Loosening the Facebook Noose and Rediscovering the Natural World

Two days ago, we got about five inches of snow. Yesterday was clear and cold, six degrees in the morning, warming to about twenty. My son spent his snow day largely out in the snow despite the temperatures. Between bouts his snow gear tumbled around in the dryer to get it ready for the next session.

Today it is snowing again and my yard is filled with birds munching seeds from dead flower heads and from the feeders which I’ve moved to the north side of the house so we can watch them from the kitchen and the dining room table. The neighbor’s garage acts as a windbreak for them.

We’ve seen dozens of goldfinches in their dull winter coats all vying for a place on the feeder with the thistle seed in it. House finches prefer the sunflower seeds in the tube feeder. Juncos pick up the scraps that fall to the ground. A woodpecker has been carving away at the seed cylinder that is laced with cayenne pepper to keep the squirrels off it. Sparrows and nuthatches and cardinals and chickadees and the occasional blue jay round out the company.

“It snowed all yesterday and never emptied the sky, although the clouds looked so low and heavy they might drop all at once with a thud,” writes Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which I’m reading for the first time. Winter is a good time for reading anything, but especially nature writing.

I find myself jealous of all that is right outside of Annie’s door in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and I recall how much time I used to spend outside, especially in winter, when I lived in Grand Rapids and volunteered at Blandford Nature Center. Winter and early spring hikes around the property were always far better than those taken in summer. The world holding its breath all winter and then finally releasing it. Each spring hike a wonder as new things came alive. The wonder of spring only made possible by the icy grip of winter.

I think I love winter more every year.

My friend Cindy Crosby writes in the tradition of Annie Dillard, though she is in the great wide prairie lands rather than the mountains. If you enjoy nature writing, you may like her blog or her book The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction. Here’s the description from Amazon:

More than a region on a map, North America’s vast grasslands are an enduring place in the American heart. Unfolding along and beyond the Mississippi River, the tallgrass prairie has entranced and inspired its natives and newcomers as well as American artists and writers from Willa Cather to Mark Twain. The Tallgrass Prairie is a new introduction to the astonishing beauty and biodiversity of these iconic American spaces.

 

Like a walking tour with a literate friend and expert, Cindy Crosby’s Tallgrass Prairie prepares travelers and armchair travelers for an adventure in the tallgrass. Crosby’s engaging gateway assumes no prior knowledge of tallgrass landscapes, and she acquaints readers with the native plants they’ll discover there. She demystifies botanic plant names and offers engaging mnemonic tips for mastering Latin names with verve and confidence. Visitors to the prairie will learn to identify native plants using the five senses to discover what makes each plant unique or memorable. In the summer, for example, the unusual square stem of cup plant, Silphium perfoliatum, sets it apart from its neighbors. And its distinctive leaf cups water after the rain.

 

A gifted raconteur, Crosby tells stories about how humankind has adopted the prairie as a grocery, an apothecary, and even as a shop for love charms. Rounding out this exceptional introduction are suggestions for experiencing the American prairie, including journaling techniques and sensory experiences, tips for preparing for a hike in tallgrass landscapes, ways to integrate native prairie plants into home landscapes (without upsetting the neighbors), and a wealth of resources for further exploration.

 

An instant classic in the tradition of American naturalist writing, The Tallgrass Prairie will delight not only scholars and policy makers, but guests to tallgrass prairie preserves, outdoors enthusiasts and gardeners, and readers interested in American ecosystems and native plants.

Earlier this week, two red-tailed hawks took a brief respite in a maple tree in my back yard then went on hunting. I felt lucky to see them. And I feel lucky that I live in a place that gets a real winter, which always feels like my own respite. A Sabbath season.

I’m winding down my year of reading A Year with C. S. Lewis: Daily Readings from His Classic Works. Today’s selection includes this observation: “When promiscuity is the fashion, the chaste are outsiders. They are ignorant of something that other people know. They are uninitiated.” Lewis is talking not just of chastity versus promiscuity in this selection, but of the desire to be part of the Inner Circle of mankind. To be in the know. An early 20th century version of FOMO (fear of missing out).

I never used to care about being at one with the Zeitgeist. I was comfortably on the outside, not even looking in, because I was spending my time looking at the same kinds of things Annie Dillard and Cindy Crosby were looking at. And I felt with certainty that was the one in the know, in the inner circle. I noticed the things that mattered while everyone else was whirling about trying to be current. I was the insider and they were all outside, not even looking in, because they were too busy for the slow, constant, predictable motion of the natural world.

Sometime in the late 2000s, that changed, and I’ve spent a decade far more engaged with the tumult of mankind than I could ever have imagined I’d be. It’s probably 100% due to my entrance into social media by joining Facebook in 2007. And honestly, I’m not happy about it.

