Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The End of Absence

The Absence of the End of Absence

In Michael Harris’ well written and researched book, The End of Absence (Penguin, 2014) he explores the startlingly obvious truth that adults today over the age of 30 (roughly) are the last living witnesses to life both before and after the Internet and our current state of connectivity. We are the “straddle generation.”

 Anyone born now or in the last ten years can only know the wired world.  I’m 71, and I‘ve lived more than half of my life without any kind of computer or hand held device.  And, like the rest of us today I’m mired in all that owning a smart phone means. I am one of those 10 million scratching and clawing to be the first to purchase the newest IPhone. It’s a cliché to say that the world has changed in every way. 

Harris lays down a charge to those of us who know both worlds.  “Write about your experiences,” he prompts. We are the last who can so testify.  It’s not about comparing the “old ways with the new ways,” but it is about reflecting on the differences in ordinary lives.  “If we’re the last people in history to know life before the Internet, we are also the only ones who will ever speak, as it were, both languages.  We are the only fluent translators of Before and After.

A central hope in reading his book was to get to the last chapters in which I’d imagined he would give us some tips about how to manage this brave new world which has so little spaciousness or solitude in it.  He conducts an experiment to document his quest: he goes on a 30 day digital blackout, sharing daily notes of his experience during this “no email, no Internet time.”  Curiously (or perhaps predictably) there is hardly a line in this section during the unhooked days when he mentions anything other than his longing or anxiety with the desire to check his email or something.  His diary seems to be all about thoughts of this withdrawal. Oddly there is a total ABSENCE of ABSENCE experienced (or at least recorded in these diary entries.) 

What this points out is we don’t reclaim that spaciousness simply by turning off the gizmos when we allow our tech addiction anxiety to fill up the spaces now available.  What Harris misses illustrating in his month off the grid is what it might feel like to take advantage of the new found time.  What might it be like to dive into our ordinary daily experience (not just those mountain vista moments) and really live the moment.  I think that is what we have lost (if we ever had it) the capacity to engage and appreciate our lives.  Emily in Our Town got it right: “Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it--every, every minute?”
Harris’ final lines:  “Every technology will alienate you from some part of your life. That is its job.  Your job is to notice.  First notice the difference.  And then, every time, choose.” (p. 206)  This, while an obvious injunction, is finally his only real advice. 
So, if we can’t bring back solitude or spaciousness as a fact of life, our single modicum of control is our attention.  We can notice how long we’ve been staring at a screen.   “ Then, every time, choose.” 
Then, . . . .every time . . . . choose. 
Then . . .every time. . . choose.
(I’m running out of ways to be emphatic!)
 This advice takes us back to Thoreau and his intention of deliberateness.   “I went into the woods because I wanted to live deliberately.” 

I think there are two issues here.  One is deliberateness.  The other is mindfulness.
Once we have chosen to be in our skins and live the moment we are in currently we still need to discover how to relish the moment., how to live and appreciate the ordinary world we inhabit. 

I am reminded of a story from forty years ago.  I think it speaks to the second point.

The Penn State Walk
My second University teaching job was at Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania. As an Assistant Professor in Theatre Arts I had a lot on my mind.  I remember one particularly stressful day in the fall of my second year of teaching in 1976.  It was just after a fast lunch in the school cafeteria and I was walking at a rapid clip across the campus, rushing to the Theatre Arts Building for my three o’clock class.  I was in high gear.  My mind was racing with a growing sense of panic.  The inner monologue was something like this: “And when I get to the office I’d better photocopy the class exercise sheets, and then after the Voice class I have to go to rehearsal until 9:00 PM, and then I have to pick up the dry cleaning before it closes, and then I have to drop off the books at the library, and then I have to be sure to remember to call Ellen about tomorrow’s lecture, and then I have to get gas, and then.  .  .”  My mind had become a “demon date book,” barking at me.  As my frustration mounted, I tripped slightly on the path, and suddenly I heard a voice somewhere inside my head, speaking quite calmly and clearly: “Patricia, PATRICIA, did you know that all you have to do right now is walk to the Theatre Arts building?    So, why not just do that?” 
Wow.  YES!  That’s true, I thought.  All I can do right now is walk to the building.  I can’t actually do the photocopying or any of the other tasks I was listing in my litany of “things I had to do.”  All I can do RIGHT NOW is walk.  Why not do that really well?  Just walk to class.
 It was as if I had woken up suddenly.  I slowed down and began looking around at the colorful fall maples lining the path.  What lovely trees! As I walked, I noticed the beauty of the campus; I felt the crisp fall air brush my cheeks, I noticed the other people on the path, all hurrying, too.  All at once I was simply living that walk.  I can still remember everything about the scene and this was forty years ago.   All I was doing at that moment was walking to my office and living the day.
The End of Absence message is a wake up call, not so much to simply putdown our digital toys, but to find a way to learn to cherish the life we have.  Remember Emily’s exclamation.  Can we learn how to live every minute?
Thank you, Michael Harris.  You wrote an important book. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Bring back Layaway

