Moments of Wonder – Better than Clicks

Our moments matter.

I look out the window to check on the garden and anticipate its blooms for the day, making a plan for the early hours of the day. Opening the window, I think of the potential cross breeze now that our bed is pulled away from the window on the adjacent wall.

As I was approached the large window, I see Black Widow between the glass and screen. Not to worry, pest control comes regularly to keep these little creatures from entering our humble abode. Still, we must not let the moment pass. I call the children over to give them the opportunity to examine it and what appears to be its former mate up close, safely behind the glass, before my husband crushes the life out of it. We enjoy the moment even if it leads to the “heebee jeebies.”

I try to take stock of these moments.

The moments are fragments of time woven together to create a tapestry of how my children see and understand the world. My response to the world around us shows them what they will perceive as a standard in the potential ways to proceed.

Homeschooling means the environment I create for them is the one they know best.

Homeschool room in the living room with fall decor

They do not have access to technology or social media. After watching “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix it became clear how our society could become as polarized as it has. The more you search for something, click on something, look at something, the more the algorithms tailor the content you are shown on social media or through Google to that which has attracted your attention in the past. The more you see something, the more normalized it seems, the more it seems a regular part of the world on you inhabit, the more freedom you have to express the ideas that were previously spoken of more carefully, tactfully, cautiously.

Thus women feel freer to talk about household chore distribution, babies who do not sleep, pregnancy woes, and the desire to work or not to work. And thus others find a place to voice their political ideas, to find a political community they may not otherwise have found, for good or ill.

The moments matter.

We affect the environment we live in.

There are many sources fighting for our attention these days and in diving in, the environment we live in begins to distort into something that is not a true representation of the people who live around us, but a magnification and exaggeration created by an engine selling advertising space.

The end of “The Social Dilemma” is quite dire. The only viable solution seen by the documentary interviewees, early influencers of social media, is regulation of the companies that survey our usage. The other solution, less discussed, is to turn off the computer, store the iPad, turn off notifications and put away the phone.

The distance from these noise-producing objects creates silence for our minds. Our minds are searching for occupation. What we need in this world is not more noise, but more wonder.

I call the children over to see the Black Widow. We discuss the nature of her name, which only one child knew before. We can simultaneously not want to know this Widow well and wonder at its creation.

In the act of wonder, I sit back and behold, I marvel, I observe and I learn.

The act is not flashy and will not bait the clicks, but it enriches my heart. We share a moment as a family. The moment passes. The Black Widow is killed. We go about our day.

Until we see a caterpillar.

Almond orchard at sunset

Discover How “To Be” While Still Doing

Previously Published in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch.

 

The sun is out. The air is warm. Twin size sheets billow on the clothesline witnessing to the drama of toilet training. My inbox tells me I have marketing homework to do for my upcoming book, “Journey in Love: A Catholic Mother’s Prayers after Prenatal Diagnosis,” and a presentation to write for the Catholic Professionals and Business Club of Modesto. My husband and daughter are restoring our chicks’ water after she removed it out and got distracted before replacing it.

I hear laughter after my husband discovered the grown hen found a new spot to lay her eggs near the chicks’ pen. Living in the moment, my husband has forgotten about his scolding.

Babies know all about being, Dr. Gregory Bottaro, author of The Mindful Catholic and my former-colleague points out on his Facebook page. Perhaps his post is an excuse to share a cute baby picture of the latest familial addition which he himself delights in.

 

In that space between doing and being, are we still remembering what to choose? Being is not the opposite of doing. Rather it is a matter of doing it right.

 

There are lessons all around me to stay in the moment. “Whoever thinks from a distance about his situation lives it with suffering; whoever is close to it lives it with consolation, the fruit of a true wisdom,” writes Simone Troisi and Cristiana Paccini in Chiara Corbella Petrillo, the biography of a young woman who died of cancer seven years ago.

In order to relax, it becomes essential not to run or escape from the things that overwhelm us. Summer is here. But rather than a boozy time of vacationing on the beach or standing in line at the most wonderful place on earth (I’m told its Disneyland), the so-called staycation might teach us a better way.

