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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

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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.

IMG_1048

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

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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

stand by

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

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Previous post: Overwhelmed – Driven to Digital Distraction

As I delve deeper into the conundrum of what it means to live in this perpetually connected digital world, I’ve come to a point in the book “Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy For Building A Good Life In The Digital Age” where author William Powers describes how the personal regimen of one man in the 18th century can teach us valuable lessons for mastering our 21st century life.

That man is Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, as well as being one of a few truly outstanding polymaths, excelling in many fields including politics, science, invention, music, civil activism, statesmanship and diplomacy.

He was a deeply social and active person, so much so that one of his early writing pseudonyms was “Busy-Body”. He was constantly on the move, thinking, reading and connecting…Powers says that Franklin was a master of “doing the eighteenth-century equivalent of social networking”. Everyone that observed him saw that he was a man going places…but it wasn’t until he had a moment of profound “disconnection” that he realized he didn’t known where that place was.

At the age of 20, Benjamin Franklin voyaged from London, England to Philadelphia, leaving him with a great deal of time for philosophical soul-searching, of his life so far, and where he wanted to go. This is an excerpt of his journal from the travel:

Man is a sociable being, and it is…one of the worst punishments to be excluded from society. I have read abundance of fine things on the subject of solitude, and I know ’tis a common boast in the mouths of those that affect to be thought wise, that they are never less alone than when alone. I acknowledge solitude an agreeable refreshment to a busy mind; but were these thinking people obliged to be always alone, I am apt to think they would quickly find their very being insupportable to them.

Despite this, Franklin reflected in his voyage that too many things in his life weren’t going at all the way he wanted. He was pulled in too many directions, and far too busy to properly put his life in order. Despite our hectic lives often seeming to be a very new, digital age phenomenon, Franklin’s writings give us a stark reminder that this type of busyness and “quiet desperation” (next post will examine the life and work of Henry David Thoreau) have always been with us.

From these reflections, he built a philosophy and personal regimen that he attributed to building the man he would become.

Seeing Franklin’s teachings and his own personal struggles in a rapidly expanding and connecting world gives me hope for us. How simultaneously empowering and frightening it is to consider that we are really all the same people! As much as we like to distance ourselves from many of the murky chapters of human history, I find it reassuring to know that there is so much already lived and written behind us to draw from in our own often torturous lives.

I found Franklin’s teachings as shared by Powers deeply interesting, both as a period study, as well as a broader examination of human nature. Take a minute to consider these 13 virtues he developed at the age of 20, and how it can inform us today:

  1. Temperance: Eat not to Dullness. Drink not to Elevation.
  2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling Conversation.
  3. Order: Let all your Things have their Places. Let each Part of your Business have its Time.
  4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality: Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself i.e. Waste nothing.
  6. Industry: Lose no Time. Be always employ’d in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary Actions.
  7. Sincerity: Use no hurtful Deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice: Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.
  9. Moderation: Avoid Extremes. Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no Uncleanliness in Body, Clothes or Habitation.
  11. Tranquillity: Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity: Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dullness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another’s Peace or Reputation.
  13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

With some small modifications and updating of language, it can be easy to image how these goals could speak to us here in the 21st century. Franklin was confident that with discipline, anyone could follow his philosophy, so much so that he exhorted his readers “follow the Example & reap the Benefit”.

One of the things that I hadn’t considered on first reading that Powers points out is that, though the wording is austere, the goals are positive aspects to work towards, noting as one example “who doesn’t want tranquillity?” Instead of things like “The No Ice Cream or Any Other Goodies Diet”, he gives 13 targets to aim towards (noting in writings that he never comes near to the centre of any of them, but that it is the effort that is rewarding).

It has a great deal to do with attitude, as well. Franklin apparently moved through life and his philosophy in an easy and affable manner, not becoming undone by each failure to live up to these massive ideals, but in quiet congratulation and good humour with each success.

Powers also notes that the power in Benjamin Franklin’s example and challenge is not an easy path to walk, but can be truly transformational…in fact, that is the reason the path isn’t easy to walk. We want to change for the better, and talk about transformative experiences at great length, but how many of us truly want to experience it?

I’m not so sure I do. Not really.

But if we find the courage to work at it, we may be astounded by the results.

To push back against the seeming onslaught of activity and information in our hectically connected lives, many groups (including families, companies and organizations) have tried to enforce e-mail/digital device free time. However, this puts only external pressure on us, instead of enticing us to discover what it is that drives us, and to through personal examination and reflection to reshape ourselves.

This is something I hope to continue to reflect on and practice as I write this series. My first thoughts on this is a goal to reawaken my appreciating and enjoyment of simple pleasures – though sad that it takes such concentration to do. As I move through this process, I realize that many things I used to enjoy are done without the pleasure I used to feel. I realize that, though my desires and passions haven’t changed, I am always thinking on things I feel I should be doing, and often, that the mental itch of social media and online activity are distracting me from the physical present and the now.

How simple it can be to say “cherish life”, but realizing, with the haste of everything that life can entail, how little we actually do it. I hope that we can each, in small steps, recapture our lives, our meaning and ourselves. As we do this, it will empower us to step out into the digital world refreshed, rejuvenated, and more able to enjoy it as a tool and not as something that controls us.

In my next post, I’ll examine the example of Henry David Thoreau and building a zone of solitude in our homes.

