Finding the Space to Quiet Your Mind
Editor’s note: Guest post by Stephen Martin
T he summer when I was 23 did not begin well.
For one thing, I was pretty lost. My longtime girlfriend was moving cross-country for law school, and I didn’t have a clue what my next move would be, except that I wasn’t going with her. For another, I was bordering on broke. My contract work at the nearby university had just ended, and I had not a single job prospect. And yet, 16 years later I look back on that summer as one of the best of my life.
Perhaps the biggest reason why: I gave up the news.
It was a grand summer for news, too. Clinton and Dole duking it out for the presidency, mad cow hysteria in Europe, the Olympics in Atlanta. I knew next to nothing about any of it. With no income, I needed to economize. That meant no cable TV, no Internet, not even a newspaper. I barely knew what was happening across the street, much less around the world. And it didn’t bother me because, after years of faithfully reading papers and magazines, I was just tired of it.
Even back in those pre-Twitter, pre-blog, pre-historic days, you could spend enormous amounts of time consuming news or fretting all day about it, and I’d done a lot of both. But now, accidentally adrift from the headlines, I suddenly had time for other things.
I started hanging out in the university library, wandering the stacks and picking up whatever books caught my eye. I’d meet a buddy for a (very cheap) lunch or play cards or listen to music. I went for long walks. Since I never got a weather forecast, what the heavens might bring was always a surprise too.
Free of the usual distractions, I slowly became more centered. I’d spent the previous year exploring and rejecting a half-dozen potential careers.
In the silence of that summer, though, I finally began to feel a faint sense of purpose – a pull toward writing.
I didn’t know what I wanted to write or for whom. But sitting down and writing, longhand, an essay about a monastery I’d once visited created more satisfaction than I’d felt in months, if not years.
The summer crawled on in slow motion, and I began to feel part of it. I hadn’t really noticed the seasons since I was a kid. But now, I started paying attention to the relative cool of a July morning, the building humidity as noon approached, the sticky air and soothing insect chatter of an August evening. For the first time in a long time, I felt aware.
And as the summer burned toward its conclusion, I became aware of something else as well: I was running out of money. (more…)
Imagine setting a goal of seeing the world in all its splendor. You decide to climb a really tall mountain to get the best view. You know it’s going to be an arduous journey, but hey, you only live life once.
But how to get to the top? There’s a tangle of paths before you, and signs pointing every which way, including opposite directions.
You don’t have much to go on, so you choose a path that looks well trekked and offers a gentle slope. You see some people up ahead of you, smile and wave. How exciting to finally be under way!
The hike isn’t always so happy-go-lucky. Sometimes you stumble, and there are times you have your doubts. People on other paths occasionally whiz past or laugh uproariously and give you a wink. You wonder if you should switch paths and join them.
But you stick to the path you’re on, because you’re loyal and you’re already invested so much time and sweat.
And then you reach a plateau.
It’s not unpleasant really, it’s just a dead end. You try to focus on the warmth of the rock, the pretty lichen growing between the cracks. The view is … nice.
Still, it’s not where you wanted to go. It’s not what you wanted to experience.
As you look over your shoulder to the paths behind you, so much becomes clear. You’ve come a long way, yes. But it’s obvious a little more scouting at the base could have helped a lot. You didn’t have to go far to see that many of the paths combine, and more than a few lead right off the edge of a cliff.
The peak is still somewhere above you, beyond a layer of fog. There’s no guarantee that any of the other paths will take you there. There’s not even a guarantee of a better view if you arrive.
You have a choice. (more…)
Editor’s note: I am in Europe and will have limited access to the internet. I will respond to all comments upon my return.
Ask any chemistry major what class they struggled with most, and they’re likely to say P Chem (that’s physical chemistry for the rest of you, which covers the murky intersection between physics and chemistry).
If you are at all squeamish about math, it will break you. The course covers everything from the practical, such as the thermodynamics of engines, to the abstract concept of a particle in a box.
As one student said, “That class was a burden on my soul.”
So it’s funny that one of my fondest memories is from P Chem lab. We got a chance to burn try our hands at glassblowing, and while I was never very good at it, I found the whole process relaxing. To my memory, it’s a more productive version of meditation. (more…)
Generators & Synthesizers: They’re Both Creative (And So Are You!)
As most of you know, I’ve been doing a lot of self-analysis lately, trying to dream up my dream job. It’s not easy. Because I don’t want just any job–in fact, I don’t want a job at all. I want to wake up like Steve Jobs and successfully answer the question, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?”
In order to arrive at that mythical place, you have to know what to commit to. That is, what attributes of your future are must-haves, outside the realm of compromise? One of the big absolutes for me was finding a profession that frequently tapped my creativity. Hey, I’m a poet and a writer, so that idea seemed like a no brainer.
But wait! It turns out there are two kinds of creatives, and before you design that dream job, you’d better know which one you are. (more…)
I was recently invited to give a talk about the relationship between creativity and science at the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition. In particular, the organizer wanted me to structure my talk around some of my science-themed poems.
It seems some of the scientists there were rather intrigued by the whole idea. (more…)
Most people think questions like If you could go back in time and change one thing, what would it be? to be dinner party fare. I happen to believe they’re also valuable introspection tools when used in a quiet, private space like the shower.
My first thought was to change something big: erase that first painful marriage or pursue a degree in english/creative writing instead of science. I mean, if you’re going to go to all the trouble of time travel, shouldn’t it be worth it? But changing something that big would fundamentally alter who I am today–something I have no desire to do. (more…)