The mommy-blog advice goes like this. Can’t afford a traditional vacation? Try a staycation. Take some time off work. Plan an outing to a local attraction you’ve never seen. Cook something new as a family. Eat together. Read.

 

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Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

 

That’s it. So simple. The staycation is leisure not because of a new locale, but by fully living in the one we’ve got. By living it more deeply.

When using the Swiffer on my kitchen ceramic floors with a Pinterest image of a spectacular country home in my imagination, I begin to begrudge the crumbs I swept away from the cracking tile countertop. The dirt under the picnic table, spread across the pavement like a modern painting exasperates me. What’s the use of cleaning and sweeping? The act seems futile when the bugs keep coming, no matter how many times we call BJ’s.

It is now that I see the difference between doing and being. When I pile onto my task all my thoughts about what else must be done, about an impossible standard, about some impossible goal, then my little tasks become harried and unpleasant.

But when I hang the laundry, and only hang the laundry, without thinking of anything else except evening the sheets, without counting the number of sheets I’ve washed this week, pinning the corners, pulling the boys’ pant legs out, then I begin to savor the moment with its sunshine, fresh air and peace.

 

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Photo by Caspar Camille Rubin on Unsplash

 

The trick is taking it one thing at a time, be it the chores of the home, the tasks at work, the outings on vacation, or the sufferings of this present time. One thing at a time.

The Golden Age of Friendship

When was your golden age?

For me, it was college. After completing a year of missionary work, I attended two years at CSU Stanislaus, lived at home and worked. I missed the community of the missionary team. “Live with Saint Paul’s Outreach,” Elissa said, a ministry that focuses on college outreach by living near and working on campus.

“I need to go to school.”

“Go to St. Thomas. It’s right across the street.”

And that is what I did.

 

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I left for Minnesota with the confidence of the love of the man I would later marry. I left with the maturity of the gap year, time spent in the workforce, and the legal drinking age.

There was Half Price Books, Patina, Cafe Bene, Cafe Latte, The Dubliners after long catering nights, theology with Dr. Boyle, mentoring from Dr. Buri, lectures and culture, thoughtful responses, a jazz club with a waitress who knew us by name, autumn leaves in color, fresh snowfalls, summer evenings, long days and long nights filled with friends.

I came back with friendships, deep, wonderful friendships.

There are these brief seasons in life when we feel we have it together. Rhythm was achieved, the right ingredients for growth led to growth, challenges were met, conquered and interiorized. Then it ends.

A new baby, a death, a job loss or gain, some significant change. And everything we had is gone.

Never mind, that there might be more money, more opportunities, another baby.

Change is change. And it hurts.

What did I discover about myself during that golden time? What parts of my soul awoke, were inspired or grew?

I have to ask myself, how can I practice them in this new mode of being?

I learned to be adventurous in San Francisco. Now, I can travel alone and love it.

 

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I wrote in solitude. Now I can close my door Wednesday mornings and write at my desk by the window.

I met people, learned about them and their business. Now, I can write news articles about the projects of others.

She learned her soul comes alive when she sings. She can manage 15 minutes a day even with a three-month-old.

It is more possible than we think, but it takes planning and prioritizing.

The golden ages in our lives likely have a little less suffering, more freedom, good relationships, some comfort, some adventure…but more than all that, we discover and develop the best in ourselves.

Post-traumatic growth is the response of resilience to trauma. When pushed through to the greatest possible healing, those who emerge from trauma still standing have remarkable qualities of peace, strength and wisdom.

Psychology has relied on a medical model of disease prevention and treatment. Positive psychology wants to address how to go beyond surviving to thriving. Suffering is inevitable in life. Those who spend their lives avoiding turn their hearts to stone.

In “The Four Loves,” C.S. Lewis wrote, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

When I really look back at my golden age, I was lonesome for the man I loved who was across the country; I experienced anxiety for the first time, a friend who would stay with me for many years to come; I spread myself thin between work and school; and just when I adjusted to it all, I left.

It was not actually perfect, but it was good and it was formative. I am more complete because of it. The time has passed. The friendships remain. And so begins a newer, better golden age.