There are things that have to be said, wounds that have to be opened, policies that need to change, and power structures that should probably be toppled. It’s certainly unclear if social media is the most effective place to do this. It certainly is clear that social media makes people feel less understood, less connected, and more anxious and depressed than they would otherwise be. It is the ultimate irony of our times.

The history of mankind and the history of everything else in the world run on parallel tracks, one frenetic and anxious and bumpy, the other timeless and deliberate and while not unchanging certainly changing slower and for more logical reasons sometimes.

Maybe its too early for resolutions, but this has been on my mind. This desire to jump back over to that other track for a while and remember that the weight of the world’s problems are not a burden I need to carry. I can’t carry it.

In his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, Paul encourages them to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.” And to the Romans he says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” This is hard to do in a democracy. It is made all the more difficult when media and social media seem designed to stir up anger, fear, dissension, and self-righteousness.

When I first joined Facebook, it was fun. It was a waste of time, no doubt, but it was fun. Now it’s mostly not. I’m not dumping it entirely for 2018, but I’m taking a step back. I’m unfollowing A LOT of people. I’m limiting my time on it, and eliminating it entirely on weekends. I’m going to go quiet. Take a Sabbath rest. Rediscover my blog, which I’ve let go quiet this fall.

I’m really looking forward to 2018. A time to start fresh. A pure white blanket of fresh-fallen snow. A year of possibilities. A year to buckle down and work on what pleases me. A year to lead a quieter life, at peace with those around me.

I’m not worried about missing out. I’m looking forward to it.

 

Everyone Is Reading Your Diary: Why Facebook and Twitter Shouldn’t Be Your Journal

Remember journaling? It’s what a number of people used to do to record and work through their random, inane, deep, inflammatory, or otherwise likely-inappropriate-for-public-consumption thoughts before there was Facebook and Twitter and blogging. A private place to work out what you think about stuff and record what you ate for dinner. A place where it was safe to say dumb things because who would read it? A place where it was safe to say brilliant things that you would later recognize as dumb with a little more life experience under your belt because, again, who would read it? A place where you didn’t have to have it all figured out and prepare a defense of your views, your lifestyle, your existence.

Remember how you used to fly into a rage if your sister found your diary and read it? Now everyone’s reading your diary.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I read articles about why Twitter is dying and I realize that my first couple years on Facebook, when almost no one outside of Academia was on it, were filled with congenial exchanges with people I might otherwise not have a lot of chances to talk with because we were all so busy with grad school. Now Facebook is just all those annoying, cutesy, unsubstantiated forwards that used to junk up your email inbox. Now instead of deleting them without opening them, you see them — ALL of them — every day.

I have on many occasions been a click away from deleting my presence on Facebook and going back to living a life that doesn’t invite others’ opinions and unsolicited advice at every turn. But then, my parents get to see pictures of their grandson, so I should keep it up. Or now, I need to continue to build my online presence because I need effective ways to get the word out about my books once I start publishing novels. Or really, at this point there are a number of people I like to stay in touch with (many of my fellow writers, most of whom I know because of the internet) with whom I just wouldn’t stay in touch if we weren’t all on Facebook. So, I remain.

Then last week I had a realization that I think will improve my life greatly: I don’t have to use Facebook or Twitter as my diary.

I’ve never been great at keeping a consistent journal or diary, and all of my old attempts have pretty much been destroyed. I don’t want to remember how ridiculous I was in junior high. But now, as an adult who needs a place — a private place — to process life and record my hopes and dreams and fears, I’m turning back to journaling.

Over the past few years I have read through Virginia Woolf’s abridged diaries. I enjoy the staccato and often sarcastic way she describes her many visitors, both friends and people she merely tolerates. I’ve appreciated seeing her trials and triumphs in her writing, showing that the ups and downs I and so many others feel about their work are common to all writers. I’ve been enthralled by her descriptions of her surroundings. And I’ve appreciated that she doesn’t feel the need to write full sentences.

Thing is, if she and her friends and acquaintances had been on Facebook, she quickly would have had no friends and spent most of her time, thought life, and energies on explaining herself and apologizing when people misunderstood. She probably would have committed suicide much earlier in her life.

Instead, she put her insights and questions and suppositions into her fiction and her essays after safely trying them out on paper that no one would see until after she was dead. She sifted through her thoughts and theories privately before launching them into the world. She tested things out with close friends who wouldn’t assume the worst of her if she said something they didn’t agree with.

