Sometimes I think my entire approach to living is summed up in this anecdote from George Bernard Shaw:
I was about five at the time, and I was standing at my father’s knee whilst he was shaving. I said to him, ‘Daddy, why do you shave?’ He looked at me in silence, for a full minute, before throwing the razor out of the window, saying, ‘Why the hell do I?’ He never did again.”
I am reconsidering all the time. Only a few times did I never do the thing again, such as the time I walked away from academia. Many more times, maybe most times, I went over my reasons again and decided they were good enough to continue. But often enough I’ve redone the calculations and decided that it’s time to, if not abandon the thing, at least put it on the shelf for awhile, perhaps for a long while.
Last night I was fully ready to continue on with the October project, which would involve tackling a bigger than usual post (an account of the Great Books reading group). Waking up this morning, I wasn’t so sure. By the time I started my walk at 8:30am I had tentatively decided not to continue, and when I returned 45 minutes later I was sure, and comfortable with the decision.
Three things led me to change my mind: a question posed by Servetus, a blog post by Austin Kleon, and an email from a reader.
The question from Servetus:
But if (as you continue to assert) the world is more generally Christian than it was 2100 years ago, and the command to evangelize is more historical relative than most Christians have taken it to be, what is the motive to engage in spiritual exercise (or write a spiritual autobiography)? I get that you’ve become more of a “you do you” person yourself over time, but the “why” of writing and the matter of who might or should read what you have to say hangs a bit on this problem of why the person should engage in spiritual exploration (even in the absence of leadership).
I’m taking the question more broadly than I think Servetus intended, by asking myself: what exactly is the purpose of writing out this story? I was pretty sure there were good reasons, and I think there still are, but the question started me thinking about whether this was the best or even a good route to what I hoped to accomplish.
The blog post by Austin Kleon corrects a common misunderstanding about his signature exhortation to “show your work”:
The biggest misinterpretation of Show Your Work! is the idea that you should show everyone everything all the time. Just set up a 24/7 webcam over your desk and let people watch. […] Not only do I think it’s a bad idea to share while you’re actually doing your work, I think it’s a fast track to destroying your work.
The whole blog post is worth reading, but this opening zeroed in on a pain I was increasingly feeling — although it was good to be publishing without trying to meet my standard for finished pieces, they still weren’t finished enough, and that was making me unhappy (not to mention putting a burden on the reader). Which led me to think: one of my shortcomings as a writer is that I don’t write drafts that aren’t meant to be seen, which means I don’t rethink or rework much, I just finish and publish, or abandon.
And these challenges-to-myself to write and publish daily are not especially helpful. I’m still pushed to be more polished than I might if I were writing privately, but don’t have the time or the energy to give the pieces a decent polish, or even check that they’re coherent, that I didn’t lose the thread as the words were being laid down. There’s always the possibility that I might go back later and rework some of the material further — but there’s already twenty years worth of material which has failed to motivate me to do that, new material isn’t likely to change that, however raw.
All that leads me to think that I need to give private writing (and rewriting) a serious try before making efforts like this publicly. No guarantees I will do that, but at least in the notes I was making for this series I have a lot of fodder for private writing.
The email was from a longtime reader, though not recently, who had stumbled across the blog again and spent some time catching up on recent posts. He ended his encouraging note by saying that the blog had been a positive influence on his life. Which was heartening, and a possible reason to stick with blogging — but it also occurs to me that one of the reasons I might get a note like that is that the blog persists on the internet, all twenty-or-so years worth of entries, and will continue persisting whether or not I add to it. Meanwhile, given the nature of a blog, none of the past material gets revisited or refined, it is what it was at the time of writing. But I have a few projects in mind, websites that collect the best material I’ve found on various topics, with some amount of commentary from me — the inspiration being the old Cumberland Books website, which many people found helpful or enjoyable even without buying the books we sold. And I’m thinking that investing my writing time in those projects may be a better use of that time, crafting entries that say what I want to say while wasting as little of the reader’s time as possible.
Part of the reason for this very slow windup to telling the story of our time in the Bristol intentional community was to defuse any expectations that there was anything gossip-worthy to be revealed. And since I now don’t expect to tell that story in full anytime soon, let me leave this with the very short version. In 2001 we found ourselves in a very rural part of Colorado, plenty of savings, laid off from my job (at my request), at loose ends and alone. We were lonely and ready to move to a more populated area. Bristol came across our radar screen through their monthly newsletter, and after reading through all the back issues online we thought it might be a good next place to live — even if the community didn’t work out, the people seemed nice and the church seemed nice and the area seemed nice.
So we visited for a couple of weeks, and then decided to move there and join the church. The community turned out not to be what we wanted, but that was OK, we were able to limit our participation. The church turned out not to be what we wanted, but at least during our four years not so bad as to chase us away. The people were always nice, though mostly not our sort. Towards the end, when we reached the point where we started thinking about finding another church in the area, but only because our involvement was at low ebb, I finally read some books on my shelf by Joel Salatin, which inspired us to think that farming might be a better life for us. But farm land in the area was prohibitively expensive, while 250 miles to the west in Kentucky it went for maybe 1/5 the price. So we moved on, again. This isn’t to say that there weren’t tensions and changes of mind, or that I wasn’t privy to gossip-worthy stories, only that none of that really had much bearing on our decision to come or our decision to go. Our thinking has changed significantly since our time there, but the changes weren’t the reason we left, they came years later as we decompressed.