Seasons of Fall and Focus

 

It’s September! I am now at the age to feel how time moves more quickly than my awareness, but I am not sorry. Where did the time go? Do I miss the moments?

I hope the “moment” then evolved into the moments now, representing a gradual increase rather than the loss of time. It is only with the ones who passed away that I have missed time. For the rest, it is all still with me.

I looked back at “What I Learned This Spring,” written early in summer. Considering what I learned this summer, like time and life, several of the items merely deepened. While I listened to the Hamilton soundtrack less, I spent the summer reading the letters of Flannery O’Connor, compiled in “The Habit of Being.” Alongside, I pick up her short stories as she discusses them in her letters.

 

 

I wrote in the spring that I learned she is brilliant; this summer I learned she is wise, funny, poignant, kind, sympathetic, opinionated and faithful. I want to be like her. Her correspondence gave me the courage to send my writing out, to ask other writers for advice, and some exciting avenues developed from there.

Are we willing to be vulnerable with our talents in order to improve them? In this individualistic society, how difficult is it to ask, “how’m I doing?” and get feedback.

Pretty difficult, I’d say.

Seeing a writer, so polished, still asking for feedback, again and again, was inspiring.

My ambition over the summer grew and as August waned, it became clear the focus must shift again. Perhaps I write that every three months: time to step back, to be present at home, etc, etc.

 

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

 

Some of us need a push out the door. Some of us need a pull back inside. Balance is as individual as the individuals trying to achieve it. Let no self-help tell you differently.

This summer we took everything we learned in spring about how not to take a vacation and applied it, rather successfully to our vacation plans early in August, which I shared about here and on my blog. Little by little, if we choose to reflect, we learn, little by little; if we choose to work, we improve.

In this new season of life, I learned I need breaks: breaks from responsibilities, from taking care of the business and scheduling of home, from the visible to-do list that greets me when I walk in the door.

And I took breaks.

My daughter went to summer camp, I took her and stayed a night on the coast, solo, for the first time since…since…before children roamed my home and ruled my life. I read “Gifts from the Sea” by Anne Morrow Lindbergh and I felt my soul breathe.

In the heat of the summer, I both learned how to be better at my job, but then became so overwhelmed by other responsibilities that my article output grew lean. I am working on leaning in again.

How often do your seasons of life change? When the season changes, the focus changes. From freedom to fourth period, from vacation to holiday planning. Fall brings with it a renewed focus on education, on getting things done and on getting things right, and on the future. The excitement of holiday decorating and pumpkin spice everything lies just around the corner.

We are used to this happening but when the season in our personal sphere changes, are we ready to adapt? Can we step back, learn to say no the things we cannot do and yes to the things we now can? Can we accept our limitations when our former commitments prove too much? Can we ask for help?

I am learning this as I go along. The good thing is, when we are living life intentionally, trying to do the best we can, there is very little room for “I should have known.” If you should have known, but whatever it is still happened or didn’t happen, there was some other obstacle, so now you know that for next time.

Knowledge grows. Experience grows. Time not only moves behind us but it grows as we mark the years of our lives, the days on the calendar, the seasons on our storage boxes.

Let’s see what it holds.

 

 

Living With Intention: A Review of The Grace of Enough

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch

 

There are some pretty common themes in the writing you see here week by week. I did not start out with this vision in mind. As I reflect, more than anything, I would say, the topics have circled around the idea of intentional living as the source of The Good Life, Aristotle’s not so elusive idea that happiness is possible, possible for anyone, in any circumstances. It is just is not the life of pleasure, power or money we might grow up thinking it is.

Through the blogosphere, I learned about an upcoming title, The Grace of Enough by Haley Stewart. The title was fascinating. Her story, even more so.

 

 

Their family was tired. Tired of long hours working. Tired of making just enough. Tired of the isolation of life at home. It was time for a movement. Rather than go the way of more money, which would mean longer hours, less meaningful work, less time together, they decided to make a radical change. Her husband applied for an internship with World Hunger Relief Farm where they both volunteered prior to marriage. Accepted, the family of five sold their home and moved to a 650 square foot apartment on a massive farm and began their education in slow and intentional living.

