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I’ve struggled to complete my series on my experience at Tamarack, as the concluding day tackled deeper issues. These included what a strong community looks like, and how we can each return to our own communities with renewed purpose and energy to make the community visions a reality.

As I’ve reflected on community and what we can each do to grow a vibrant and caring city, two major developments passed the city’s planning committee, despite the protestations of both planning staff and many concerned citizens. The mayor has touted the construction developments in environmentally significant areas as a major win for our city because of the potential 1,200 jobs they will bring. This is against concerns that this growth further spreads the sprawl already too typical of London, the fact that the jobs would be mostly minimum wage jobs to multinational corporations not invested in the best interests of our communities, and that it would draw opportunities away from neighbourhoods across our city that are already struggling.

I was motivated to write this letter after reading Shawn Adamsson’s letter to Council expressing his concerns about the direction these developments will take our city. Please consider writing a letter to Council (wards and contact information available here). The more people who are sharing their thoughts and opinions on important civic issues, the stronger our city becomes. Please feel free to use this letter as a template if it helps to express your thoughts on this issue.

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To Councillor Armstrong, Mayor Fontana and members of London City Council,

I believe the two developments approved by the planning committee this week are the wrong direction for our city for several reasons.

As a student of urban planning and a participant in the highly successful ReThink London process, I’m concerned that these proposed developments are contrary to the public will and the wisdom of the city’s planning staff. The recently published ReThink London discussion papers and specifically the paper Creating a Mixed Use, Compact City demonstrate the public will to utilize our existing lands more efficiently and creatively, instead of the further hollowing of the core these developments would represent. If Council opts to ignore these massive citizen engagement initiatives, to ignore the advice of their paid professionals and instead to side with furthering urban sprawl for very little net job gain for our city, we risk further disenfranchising and losing valuable London citizens.

As a member of the Argyle Community Association board and a member of the city-led Strengthening Neighbourhoods Argyle initiative, I am very concerned about the impact these proposed developments will have on our community. Strengthening Argyle has worked diligently to survey the community to understand their priorities, with the ultimate goal of creating a vision statement and action plan for citizens to see their desires realized. One of the underlining goals for the community is jobs, especially jobs that provide a living wage that allows Argyle citizens to live comfortably and be contributing members of the community. I am deeply concerned that these jobs will do very little to provide new net jobs to our city, and only further drain opportunities from communities already struggling.

I recently had the opportunity as a member of Strengthening Argyle to  join the Tamarack Institute gathering on neighbourhoods and communities in Kitchener with many City of London employees. One of the key features of the gathering was walkabouts in Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge communities to hear their success stories. One of the walks we were able to take was to see downtown Kitchener, featured as “The Revitalization of an Urban Core”. In it we saw many repurposed buildings (most notably the extremely successful Tannery District) and infill developments, making the most of existing sites. The planning staff that guided the tour noted that these kinds of projects help save the city money by slowing the need for expansion, reducing strain on public utilities and infrastructure.

As a previous employee of London Hydro working in the engineering office (2010-2011) and as a current contractor to hydro utilities, I see first-hand the costs of expanding developments into unserviced areas. On top of the massive environmental impact of clearing and developing an environmentally significant woodlot and wetland, the city needs to consider the burden servicing these developments will have on the citizens and infrastructure of London.

As a family that depends on public transportation to get around the city, we are concerned that these developments would either be unserviced by the LTC and therefore costly to reach (especially by the minimum wage employees of that site), or by being serviced by the LTC, would further strain an already over capacity and underfunded public service. There are many routes in the urban core that are unable to deliver sufficient seats to people that depend on transit (including students who pay for a bus pass as part of their tuition), and the LTC hopes to keep up with neighbouring cities by introducing express bus service. Furthering our urban sprawl will sacrifice these kinds of ambitious projects, and put us further behind the kinds of innovative communities we must compete with for our post-secondary grads.

As we struggle with 9.8% unemployment and the continued drain of our younger generation, these new developments may seem like big gains for our city. However, the generations of young educated professionals we want to keep value the environment, value having efficient public transportation, and recognize that a city with long strips of vacant commercial space (like the Pond Mills area, or McCormick area) already being serviced is short sighted to abandon that neighbourhood to decay for the sake of the appearance of progress (shovels in the corn fields).

