinking about the hospitality involved in all kinds of art. How every creative act we offer to the world is an invitation for others to come into a space we’ve created and curated.
Lately, however, for all kinds of reasons, very few of which I actually control, my writing—my art—hasn’t felt like a spacious place to invite others into. It’s felt more like the longest baseball game ever, and it’s only the first inning. I’ve lobbed pitches, caught assignments, and led off hoping for a successful hit and run, only to be tagged out when the umpire called foul. And I don’t even like baseball, or sports metaphors, for that matter. I guess I could say it like this: I’ve been hustling for so long to get to the bigs that I’ve nearly lost my love for the game.
But how do I find my way back? Leaving the baseball analogy aside, how does a professional writer … or a professional of any kind … do the work without getting caught up in the business? Which is actually a big problem with being a “professional” since the word actually means “engaged in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation rather than as a pastime.” And yet, shouldn’t it be possible to keep doing our art, our business, our sport, with the attention and thoughtfulness we began with? At the same time, how do we keep inviting others in, not just to be customers or fans, but to be our guests?
Years ago at a spiritual retreat, I learned that hospitality is about more than serving appetizers before dinner or keeping fresh linens on the bed. It’s actually about making space in our lives so others feel welcome there. And when I think about hospitality as a critical element in the life of a writer, making space for others also means clearing out the distractions that keep me from observing, reflecting, and attending to the world around me. How can I write at all when I can’t hear through the noise that modern life serves up or rest from the constant demands for my attention? Knocking out assignments is one thing; writing from the overflow of a well-kept soul is another.
I recently attended another spiritual retreat, this one called Attending to God in the Age of Distraction. The speakers, both philosophy professors, spent the weekend building an argument that our present age trains us toward an autonomy and “solutionism” that keeps us always “on,” always available, always under scrutiny, and always distracted. In the final session of the weekend, James K.A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, went on to explain that the reason distraction is so lethal isn’t about productivity or efficiency or even our health. It’s more than that.
“Distraction steals our capacity for joy,” Smith said. “Our ability to expand our capacity for attention is important because it expands our capacity for joy.”
To increase our attention then, to diminish our distraction and help us escape from the weight of constant availability and scrutiny, Smith recommended a few “priming” practices, or conduits that might “leave us quiet enough to listen and contemplate.” One of those priming practices was to be bored, or to give ourselves time to be quiet, to not accomplish anything. He also suggested that we take the time to learn the names of things, to slow down, pay attention, and to see the value of individual things. For instance, not just trees but maple, tulip poplar, beech, dogwood. Finally, he recommended the daily practice of reflection or journaling, taking the time to list the events or insights or highlights of the day.
While I’ve certainly taken more time to attend to what’s around me in some of these ways, the greater conundrum for me is what to do with the technology that keeps us scrolling, swiping, updating, and posting all the time. If I can’t put down my iPhone, if I can’t stop checking my Facebook feed, if I can’t resist the urge to see how many likes and comments I got on my latest Instagram photo, then how am I ever going to have time to figure out the names of the birds fluttering around my backyard?
Modern technology have given us some of the greatest paradoxes in history. We are both more connected and more lonely than ever before. We make ourselves available in a hundred different ways, except to those who are sitting right in front of us. We have access to information from every corner of the globe, but we have no idea what’s going on in our own neighborhoods. We have the ability to express our opinions to enormous audiences, and yet we don’t have time to really think about what we believe.
And writers have enormous platforms and billions of potential readers, yet with all the social media channels and podcasts and blogs and eNewsletters and webinars and online courses, we have no space to welcome them into our own lives.
It’s tempting to throw the baby out with the bathwater. To just push the reset button on technology and go back to the olden days of flip phones and word processors and dial up Internet. (Just kidding. No one wants to go back to the days of dial up Internet.) But we can’t go back. Not all the way, and if I had to be honest, I suspect a great deal of the problem isn’t so much the technology but something inside of me, all of us, that the technology brought to light. That was another point Smith touched on at the retreat. Technology itself isn’t just a passive or neutral distraction that keeps us from more important things. Often, we rush to technology to be distracted, “to cover up a more profound anxiety and restlessness” inside us all.
So, I (we?) have work to do if we ever want to recover the joy that seems to be missing lately. I don’t know yet what that will look like in my life. Fewer apps? Deleting my social media accounts? Taking email off my iPhone? Turning off notifications? But whatever else may come, I just had this feeling that if I didn’t stop right now to invite you into this moment with me, it might be too late for all of us.
Sure, I get the irony here: writing a blog post using all the technology I’m railing against. But it doesn’t have to be a perpetual distraction away from the slow, contemplative, and relational life we all long for. Just print out this blog post, make a copy or two for friends, and have a conversation. A real, in person conversation about the role of distraction in your own lives.