The author takes her lessons and shares them here. Lessons in:

Slow walks…to savor nature, to notice things, to let her children school her in beauty, wonder and awe.

 

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Photo by Andreas Dress on Unsplash

 

Intentional home life…it does not need to be fancy, but with greater simplicity, fill it with the things you love, things built to last and say no to fast fashion and fast home design or trends.

Slow food…connecting our food’s origin with its end. Stewart saw her children’s appreciation of their food grow as they learned the process from farm to fork, even the parts we might be tempted to shield from our urban children like slaughtering animals so we eat chicken that night. Slow food does not simply mean avoiding the total convenience of buying whatever we want, but taking more time to savor our meals, cook with others, eat together as a family, not rush to next task at hand.

Stewart transitions easily to the conversation of hospitality. Have you ever avoided seeing a neighbor because of how long that conversation will be? I wonder at my neighbor’s patience as my children hold him hostage in his driveway for ten minutes. No doubt he just wants to take off his shoes and relax. But he loves them and engages with them, answering their questions, offering ideas they suspiciously do not hear. It is a lesson in hospitality. I hope we can always afford to share ten minutes connecting with those we encounter.

Those interpersonal relationships spill into the larger community. As a (primarily) stay-at-home mother, the days can be lonely and daunting. The internet became a great connector for me, helping me stay in touch with other mothers with whom friendship deepened. But we are also called to give without return to our communities through volunteer work. That might mean through the church or local non-profits or city activities. We wonder what has happened to society, but with most families requiring dual incomes, the time and space the parent at home might have spent volunteering is devoted to other, though also important things.

Stewart goes deeper in reflection to the internal sources of our disconnect. Some of her statements might not square with those of other faith or non-faith traditions. She acknowledges this. Regardless, she adds that the fascination remains, how do we rebuild our lives into something meaningful? How can this option be available for any person regardless of socioeconomic status?

“The Grace of Enough” operates as a guide for reflection on how we can pursue today, the good life Aristotle described, almost 1700 years after Aristotle wrote about it in the “Nicomachean Ethics”. I walked away from this book feeling supported in our choices, inspired by the ideas and challenged to do more. I highly recommend it.

Discloser of Material Connection: I am a freelance writer for the Hughson Chronicle. As such, this is a “sponsored post,” reprinted with permission. The company who sponsored it compensated me via a cash payment to write it. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers.

Possession vs Contemplation and other thoughts on the County Fair

 

How do we experience reality?

 

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Some say by photographing every encounter, we are trying to capture it, to possess it, instead of allowing the moment to present to us what it has to offer. Contemplation is a manner of receiving, rather than possessing, to let the thing contemplated gradually reveal itself.

 

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Or are we so accustomed to stimulation, that we depart the moment altogether, entering into the virtual realm of the “smartphone” even in the presence of exotic and magnificent animals where we might contemplate the beauty of creation or the heartache of captivity?

 

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Perhaps we see reality only as a sort of reflection, through the lens of the phone camera, never truly pausing to see the sights and people are they truly are.

 

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What will we observe when we open our eyes and put aside the distraction?

 

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The appalling taste, texture and smells of life…

 

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The atrocity of human action and man’s inability to learn.

 

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The vibrant consumerism and overwhelming opportunities for pleasure in modern society…

 

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Or…

 

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Adventure.

 

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Creativity.

 

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And the humor of what it means to be human in a species with others totally like us and totally different.

 

Enjoy.

 

This post inspired by observations at the Stanislaus County Fair and an inspiring education in the mind and literary work of Flannery O’Connor.

Fours Ways to Wonder and Awe

I went to the Coast. I came back to the kitchen.

 

We are surrounded with vestiges (fingerprints) of God that point us to Him. They connect us to something higher, something bigger than ourselves, something that tells us the world makes sense and despite the chaos, tragedy and crime, it is good that we are here.

 

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In Creation

 

Each plant perfect in itself, a feast for our eyes.