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Brian Gibson, Ward 2

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After the morning discussion, we broke into workshops to start the afternoon. I joined one called “Social Capitol and Neighbourhoods” at the Victoria Park gazebo hosted by Milton Friesen, who is completing a Ph.D. at the University Of  Waterloo School Of Planning.

gazebo meeting

Milton’s discussion centred on the research he is doing, including understanding how people move in their environment, and how this data can help us to appreciate how connected a community is and estimating social isolation in the community. Part of his research includes subjects being voluntarily tracked with a small GPS device (currently being invented by Milton) that would simply log their location every 15 seconds or so, for one week (the data would be entirely geospatial, without any personal information attached). In theory, with enough willing participants chosen by random sample in a community, the community could be “mapped” by seeing where people tend to congregate and when, how far they travel on average from home to work, etc.

I found his study very interesting, partially because it reminded me of research I worked on as part of my undergraduate degree, “Estimating Population: A Case Study”. The research I did (lead by my GIS professor Martin Healy) investigated how people can move through their environment in London, based on the case study of the outdoor pools across the city and how accessible they are to the local population around them. My study used paths (walkways, sidewalks, roads) in the GIS to estimate how people can access the pools, but this data would allow the researcher to see how people really move in their environment, and as more communities were studied, start to develop a stronger understanding of trends, and to be able to spot communities that are more or less connected. At least, in theory.

Very soon, we walked from the gazebo back to the pavilion to take one of the school buses to communities in Waterloo and Cambridge for our second walkabout. I chose to visit a community called “Lang’s Farm Village” and their village association, drawn to the prospect of talking to another community association and seeing what they’re doing. Not knowing what to expect, I found myself in a Cambridge community started in the late 60’s-early 70’s.

We were greeted by a harsh looking neighbourhood, and a very friendly community leader, Bill Davidson. Bill briefly told us the story of Lang’s, a community built on what had been farmland, replacing the arable soil with many brutalist high rise apartments and town house complexes. He described the community as one of big problems and big hearts, where social issues such as high drug use, pregnancy and school drop out rates are seen as opportunities. The community has pulled together against tough odds, and is flourishing.

He took us quickly through the community association building (what started as the unit of a townhouse, but soon spilled into an additional portable unit because of the need and the desire to work there), which has evolved into a youth and teen centre, which includes daycare and afterschool programs, cooking and fitness classes.

Langs Village Association

As we left the townhouse, Bill grinned and said, “we’re very proud of everything happening here…this isn’t what we brought you to see, though.” Some others from the group who were more familiar with the region seemed to guess where we were going, but I followed the group down the street, not knowing what was coming next.

I certainly wasn’t prepared for what I’d find as I turned the corner.

Bill beamed and welcomed us to Lang’s, the community health & wellness centre built in 2010. This project was a joint venture from all three levels of government, creating a regional centre, but built primarily for the immediate community of Lang’s Farm Village.

Langs entrance

At the front entrance is a map and list of all the community partners. In this one centre, the community has a multitude of different services, workshops and facilities available to them. Many of the speakers at the gathering had been talking about “breaking down walls” and “connecting communities”, but I hadn’t envisioned something quite like this.

The community was instrumental in every aspect of the centre, from pushing since the 80’s to have an integrated place where all needs of the community and region could be met, to consulting on the design and choosing who would occupy the space. This even includes the interview process – when selecting professionals that will work in the centre, the community is welcomed to meet the applicants and help choose the person they want serving them!

Langs community partners

This is the main space that greets visitors, with seating in front of floor-to-ceiling windows, a large reception/help area and entrance to various wings of the building.

Langs main area

Behind the reception area is a large gymnasium, with windows looking out into the reception area. Bill impressed on us that the centre works to support health and wellness in the community, from teaching fitness and recreation activities, supplying many different medical offices, to various forms of counselling and support.