Next post: Overwhelmed – Home of Refuge

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Previous post: Overwhelmed – Data Mined

In my previous posts, I explored feelings I’ve been struggling with, and the conundrum of what it means to live in this perpetually connected digital world. I also began exploring the book “Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy For Building A Good Life In The Digital Age” by William Powers.

As I dig deeper into his book, I hope to learn more about his ideas about how to find balance, and find a better understanding for myself, of how to live a satisfying and fulfilling life in the age of globalization, as well as how it is already shaping and informing our cultures.

As I consider this subject, I reflected on all the different stories from the last couple decades that explore these themes. When the concept of cyberspace was still in its infancy,  many (especially science fiction) writers explored what nature it may take, and the ramifications it may have for us. Michael Creighton explored these themes in many of his books, even slipping some philosophical ranting through the character Ian Malcolm in his popular books Jurassic Park and The Lost World. As we have become immersed in the reality of digital, global connection, academic work as well as fictional musings have only expanded. One instance is the anime Serial Experiments Lain, which centres on the exploration of the intersections of digital communication with personal identity and our understandings of reality.

In his book, Powers argues that though the present challenges of instant communication and constant gratification and communication of online interaction is unprecedented, the general problems and opportunities presented are not new to us. In fact, he argues that there are important lessons that can be learned through human history that can give guidance to a good life in our world today.

From the title of the book, “Hamlet’s BlackBerry”, he presents a fascinating anachronism, the thought of Shakespeare’s antihero holding a modern mobile device. But, he argues, Hamlet actually depended on the equivalent of his time, a device I hadn’t heard of.

He points to this text from Hamlet, Act I, Scene IV, after Hamlet has spoken to the ghost of his father. The ghost of King Hamlet Senior exposes the truth of his death, from supposed poisoning by a bite, to having been murdered by his brother, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, and the new king. Hamlet slips into soliloquy after his father’s ghost fades away, saying:

Remember thee!
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!

Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix’d with baser matter:

First, Hamlet mentions the “distracted globe”, probably a triple-entendre on his own distracted mind, perhaps a world that is in its entirety distracted, and making a clever jab at the audience seeing the play performed in the Globe Theatre, whose minds by this time may have been wandering. Though this sense of being overwhelmed may seem to me and to us to be a modern situation and struggle, it may be that the bustle and clamour of Shakespeare’s London may have been just as trying!

But the part that Powers really wants to focus on is the table, also called a “writing table” or “table book”, basically the precursor to the modern notebook/tablet. These earlier notebooks used a coated parchment or paper, marked with a metal stylus, and could be later blotted out with a sponge to be used again. So in Hamlet’s speech, he thinks of his mind as a singular tome cluttered with meaningless trivia, scattered and unfocused, where everything except the knowledge of the “murder most foul” of his father must be wiped out.

Powers talks at length about how many people of Shakespearian England, and perhaps Shakespeare himself, relied on a table book to keep their helter-skelter lives in order. A common practice would be to have this impermanent object always close at hand, and to have a heavier journal kept at home. At the end of the day, the scribbles and notes of the day could be gone over again, carefully weighed and judged, and everything of value could be copied into the permanent journal, before the table was wiped clean. This practice could be an important time of introspection and examination of the busy days behind and ahead.

So in the same way, we may actually use our phones and mobile devices in this way, and bend the new technology to an old practice. But Powers notes that many (including himself) prefer an old paper-and-binding notepad for his notation. It could be simply nostalgia, he notes, but he thinks it goes far deeper. This is how he says it:

In conventional thinking about technology today, the fact that paper is a three-dimensional medium – that it’s made of atoms rather than bits and therefore takes up space – is considered its greatest weakness. Like you and me, it has a body and is stuck here in the physical world. My notebook can’t fly from here to China in seconds the way digital data can. However, just as the strength of digital devices (their ability to bring the crowd closer) is also their weakness, the weakness of paper can also be its strength.

As I took down notes as I read in a coffee shop, I found myself nodding along. I actually faced this conundrum, as I found myself transcribing notes onto my phone, my hand aching for the pen and paper I hadn’t thought to bring with me. The phone notebook is of course handy, but one of the major flaws I found was the alerts popping along the margins as I wrote and read, online messages vying against the quiet sounds of coffee poured and conversations around me. The alerts meant people reaching to contact me in a different medium than the world around me – these can be pleasant, but it can also be mentally taxing.

I found the format of the digital notepad interesting as I contemplated it from this new perspective. Though it exists in bits of code, the background looks like a yellow notepad found in every stationary store, the default font choice mimicking handwriting, to give it a seemingly personal quality. Phone keyboard sounds often come with the option of sounding like the harsh clack of a typewriter, many device covers are available that look like the pebbled and worn surfaces of a favourite leather notebook. And so on. Almost as if chosen to try to make the transition easier, warmer, more tangible, more personal.

So one of the first strategies may be simply to devise ways to disconnect as we reflect and write. This is obviously something I struggle with, and seems oddly ironic to say from an online blog, and as many of my favourite authors write blogs that I follow. However, it is good to have down time for personal reflection, contemplation and meditation, on ourselves as well as the information we take in.

Like all things, it is much easier to say than to do.

Powers reflects that we cannot cut ourselves off “cold turkey” from our digital dependencies and expect the results to go well. But he holds up the example of one exceptional man that created a personal method to reshape his nature, and create a pleasurable and productive life for himself, to astounding results. I’ll share his thoughts in my next post, and reflect on how this man’s method can inform us today in the digital age.

Next post: Overwhelmed – Ben’s Example