Friends Old, New, and Soon to Be,
My wife accepts, but does not wholly understand, my antipathy for large cities. I am equally confused by how she sleeps deeply in them, happily buffeted by trains and cars and sirens, as I pace, searching for the closest approximation of silence offered by a megalopolis at two AM. She loves the museums and restaurants and theaters. I point to the ceaseless cacophony outside a hotel window and ask, only partially in exaggeration, “Hear that? It’s the sound of souls dying.”
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the chance to see and do the things on offer in our great cities. It’s just that they are a lot to absorb for a man generally happier to stare at a cypress swamp for three hours hoping a few wood ducks come by. As a guy who regularly has long conversations with a Labrador, the ceaseless stimulation feels as if I’ve become trapped inside a cell phone, subject to an algorithm designed to keep me awake and moving with constant color shifts, endless noises, and dopamine on demand. I don’t need help being busy. Few of us do.
Left unexamined, it is easy for me to devolve my life into a never-ending succession of tasks and corresponding boxes to be checked. It’s a self-propagating anxiety that often joins insomnia for an early morning visit. When they come around together, even my favorite things feel like something oppressive, something to be endured rather than savored. They settled in like a couch-surfing college buddy several months ago and now the beloved books stacked against the walls of my study and boxed up in the garage and in a storage facility a few miles from my home, have become just something else to be ground through.
Years of the “mind over matter” approach to life offered by the Marine Corps taught me to just put my head down and get through most anything. But that is antithetical to how most books are meant to be consumed. In that realization, I found an answer to at least some percentage of my 2 AM quandary. I don’t generally make New Year’s resolutions, but I am making an effort in 2024 to wrest pleasure from the gnarled hands of obligation; to find in my reading chair the peace of the woods and swamps and tidal creeks, where time is only a measure of the approaching dawn, a predictor of deer coming off their beds and mallards darting like hummingbirds, of Toms henning up and losing all interest in my plaintive purrs.
In pursuit of peace, I selected five books I believe are meant to be consumed slowly, stacked them on the table by my reading chair, and committed to reading no more than one selection from each during my early morning contemplations. It’s an ironically disciplined, partially curated effort to bring together poetry, ethics, philosophy, mastery of craft, and the contemplation of artistry; complex topics of which I lose sight in the maelstrom of the waking day.
Rather than toss in bed chasing sleep that has been ephemeral for years, I read. I pause. I re-read out loud. Some days I purposefully move my bookmark back to the same point at which I started a selection, forcing myself to consume and digest the work again the next morning, rather than treating someone’s heart and soul like a pile of lumber to be moved.
It’s a surrender of sorts, but as I take small, deliberate bites of Ray McManus’ The Last Saturday in America, Jim Harrison’s The Search for the Genuine, Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, Rick Rubin’s The Creative Act, and Jim Posewitz’s Beyond Fair Chase: The Ethic and Tradition of Hunting, I feel as if I am in a slow motion rebellion against our exponential societal increase in obligation. I am turning my back on multitasking. I’ll be done when I am done. Then I will add another book. Or start the same one over.
Does a “life hack” count if all it does is increase the peace of my moments rather than their productivity? I leave the verdict to our ever-metastasizing population of internet influencers. But in a year that will almost certainly be particularly loud and fractious, I’ll seek peace over productivity.
Russell Worth Parker
Editor-in-Chief, Tom Beckbe