View from gym

This is Bill telling us about all the medical offices in the building. Many of the practitioners in the centre are there on rotation from other offices, but they also have dedicated staff. Many of the people that have come through their doors have never been to a doctor or a dentist before, but now they see one regularly, as well as having access to specialized care such as chiropractic and massage therapy.

medical centre

The centre was built with many green features to keep the maintenance and energy costs down, including a green roof.

green roof

A mural above the gym was designed by the youth of the community, and created with them by a team of graphic designers working in the community that continue to mentor aspiring artists.

gym mural

After a whirlwind tour of the community centre, we were back on the bus to Kitchener. We were invited to return to the pavilion in the evening for lively line dancing. I lingered with a group of others from the conference over dinner and beer and ended up getting to the pavilion just as things were winding down…so we went over to the Victoria Park Boathouse instead. Not a bad way to end the day!

victoria park at night

Next post: Tamarack Day 3: Benefits of Organizing Neighbourhoods

Previous post: Tamarack Experience

I’m so grateful to have been a part of the Tamarack Institute’s gathering in Kitchener last week on neighbourhoods and community building. Each day was packed with excellent talks, small group discussions and walks around the surrounding communities.

The only problem from the events is that there was so much to take in that it left me somewhat struggling to find the most pertinent points to take away and share.  It was amazing to join a national conversation with community leaders from across Canada and the States, but it can make it difficult to take everything shared and apply it to our city and Argyle community.

One of the messages that stuck with me through the entire gathering was one introduced near the start by John McKnight about gifts. His challenge was for us to turn to someone near us that we didn’t know and simply ask them, “What are your gifts?” I and many others were flabbergasted, this is not something I’ve ever really, deeply considered before…plus it was 8:30am after waking at 5:30am to drive there. Not the perfect time to be considering who we are and what we have to offer.

But conversations got rolling, and when John asked the audience what their answers were, they came back, numerous and varied. His challenge was to ask this question often, when we gather with colleagues and community members, but even when we’re with friends and family. It can be tough to answer, but quickly reveals we all have a lot to offer. We are repositories of experience and expertise.

I found this an excellent reminder, as I sometimes struggle to find ways I may be helpful, and have heard many members of our communities I’ve spoken to say things like “I’d like to help/be active in the community, but there’s nothing I’d be good at.” John’s message was: when we can unlock and encourage all the gifts in our communities, only then are they truly strong. Communities can be served by the city and civil services, but when citizens are recognizing and using their gifts, that’s when great communities are truly shaped.

The big question is how is this achieved? The talks were excellent, but left us with a lot of questions. The power of the talks we heard may have been in igniting or reigniting our passion for community building, and helping us recognize the potential every community has. The greater challenge ahead will be turning that passion into actions and decisions.

After John’s talk and small group discussions we broke into workshops for the first part of the afternoon. I joined a talk by Tamarack President Paul Born called “Deepening Community in Neighbourhoods”. We reflected on what community means to us, and how we can experience shallow vs. deep community. Some of the ways that Paul believes we can deepen our communities include:

  • Telling our story and achieving unity by opening doors between ourselves
  • Enjoying time with one another and finding ways to regularly spend time together
  • Caring for one another and building a sense of belonging through mutual acts of care
  • Working together for a better world and moving from a life of them vs. us to one of all of us, together

After the small group discussions we had the chance to go on one of four walks through communities being showcased. I chose to take the walk through Kitchener’s downtown. I’m always interested to see what other cities are doing with their downtown spaces, and I wanted to better understand London’s downtown community and learn ways that it may be further improved.

We walked through Victoria Park and checked out two co-working spaces, TreeHaus and the Tannery District (pictured below), finishing by examining the streetscape along King Street including in front of City Hall. The impression I’m getting is a downtown core very similar to London’s, in that until very recently it had a rough reputation, one that it continues to overcome.

tannery district

One of the strategies shared on the walk was the changes city planning staff have implemented in the way people move through the downtown. I was deeply impressed by how some of the leaders in the planning department had researched and visited cities around the world that are showing leadership in creating truly walkable, environmentally friendly, safe communities. The vision the staff has for downtown Kitchener is something along the lines of Nice (France) where a vibrant street market happens all day long, ranging from fresh flowers in the morning, fresh produce in the afternoon, and a lively restaurant and bar scene in the evening.

Admittedly there is still a way to go to match such high ideals, but the staff feel that the vision is slowly going forward. Some of the elements shared on the walk include:

Green planters. These planters look similar to those found all over our cities, but the downtown stormwater drains have been engineered to flow into the planters instead of into the sewer system, reducing impact on downtown infrastructure and making use of the water to feed the plants, reducing city labour and upkeep costs. The planters are filled with local, salt-resistant plants that are both attractive and able to thrive in the water coming from the streets.

