I suppose it is fitting to pen this over Thanksgiving weekend, a holiday which started out as one of gratitude (I won't go into a cynical historical take on it) and has, of late, morphed into a long weekend characterized by frenetic bargain hunting. It was one thing when they dubbed the Friday after Thanksgiving "Black Friday" and started encroaching on the holiday weekend with megasales at ungodly hours of the morning, it's another that they're creeping into the day itself. I mean, heaven knows we are a country filled with dysfunctional nuclear and extended families (mine is certainly not exempt), but could we at least take a stab at this whole "family" thing even once a year without hiding behind the football games running on multiple channels, the shopping, and the annual onslaught of new movies? I should talk, I ducked out on my extended family entirely this year. But! I did see plenty of my parents!
(I'm making quilt blocks for Sandy)
Lately I've been thinking about consumption. Not so much material consumption, though that's what I opened with, but about the media that our minds consume. I remember the summer after my junior year in college I subletted an apartment in Berkeley because I had an internship in Oakland, and though I spent my days locked to the computer to complete my internship tasks (and discovered, in my boredom, the joys and perils of eBay), by night I had no Internet access and spent the time reading on the couch, at my friend's around the corner, going for a long run and then cooking up a late dinner, or wandering in and out of book shops. I remember thinking that my brain felt different when I gave it a break from the Internet.
Through the years I've struggled to give myself this same sort of structured "off" time for my brain. Especially when the Internet is right at our fingertips, and we use it for so many things - communicating with farflung friends, looking up a recipe, hunting down photo instructions for the kitchener stitch because we are too lazy to remember it ourselves (ahem), or just noodling about in search of artistic inspiration. Or, dare I say it aloud, in search of a way to pass the time. I've gone so far as to swear I will regularly designate a couple weeknights "computer free" only to fall flat after a month or so. I've even tried foregoing Internet in my home, but that's always turned out to be far more inconvenient than I've anticipated, and it too falls flat within weeks.
(These all need a dark border, I might try to add them all at once?)
In my whole recent bout of lethargy, one silver lining that has emerged is an increased awareness of my body and my mind. There are days where I come home and I am so mentally exhausted from work that, physically, there's not much I want to do except climb into bed at 7:30 and shut down for the night. Gradually, though, I realized it wasn't that I was tired from work persay, rather I was tired from processing all the inputs my mind had received from the day. This included the music I listened to on the way home, the business show my parents like to watch after dinner, even the newspaper I skim in the mornings. And if I consciously blocked those out by driving to and from work in silence, eating breakfast without a newspaper, or disappearing into a different corner of the house when my parents tuned in to the latest doings on Wall Street, my brain started hating me less. And yes, this includes blog reading, which I have now attempted to limit to a weekly occurrence. That, I've noticed, makes a big difference, and I apologize if I've been commenting less frequently on your blog but at least you know the reason now!
What interests me is that when I limit the inputs to my brain, I find more space for creativity, as though our mind has limited capacity for both consumption and creativity, and thus doing more of one decreases what's available for the other. Or mabye it is that consumption and creativity lie on opposite ends of the spectrum, and a shift in one direction decreases our orientation towards the other. I'm sure it is not a perfectly diametrical relationship, as much of creative inspiration can come about by consuming the ideas and works of others. But it seems that, as with many good things in life, moderation may be key.
If forced to choose, I prefer the way my brain feels on this diet of decreased consumption and increased creativity, to my brain overwhelmed by sensory and data inputs. I recognize this is not an ideal way to live, as smartphones and the Internet have brought a lot of time- and monetary- savings, not to mention new economic and even political opportunities, to millions. And I still find consumption addictive, as it is so much easier to sit in traffic and listen to music, than to check in with my body and realize that I crave silence right now, and then turn off all inputs and sit in - how boring! - complete silence. Often, I do a round of channel switching to gauge my options (often lousy), before succumbing to the silence. Sometimes, I confess, I just keep the radio on. It is still a balm of sorts, after all.
But will the world let me? There's Facebook and Twitter (which I have sworn off), there's hundred of news aggregation sites and CNN running 24/7 and more and more of us sharing more and more of our lives online for others to read, and even shopping has a similar effect on me (so many choices to process, sensory overload). This year, half of Americans have a smartphone, which makes me wonder how much longer I can hold out. Because if the car radio has taught me anything, it is how imperfectly I withstand the everpresent temptation.
I seem to have hit my personal limit already. For others, who knows? It took me going on a pretty strong 'activity diet' to cultivate this awareness (half a year ago, I spent a series of weekends doing nothing and seeing nobody, and by now I have 'improved' to the point where I can safely schedule myself for 1-2 events each weekend without any adverse health consequences, but not much more than that). And I'm sure we all have different thresholds, ones that vary not just by personal preference but also by personal circumstance. This is a worldwide shift, and possibly I am just reacting to change just as generations before me have done, arguments whose terrain has been documented in history books as the rise and fall of the tide to the pull of the moon. Learning to mediate the rift between societal change and personal preference, though, is a lesson I have yet to find in my school books.