 

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They creep into our traditions, marking the changes in the seasons and our lives.

 

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In Worship

 

There is splendor in the manner in which a human being lifts its soul up to its God. We pour all of ourselves whether through craft, art, song or service.

Men and women made that…and they made it as a gift.

 

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In History

 

We have the capacity to create beautiful spaces and those beautiful spaces can envelop us in their texture, color and warmth. Mission San Juan Bautista was built in 1798. Imagine the footsteps that walked these steps. When I walk here, I connect to something that existed before me and will exist after me. I am merely an observer, a participant for a brief moment.

 

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In Skill

 

The waves are unpredictable. You must wait for them, learn to tell the right one, the right time, the right angle.

 

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Yet men and women can do this. They can ride the waves in a way so utterly human and yet so beyond.

 

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I will catalog these thoughts from my evening away from home. I tuck them inside my memories to remind me as the temperatures rise, the valley gets dusty and the cleaning seems endless.

 

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I do need to travel far away to see all this. There are vestiges wherever I go reminding me to live always in wonder and awe.

Why Should I Attend my Parish Festival?

We don’t have to know our neighbors.

 

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We don’t need to know about the little community events.

 

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Our children will survive if they never see a Ferris Wheel in real life.

 

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We can know nothing about the cultural roots of the person next door.

 

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And we can live without any sense of wonder and awe.

 

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But how much better if we can, like a child, see the world as it is, bright, beautiful and connected. For the child able to live in a world of security with stable attachments, the world is their playground, everything is made to amaze them.

We can live that way to

if we open our eyes

and try

One Big way to Welcome Summer

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch.

 

Welcome Summer

 

There are shades of green throughout my backyard: sage green, verdant green and cedar green as the wispy straw color of a thousand weeds spring up where a lawn should be. I sit on a blue-and-white-stripe-cushioned outdoor couch, draped elegantly in a splattered painter’s drop cloth to catch the cat hair. At my feet, an outdoor rug punctuates the textured cement while a pilling, princess-printed, fleece sleeping bag elevates my right foot from the otherwise level terrain.

Birdsong echoes through the still air as a table saw cuts through the illusion of a quiet morning in the distance.

Unwanted vegetation billows around the garden bed where the children harvested two buckets of potatoes with their father three days ago. Looking at our hammock, sheltered by the shade of an olive tree, I see the bag of bug-infested outdoor curtains I pulled down hastily but could not discard because our garbage can was full.

It is all around us: the bad, the beautiful, the busy, the serene.

When my anxiety mounts, I see only the clutter, the doll apron, the plastic broccoli, the tin tea cup ornamenting my lawn.

When I remind myself, “Stop. Focus. Take a moment,” I hear the silence, feel the air, see the rust-colored lily blooming by the fence, a gift from the neighbors whose welcome immediately made this space feel like home. My healthy son wanders the backyard with his blanket in tow. I recall the pleasure of last night’s barbeque with family and friends, how easy it felt to get together, how refreshing the pool water felt on my feet.

One week ago I realized how often I am trying to distract myself from the moments before me.

On Sunday when the Internet was down and my husband was gone for the day, living the artist’s life playing piano in Watsonville, I saw how many moments there when I mindlessly click to my email or Facebook. It is a habit. Maybe the degree of dissatisfaction I feel when there are no emails or notifications is a sign that it is more than just a habit. There is debate over whether or not our constant clicking is to primarily soothe anxiety or gain pleasure.

We welcome summer, the hottest of our four temperate seasons, with later bedtimes and earlier rising times. We turn the air conditioner on, close the windows, shield ourselves from the sun with layers of sunscreen, wide brim hats and sailcloth.

I search “summer” on Pinterest and my page reveals summer outfits, a hammock with outdoor lights, “How to make Frozen Lemon Dreams” and photos of vintage vans on the sandy beach.

 

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Photo by Anton Mishin on Unsplash

 

Fittingly, my mind flits back and forth from this article to the children before me to the calendar for summer plans. Perhaps we will drive our mini-van on a sandy beach.

