Thursday, October 25, 2007


For professional reasons, I recently attended a lecture by a fellow who traveled to Kazakhstan to introduce a group of librarians there to Web 2.0, i.e., "Open Source" web.

I was struck by his excited statement early on in the lecture, "Multi-Tasking is now a way of life!" I was struck by how happy he was about this. Me, I associate multi-tasking with unrealistic bosses, with the overlapping customer demands of retail at Christmastime, with the disturbing effect of the internet on my 21st Century A.D.D. I associate multi-tasking with forces outside of me that I must obey in order to pay my rent, and with a resulting rhythm I internalize and don’t want to; when I waitressed for a living, I'd have to come home and lay on my back for a few hours to try and calm the swirling inside of me. I would argue that waitresses and mothers, to name just two, have been multi-tasking for centuries, that it is nothing new. I would argue that multi-tasking is not a life to celebrate but a life degraded.

To me, writing is life, because it is the thing which connects me to my inner self, the thing which brings my interior realization in tune with my exterior interactions. To write at all, I must concentrate, and if I am writing well, I am nearly meditating. Have these words all but lost their meaning in a multi-tasking world? A friend of mine, a fellow writer (who is not a fellow), is finishing up her book on deadline from her publisher. She tells me that for several months she has been sitting in bed with her laptop, surrounded by stacks of books and boxes of dry food. She has ignored everything but her writing. Her credit cards have cancelled themselves, her car has parking tickets, her email mailbox has 2000 unread messages, and her friends are angry. But she says she knows of no other way. "Writing is like a stone sinking to the bottom of the lake, and everything going dead quiet. But you're the stone."

To me, writing is not only the absence of multi-tasking, but sometimes it is the inverse of multi-tasking: Other activities collapse into it. When I am really IN the writing of a novel, I am in a zone of concentration where the words I'm looking for come to me (or through me), the story is writing itself somewhere deep inside of me, and it's more like I'm making time and space to listen for it than like I'm making it up. Certain repetitive tasks, if there is some quiet involved, jog the story to the surface, to my inner ears: washing dishes becomes writing, taking a shower becomes writing, taking a walk becomes writing.

The poet, Martin Espada, in a Pittsburgh lecture last March pointed out that poetry never pays the bills, and that the bills must be paid, if you’re most of us. He said that he has to “steal time from [his] own life” to write his poems, often on trains or in airports on the way to teaching poetry, which is how his bills get paid. Multi-tasking IS the demands of others, the demands of economics; no one will ever ask you to concentrate, to meditate, to write—the onus is on you entirely.

The other night I went to see the Whirling Dervishes at Carnegie Music Hall (here in Pittsburgh). I had seen them at New York’s City Center in 1999, and back then, the two hours or so of deep song and white-draped whirling transfixed (even transported) me. From the sanctuary of my seat, I could concentrate, I could lose myself in the movement and the sound; because of the silence I was allowed, I was able to experience a bit of the ecstasy of the Dervishes’ ritual.

By contrast, this recent performance was preceded by a whole lineup of distraction: a video promotion for the sponsoring foundation, a professor’s lecture on Rumi, a radio announcer introducing each upcoming segment, a brief performance of the singers separate from the dancers, an intermission, and a staged dialogue explaining the symbolic meanings of the Dervishes’ ceremony. Finally, the whirling. But even that was backdropped by an ever-moving Power Point slide show of the kind of explanatory text that used to be contained in printed programs.

Still, I am reminded by the Dervishes’ ceremony what writing offers me: The Dervishes whirl to bring themselves into harmony with the spinning earth, the revolving planets, and the revolving inside everything around us, at atomic level. I write to bring myself into harmony, to make sense connections between inner world and outer, I write to remind myself what feels good and to purge myself of what feels bad. I write because feeling without writing about feeling usually un-balances me.

The Dervishes, before they begin their ritual of spinning (with one palm up open to the universe, the other palm facing their heart), begin by walking slowly in the form of a circle. At one end of the circle, it is someone’s turn to revolve and face the man behind him; then they greet each other by bowing. This symbolizes a recognition, specifically an acknowledgement of seeing the soul of the other from your own soul, though your souls are clothed in (separated by) bodies.

There are at least two basic activities that multi-tasking has nothing to do with, that multi-tasking can’t make faster, because it can’t accomplish them at all. One is (real) Writing, and the other is Recognition of other people. To my mind, the defining quality of true recognition between two people is a full attention, a whole-heart-edness. How can I have a heart to heart with you, if the message that you receive from my body language is that I am doing 12 things at once? How can I see you truly, hear what you are feeling, listen to you fully, face you honestly, be moved or even transformed by your life, if I am doing everything to distract myself from you?

Multi-tasking is a ways from Life.

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