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Great bike racks, adding to the overall attractiveness and interest on the street.

awesome bike racks

Moveable bollards that allow the city to adjust the parking and patio space along the downtown core. In this picture, there is both space allowed for parking where the bollards are against the sidewalk (background) and space where the bollards are against the road, making more room for walkers and/or patios (foreground).

kitchener downtown parking

I may also have a serious case of City Hall envy.

Kitchener City Hall

Next post: Tamarack Day 2: Organizing Ourselves

Victoria Park Pavilion

Last week I joined city employees, service providers and other citizens/community association members at a 3-day event hosted by the Tamarack Institute in Kitchener called Neighbours, focused on the power of neighbourhoods and citizens in creating community.

gathering discussions

The event was hosted at the Pavilion in Kitchener’s Victoria Park. This was the first time I had spent much time in Kitchener, and was amazed at everything I saw there. Though the event was framed around the Institute’s typical conference format, the gathering was the first time that they had brought people together in a park. The Pavilion was a beautiful space, and being in the park gave us many places (including picnic shelters, a large gazebo, and the Boat House bar) to meet together for small group discussion.

gazebo meeting

Each day we met in the morning for opening thoughts from one of the Tamarack leaders, followed by discussions in small group “pods” that were a blend of citizens, city and public sector employees, before listening and sharing thoughts in a discussion lead by the leaders. Each afternoon was concurrent workshops on varied topics followed by walkabouts in different communities in Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge reached either by walking or school buses.

I found the discussion very interesting and illuminating as we dug into what community means for everyone at the gathering and how we can build stronger communities across the country and the world, but I found the walkabouts especially valuable as we examined what the region has been doing to build and grow.

tannery district

On the first day I chose to join the downtown Kitchener walkabout, exploring how the city has revitalized the urban core. We walked around the Victoria Park neighbourhood, a place called TreeHaus and the Tannery District (pictured above) for examples of inventive co-working spaces and King Street to see creative uses of the downtown streets.

langs

On the second day I joined the walkabout of the Lang’s Farm Village community in Cambridge, visiting the Village Association Youth and Teen Centre and their brand new regional community health & wellness centre (pictured above).

For the next three days I’ll share my thoughts and experiences from the event in a series of posts. I hope that I can convey the various elements of the gathering well, and take away from it some goals and actions we might be able to take in London to strengthen our communities both separately and united as parts of our great city!

Next post: Tamarack Day 1: Community Assets

broken glass

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Last Sunday, our church met to vote on the direction we’d like to move as a congregation, collectively and separately. We debated launching a new church based on a framework of fellowship, community and service. After all the consultations and discussions over the spring, we voted 91% to approve releasing willing members of the congregation to launch this new church.

We’re very excited for this new project, and to have such a high percentage of the congregation behind us. There is still a great deal of logistical work to be done (including further work with our association to secure funding for the venture etc.), but it seems like things may move forward fairly rapidly now. The basic goal that we’re starting from is “to build a new, casual, contemporary, neighbourhood church that embraces spiritual seekers in ever-enlarging circles of compassion”.

Our next steps will be to start meeting together to plan how exactly how this church would work, and strategies on how we would be a part of the community around the church, as well as ways to incorporate the frameworks of fellowship and service we envision in our own home communities.

I think this is what gives me the most hope and optimism for this venture…I feel as if different elements of my life are coming together in a positive way. As we’ve become more involved in our Argyle community and the greater community of London, I’ve come to crave a church that authentically strives to be a part of the city. In this past week at the Tamarack Institute neighbours gathering I feel I’ve also learned ways that community and church leadership can come together to collaborate, insights I hope to share soon.

That isn’t to say in any way that First Baptist isn’t already doing great work for the downtown community, but I’ve still found something lacking in my own goals and aspirations for community involvement as an expression of my faith. This seems to be a sentiment echoed by many I’ve spoken to that hope to be a part of this new church plant. It is my hope that in this work our desires may be fulfilled, and that we may be truly a positive force for good in the city.

