Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Concept

Eleven months ago, I went to a doctor asking to be put on anti-anxiety drugs.  There were many things in my life that led to this, but the low point was that on New Year's Eve, I found myself at midnight laying on my bathroom floor crying for no concrete reason.  My husband stood helplessly in the doorway.  No big welcome-2012-with-a-kiss-moment for us that year.

Within a couple of weeks, I was sleeping normally again, which was, by far, the biggest and best change I experienced.  For those who have never experienced full-blown anxiety-ridden insomnia, it may be hard to understand the bliss that comes in the simple act of turning off the bedside lamp and falling asleep.  Being able to do this again after several years changed my life.

I don't intend to go into many, if any, of the difficult details of 2011.  I don't think this would be necessarily helpful for me or anyone who happens to read this.  Here is what I do intend to do with this blog:

I want to catalog the present moments of my life.

Here is why:

I heard a program on what I think was my local NPR affiliate's "science Friday" in which scientists were attempting to explain why it is that life seems to go so much slower when we are children and then speed up the older we get.  Their explanation went something like this: as children, our brains don't have the neural connections yet to categorize new experiences.  When I was in graduate school learning about linguistics, we called this "schemata," which is a form of
scaffolding inside our brains that allows us to place new input into the right drawer.  So for example, when a child sees a starfish for the first time, he has no folder for this new input, and his brain is working really hard to form a new neural pathway/folder for all the new stuff hitting his senses.  Time, in a sense, exists for as long as it takes for his brain to  create the drawer for "starfish" with all of the sensory input surrounding that moment when he is holding this creature in his chubby hand.  His brain is creating folders like "wind blowing my hair," "sand in my toes," "heat from the sun on my face," "ocean smells," etc., just whatever that kid is experiencing in that moment.  This is a lot of work for the brain! From that moment on, the  neural drawer has been created, and the next time the kid sees a starfish, his brain knows where to put it and what to relate it to. 

By the time we are adults, we've already experienced so much that our brains hardly have to work at all (unless we make them, which I'm getting to).  That kid on the beach experiencing a moment of eternity with a starfish in his hand is now an adult who takes his own kid to an aquarium and hardly experiences anything.  He looks at each animal, each exhibit, each placard, and his brain basically keeps saying to him, "Yawwwn, borrrring.  Been here before, know what that funny looking thing is, gotta get going, lots to do tonight before bedtime."  Throw on top it the recent technological advancement of smart phones, and the dude is now completely distracted from the present moment into what is going on via the screen in his pants pocket.  His brain keeps telling him to check it, check it, check it, and he's not paying attention to his kid.  The day flew by for this adult while for his son, it seemed to last forever.

For children as their brains work to form this 'schemata', days last for an eternity, a summer break from school feels like a year, and they are present in this life more than most any modern adult.  Children are often happier and more at peace than adults are, and I really believe this is one of the biggest reasons why: they are present in life whereas most of us grown-ups are not.  So what can be done?

My oldest friend (who just happens to be an atheist) wrote a profound piece on the concept of what is holy.  I highly encourage you to go here and read it.  Even though I still consider myself a Christian and he does not, I believe strongly in what he wrote about here.  I think about it all the time and try to find moments every week to slow down and experience the holy.  Have you ever noticed that some of your best ideas or thoughts come to you while you're in the shower?  That was a holy moment because you had nothing pulling at your brain.  All you
had to do was stand there in the sensual experience of feeling the water over your body, the steam on your face, the rush of the shower.  Anything outside of those shower doors was muffled.  Your brain was having a break.  It was a captive of that moment, and so suddenly, with no distractions, boom...ideas show up on the scene.  In fact, the idea for this blog came to me last night while my brain was being held captive in the hot-tub on our back deck as it rained.  I could do nothing but let my brain rest.  In the 'zoning out', we become present; we have holy moments.

The problem is that so few of us take the time for this.  In his piece on what is holy, my friend suggests going outside and just sitting in your backyard and listening to what is around you.  It's a simple exercise in being present, but one that takes discipline.  Unlike the experience of being in the shower, this time we are (usually) fully clothed and quickly able to run back to check our screens.    Honestly, I struggle with this.  It's why I suddenly feel so free when I've
forgotten my smart phone at home.  The temptation to feed myself some brain candy via an app is gone.

So here is what I have come up with: I want to start cataloging at least one moment each day in an effort to be more present.  This is a small attempt to slow time down by forcing myself to start looking around, to force my brain to create new drawers, or at least new folders in the old drawers.  By the time we're the age I am now (creeping up on forty), there's maybe not a whole lot of new
schemata/drawers my brain can build, but at least I can try to fill them up more, right?  My hope is that by spending more time noticing, time might slow down.

An example of what I'm trying to explain happened to me in the winter of 2009-2010.  For most of my life, I'd had an infatuation with New York City, so when one of my husband's friends in Midtown Manhattan offered her place to us for a month, we jumped on it.  From the moment we got off the train in Penn Station to the bus ride to Newark Airport four weeks later, my brain and senses were working overtime.   Every morning when my feet would hit the concrete on W. 29th Street, I'd look up, down and around, studying.  I began cataloging one moment from each day I was there. I didn't miss a single day, and it's probably my favorite thing I've ever written.  That beautiful month seemed to crawl by because I was present in each moment.  When the day came for us to leave, it
felt like I'd been there for a year, the way it feels for a school-kid at the end of summer vacation.

So can I manage to slow time down when I'm in my boring old humdrum daily slog of life, not in an exciting new city I've been enamored with my whole life?  We shall see.  I'm going to try it, and I'd love it if you came along with me, sharing with me your own holy moments each day.  I'm starting here on the first day of December because I'm making it easy on myself.  With the onset of the holiday season, there are going to be plenty of moments for me to catalog.  Once January gets here and the slog is back in full effect, this will get harder.  They say that it takes forty consecutive times doing an activity before it becomes a habit, so I'm hoping these 31 days in December will be sufficient to have habitualized myself for January (my least favorite month).  The true test starts then.

For now, here I go.  If nothing else, my hope is that we've made it through the Mayan apocalypse and that my husband gets a kiss at midnight in 30 days.

"There's so much beauty around us for just two eyes to see, but everywhere I go, I'm looking."
--Rich Mullins


  1. I already love your new blog. Love. It. And the things you write about. I think you just explained to me why I love being in Ethiopia so much. It is always such a "holy" or "spiritual" experience for me, something I always try to explain to people who have never been, yet I feel I don't do it justice because it's such a unique experience. Why? Because everything is new and different from most everything I've experienced so far in life, thus creating an environment and situation to be VERY present. And the whole sense of community culture. It's interesting how you don't miss what doesn't exist -- until you see it existing in such a beautiful way somewhere else.

  2. Hello,
    I have just somehow stumbled across this blog, I searched for the beginning and it's wonderful! The first piece I read was about a myriad different nationalities together and accepting the left over fruit from the 'Meals on wheels' when an ignorant comment was whispered to you. Considering it is a piece of writing I just landed on, goodness knows how, the whole contents of that entry floored me. You have a wonderful style of writing and a wise and articulate mind. I still do not know exactly what the full story is, but now I have read your 'opening chapter' I look forward to slowly finding out!
    The world is a fantastical, beautiful place and it has just become enriched with the new, intriguing, diary of a perfect stranger. How marvellous!
    I look forward to this journey..