Yesterday I spent six hours sitting still and quiet with 20 strangers in the converted attic of a century-old house in a tricky neighborhood near downtown LA. It was a beginner’s Zen meditation retreat. These days, that’s probably considered obsolete. But that’s how we used to do it and some of us still do: in real life in a real place with real people in real time. When I got home, I had a message from my best friend who said she wasn’t calling for any particular reason. That’s what friends used to do too. Just be friends for no reason.
Today, these two events are so rare, so nearly impossible to believe, that it makes me want to write them down. I don’t write many things down anymore. Someone asked me about that recently. He said, “You don’t write on your blog much anymore.” And it’s true, I don’t. I tried to give him an answer why. There’s the matter of privacy, and the wrenching realization that I have exploited much of my life and family for the sake of . . . I don’t know what to call it other than me. Just for the sake of me. There wasn’t ever much money involved, because not only is my blog free, but the sum total of my earnings for writing three books over ten years is too embarrassingly small to even add up. And then there’s the sad situation that not as many people read anymore. They say they do, but they don’t read blogs, don’t read books, and don’t even search the internet as much as they did last year, let alone last month. I didn’t want to say that because the guy, who is around my age, obviously still reads, and he’s probably reading this right now. But it’s true. It’s even true of me. I read a whole helluva lot all the time but I don’t buy books very often anymore. I borrow them for free from my library’s digital database. And you might argue that kind of reading still counts but I know it doesn’t count for the author or the library.
Last year my hometown library canceled my library card because I hadn’t been to the library for two years. I called up, confused and upset. I told them I read about three e-books a week from them, and they said, but you haven’t been to the library. And you might say that doesn’t count, but I know it does count when it comes to keeping the library open. Every year they have to fight the good fight at City Hall—where the not-so-hard choice is between keeping the library open or providing water and sanitation services—and so they keep cutting the library hours into fractions of fractions of fractions. They renewed my card because I asked. Librarians will do that for you.
Two weeks ago I heard from a writer at a magazine who was working on a story about “the evolution of iPhone Buddhism and someone said I should talk to you.” I told him I didn’t know what iPhone Buddhism was (although I could make a cynical guess) and he confirmed that my guess was right. Someone is seriously suggesting how important the phone is for the dissemination of Buddhist teachings and practice today, and I admitted that I don’t use a smartphone so I couldn’t comment, but I could suggest a revolutionary new mindfulness app: put the phone down. The advanced version would be: turn the phone off. He said that was the most profound thing he’d heard anyone say on the topic.
As the digital editor of a magazine he said he has to be on Twitter all the time and that he considered me to be one of the most important people to follow on Twitter. I told him that I hardly ever Tweet. I don’t see any point to it. Who exactly am I talking to? No one is listening to anyone else. I know I’m not. I tweet even less than I blog. And I think that disinterest was more or less what qualified me as worth following in his eyes.
Now we have a candidate for president—the frontrunner of a national political party—whose legitimacy as a leader seems to have been established by his narcissistic, bombastic, outrageous, ignorant, ugly and incurable addiction to Twitter, or in other words, addiction to himself.
Years ago when my first book came out I gave a luncheon talk at a conference on motherhood held up at UC Berkeley. It was a small conference, but it was a big deal to me. They gave me a table where I could sell and sign copies of my book. There were several authors participating and we were set up behind a row of tables in an otherwise empty corridor (the first of many such awkward embarrassments I would inflict on myself in the years to come). I had a slow stream of folks approach my table to talk and the author next to me attracted less interest and she finally asked me why I thought people were coming up to me. Was it because I was more approachable, being a priest and all? And I told her that they were mostly asking for advice on how to get a book published.
Some of the folks who started out as my most ardent social media friends really wanted a writing mentor, a manuscript editor or a blurb. I understand that. It makes good sense for an aspiring writer. I read a book about “how to have a literary life” before I ever started writing. One of the tips was to write fan letters to authors you admire; strike up a flattering correspondence and then capitalize on it later on when you needed a blurb. Now that I think about it, I did try to do that but I felt like such a slimeball that I stopped.
Not long ago I heard from someone who asked if I would read some of their writing, saying by way of introduction, “I’ve been guided in my writing by your work.” I asked what they’d read. “I haven’t yet gotten my hands on your books but I love your Facebook posts.”
On the flip side, plenty of writers sell into this market as well, writing books about writing and teaching writing seminars. You start to wonder if the only people who are reading are the people who would rather be writing.
Facebook feels different too. Less like friends connecting with friends but more like friends selling to friends. “Sign up for this digital course and get recorded phone calls, email reminders, monthly newsletters, live online chats and access to a private Facebook page. My mission is to help you live the life you want.” I draw the line at doing that, because it doesn’t feel okay. It’s not what I do. I can’t help anyone live their life unless they can put down their phone and look me in the face.
Yesterday I was reminded why 20 people would leave their homes, turn off their phones, take off their shoes, come up two flights of stairs and sit with strangers in silence all day. And I was reminded why a friend would call out of the blue just to say hello.
The reason why is that something is missing from our screens. There’s no social in our social; no life in our life. There has to be something more than this phony, self-centered, self-promotion and exploitation. I’ve ranted incoherently about all kinds of things in this post, but this much makes sense. There has to be something more, something that can’t be digitized, monetized, and sold. And there is. It’s what keeps me going.