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#7. Being Here

Last week, my daughter, Maya, and I spent a still, November morning putting the garden to bed. It’s an annual ritual for us – last year I did it with my son. Sometime between the pumpkins and the turkey, after the frost-bit tomato plants and limp pea vines have been pulled and the garden cleared, we lay down a thick, two-inch blanket of compost: three seasons’ worth of rotting kitchen scraps, grass clippings, leaf mulch and sawdust turned into rich, fragrant soil the color of Colombian dark roast. It’s magical stuff; you want to bury yourself in it (I do, anyway), absorb that warm, loamy, infinitely comforting smell. I can’t describe it. It smells good. It smells like life.

Anyway, we took our time, loading up the wheelbarrow, handing each other the pitchfork, the heavy rake, taking breaks every now and then to walk over to the fence where we each had a cup of coffee waiting on a post – and we got the job done. A thousand square feet of garden, properly covered.

Not much happened – at least when measured by how we measure ‘much’ these days. I remember laughing about something – who knows what it was now. We talked about our plans for the afternoon, as I remember, and the weird dream I’d had the night before in which I had to deliver a tiny, pink cake made of Buster Keaton’s ashes to Woody Allen, who was staying at the Motel 6 . . .

Yeah. OK.

A few people walked by on their way to the train and we said hello, or Buenos Dias, and they waved and walked on.

At one point, I disturbed a big praying mantis which had somehow survived the first frost, and it flew awkwardly out of the blackberry brambles and into the weeds along the fence. I picked it up by its hard little back and took it back. Those serrated claws, that triangular head – a gorgeous thing.

We’d had a warm week so the soil was still full of life - thick with worms, tiny centipedes, grubs, beetles, ants and who-knows-what, and as we worked I kept stopping to look at stuff.

Two bees, drugged with the season, were sleeping in the last of the sunflowers, and I had a sudden pang, remembering them rising and dipping by the hundreds over the cornflowers and the zinnias and the ten-foot high Russian Mammoths in the hot July sun.

This isn’t about gardening. You don’t have to give a damn about gardening. We could just as well have been eating pancakes at the diner or cleaning out the basement.

The point is that for those few hours, we were here. Just here. In one place. No technology interrupted our experience, enhanced it, or distributed it to the four corners of the earth. We didn’t check our phones. No one tried to sell us anything. We didn’t post pictures of ourselves – me making a face while shoveling the compost, Maya sipping coffee – which means there’ll be no visual record of those hours outside our memories, which will slide, over time, into a kind of fiction, which is what memories do. We’ll each misremember the morning in our own way.

Nothing for anyone to ‘like’ or ‘dislike.’

Nothing for anyone to comment on.

Nothing to ‘share.’ It sounds almost selfish, doesn’t it?

Our “wired planet,” Kevin Kelly, the former editor of Wired Magazine once wrote, is rapidly becoming “a torrent of bits circulating in a clear shell of glass fibers, databases, and input devices.” Already, “every fact that can be digitized, is. Every measurement of collective human activity that can be ported over a network, is. Every trace of an individual’s life that can be transmuted into a number and sent over a wire, is.”

That was in 1994. Little did he know.

Maybe that’s why going silent for a few hours can feel like a victory.

Or an act of rebellion.

I’ve been thinking about being here ever since I finished a novel called Brewster, which was set in the late 1960’s; I think the experience of recalling a time when ‘the machine’ was an all-purpose metaphor for everything to be resisted in the name of our humanity brought home to me exactly how much we’ve grown used to, how quickly, and how much it may be costing us. How our ‘connectedness’ is disconnecting us, in the evolutionary blink of an eye, from everything that used to matter, once.

Like what? Like the thoroughly love-beaded and Nehru-collared notions of “getting back to nature” (because it might teach us something about balance and humility), seeking happiness within ourselves (and outside the offices of consumer capitalism), and “getting free,” which once depended on “getting real,” which in turn depended on being here.

Which brings us to the patron saint of so much 60’s ‘radicalism’ – or was it sanity? - Henry David Thoreau, who we’ve all now been taught to think of as a mama’s boy and a hypocrite because he once wrote books so brilliant, so subversive, so unapologetically critical of the relentless commercialism of the new nation that he had to be marginalized, and quickly. Just as the ‘hippies’ who tried to follow him ‘back to the land’ a century later so they could ‘get their soul free’ had to be made ridiculous (some of them made it easy), because to take them seriously might mean exposing capitalism as the astonishingly amoral and often profoundly destructive system it is. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I was talking about Thoreau because he was the one who wrote, among other things, of longing to “stand on the nick of time,” of wanting to “be more and more here.”

Every age likes to make fun of the one before it – bowler hats found stovepipes hilarious. But laughing about the past is not just the prerogative of hindsight – it can also be self-revealing: What we find ridiculous may be what we need to find ridiculous because it makes us uncomfortable. ‘Being here,’ after all, isn’t exactly a strength for us right now.

Where are we, exactly? Good question. We’re elsewhere. We’re texting, tweeting, checking our iPhones mid-movie, mid-conversation, mid-concert, mid-lecture, mid-meal, mid-turn, mid-everything. We’re sharing, tweeting and re-tweeting, streaming, liking, disliking – everything but being. So far have we come that for many of us, being in one place, doing one thing, entirely unlinked, is beginning to feel insubstantial, incomplete, even a little unreal.

If a tree falls in the forest, and you don’t Instagram it, did it fall?

To watch “Woodstock,” the Martin Scorsese-edited documentary, today is to experience the shock of self-recognition. Not only are the young men and women almost shockingly slim and healthy, they’re generally (except for those tripping on acid, I guess) present and accounted for. Beneath the embarrassing 60’s grooviness there’s an unmistakable joy, a spontaneity, an ability to be in the moment.

It’s strange to think that that experience – good, bad and ugly – would be impossible today. Today, those three hundred thousand people would be texting their friends, updating their walls, streaming, chatting, sharing . . . They’d be googling the weather, watching the live news coverage of themselves sitting in the mud. Stephen Stills, looking out over that dark sea of people, would see a vast field of blue screens.

If Woodstock happened in 2015, and you were there, you wouldn’t be.

The difference is not in our stars, it’s in our technology. The 60’s were less the dawn of the Age of Aquarius than the last hurrah before the Age of Distributed Reality. Today, everything is distributed: lust (picture Anthony Weiner’s virtual boxers flying into the ether), joy, even crime - recorded and sent out in real time even as it’s being committed. (That this makes a wonderful trail for the cops to follow says as much about the perps’ IQ as it does about our unstoppable need to advertise our lives.)

Increasingly, these days, the here and now is neither.

But it can be. You can take that time – either alone or with someone you know. Steal it back.

Going for an unwired walk is a political act.

Submerging in a novel is a political act.

Being still, going dark – asserting the sovereignty of your hours and days - is a political act.

Soon, it may be a revolutionary one.

Live and let go – the only memory the moment needs to be stored in is yours.

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