Posted by: terrapraeta | October 6, 2009

Living with Literacy

The rich get richer, the poor get the picture
The bombs never hit you when you’re down so low
Some got pollution, some revolution
There must be some solution but I just don’t know
The bosses want decisions, the workers need ambitions
There won’t be no collisions when they move so slow
Nothing ever happens, nothing really matters
No one ever tells me so what am I to know

You wouldn’t read about it, read about it
Just another incredible scene, there’s no doubt about it

Midnight Oil, Read About It

A few months ago, I wrote Touching the Sacred about my personal, sensual experiences inspired by reading David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous. I knew at the time that eventually I would have to consider the other part of his thesis, but just then I was so deeply enamored of the changes I felt that I couldn’t bring myself to even seriously ponder the rest.

See, the rest considers the impact of literacy on society. He spends a good amount of time analyzing the correlations in history between the advent and increasingly abstract nature of written language with the increasing disconnect of society from the rest of the natural world. His thesis being that it is not merely a correlation, but is, in fact, causative.

My disinclination to pursue this too far has a very obvious source: I love books. I love reading, I love walking into a library (my own, especially) and being surrounded by information, intellectual discourse, history, science, the arts… and of course stories that take me away for an afternoon and plunge me into adventure, romance, even sorrow. Like I say: I love books and I am unlikely to ever give them up. But perhaps it is time for me to look at his suggestions openly and see how that impacts the way I look to the future.

I’ve been thinking about this recently, quite a lot. Not only Abram’s philosophizing, but also discussions about memorization, storyjamming, bardic wisdom, the dreamtime, and so much more. Today I finally recognized that I personally can attest to some of this, I had just never applied my life to the idea – or the idea to my life; both are functionally the same.

I make my living waiting tables. I have, in the past, worked in accounting and in software development, so this is not a necessity, but rather a choice. It is a much more healthy lifestyle for me, keeping me active and sociable, and with my simple needs it is quite sufficient. But that’s not the point. I recalled, today, a conversation that I have had, many different times with many different people. You see, I rarely ever write down anything. I walk up to a table, they tell me what they would like to eat, I look at their faces, listen to their voice, note their position at the table, various keys that enable me to remember the details of each persons order. When I do have an exceptionally large party (more than eight people) I will bring paper and write down what they tell me, but even then, I tend to look at them as they speak, working more from memory than from the scrawls on the paper. I’m very good at it, and thus it leads to the conversation.

Taking orders from customers in a restaurant has it’s own cadence, it’s own rhythm, it’s own call and response, if you will. Any given menu item has it’s own query: side orders, salad dressings, cook temperatures, condiment selections and so forth. It can be almost rhythmic. And so I am reminded of the storytellers, of the rhythm and rhyme devices they employ to remember the tales of their ancestors. And I wonder at the relationship. So I consider further: most often, if I forget something from an order it is likely one that I wrote down. Once it is committed to paper, it is no longer in my brain. I rely on the device to replace my own thoughts. Secondarily, the other items I occasionally forget are the oddball items. In other words, the substitutions, the special requests, the deletions. It does not happen often, but it does occur. And I realize that it is those things that fall outside of the pattern of call and response that I sometimes forget. Interesting.

So this leaves me with a few thoughts. First, I need no further convincing that our modern memories are so poor simply because we do not use them. I have never been accomplished at “memorizing” in the classic sense of memorizing data for a test or a job (I have never successfully memorized a menu at a restaurant that I worked at. I must learn the menu, and once I do, I could answer questions about it years later). So this art of memorizing orders is not memorization, as such, it is something else. (But it is real – if I have occasion to think of particular customers days later, I can often recall exactly what they ate. But don’t ask me to simply repeat all of the orders I took in a given day. The key is in the faces, the voices, characteristics of individuals which stand out in my mind for their uniqueness.) Second, I have cause to consider the impact of spending so much of my time reading and writing — as I am doing this very moment.

My first thought is that both activities replace other things that I could be doing. They are activities to fill my quiet times, my alone times. Not always. At this moment, I have other alternatives, but I felt the need to communicate (and in all honesty, to record) these thoughts I have been pondering all day. Nonetheless, both are oftentimes fall back entertainments. This is, like so many things, good and bad. I much prefer reading and writing to, say, watching tv. At least I am using my brain, rather than shutting down entirely. But the question remains, while they may be better for me, does that actually make them good, useful, enriching?

My biggest concern, in fact, relates to the fact that I once more live alone. During the summer months, and warm days this fall, I have spent a lot of time sitting around with my neighbors, building a fire, playing drums, sharing meals or just spending some time talking. This is good. While I do not expect that any of them are likely to become long term community members, simply spending time is practice in community – and damn it, it’s fulfilling in and of itself. But now the cold weather is setting in. My natural temperament will lead me to spend more time indoors, more time alone, more time curled up with a good book or setting my thoughts to paper. That is okay, for me, at this point in my life, so long as it feels useful to me. But I am quite conscious of the fact that I will fall back on these things out of simple laziness. And that is a problem.

In two more weeks I am planning a trip home, to visit my son, see friends, and simply to get away from my regular routine for a while (restaurant work has a high burn out rate – I definitely am ready for a break before I cease to be able to function here). One of my intentions for this trip was to pack up my library (I left it with my son and ex two years ago, knowing that they would continue to make use of it, whereas for some period of time I would be able to do no more than cart around a bunch of boxes.) — but now I am questioning that intention. Partly because of the image of packed boxes – if a change is in order for my life, the carting boxes will become an issue very soon, again – and partly because I wonder if it is even healthy for me to indulge myself in this right now. If I bring my entire library (I have somewhere on the order of 1500 books in my personal collection), will that incline me to spend my entire winter isolated and catching up on stories of what is not? I’m not sure. And, of course, part of me wants to do exactly that.

I guess the question I really need to be asking myself is whether this is something that will become an addiction for me. Some quiet time, following tales of fancy and fantasy is not really a bad thing. Perhaps for society in general, but not for me in this particular time, place, end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it epoc. In time, this understanding of place will be applied once the community I join/co-found begins to flourish. And frankly, it may become irrelevant to me, personally, once I have other choices available. And that is probably the key. I am working toward something, learning new things every day, from books, from people, from the world around me: shutting down one of those sources of growth, of possibility, no matter the valid reasoning behind it, is probably very much like hamstringing myself. I am who I am, created by the society around me, as it is and has been. I can choose to not encourage the same things in future generations – and in turn, that will change me as I get older. But I don’t think I need to subvert myself consciously. Frankly, I don’t know if I could if I tried. Good enough.


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