Paths

There are many different times nested within the general COVID Time, like some bizarre temporal Russian doll. Days of anxiety and rage and fear and sadness have slowly given way to “I can handle this alright,” which has then given way to sheer and utter burnout. Not much is really grabbing me these days; I can hardly focus on my stack of seemingly interesting books, and never in my life did I think I’d get totally sick of Great Films and Great Albums. Big, Important Things have become too much to handle. We wait between the couch cushions for something new.

But hey, at least it’s spring. The sun is shining, the temperatures are swinging wildly from cold to hot. The season itself is indecisive but knows it must do something, anything, after a long, tough winter. There’s a light on the horizon, but we’re not there yet. It’s a good time to think about what to leave behind and what to carry forward.

How will this time be marked? Discarded masks will litter the gutters for a few years I imagine. Maybe some sort of somber marble monument will be built in D.C. We live across the street from a park with some trails through fields of wildflowers and native grasses, and I’ve noticed odder, more relatable monuments to this past year, which I’ve dubbed “Pandemic Paths.” These are paths that branch off the main trails, created by humans trying to avoid each other’s potentially dangerous breath. They’re medically-recommended desire lines, trampling some beautiful plants but also saying something about the past year: a desire to be alone, together. A desire to get away from death and statistics and money and masks to find something new, to keep walking. They are writing an unintentional story in the dirt.

A few weeks ago, I accidentally rediscovered a guide to Texas wildflowers that I bought on a whim at Half Price Books years ago. Paired with the iNaturalist app, I’ve been traipsing out into the park everyday like it’s the distant wilderness, on the hunt for a new wildflower. The mix of analog (book) and digital (app) is also refreshing, having spent so much of the past year firmly in the digital fever dream. The app gives the sober, clinical view of nature—the facts, the science, the stern, tsk-tsking Latin names—while the book gives the human spark. There are all the various folk names for the same plant: cloth-of-gold is also Fendler bladderpod and it’s also also popweed. Each name represents a different experiential, historical path. You can imagine someone seeing a whole field clothed in gold and deciding on a poetic name. Another person stoops closer to notice the plant’s pods look like bladders. And a curiouser soul (probably a kid) figures out that if you step or pinch those pods, they pop.

Occasionally, the authors’ own absurd humanity peaks through the pages of the guide. In the introduction, they describe waiting for the perfect photo under the merciless Texas sun, a task that requires “all of one’s patience and half one’s religion to maintain equanimity.” The guide was originally published in 1984; if the authors made it to our day, they’d be uniquely prepared for our moment.

With these two guides, I’ve become attuned to the details, like how a lawn of April grass is unbelievably crowded with color and texture and species diversity if you take the time to look. Spotting blue-eyed grass or Engelmann’s daisy or greenthread or the impossibly-small field madder has turned into a simple game, something to focus on as the days inch closer to opening up. There’s a unique, orchestrated rhythm to spring now, the cluster of flowers changing week-to-week: henbit dead-nettle is pale and dying, now come the spiderworts and primrose, then it’s prairie verbena and Texas vervain’s turn. I’ve lived in Texas my entire life and I’m finally seeing the way spring moves, ebbing and flowing at my feet, in front of my eyes, under my nose.

This is a time for questioning and treading lightly. This is also a time for noticing, for witnessing. This is how things rebuild.

More Precious Time

I’ve noticed a strange paradox hidden in these past 10+ months of the pandemic: with more time on my hands, I feel time to be even more precious to me. I’ve dropped a lot of old habits, reassessing what I pay attention to or care about. A lot of these old habits and interests seem like leftovers from college or childhood that I somehow kept dragging around without noticing. Others were unwillingly but subtly dumped on to me by my surroundings or society. I slowly realized I don’t care about sports anymore. I don’t care about keeping up with the hottest television shows or podcasts anymore. There’s nothing wrong with those interests, they’re just not for me.

There’s incredible freedom in that negative self-definition. There are only so many hours in a day, and I’m keenly aware of that now. Maybe it’s a sense of mortality, but I think it’s more like a truer sense of time: how it can lull you into a state where time just happens to you, rather than you deciding what to do with the time that is given. It doesn’t help that most of society is optimized to capture your attention, which is another way of saying stealing your time without your consent or awareness.

In his newsletter The Art Of Noticing, Rob Walker recently proposed a tidy equation: pay attention to what you care about, and care about what you pay attention to. He elaborates:

This thing I am paying attention to, do I actually care about it? Did I notice it for reasons of my own, or was I forced to notice it?

This other thing I really do care about — am I giving it the attention I should? (Does it, perhaps, need mending?) Am I noticing what I want to notice?

It’s increasingly easy to mislead yourself into liking or caring about something that you don’t actually have an interest in. News and social media organizations are incredibly adept at this, keeping your attention in an endless loop of related content and new updates. Your attention is turned into money, but your time is permanently gone. It’s worth paying attention to what you pay attention to, as writer Amy Krouse Rosenthal once put it.

Today my wife shared with me this interesting interview with Ruth Chang on decision-making. I love her emphasis on commitment: no matter what you decide, by committing to your decision, you are creating “value for yourself in your life instead of being a passive recipient.” Your commitment makes the decision the “right” choice because you give it extra value (and you start to see it with that added value). And I think there’s such a thing as negative commitment: by choosing not to do something, you can create value too. This morning, I recorded a piece of music, and after spending time away from it, I realized the initial idea behind the music wasn’t that good. Instead of spending hours, days, weeks trying to improve that so-so idea–which I’ve been so guilty of for years–I’ve committed to throwing that idea into the trash and starting with another idea. I think there’s also an interesting relationship between acceptance and commitment–the former is couched in passive terms, but I think it’s a required step towards commitment. In the Yamabushi culture of Japan, there’s the concept of uketamō: radical, full-body acceptance. It’s a much more active idea than simple acceptance, less fatalistic and more total commitment. Acceptance leads to commitment, which maybe feeds back into acceptance and starts the cycle over again.

But the eternal question: what, in this moment, should I commit myself to? For time-consuming artistic projects, I just came across this great decision matrix used by Brian Eno:

Will it be fun?

Will I learn anything from it?

Will it make the world a better place?

Will it earn enough money to pay for the first three?

Maybe not the most helpful when deciding between another glass of wine or writing a blog post, but both of these things are certainly worth my time and attention.