Yesterday we experimented with a “pulpit swap” with two other churches, hearing messages from other pastors and sharing in their thoughts and perspective. Our contemporary service welcomed the pastor of our previous church (Egerton Street Baptist) and family friend Dave Snihur. His message centred on the idea of “thinking outside the box”, a familiar theme, but focused on what it can mean for our church plant. I greatly appreciate that he dove fearlessly into what is a somewhat sensitive issue as our church tries to find its direction, and he shared excellent thoughts on what the plant may mean for us.

The “box” he talked about is our comfort zone, where we would like to adapt God’s plan into our own plan. Dave reminded us that God’s path isn’t easy, and very rarely happens where we are comfortable. In particular, he and any others that have been involved in a church plant can tell you that the launch is both exhilarating and exhausting, and has to be a marathon instead of a sprint. It helped me imagine what life might be like for both Sarah and I as we work towards this new church, and to earnestly ask if this church will be something truly new to our community and the city, or if we are just leaving one box for another. It is also a challenge to examine our lives and weigh what is truly important, what our priorities are, and make sure that we don’t become burned out with everything we try to achieve.

I hope to continue to write on this as we work and think and imagine the church and community we’d like to build. There will be plenty of challenges ahead, as we work to find balance between the First Baptist community and this new church, and making sure that both are well supported and cared for. I’m excited for this new possibility, but never at the expense of the parent church. Continued thoughts and prayers as we move through this challenging but exciting process would be greatly appreciated!

broken glass

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Last month, I wrote this series of posts about major changes that may be coming to our congregation, and what it could mean for our entire church. We’re struggling as our contemporary service is rapidly growing, to the point it is at the limits of our capacity as we operate now, while our traditional service is in slow, steady decline.

This has been a very difficult process for everyone, as many solutions have been proposed and debated at length. A merging of the two services was tested last fall, but a vote to make it permanent failed by 3% at a congregational vote. Sharing of space by other means has also been brought forward and mostly vetoed, while many (including myself) question the amount of energy being devoured by debate about worship music style. I grow increasingly frustrated and weary with the entire process.

As this has happened, a new proposal came forward from our associate pastor, looking to launch a church plant from our congregation, lead by people interested in building a church on a foundation of community and service projects. Needless to say, this prospect excited me and many others, and ignited a fire in me that had been missing for a long time in the church. As I’ve become more involved in our community, I’ve come to desire a church that has a deeper connection with the city around it, and would gladly help launch this new church and serve in it, if our present congregation would allow us.

What appealed most to me is the goal to work closer with community organizations, charities, services etc. to better serve London’s communities. I’m disturbed at the thought that I may be participating in a thinly veiled social club. In a time when the credibility and reliability of the global church is crumbling, every effort has to be made to regain it. The church lives and dies by its relevance to the community that surrounds it. If we cannot be a meaningful, helpful, contributing member of London, why do we exist?

As this has happened, I’ve tried my best to examine my motivations, but cannot be certain I am interested in this new venture for the right reasons, or at least, entirely. I want to be sure that I’m not simply leaving the present church, but moving with energy, honesty and authenticity into this new project.

Our church is at another major milestone, and intersection. This Sunday we have a congregational meeting to discuss our collective future, the hopes and fears of all the members, and the direction we would like to take, together. It will be a very difficult meeting, but I hope, also one of great wisdom, honesty and sensitivity.

I’ll be away next week after the meeting at a conference in Kitchener on community and neighbourhoods, but I hope to write about my experiences in our meeting next week. Thoughts and prayers with our congregation for wisdom and discernment through this trying time would be greatly appreciated! It is difficult for all of us, but it is my sincere hope that we will complete this process renewed in faith and fellowship, and if not immediately then in time a more united and strengthened group.

Next post: Building Together

community building

Previous posts:

Last month, I wrote these posts with my thoughts on community. Over the spring I’ve been slowly becoming more involved with local community groups including the Strengthening Neighbourhoods – Argyle Steering Committee, and the Argyle Community Association. I’ve been glad to learn more about how our community works together as well as projects happening across the city. I’ve also been presented with many challenges in our communities, and hope to work towards solutions with others across the city.

