December, 1995. Ottawa. I was shoveling the driveway of my parentsâ€™ house. We lived on a peaceful residential street, but that afternoon was even quieter than usual, with hardly any cars around. And I could hear everything: two or three dozen pigeons flocking on a warm roof across the street, cooing like there was no tomorrow; a few crows here and there, calling to each other across wide distances; blue jays chirping away in the neighborsâ€™ yard; my boots and shovel on snow. And silence, beautiful silence, underlying it all, holding it, defining it, weaving it into a heart-stoppingly beautiful symphony.
Had I ever noticed these things before? Once or twice, maybe. Mostly, I just hadnâ€™t been paying attention. Iâ€™d been too focussed inward, caught up in scenes woven by my hyperactive imagination, longing to join them and escape a real world I felt I didnâ€™t belong in. Going on long walks by myself was not to commune with Nature but simply to avoid distraction. And if someone had told me what I was missing, I probably wouldnâ€™t have listened. If theyâ€™d tried to show me, I wouldnâ€™t have looked for long. I wasnâ€™t ready yet.
Upon coming out, I began the difficult process of working through my accumulated baggage. By the end of 1995, I was ready to open up not only to the outside world but to myself as well. I began to think about my future, what I wanted and where I was going. I developed my own spirituality, symbols and ways of seeing myself and the world. When I moved to Vancouver the following summer, this process intensified. I drank in the moon as it moved across the sky and slowly changed its face; got acquainted with the trees near my first Vancouver place, as their leaves turned red and brown and gold and fell off; then, later, other trees blooming, other plants bearing fruit. And always there were the mountains, so vast and calm. I opened up to Nature and found (sporadic) peace in connecting with something greater than myself, something to let me forget my problems and my fears. Thatâ€™s what I needed at the time: something to take my mind off the newfound stresses of grad school and TA-ing, the unfamiliar responsibilities of living on my own, and the crushing loneliness of being a stranger in a new city.
But contemplation and spirituality, for all their many benefits, can be insidious drugs, distracting or even crippling. It was certainly the case for me, a lot of the time, when I tried to lose myself in exploring Nature, or spent time and energy creating new maps and symbols for myself and my inner worlds. Though it was a step up from my previous state of utter denial, I wasnâ€™t making much progress in actual self-change. Understandable, I suppose: after years of stagnation, every small step seemed like a huge leap. But that was only part of the issue: dreams, anticipation, were still too important to me, and subconsciously I think I delayed changing myself and my circumstances too much, too fast, because that would have meant dropping my current dreams and finding new ones. Or, overestimating the importance of dreams and planning and introspection: telling myself that steps could be taken tomorrow, not today, Iâ€™m not ready today, need to gather more strength, write down this wonderful new insight I just had.
Things have changed in the last few months. Iâ€™m not interested in contemplation for its own sake anymore. Oh, I still enjoy a good bout of introspection every once in a while, though not as much as I used to. And my diary is still important, of course: to understand, to speak, and to remember. But my present spirituality is less about self-exploration and more about self-change, about actually walking the paths I lay out, walking towards my dreams. Also, Iâ€™m not looking for peace anymore. At least, not the peace found in safe fantasies or distancing myself from my troubles. Spiritually Iâ€™m dropping what I donâ€™t need, and finding or building what I do need.
I wish I could say the same about other, equally insidious distractions, like TV and the Internet. Now, Iâ€™ll be the first to admit that the Net can be extremely useful and positive, a multifaceted tool. But letâ€™s be honest: ever since I got online Iâ€™ve been abusing it horribly. Too much of the time I surf the Web not to learn or to connect, but to numb my brain, or kill time and fill the minutes. Though Iâ€™ve scored a number of victories, itâ€™s a constant struggle. What makes the Web even harder to resist for me is that itâ€™s so easily available. I work and spend most of my academic time in front of a workstation with a permanent and fast Web connection.
Itâ€™s a similar story for TV. Before moving to Vancouver I used to watch quite a bit of television, even to the point of leaving it on when I did something else, like writing or reading. (Yes, Iâ€™d perfected the art of brain-numbing and time-killing long before discovering the Web.) Then, during my weekâ€™s stay at the UBC residences, I lived completely without the idiot box. Though there was a set in the building, I couldnâ€™t find a TV Guide and didnâ€™t want to flip through channels hoping to find something I liked, so I left it alone.
It was quite a revelation. Before my move Iâ€™d told myself I would cut down, and stick to the basics: Babylon 5, The Simpsons, The X-Files, maybe Deep Space Nine But here I was, sticking to nothing at all, and really enjoying it.
When I moved out of UBC, my anti-TV stance only deepened. One roommate (who, fortunately, moved out after a few weeks) used to watch the tube for hours and hours on end. It didnâ€™t seem to matter what was on. I grew to hate this mindless, indiscriminate, zombielike TV watching with all the self-righteous passion of an ex-addict, and swore to myself I would never be like thatâ€”again.
Of course, it was still rerun season, so I could afford to be noble. But for about a month and a half, I really did stay away from TV entirely, except for (at most) a single hour of Babylon 5 each week. Then, gradually, I got sucked in again. Coming home on Wednesday night (a particularly stressful day that first semester) I found myself vegetating in front of the tube with no energy to dy anything else. (In my defense, I should mention it was Deep Space Nine and Voyager, followed by Babylon 5. A nice sci-fi-filled evening.)
Things got even worse when I moved again in March. The TV room was downstairs where it was quietest, and I started spending a lot of my evenings there for privacy while reading and writing. Big mistake. Before too long Iâ€™d slipped back into my pre-Vancouver pattern.
Fortunately, my present place has no TV. Itâ€™s just as well: part of me misses it, but I know perfectly well if I had the chance, Iâ€™d likely be hooked again.
Then again, nothingâ€™s ever that simple. Fantasies, writing, exploring, hell, even vegetating, can all be useful, harmful or neutral depending on what I want or need at the time. The thing to do is find a balance between all these things. Which is easier said than done. Iâ€™m still in the process of figuring out what I want and donâ€™t want, what I need and donâ€™t need. Learning to separate the music from the noise.