‘The Darkness Calms Down in Space’
A podcast is not many journalists’ favorite medium. Why? You can’t search it. If you know that a person has said something in a podcast but you have no time code to tell you when in the tape that comment popped up, you’re left scrubbing back and forth, trying to find the quote you need.
So it is that I’m looking forward to the release today at noon of the transcript of a new podcast conversation with Ezra Klein at The New York Times. He’s talking with the author George Saunders who, at 62, is out with a new book, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain from Penguin Random House.
The book is based in Saunders’ 20 years of teaching at Syracuse University on the Russian short story–which, of course, is a thing that most of us leave behind after Chekhov crosses our curriculum reading lists in the first two months of our MFAs.
I was hastened along in my own abandonment when I was at the Asolo Conservatory of Professional Actor Training. I discovered that the company’s press department had described a Chekhov play we were doing in rotating rep, The Cherry Orchard, as being about “those zany Ranevskayas in rollicking old Russia.”
Bad PR about literature and theater, however, is not my point, you’ll be glad to know.
What Klein talks about with Saunders in the new exchange soon to be mercifully captured in a transcript is based on a 2013 Syracuse convocation speech Saundersr gave in which he told the graduates, “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.
“It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.”
I know, I know. “Oh, God, Porter’s doing something about kindness.” Makes you want to run screaming out into the street. #MaskUp, please.
There’s a curious point here, though–aside from the fact that any time you can hear Saunders talk you should do so. In his conversation with Klein for today’s new audio, Saunders says, “All we have is the possible control over the mind state that we find ourselves in.”
And I’ve been reminding myself of that a lot in pandemica, as it were, because I’ve found myself involuntarily researching a lot of bad moments in my life. I don’t know what about the coronavirus’ visitation has made this so pervasive. But I keep thinking of times in my life when I was astonishingly naïve, fell on my face, walked into walls, acted rashly, acted stupidly, didn’t act at all and should have, acted out and shouldn’t have. It’s maddening, although of course curiously entertaining at times, too–a weird “Your Greatest Screw-Ups” series. I wish I could say it was a mini-series but this show seems to have a lot of seasons to it.
This mind state, as Saunders would put it, is one I could probably do better at controlling, he’s right. But what’s striking about it is that it frequently is a tour of moments that were bad because I wasn’t as kind as I could have been–and often to myself, not just to others.
Any of hundreds of psychological and emotional inputs go into this stuff, of course, and the navel gazing–like the proverbial buck–stops here, don’t worry, I’ll spare you the early-life experiences, it’s safe to keep reading.
But to put this into a wider context, you start to notice what a short supply of kindness there seems to be in our current upheavals and ordeals. And not, maybe, in the most obvious ways of thinking that one major political party demonstrates more cruelty than the other, or that one way of behaving in public during a pandemic is kinder to your fellow humans than another.
Saunders talks about the “monkey mind,” familiar to us all, and how when he’s at work on his writings, it quiets down. “A concentration on a task and a related reduction in rumination,” he says. By focusing on a paragraph, he says, he can find (as in meditation) that “the thoughts die down” and “the self-creation” of your monkey mind stops chattering away. In my case, that parade of pratfalls turns the corner and I can get off the self-reviewing stand for a little while.
There’s a wonderful title from a 1986 work of electronic music composed for the Japanese movement ensemble Sankai Juko by Yas-Kaz and Yoichiro Yoshikawa: Shijima (The Darkness Calms Down in Space).
“Something else happens or rises up in that space,” as Saunders says, whether in meditation or writing. And while I’m not looking for a writing-as-therapy point here, I do think there’s something to be taken from Saunders’ talk of looking for the myriad energies and attitudes that tend to seize our minds. If we sort them, we might find more self-awareness. This might be a quality, as he notes. of what writers do. We become more aware of things because we have a way to step out of the noise. And then we can be kinder.
If such an idea could be brought to a bigger stage, to a cultural or societal scale, we’d be better for it. Just on the most simplistic level, think how much easier it is to talk about some group or movement staging a “day of rage” protest about something than it is to think of that same group or movement having a “day of standing down” and just giving everybody a break about whatever cause or purpose or big idea they’re usually up and down the street for.
It turns out that Saunders is going for the local perspective rather than the national (or international) one. The quick way to get this in personal terms is to look at the thing we all know about how rude and hateful someone may be in various social media when she or he wouldn’t dream of saying such vulgar things to you in person.
And in writing, as Saunders says, there’s an ability to make the usual chatter calm down. We can set aside the blather of the political fight, or the battle for a vaccination appointment, the heresy of rejecting a life-saving mask as some kind of “freedom.” When that pre-determined scrum evaporates, maybe what’s left is a chance to think more kindly before it all catches up with us again.
I said earlier that I’m not looking for the therapeutic interpretation. And I’m still not. I don’t think this is Kumbaya, I think it’s tactical. I’m not sure we need a hug as much as we need to treat people decently and watch for them to do the same for us. And in writing, we may have an advantage, a way to work at this, something less accessible to others for whom the darkness just never calms down in space.
Do you feel in touch with something more spacious when you work? Does it leave you with any more mental room when you stop before your monkey mind cranks up again? In that space, do you ever glimpse kindness, a potentially tactical response to the noise? Is it possible that the biggest point may not be what we write but what we do with the dynamic it creates?