One of the major concerns I’ve heard from everyone I’ve met with is the sense that there is a great deal of good work happening in all communities, but the work is happening in relative isolation. Each community comprises a mixture of associations, clubs, services, religious institutions, schools etc. that work on their own projects without collaborating with others in their area. This issue also happens in a broader sense, with associations across the city working on their own initiatives, often duplicating work and resources when they could be much more effectively used together. This could move ever higher, with organizations at different levels and national scopes working against each other, potentially unaware of even the existence of each other.

There is also a question of time. Though we’re extremely fortunate in London to have groups like the Urban League that work to bring all communities together to share knowledge and resources, it can be difficult to find the time to come out to their events on top of ones happening inside the isolated community. This is a challenge I’m struggling through, and hope to find solutions to. I have the sense of terrific potential, but there never seems to be enough time to accomplish everything.

This also leads to the issue of burnout. With so much work to be done, it is important for each of us to be aware of our limitations, and to be able to take care of others that may be overburdened.

I feel as if I’m still near the beginning of the learning process, and am very excited to learn more. I am very grateful to have been accepted to the board of the Argyle Community Association at our last meeting, and look forward to further learning and working in the community. I also share everything happening in the community over Twitter (check out all the latest @ArgyleCommAssoc).

Next week, I’ll be in Kitchener at a conference on community and neighbourhoods hosted by the Tamarack Institute, I’m very excited to participate, and share everything I learn there! I hope to blog and post from the conference, and find ways to harness what I’ve learned once I’m back. I’ll also post highlights via pictures from my twitter account, @BrianGibson13

Next post: Building Community

stand by

Previous post: Overwhelmed – Home of Refuge

Over the last couple weeks I’ve been writing this “Overwhelmed” series as I’ve thought about the connections between technology and stress, and reading through William Powers’ book “Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building A Good Life in the Digital Age”. As I look back on the series, I continue to explore ways that I can live more meaningfully and peacefully on and offline.

These are some of the areas that Powers covered in his book, and thoughts on how they can be used in our lives. He stressed that what he proposes are just suggestions not prescriptions, and challenges each of us to imagine ways we can be more intentional in our online time, and live our offline lives more fully.

Distance

One of the simplest ways (in theory) to detach from technology is to set it down and walk away…but this can be very hard to do in practice. I feel that we’re all becoming very conscious of just how many screens we’re exposed to everyday, and how often we view events now through a screen/lens, our own or someone else’s. In particular, whenever I’m at a concert I feel hyper-aware of all the phones held up, how many people are seeing the celebration before them through the minuscule eye of a recording device…we’re so wrapped up with recording, saving, processing, sharing, declaring “I was here!”, that we may miss what is right before us. I hope that as we learn how to live with our new technologies, we will in time learn to put our devices back in our pockets, and allow ourselves to again be, live to, just in the moment. Our mind, our attention, in the same place at the same time as our bodies.

Old Technology

In the post “Driven to Digital Distraction”, I explored Powers’ observations about old vs. new technologies. One way to be purposeful in our utilization of technology is embracing elements that are offline, including carrying a notepad and pen with us when we want to write, or a camera on an evening stroll instead of a phone that can take pictures. It can often be extremely handy to have an all-in-one device in our pocket, but it also stimulates the mental itch to check e-mail, texts, social media etc. in a time that could be better spent on inner reflection and relaxation. I find it very difficult to put my phone down, but as I’ve worked on this series I’ve tried to make time “off the leash”, free from digital distractions. It has been strangely liberating, and has made me realize just how much my dependence on/obsession with screens has changed my perception, without my even realizing it. It has also been liberating to realize that adapting to new technologies has always been a struggle for humanity, and gives me hope that as our digital life matures, we will find ways to find balance just as our predecessors have.

Positive Rituals

In the post “Ben’s Example”, I shared Powers’ exploration of the life of Benjamin Franklin, and a method he developed at the age of 20 that he believed helped him become the astounding politician, philosopher and inventor we recognize today. Though it is simple to think “today I’ll put away my phone and go for a walk”, we may find halfway through our stroll that it has still found its way into our pocket. Franklin stressed that we must find the root causes of our compulsions, and work at understanding ourselves to find ways to slowly change for the better. It isn’t an easy road, he warned, but he believed so strongly in his method that he touted “follow the Example & reap the Benefit”. The catch may be, we may need to put down technology and find a time of contemplation, to find ways for us to walk away from our gadgets.