 Bring Back Layaway (repost of a 2011 blogpost)

In a New York Times article today the pollsters tell us that the majority of Americans are not thinking realistically. We have become a culture of entitlements.  Everyone wants to keep full benefits for Medicare and Social Security at current levels and the the same everyone doesn't want higher taxes.  We want our cake and eat it too.  Or the article is telling us:  We have a budget deficit because people want everything and they don't want to pay for it.  I think that this view of "have it now and pay for it later" is one of the most insidious aspects of our national debate, if you can call it a debate.  Credit card debt is at an all time high, and the prospect of delaying gratification for something we want seems not to be an option.  I am fond of telling the story of "Lay Away" and its rewards.  Here is an article I wrote.

The coat was red wool with large, tortoise shell button.  The collar could be turned up for both style and to protect against the wind-chill that blew in the winter in Virginia.  I wanted that coat badly, and thought about it almost continually.  I’d seen it first in the window of Lerners, a retail clothing store for women and girls on Broad Street in Richmond.  The prices there were lower than those at Thalhimers or Miller & Rhodes and significantly lower than the coat prices at Montaldos, a swanky women’s salon.  My mother had sometimes modeled at each of these fashion centers in Richmond during the 1950’s and 60’s.  I can’t remember if she owned any clothing from Montaldos.  I don’t think she did, although she always appeared to be elegantly dressed.

Lerners wasn’t the kind of shop that had fashion shows.  But they did have layaway.  Layaway was the working girl’s friend.  Five dollars down and four dollars a week, if you could manage it.  At $35.99 it would take nine weeks to “get the coat out.”    This would  work out perfectly for me to wear the coat to church on Easter Sunday, that is, if I was faithful in making my payments every week.  When you brought the item up to the clerk, she would carefully wrap it in a “layaway package” and attach the paperwork to the package.  “February 10, 1958, Layaway for Patsy Ryan,  2812 Monument Avenue, Apt 3.  Red Wool three quarter coat, number 34771, $5 down. Customer agrees to pay $4 a week until the debt is paid off, at which time, the coat can be picked up by the customer.  If the payments are not made in the agreed upon time frame, interest in the amount of 9% a month will be added to the price of the purchase.”

In the fifties there were no global credit cards.  The wealthy and some of the middle class were beginning to own department store cards.  However, credit for the masses wasn’t even a glimmer in a banker’s eye yet.  This system built character, taught fiscal responsibility (hello, legislators where are you?) and created incentive to save.  Saving is what responsible folks did in those days.  Buying something you had no way of affording was inconceivable.  I grew up with this sensible way of handling the acquisition of “things.”   I would like to suggest that we bring back layaway

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Keith Johnstone papers

Viewing the Johnstone Archive
We were asked to wash our hands first.  No pens allowed or even any notebooks. Handbags and backpacks and any personal carrying items must be checked outside the room.  Absolutely no talking.   Each of us, Ted, Adam, Dan and I were given one white legal looking storage box, carefully labeled by the Stanford Archivist.  “The Keith Johnstone Papers” these cartons were designated by archival numbers.  I had box number 4.

We were curious.  What would we find in a half dozen cartons of memorabilia? The boxes contained items from the man who had had the most profound influence on our lives and careers as educators of improv.  Knowing that Johnstone is a one of a kind fellow we were anxious to see what was there.  Ted said:  “Feels like Christmas.” 