She didn’t go out into the streets of London and share her ideas with perfect strangers or even random acquaintances. She worked through things in her own mind, on the pages of her diaries, and with a small inner circle of close friends. And when she argued about God with T. S. Eliot around the dinner table, passersby did not poke their heads through the windows to comment. When she discussed politics with  Lytton Strachey, some lady she had as a substitute teacher in fourth grade did not burst through the front door and spout off some bizarre non sequitur to kill the conversation. When she made an off-hand comment about her truculent maid, she wasn’t then barraged with unsolicited and conflicting advice on how she should deal with the situation.

She simply wrote it out, pondered, moved on.

So with Virginia as my guide, I’m turning to the private page (an actual page made of paper that others do not see) and putting my thoughts there. I’ll still share things on Facebook and Twitter, but when I’m trying to process a sticky political point or when I want to work out my opinion on a matter of morality or when I just want to complain about something that hasn’t gone my way, I’ll do it in my journal. And someday, after I’m dead, after it doesn’t matter anymore, someone may read it.

But I won’t have to deal with the fallout.

 

Cultivating Reasonable Expectations of Life in a World of Hyperbole

Perhaps like me you have noticed that we are living in an age where everything is AMAZING! Watch this video about this AMAZING girl! Look at photos of these fifty AMAZING bedrooms! Check out this AMAZING restaurant or this AMAZING cockatoo! If it’s not AMAZING, it’s STUNNING, SHOCKING, INCREDIBLE, LIFE-CHANGING, or UNBELIEVABLE!

At the risk of stating the obvious, most of this stuff isn’t AMAZING or any of its synonyms. At most, it’s amusing or interesting. For a moment. And then it’s forgotten.

Now, marketers and advertisers have always used hyperbole to sell products, but I find myself wondering if our age is perhaps unique in trying to sell ordinary life as AMAZING with, say, seriously overreaching claims about how much watching a two-minute video will alter your experience of the world FOR ALL TIME! Because these claims aren’t being made for products that might be sold and thus earn someone a profit. No one is making money from you watching a cute video about a cat who adopts an orphan piglet. And yet the online clamoring to get views and comments and likes is overwhelming.

I get it. No one wants to be ordinary. I don’t either. And to be honest, I’ve caught myself overdoing it when it comes to adjectives. But we seem to be living in a time where, rather than do something extraordinary, something worthy of comment or praise, we elevate the ordinary to the level of extraordinary, until everything we do, every meal we eat, every trip we take, every single thing that our child says is presented to others as a phenomenon unequaled in the history of the world. And this makes the truly ordinary stuff in your life, my life, seem pointless by comparison. Which seems dangerous. It seems like thinking that leads to depression or feelings of worthlessness or futility.

Conversely, the opposite also becomes true–that every little negative thing that happens is the WORST, most HORRIFIC, most HEARTBREAKING, most CULTURE-DESTROYING thing that has ever happened. Fearmongering news anchors or op-ed pieces chip away at our joy and our confidence. Unhappy Facebook friends drag us down with their consistent negativity.

What does this do to us, to our collective psyche? It breeds extremes of emotion and opinion that we probably wouldn’t have otherwise. We become living pendulums, swinging wildly from elation to despair, all imposed on us from the outside, from YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and the 24/7 news cycle. Rational thought and measured responses are employed less and less. After all, no one else in the comments section is thinking deeply and attempting to have a rational discussion about this issue, so why should I? I get more immediate reward for that zinger I just flung into the fray than for a long, drawn-out discussion based on empathy and research.

The thing is, there’s nothing wrong with ordinary. It’s where we spend most of our time. It’s work, family, faith, and friends. It’s enjoying a concert (which, while not AMAZING or LIFE-CHANGING was enjoyable and entertaining). It’s helping your kid with his homework (for which parents should not expect accolades–it’s part of the job). It’s shoveling the driveway (without whining about it on Facebook in order to get sympathy from everyone else who also had to shovel). It’s folding the laundry (not the MOUNTAINS of laundry that are your own personal cross to bear). It’s feeding ordinary dog food to your very ordinary dog.

Why are we so afraid of this ordinary life?

I get the desire to “sell” one’s experiences as bigger and better than they are. I’m in marketing. My whole job is to persuade you to exchange your money for a book that, let’s face it, probably won’t CHANGE YOUR LIFE, even if it does help you in some way. But as much as our self-centered, consumer culture pushes us to make our lives appear AMAZING, we are most of us very ordinary. And that’s fine. If you’re looking for a reason to feel special, looking for deeper meaning in this life, I would advise you to look somewhere other than the internet. Look to God. Look to the impact you are having on your kids. Look to a service you can perform on behalf of your fellow man. Look to charity and forgiveness and truly loving your neighbor. Most of it could not honestly be described as AMAZING or SHOCKING or UNBELIEVABLE. But it would make a heck of a lot more difference in the world than another damn BuzzFeed article.