We're Not Anywhere

I was privileged this week to attend a poetry reading and lecture by poet Dana Gioia at Biola, and it was exquisite (I still look back on a 2008 poetry reading of Gioia's at St. Mary's in Oxford as one of the aesthetic highlights of my life).

Gioia shared several quite insightful thoughts about art, creation, and how we might become better artists/poets/writers. One of his observations particularly struck me. He said that one thing that most great writing, poetry and art share is a deep connection with and observation of place; that the best creators are usually the ones that are most connected to places and most attuned to the culture, people, customs and environs of the world around them, and particularly of the roots from which they've sprung.

Gioia lamented that when he observes people these days (mostly, but not exclusively, younger folks and "digital natives"), they seem place-less. They aren't rooted in physical space or at all interested in observing the world directly around them. Rather, they live their lives through screens—computers, phones, televisions, tablets, connecting them in a mediated and abstracted way to anything and everything they wish. The world is at their fingertips; and yet, ironically, the real world right in front of them is hardly worth their notice.

He described a phenomenon we've all encountered (or, cringe, participated in ourselves): people walking in beautiful forests or down vibrant city streets with their iPod headphones in their ears, or their eyes glued to a phone. They'd rather escape into a private world of music, drowning out the sounds of nature or city life; they'd rather text or email as they walk, rather than look into the eyes of passersby or reflect on the curiosities of proximate physical existence.

Even as I write this (at Starbucks), I see it all around: about 20 college students sitting around tables mere feet from one another, and yet seduced by their own media bubbles, their attention focused on laptop screens, phones, their ears plugged by headphones. I'm frequently guilty of it myself. So much of my life as a writer is staring at screens, locked in to a world of text and www windows  for hours and days at a time.

I'm part of a generation that has "access" to more of the world than any prior generation in human history. Through our RSS feeds and Twitter streams of nonstop information, we zig-zag from one article to another, from music videos to streaming movies, stopping occasionally to chat, skype, or email someone on the other side of the world. Or maybe we pause for a reflective second to survey the collective outpouring of a thousand 140-character condolences when a celebrity none of us knew died in a hotel few of us ever will enter.

Gioia's thoughts have convicted me, stirring up in me a sense of loss I've felt before: that our screens and media have gradually eroded our perceptiveness and (worse) our curiosity about that which is beautiful and interesting in the air and spaces in which we abide.

Before coming to Starbucks to write this post, I made a stop at a quiet rooftop garden on Biola's campus, where for an hour I just sat on a bench and was present, observing the world around me--an activity all too rare in my life. I marveled at the beauty, silently taking it in: a hovering, buzzing hummingbird dancing around the blossoms of Salvia spathacea; the weightless purple-grey cloud cathedrals above; a palm tree shimmying with the wind in the sky, rustling like a cheerleader's pom-pom unsure if it should cheer.

Oh what wonder there is in every moment and every place, if we only take a moment to explore and observe!

I want to be connected to the places that define me. And I do want places to define me. I want to understand the world right in front of me; not just through the screens 1 foot in front of my face.  I want to take note of the little things, relishing them as God-given invitations to worship: the way that a smell in church this morning brought me back so clearly to a memory of my cousins' house as a boy; the way that the air feels in Southern California on a cool February day: faintly moist and salty, blown over from the Pacific, a refreshing contrast to the dry desert scents ushered in by Santa Ana winds.

I want to be a better writer, thinker, human being, because I'm as floored by the mystery and majesty of my neighborhood's native succulents as I am with whatever trendy Tumblr everyone is sharing on Facebook today. The Internet makes it easy to be alert to everything that's going on in the world, to know what all the important people are saying; but I think we must remember that we can get all that and more in the smallest of things, well observed—even in a grain of sand, William Blake might say.

Thank you Dana Gioia for reminding me to not take the world around me for granted, and to sometimes shift my gaze from rectangular screens to the planes and horizons beyond.

I'll conclude with a poem by Gioia which seems fitting (from his award-winning volume, Interrogations at Noon):

"A California Requiem" 

I walked among the equidistant graves New planted in the irrigated lawn. The square, trim headstones quietly declared The impotence of grief against the sun.
There were no outward signs of human loss. No granite angel wept beside the lane. No bending willow broke the once-rough ground Now graded to a geometric plane.
My blessed California, you are so wise. You render death abstract, efficient, clean. Your afterlife is only real estate, And in his kingdom Death must stay unseen.
I would have left then. I had made my one Obligatory visit to the dead. But as I turned to go, I heard the voices, Faint but insistent. This is what they said.
“Stay a moment longer, quiet stranger. Your footsteps woke us from our lidded cells. Now hear us whisper in the scorching wind, Our single voice drawn from a thousand hells.
“We lived in places that we never knew. We could not name the birds perched on our sill, Or see the trees we cut down for our view. What we possessed we always chose to kill.
“We claimed the earth but did not hear her claim, And when we died, they laid us on her breast, But she refuses us—until we earn Forgiveness from the lives we dispossessed.
“We are so tiny now—light as the spores That rotting clover sheds into the air, Dry as old pods burnt open by the sun, Barren as seeds unrooted anywhere.
“Forget your stylish verses, little poet—So sadly beautiful, precise, and tame. We are your people, though you would deny it. Admit the justice of our primal claim.
“Become the voice of our forgotten places. Teach us the names of what we have destroyed. We are like shadows the bright noon erases, Weightlessly shrinking, bleached into the void.
“We offer you the landscape of your birth—Exquisite and despoiled. We all share blame. We cannot ask forgiveness of the earth For killing what we cannot even name.”