Each box had a series of numbered beige manila file folders.  4/1, 4/2, 4/25, 4/31, etc.  Box four, number 13 file folder.  “Letters Personal”  or “Letters Academic”  or “IMPRO Early draft”.  “Notes on Status” was one of the folders.  After checking out a few of the academic letters . . . a copy of a testimonial by Dr. Zimbardo to the tenure committee at U. of Calgary in the mid-nineteen eighties, for example, I jumped to look at the early draft of the book that had changed my professional career.  IMPRO: Improvisation and the Theater, first published in 1979.  This draft appeared to be from the mid 1970s. The pages were numbered by hand and each page was an amalgam of edited paragraphs cut and pasted onto the page.  Line edits and corrections abounded.  You could feel the old manual typewriter used to produce the text.

What stunned me was the first page.  While clearly Johnstone’s voice, there seemed to be a lot of stuff that he needed to write about and work through. Good writers do this I believe. Since we know where it is all going, it is illuminating to see where he began, and what would later be culled, refined, eliminated or centered for the reader.

 The first line of the published book I know by heart: “As I grew up everything started getting grey and dull.  . . .”   The early Johnstone manuscript that I was looking at begins with this:  “I’ve been asked if I’ll write about myself and the way I assembled my ideas.  When I was nine years old I bought a spiritualist magazine which was full of articles with titles like “Is Hitler a Black Magician. The magazine was important to me because it eventually led to my joining the Theosophical society.”

This first draft begins at the top of the page with a quote by William Blake
“He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.”

Johnstone has always felt a strong connection with the ideas and imagery of Blake.  I imagine they are soul mates of sorts.

The personal lesson that came from these two hours of perusal of the early Johnstone papers is the importance of continuing to write.  The masterful IMPRO did not show up as a single inspired draft from a mega mind.  Even the brilliant Keith went through a process of discovery, self discovery in some measure as he found how to offer what became, “Notes On Myself.” Effective writing is nearly always reductive. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

What are you grateful for?

This sturdy yellow bowl is today's object of respect. It comes from the San Francisco CAFE GRATITUDE. Rimming the interior of the bowl are the words: "What are you grateful for?" I uncover this query whenever I get to the bottom of a hearty bowl of miso soup or a rice bowl drenched in peanut sauce. (My husband contends that cardboard would taste good covered in peanut sauce.)

But I don't need to be at the bottom of a one dish meal to ask and answer this question. If you attend to life carefully it is hard not to be virtually overwhelmed with appreciation for the people and things of this world that serve us and make our own daily life possible and often, easy.

I've written about this in my book, Improv Wisdom in the chapter titled: "Wake Up to the Gifts." When we fail to notice the gifts it is likely that we are in the grip of our natural self-centeredness. When it occurs to me that "it is not about me" I am able to see how densely Reality is supporting me all the time. Cultivating an eye that looks at the world gratefully may be the single most potent vitamin for the happy and satisfied life. Even the stuff that drives us crazy can be torqued to reveal a gift.

I am grateful for so much. I am grateful for this moment when my eyes can see, when my limbs allow me to type, when my mind seems to be functioning normally and I can parse sentences. I am grateful to Google for the technology of the Blogger that allows me to put these ideas together easily and post them "out there" for anyone to see. I am grateful for the rain today which is helping the plants to grow and is washing off the needles of the pine outside my window. I am grateful for problems to solve, for laundry to do, for the time I have to reflect upon my life.

And, by the way, the Cafe Gratitude has wonderful food if you are in the San Francisco area. Stop in for a meal or to buy a bowl with the words: "What are you grateful for?" in the bottom. Or simply etch these words in your heart and let them appear when you look at anything carefully.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Advice to writers . . . that I need to hear myself

Here is some advice about writing for publication.

1.  Phase one: Inspiration strikes . . . write like crazy.  Write everything.  Don't stop.  Don't edit.  Just let it flow . . . every idea that shows up.  Keep writing during this phase when there isn't real inspiration.  Write badly. Write your confusion.  Write your doubts about your writing, if need be.  Keep writing on your topic until it feels like you've said what needs saying.

