Monday, May 07, 2007

Communities, personal and social health

How difficult is it to change a life? In even small, incremental ways? Even when you know, objectively know from previous experience, that the changes will make your life more productive, rewarding and enjoyable? That they will ease that vague feeling of malaise you feel as you drift towards wakefulness waking up in the morning?

It’s not easy. Please forgive me if I’m not talking about you. I guess I’m talking about myself, mostly, but I have a feeling that I’m talking about something that a lot of people feel. Habits are deeply ingrained, and forming new ones can take mountains of motivation, consistent on a daily basis as well as over the years. Fear of change, even positive change, is very real. We are also all greatly aware of how those around us, those who we love, like, dislike or don’t really consciously think about at all think about us, and how they will react to what we do and how we project ourselves. And inertia comes from this, leading us to think “this is who we are, don’t rock the boat”.

You may be wondering what the hell I’m talking about at this point. Or you’ve stopped reading, wishing I’d just post another blurry picture of a local bird or an anecdotal account of another meal I’ve had. Well, I’m not contemplating some huge life change, such as moving to Alaska or joining the merchant marines or anything, though in some ways I wish I was. I’ve just started reading Bill McKibben’s new book, called Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, and it is touching on some things that I’ve been thinking about, for years really but on a new level recently. It’s about many of the global problems our civilization is facing, some relatively objective (yet controversial and far from universally accepted) as global warming, peak oil and economic inequity, some more nebulous and subject but no less real such as dissatisfaction, the loss of social connectivity, unhappiness. It’s about trying to find some way out, or at least through, these problems through rebuilding and reorienting our communities, particularly in a more local direction.

I’ve been going through a small-scale, mostly unstructured, semi-conscious attempt to reorder my own life recently. How recently? I can’t really answer that. Certainly beginning to write my children’s novel over two years ago was some part of this (so what does it mean that my writing is in a bit of a fallow period now?) – but in the last few months I’ve been trying, emphasis on trying, to make some more conscious changes.

My motivation has come from different places. Certainly my environmental consciousness looms large – I want to lessen my impact and live closer to the earth. So I’m driving less. Trying to walk to work sometimes, or ride my bike. I’m also trying to keep my afterwork or weekend chores closer to home, and have even curtailed my birding adventures somewhat, not taking every free day off to drive up to the north shore. What’s interesting about these changes is the positive secondary changes that are effected: more exercise, leading to greater health and mental well-being. Less time spent frustrated and irritated (not to mention bored) in traffic. More inclined to network with friends for daytrips, leading to a more sociable and enjoyable experience (none of my friends really want to bird as much as I do, unfortunately).

I’m trying to be more conscious of what I eat, where it comes from, as well as making sure that I use it all instead of letting it rot in my refrigerator. Buying produce from local (New England, ideally) sources, avoiding frozen foods and foods with excess (or just irritating) packaging, eating less meat, buying organically when available and affordable. Secondary effects, of course, are eating better and enjoying it more. Flip side is it takes more time and effort (but less than you’d think if you shop at the right places), but I love to cook so no big sacrifice there.

One thing that Mr. McKibben touches on that I’ve been thinking about in great detail lately is looking to our local communities, and ourselves, for our entertainment and recreation. This is one of the areas in which modern life has changed the most, with great disruption to the connective tissue of local communities. I recently went to an Irish fiddle workshop led by Tommy Peoples, a very shy, soft-spoken individual who nonetheless was a leading force in the revitalization of traditional music beginning in the early seventies. He and others brought in new ideas yet stayed rooted and connected to a musical heritage that stretched back centuries but was in danger of losing itself to the outside incursions of rock and roll, pop, tin pan alley, etc (not that I want to knock rock’n’roll too much). Ireland was a very poor country until very recently, and when Mr. Peoples was growing up (and before) people made their own entertainment, or found it in their own communities, gathering at houses down the road for music and storytelling, dancing and theater, sporting events. Mr. Peoples used the term organic for this – everything was integrated – food and music, life and love, children and grandparents, family and community.

It’s always important to drop a couple caveats when talking like this lest you fool yourself – we all know that our past histories are full of war and pestilence and unhappiness and poor health, just like our current history is. Ireland suffered crippling poverty and famine that killed millions, as well as civil strife that pitted members of the same communities against each other. But I wonder if we haven’t really lost something as our affluence has grown, if we can’t consciously choose to regain some of this.

It may seem somewhat hypocritical for me to talk like this, as I’m one of the biggest wallflowers I know. But this gets to some of the more conscious changes I’ve been attempted lately. Nothing radical, just an attempt to be more social, to integrate interests of mine with other friends, or to use them to meet new people and make new friends. The main way I’ve been doing this lately is through my new interest in fiddling, particularly Irish fiddling. I’ve done my share of purchasing albums and listening to them at home by myself and playing along with recordings, but I’ve also gone to a couple of workshops and taken friends to see live music and hope soon to be joining in at some local sessions and finding a network of other people to play with here and there. I’ve been playing with my orchestra and my quartet for six years now but I do miss the more spontaneous nature of this kind of music making and its more casually social character.

I’ve also been getting more exercise, going to the gym, jogging, etc., and have even signed up for a spring triathlon in mid-July. I’m not sure anything improves one’s overall state of mind like regular physical activity (not to mention physical health). And I think I’m going to try and start playing tennis again this summer.

But there are no rules about any of this, at least not for me. I’ll never be a dogmatic person. My favorite anecdote from my limited Buddhist education goes like this: Two disciples walk into a monastery’s dining hall early one morning to find their teacher sitting quietly, eating his breakfast and reading the paper. Surprised, they confront him and ask him “But teacher, you always say ‘When eating, just eat! When reading, just read!’ What is this?” He smiles and looks at them and says “When eating and reading, just eat and read!”

Anyway, if you’ve read down to hear, thank you for your attention and letting me get some of these thoughts off of my chest.