News junkie

Even when she was struggling to get by, my mother subscribed to the morning and evening newspapers. This was back when cities the size of Columbus, Ohio supported two daily papers. When my stepfather moved in he brought us Newsweek and the Sunday edition of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I spent one summer watching the Watergate hearings and providing summaries each evening to my mother and stepfather. Family gatherings always featured political discussions that devolved into political arguments. My siblings and I, just like my mother and her siblings, were far more likely to disagree, at full volume, about politics than about who was the favorite child. During graduate school I spent a summer watching the Iran-Contra hearings in the morning (I lived on the west coast) and writing my thesis in the afternoon. My partner also has a thing about current events. She was once asked her why she doesn’t like going to the movies and she said she’s afraid she might miss a breaking news story.

My family’s deep commitment to being up-to-date with the news of the day is born of the conviction that it is our duty as citizens to understand what’s going on in the world—near and far. How can you have an informed opinion if you aren’t informed? How can you make an educated decision at the ballot box if you aren’t educated about the candidates and the issues?

When a current political crisis was mentioned at my book group recently two of the women looked at us blankly. They told us they don’t watch much news. In the past I would have, silently, accused them of burying their head in the sand, questioned their right to vote, and seen their choice as part of what’s wrong with the world. In my newly evolving capacity for non-judging awareness I heard their comment not with disdain but simple curiosity about my own behavior. What’s happening inside of me when I start the day with national news broadcasts, check my news-filled Twitter timeline throughout the day, and read the spots off the daily papers?

When I was a kid my familiarity with current events made me feel smart when my inability to diagram a sentence and manage basic algebra made me feel stupid. But I’m not a kid anymore and I’m ready to admit that when I retreat into news coverage it’s to put myself beyond my own feelings of fear, uncertainty, and worthlessness. I’m well prepared to debate most any topic but emotionally and spiritually I am out of touch with myself and with the present moment. Watching the relentless horror of mass shootings, deadly political unrest, and government corruption I feel overwhelmed by rage and utterly helpless.

Having known and loved a lot of people with an addiction, I label my behavior as that of a news junkie with care. My behavior is that of an addict in the sense that when I bury myself in the news it is in order to escape dark feelings about my own life. It is also to engage in self-defeating behavior, behavior Jonathan Foust describes as “less than wholesome.” In an excellent talk titled “From Addiction to Wise Action,” he asks listeners to identify behaviors, anything from use of substances to repetitive thought patterns, which cause us suffering. What would happen, he asks, if we take that behavior to its extreme?

In this era of the 24-hour news cycle, I imagine myself never sleeping again. I imagine having no thoughts of my own as my head becomes filled not just with facts but with the opinions of all those talking heads from across the globe who fill our new sites and airwaves and timelines. In this world, I am utterly plugged in and completely disengaged at the same time.

When Foust then asks us to imagine our lives in the absence of these unwholesome behaviors and thoughts, I don’t imagine withdrawing from the news altogether because I agree with Thomas Jefferson that, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” Instead, I try to cultivate behaviors that keep me grounded in the present—starting my days with writing, physical movement, or reading that is not about current events, avoiding shouting matches that call themselves newscasts, seeking news sources that educate me about unfamiliar people and places, and taking action locally where I know I can make a difference.

There was gratitude in 2017

I am grateful for my friends and family above all. But we all need all the help we can get so below are some people, places, and things I followed, listened to, read, visited, and watched in 2017, and probably will continue to in 2018, because they improved the quality of my life

Tara Brach— I access her work through her profoundly compelling book, Radical Acceptance, and by watching and listening to her weekly meditation talks posted on her website. She writes and speaks with clarity and compassion. Her voice is a genuine invitation to transformation.

Michael Singer— I read his book, Untethered Soul, soon after reading Radical Acceptance. Both Singer and Brach are Buddhists. Brach’s work deepens my knowledge of Buddhist thought which I greatly appreciate. Singer does not provide that kind of context in this book. Instead, his is a voice of that just tells it—I laugh out loud in surprise and embarrassment as I recognize the limits of my thinking in his words. His clarity gave me the confidence to change.

Hend Amry—@LibyaLiberty She shares with followers a lived experience that is unlike my own and yet continuously resonates with me. She is hilarious—I hesitate to emphasize that because the news, the perspectives, the geographic points on the map she references are vital and challenging to me. But she also makes me laugh out loud, often.

Alyssa Harad—@alyssaharad She is a writer who tweets and retweets about culture and politics. She takes the occasional break from Twitter (which I admire) but never on Sundays when she produces #FlowerReport–photo after photo of flora and fauna from front porches to furthest frontiers, it will improve the quality of your right now.