2.  Phase two:  Stop writing and read what you've written several times.  Notice what is good, what is useful.  Notice when you repeat yourself without a clear purpose. (My first editor told me, wisely:  “When you repeat yourself and go on and on you insult the reader. Teachers may need to repeat themselves.  Good writers say it once . . . well.” )

3.  Phase three:  EDIT.  Editing means making it better.  Cut, cut, cut . . .  even favorite paragraphs if they are redundant or fuzzy.  Rewrite sentences that are awkward. Aim for the highest clarity and simplicity.  Don't try and show off your writing skills using jargon.   Check to see if you repeat a word within a paragraph or nearby.  Always vary word choice in proximity.  E.g.  "Normally we like to see the temperature within the normal range."  or  "When trying to relax, be sure to relax all of the muscles in your arm."   This kind of sloppy writing is often present in your first fast draft.  ALL writers do this.  But, they fix it in the editing phase.

4. Phase four:  Read what you've written as if you were a smart reader who doesn't know your topic

 5.  Phase five:  Edit some more. Rewrite. Make it clearer.  Get rid of anything that isn't directly to your purpose.  Be ruthless.  Add only if it is essential to the edit.

Most new writers probably never realize that more than half of writing is done in phases 2-5.  But what you may not know is that this work is often really satisfying and sometimes FUN!   You get to sit down at your computer to improve something that already exists.  You get to find a better word to say what you mean.  You get to throw out extra stuff that wastes peoples time.  You get to be a WRITER.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The life of a knitted cap

The story of the knitted hat . . .

About a decade ago my friend Dalla Brown from Canada began treatments for a cancer diagnosis.  To support her recovery I commissioned my sister, Cheryl Madson of Bothell, WA (who is a marvelous knitter) to make a special funny cap in case the need arose. I picked out the wild and crazy wool at a little shop in Half Moon Bay.  Cheryl knitted it and shipped it to me in California.  I sent it to Dalla in Gananoque, Ontario. After keeping the cap for a few years, Dalla returned it to me; and I sent it to be worn by my good friend, Trudy Boyle, another Canadian lady then living in Calgary.  When she began her chemo she started a collection of hats/caps to wear.  A few years later, after Trudy’s lovely hair had all grown back in, and curly to boot, she returned the cap to me.  I shipped it recently to Canada, to Toronto, where a special friend and former student of mine, Monica Romig Green, was living.  Monica is a Spiritual Director and Counselor.  Now that her treatments are complete and her hair is growing back she returned it to me.   Today I mail the cap to my dear sister in law, Lynn Ryan, who is in Virginia and in the middle of her treatment schedule.  I hope that she will wear it occasionally with a smile remembering the others who have worn this cap during their journey.  The cap is a little large, so some wear it by rolling over the band or on top of a scarf or other skullcap.  It is my hope that the cap will continue its journey on to cheer on the recovery of others who will be taking this adventure.

Thank you, Cheryl, for beginning this tradition.
August 27, 2013 
Patricia Ryan Madson

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Everyday pleasures . . . folding the sheets

There are moments when my heart seems full and happy.  
Rituals that result in ordinary life being lived often provide this experience.  A deeply satisfying weekly event involves laundry.  It always happens on Sundays, with rare exceptions.  Sunday is "change the sheets day."  I can't remember when we set Sunday as the day when our sheets would be switched out.  But, it seems to work well.  Sunday is a good time since it's rare that we are rushing off first thing.  

When we rise on Sunday Ron helps me to strip the bed, take the sheets to the washing machine and start the machine doing its work. Then we pull out the new, clean sheets, adjusting if the weather has gotten colder or warmer, and we make the bed, pulling on the fleece blankets and ending with a heavy velvety quilt spread that we've had for years.  The bed is clean and made and ready for the week ahead.

And, as the morning progresses the old sheets are laundered and put in the dryer.  An hour later I am able to take the fragrant sheets from the dryer and fold them for putting away.  And, then comes the moment when I place the folded sheets in the linen closet pictured above.  Just so you don't think I'm TOO fussy you can see that the sheet piles are not perfect.  The shelf above has our super warm winter fleece sheets, one of life's great luxuries.  The bottom shelf holds five sets of jersey cotton sheets.