Zones of Solitude

In the post “Home of Refuge”, I shared Powers’ thoughts on philosopher Henry David Thoreau, and his personal experiment of creating a “zone of solitude”, a home in the woods, away from the hectic bustle of town. His thoughts on what constitutes home, and the need for barriers against the pressing chaos of the outside world, can be instructive to us today as we imagine ways to disconnect today. The struggles Thoreau faced are all the more pressing today, as, instead of being connected by telegraph, the walls of in vs. out may almost entirely vanish in a digitally connected home, constantly offering diversions and distractions from all over the world. Today, we may want to create zones in our homes where we intentionally keep screens out (many families work to reduce or remove entirely screen use in bedrooms), or have “screen free” times, which can be hard depending on shifting needs of different family members. Though strictly enforced screen off times may not be welcomed, if time away from devices can be encouraged, it may become a welcome practice in time. The hard part is slowly developing these practices, something I am definitely still working on!

Reconnect, unplugged

One of our favourite ways of spending time with others is over board games (Settlers of Catan and Power Grid are our new favourites). With the distance often between us, it can be fun to play games like Scrabble online with friends and chat as we play, but there’s nothing like meeting together in a home, sharing food and conversation as we play. For the past few months, we’ve tried to make a Wednesday night games night a ritual with a group of friends. It can be difficult to find the time, and not everyone can always make it, and sometimes the day is shifted in the week to better accommodate everyone.

It takes effort to slice out the time from hectic lives, but we’ve found it extremely worthwhile! Is there a group of people you haven’t seen in a long time? A favourite activity away from devices you haven’t done lately? A social night away from screens might be a great way to bring some calm and fun to the week.

Beyond Overwhelmed

I hope that you’ve found this series interesting! It has been both fun and challenging to write, as it has been on a subject I find fascinating, but has also made me face many of the things bringing me stress, some without me even realizing it. With screens and distractions so readily available, it can be hard to switch off, both externally and internally. This process has helped me contemplate just how much time I spend online, and how little of it is of value…I find I have come to almost continually slide from one window to another, unfocused and retaining little. My goal from this writing and reading isn’t so much to spend less time online, but to regain focus and understanding of what I do take in. As I consider my digital practices, I hope to continue to refine how I connect, and disconnect. I also hope to continue to find ways to live a more intentional life online, and a more meaningful life offline, and that this series has helped point to ways others can too.

From here I’ll return to previous posts on community, about small communities as well as ways we can all connect over common causes and interests across communities. I’ll also be in Kitchener next week at a conference on community and neighbourhoods hosted by the Tamarack Institute, I’m very excited to participate, and share everything I learn there, here.

Next post: Sharing Community

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Previous post: Overwhelmed – Ben’s Example

I once read that someday the walls of the typical American kitchen will be constructed of enormous digital screens. The report had a sanguine tone, a perky world-of-tomorrow certitude that this will be a brilliant addition to any modern home.

“How long you figure  before we save up and get the fourth wall torn out and a fourth wall-TV put in? It’s only two thousand dollars.” “That’s one-third of my yearly pay.” It’s only two thousand dollars.,” she replied. “And I should think you’d consider me sometimes. If we had a fourth wall, why it’d be just like this room wasn’t ours at all, but all kinds of exotic people’s rooms. We could do without a few things.”

This is another post that somewhat got away from me. I meant to continue talking about “Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy For Building A Good Life In The Digital Age” by William Powers, and the chapter “The Walden Zone” on Henry David Thoreau and making the home a “zone of solitude”. But something from the chapter got me thinking about Ray Bradbury’s classic “Fahrenheit 451”, and the post took something of a life on its own.

The first quote above is from the opening of Power’s chapter “The Walden Zone”, while the second is a conversation between “fireman” Guy Montag and his wife Mildred in “Fahrenheit 451”.

Powers’ chapter reflects on the work and life of Thoreau, and an experiment he performed by himself as he developed his philosophies of simplicity, living in relative isolation, creating a “zone of solitude” where he by turns lived in quiet contemplation, and in companionship with visitors when he desired them. Thoreau for a time built a place of reflection and relaxation where he carefully measured and examined what truly matters to him, and what can be discarded.

