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Mindful : October 2014
I’ve completed my day ’s work—not a hard thing for a writer—a nd I sig ned on for a service that limited me to 30 hours a month. That way I’m never tempted to stay in f ront of the screen—when there is so much radiance and beauty around me—for more than an hour a day. Given access to information, I’d have a hard time resisting it, and then I’d start following this lead and that ancient piece and that obscure link till I’d look up and find that darkness had fallen. I wouldn’t recommend this to a nyone else—least of all, parents of small chil- dren—but I’m still delighted to be the rare full-time journalist who’s never had to use a cell phone and who never wears a watch when he’s home. My job requires me to leave my sanctuary quite a bit—in one typical stretch last year I found myself in Iran, Turkey, California, Japan, Singapore, a nd Na mibia in the space of three weeks. The more such movements and commitments pile up, the more I try to make sure I don’t have an iPad or Skype account or other weapons of mass distraction. When the pla ne is delayed three hours, I can close my eyes or just let my imagination drift. My happiest moments in life, I’ve found, are when I’m not running to meet a deadline; and my most construc- tive ones come when I’m not thinking of anything at all. I cherish those open spaces in the same way I do the negative space in a painting or the white space on a page: they allow me to breathe, to ramble, a nd to come up with possibilities I never see when focused on one object. So every day, after finishing my writing—and before taking on emails and letters to friends—I try to sit on our 30-inch terrace and just look at the neighborhood. If it’s sunny, I’ll read for an hour. My companions on the page are people I love for their special gift for sit- ting still: Thomas Merton, say, or Henry David Thoreau or, most explosively of all, Emily Dickinson. Within three sentences of picking up Proust, I’m in a wider dimension, slowed down, and brought to somewhere deep inside myself where I can see how much lies within every pass- ing moment. My wife meditates every day, to attempt to ensure she’s rooted in reality; friends go for a run, or shoot hoops, or cook, or play the piano. All of us now, I suspect, in an age of permanent distrac- tion and information and entertain- ment—round-the-clock temptation and fracturing—need some habit or conscious way of grounding ourselves in something deeper. The busier you a re, the more you have to step away from busy-ness, to see how important each part of it really is. One of my most recent practices comes every day after I return from the health club (itself a wonderful chance to spend more than an hour doing nothing much). I don’t want to read or write any more, I’ve already sent long missives to friends and bosses, and I don’t know whether it will be 60 or 90 minutes before I hear Hiroko’s ring at the door. So I’ll put on a piece of music and turn off all the lights. It can be Bach, it can be Leonard Cohen. It can be those other- worldly singers of storms a nd radia nce within, Sigur Rós. It could even be those shameless neo-punks, Green Day. What I play doesn’t matter. When I hear Hiroko’s footsteps on the stairs outside, I’m much fresher and clearer than when I just “kill time” by idly watching baseball on TV or scrolling through YouTube videos. And when we turn in for the night, my sleep feels less jangled. I wake up more refreshed. It’s the open spaces in any life, I sus- pect—the moments when you lose your- self—that ma ke for happiness, peace, a nd clarity. Every morning, as I walk toward my desk, golden light flooding in through the windows very often, the grinding of the bus outside marking the hour, I think back on my life near Times Square and wonder how I could construct my sense of fulfillment, in those days, so narrowly. I’d never want to live on a mountaintop, but I’m deeply grateful that, the next time I’m in Times Square, I’ll feel I have something to bring back to it. ●