The moment that I want to celebrate here is the moment that I place the laundered sheets in the closet each week.  That simple action fills me with a wonderful sense of accomplishment, order and peace.  A cycle is complete.  I have done my part in taking care of the objects that serve my life (in this case, the sheets).  The fact that I have several sets of sheets, a working washing machine and dryer, water to wash and electricity to power the machines . . . it's all wonderful.  I am filled with thanksgiving for the everyday miracles of having a warm bed to sleep in, soft sheets to cover me and the strength to do my small part in keeping it all working.   Everyday life is the way.

Monday, March 18, 2013

A tribute to Dalla Brown

A truly remarkable woman, my friend Dalla Brown of Gananoque, Ontario died on March 14, 2013.  Her friends and family are giving a celebration of her life on March 22 at the local Legion in Gananoque.  I have asked Dalla's son Stephen Brown to read these thoughts for me.  

These are some thoughts by Patricia Ryan Madson who lives in California.  She was friends with Dalla since 1979.  They met dancing Tai Chi with Al Huang. She asked me to read this for her today. 

I would like to join the party that has come together today to celebrate the wonderfulness of Dalla Brown. I know her as a friend.  In fact I can say easily . . . she was my best friend.  "BFF" they say in the language of texting shorthand.  Best Friends Forever! And we are.  But Dalla would never have wasted time texting, I might add.  She had too much good sense for this. She was too busy looking at the natural world and being helpful to others.

Dalla's great gift was to turn an ordinary life into a work of art.  She touched everything with attention and respect.  She lived lightly on the earth, never wasting anything, and always attending to living things with great care.  I remember once a bird's nest that she watched over at Hawkline. She knew all the creatures who lived in her vicinity.  I don't know if she gave them names . . . but she was aware of life all around her. 

Some of you know that Dalla and Jeremy were frequent visitors at our home in California during the winter months until her health made travel difficult.  They were "snowbirds" who escaped the worst of the Canadian slush by sharing a month with us under mild California skies.  We loved having them near to celebrate the holidays.  

My favorite image of Dalla was in the early morning.  She would often rise quietly before dawn and ascend the stairs from the guest room to sit silently in our living room, wearing her nightclothes.  She always made herself a warm mug of tea and sat on our white sofa cradling the tea while watching the dawn light.  Like a Madonna of the morning Dalla was all there experiencing the ordinary event of daybreak . . .  finding in these moments deep communion with nature, with the light and the dark, with the seasons and with the unmistakable perfection of life "as it is". She was something of a Zen master without all the nonsense or incense.

I learned from her what it means to tune in to the natural world.  This simple wisdom is all too rare these days in a world where we miss the sunrise because we are toying with some electronic device.  Dalla never let technology spoil her relationship to the natural world and the changing of the leaves.  She noticed everything.

I could go on for paragraphs about Dalla the artist . . . the artist in the garden, the artist in the kitchen, the artist in the studio. (oh, how we loved to do art together!) but mostly she was an artist of EVERYDAY LIFE.  She was the best friend I've ever known . . . patient, loyal and always there when I needed her.  I shall miss her wry humor and her loyalty as a friend.  Ron just mentioned that his favorite thing was to hear her burst into laughter.  She had the most delightful and energetic laugh! 

Her laugh and her wisdom will stay with me forever.  It won't be possible to bake a loaf of bread without thinking of Dalla and her practical advice about how to tell if the proportions of flour were right in the bread mixer.  She cooked by instinct, teaching me how to improvise in the kitchen.  I wrote a chapter about her in my book, Improv Wisdom.  "Try-See" was her motto.

I am grateful to Dalla for introducing me to other of her women friends:  Joan, Pat and Elsa as well as her sister Stephanie and daughter Wendy.  I know each of you will join me in the celebration of her friendship. And we treasure the deep love we have for Jeremy, Dalla’s great partner in the dance and for Dalla’s sons (of whom we best know Stephen.)

We would like to be there today to raise a toast and tell a story about this most wonderful of women. Well, we are in spirit.  So our spirit joins with you in Gananoque.  All hail our precious Dalla.  And may the angels of friendship surround Jeremy and be with him and the family.

Love, love and more love
Patricia Ryan Madson and Ron
March 18, 2013