So what is home? Powers offers these definitions:

“Home” means so many things. On the most basic level it’s simply a location, a place where one lives. It’s also the physical structure, the house or apartment that is home. Last, home refers to the environment that is created inside the structure, a world-away-from-the-world offering refuge, safety, and happiness.

He goes on to say that it is this third definition that is sadly lacking in our understanding and appreciation of home now, and how we balance our use of technology, as demonstrated by the quote at the start of this post.

In “Fahrenheit 451”, the main character Guy Montag seems to live his life “thinking little at all about nothing in particular”, working as a “fireman” burning houses instead of saving them, destroying books wherever they are found. It is revealed in time that the firemen are thought to be “protectors of happiness”, keeping things nice and simple by burning down all those inflammatory, angering, grievous words. Thought brings confusion, sadness, anger…unhappiness. Who could want that? In fact, he never even really thinks about all that thoughtlessness, until he chances to meet a young girl named Clarisse after a night of burning.

She tells him all kinds of bewildering things, including the fact that her family often sits long into the night, talking. No TV, no radio, nothing but earnest discussion and sharing. Guy asks if this is healthy, and she admits it has her teachers very worried. Bewildered, he doesn’t know what to think…but he soon realizes that he is thinking. In fact, it feels as if this little girl has quietly thrown a rock through the burnt mask he didn’t even realize he was wearing.

They continue to talk every day when he finishes work. He wonders what she does for fun, she admits sometimes she just watches people, watches all the automaton thoughtless people, and wonders what is to be done. She ends one conversation with:

“I’ve got to go and see my psychiatrist now. They make me go. I make up things to say. I don’t know what he thinks of me…they want to know what I do with all my time. I tell them that sometimes I just sit and think. But I won’t tell them what.”

This is in stark contrast to Guy’s home. The Montag home imagined by Bradbury, multiplied a millionfold across the country, gives a frightening illustration of a possible future, where people obliterate their minds with entertainments, where thought is shunned as dangerous. A thinking person cannot be trusted, a zone of solitude and contemplation to be feared and hated. Thoreau observed in his time:

Surface meets surface. When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip…In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters proud of his extensive correspondence has not heard from himself this long while.

So, what can this teach us about our use of technology today? Ray Bradbury was extremely sceptical of the new technologies developing, to the point of fighting against the publication of his work on eReader devices. Are we to forsake all new technologies? Are we to attempt to disconnect ourselves from the world to regain our sanity?

Thoreau may give a better illustration of a life of balance.

In his experiments, his life was one of seclusion and social in turns, as fit his moods and needs. He learned the value and need both to commune with the self, and to be in and of the greater world, that too much of either could be destructive. Home should be a place both of fun and frivolity and of calm and contemplation; he suggested that with enough room, smaller “zones” could be built, perhaps on a spectrum of calm to chaos. Home should be able to accompany places of being together, and places where we can be truly on out own and “ourselves”, and discover what being our self means.

It’s easy to be continually distracted, to move feverishly from one thing to another. It seems it has always been a feature of humanity, and the ability to be constantly connected furthers this fever. With a phone always in our pocket, with a computer or mobile device always near at hand, the world always beckons, and the refuge of home doesn’t exist.

Why are we so eager to be connected?

Bradbury shows us the consequences of thinking. As we read and contemplate only in the world of our own imagining, we may find a frightening place. In this solitude, thoughts and questions will come to us to be considered as the noise and confusion of the outside world falls away, questions and wonderings of meaning, the hows and whys of our existence. In the silence, the big questions press close.

Thoreau teaches us that it is important to have times of social and digital connection and disconnection, and to be very intentional in how we do both. Perhaps in incorporating Benjamin Franklin’s example into our lives, we can learn more about ourselves, who we truly are, and what drives our needs. Once we know ourselves, we can understand why we are so hungry to connect, and find a natural rhythm for our lives, alternating from the internal to external worlds and back for our health and happiness.

On my next post, I’ll explore everything covered in this series, and seek to find practical ways to disconnected from the digital world and reconnect with ourselves and the things that matter most, the things that may be slipping away from us.

Next post: Beyond Overwhelmed