A new season, new expectations, new adventures, new moments of growth. There might be moments that seem perfect, then the toddler cries, the children dispute the proper order of creation, the brother pleas for the sister to stop looking at him, the sister wails when he affronts her by sticking out his deadly tongue.

A week ago, I was a bundle of nerves, unable to stop flitting, losing direction. I discerned the need to say “no” to worrying about the numbers, “yes” to professional projects that move my soul and “yes” to the moments here at home. A weekend of my husband’s gigs gave me time to narrow my focus. Cutting out the evening cocktail gave me mental space to think and more peaceful sleep.

I embrace Memorial Day as the unofficial start to summer. The desert scene on today’s forecast found on the National Weather Service website confirms it. Let the heat begin. Let the new season unfold.

The lessons I still struggle to learn repeat more often than they repeat in this column.

Stop.

Focus.

Take a moment.

Welcome Summer.

Smart technology will not save your life

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

We are Analog

 

I read “The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter” (2016) by David Sax. It sounded fun as I get looks like “I’m such a bore” when I ask someone not to interact with my child by showing them photos or internet research on their phone or if I ask my phone-addicted guest to please put the phone away because my children are creeping their little wide eyes over his shoulder.

Why does it matter? Sax argues society has been told the tale too often that analog is dead, digital is the future. I put my Canon Rebel DSR (film) camera on consignment at Camera Center in Modesto. We sold the darkroom equipment on Craigslist. Chemicals were too expensive, so I never got started. Then Camera Center closed. I forgot to pick up my camera. Digital it is.

 

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Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

 

Digging through boxes to KonMari my way to peace and happiness, I happened across artistic photos I developed from my glory days as a college student in Minnesota. To look at a photograph and not a screen was remarkable.

 

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Photo by krisna qodhar R on Unsplash

 

I want to listen to live music. I want to read a real book. I want to hold my newspaper when I read it. Ask Heather or Joyce at the library and they’ll tell you when I come in on Tuesdays, I pick up the paper, look for my articles and return it to the stack. There is something about seeing the real thing in real life. It feels different. It is exciting.

Sax explains why the experience is so different. As analog beings, we understand and engage with the world through our five senses. The more senses engaged, the deeper our engagement, the stronger our reaction. For a gross example, to smell and see and hear someone vomit is so much worse than just finding it on the bathroom floor.

As I watched an opera singer perform in the spotlight as the orchestra pulses the sound waves in our direction, the lights low, her costume flickers like so many stars, I held my breath in awe at the sheer power of her voice. Spotify has nothing on this.

 

 

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Ashley Bell debuts as Madame Butterfly with Townsend Opera Players

 

 

I get antsy and easily distracted when there is too much digital in my life. It is a frequent trouble because I do not write these many words by hand.

In his book, “The Mindful Catholic,” Dr. Gregory Bottaro puts his finger on why that is, “Every time you use this device or watch TV, you practice anti-mindfulness. Imagine how many hours you have spent practicing anti-mindfulness exercises, in which your mind is not aware of what is actually present in the moment. In this time and space, it is a phone, or TV, or whatever, but your mind is focused on the news, or social media, or shopping, or whatever it is that you are looking at.”

Digital takes us away from the here and now. Because digital has made a whole host of things easier, we often assume it is better. Thus it floods our lives and world. Not thinking about carries us along for the ride and before we know it, anxiety levels are up, distraction is up, relationship quality is down.

Practicing mindfulness has the power to combat it. Do not let the term throw you. At its core, mindfulness is awareness of the present moment. Sit and read a book or, ahem, the newspaper, and enjoy it for all it has to offer. Notice how good it feels to hold the pages, the way your eyes travel on the page, how it feels to look at the page with all its imperfections. Notice the arch of your arm as you lift your cup of coffee and take a sip. The way the smell of coffee lingers even as the cup clicks against on the table.

That was your mindfulness exercise for the day. The world moves so fast, we have to choose to slow down. With all the information, all the stimulation, we have to choose to focus in.

Analog isn’t dead. Sales plummeted, stores closed, but production continues and is now growing. Let’s welcome the experience.