Philip Lewis—@Phil_Lewis_ He is a front page editor at @HuffPost. He answer to a recent twitter question, “What’s your earliest memory of a news story?” was “9/11.” I thought, “Oh damn! I am old.” My answer is Vietnam on the evening news (Huntley/Brinkley–my mom, the cultural contrarian, didn’t like Water Cronkite). Also, many of his popular music references go over my head—I know it’s important and I know I’m way behind. His generational perspective is especially valuable to me.

OpenCulture—@openculture Books, music, art, culture, archives, interviews, the past, the present, the future. It’s all here. It’s the best rabbit hole around.

Al Jazeera English—@AJENews It’s not the only site I follow that offers information and perspectives I don’t see in mainstream US media but it is surely the best.

Jonathan Foust— He produces podcasts of his meditation talks every few days. His typical talk focuses on a single topic (anger, anxiety, equanimity) and provides a way of thinking about that issue more clearly so that I come to my next experience of it from a mindful rather than reactive place.

Viroqua, WI—Highway 14 in southwest Wisconsin Imagine you need to drive from somewhere near Iowa City, St. Louis, or Chicago to Minneapolis/St. Paul. Make sure your route takes you through Viroqua (even if it adds a little time). When you get there go to:

Kickapoo Coffee Roasters—buy a pound of beans and order the world’s best cold brew coffee,

Driftless Café—a great lunch spot,

Viroqua Food Co-op—not a great co-op for a small town just a great co-op,   

Driftless Books and Music—the building itself is worth a visit and the selection is fabulous and so are the very nice people who work there,

FYI The word “Driftless,” as you noticed, is all over this town. It refers to a region in Wisconsin that the most recent glaciers did not touch. As a result there’s none of the residue in the area that is typical of the glaciers (gravel, boulders, etc.). So Viroqua is not only a great town it’s in a geologically unique place,

Cruise control

Everyone in my immediate family drives as if they’re in a contest. You win if you stay ahead of the traffic by exceeding the speed limit and passing others without drawing negative attention from law enforcement. It helps to be a middle-aged white woman in a nondescript car if you’re going to play—as evidenced by my single speeding ticket in over 30 years of driving. Everyone in my immediate family also swears, a lot, while driving as we continuously observe and evaluate the drivers around us. Perhaps it’s unnecessary to say that cruise control plays no role in our driving experience.

Each day I try to perform daily tasks like making the bed and brushing my teeth concentrating only on the task at hand and my immediate surroundings. My goal is to increase my tolerance for staying present to the moment. I decided to add driving to that list because it’s a frequent task and, given my family’s approach to driving, a challenge to both mindfulness and equanimity. On a recent solo trip from western Illinois to the Twin Cities I had four hundred miles to see if cruise control could help me on my path.

I was reluctant to use cruise control on the county road that takes me out of town and 50 miles north to the interstate. I thought slowing down for all of the small towns would be a hassle but in the spirit of giving it a try, I turned it on as soon as I cleared the last stop light out of Galesburg. I gained a lot of practice at tapping the brakes to slow down as I entered each town and hitting the resume knob to get back to 60 mph on my way out. Once I made it to the interstate, I thought about turning it off because there was so much traffic—the condition that makes me feel the greatest need for control. With some trepidation, and in the spirit of trying and all, I used it for most of the 60 miles from Davenport to just west of Iowa City. I became increasingly comfortable passing when I needed to and learned that the car resumes the set speed when I take my foot off the gas. When I left the interstate to head north toward Cedar Falls, Rochester, and eventually the Twin Cities I stayed on cruise until I came to a giant construction zone just north of Cannon Falls that led directly to rush hour traffic south of St. Paul. Using good judgment, as my car’s manual suggests, I estimate that I was on cruise for about 300 miles of the 400 mile trip.

As I drove, and now reflecting on the experience, I ask myself two questions. First, what was my body doing? The primary thing I noticed was that my body was relaxed. Not couch potato relaxed but not dominated by tension. I didn’t have a death grip on the steering wheel and I didn’t get that weird cramp in my left hamstring that often happens on long drives.

Second, what was my mind doing? I am mostly aware of what it wasn’t doing. I wasn’t engaged in a continuous evaluation of myself and other drivers. Am I getting too close to the car in front of me, why won’t that guy get out of the left lane, should I pass this truck or wait for this car that’s bearing down on me to go first? I wasn’t constantly checking or adjusting my speed. I’d set it just over the limit (not encouraged by my car’s manual but I am my mother’s daughter). I knew I was going an appropriate speed, not unconsciously speeding up or slowing down when someone was trying to pass me. I was also strangely unperturbed when others passed me.

Jonathan Foust encourages the practice of non-judging awareness on the path toward equanimity. That was at the core of this experience. I would also say it was, for the most part, an experience of mindfulness. I was in a comfortable state of alertness. There was plenty to think about without overanalyzing myself and other drivers or drifting off to worry about the past or future. I was intensely aware of and engaged by my surroundings—the traffic around me and the beautiful rolling farmlands on either side of the road.