Closer To The Ground

In June 2006, I was on a long walk in southern Minnesota. While spending a luxurious night at a Best Western in Cannon Falls, I caught a brief report on the TV—something about Stephen Hawking (a British physicist known for his work on black holes), saying that he felt there ought to be a global effort to colonize outer space, as a response to impending global disasters like nuclear war and radical climate degradation. It certainly wasn’t a new idea, but this time the notion lodged itself in my head.
Days later, I arrived on the outskirts of a town called Mankato, where my grandmother lives. I had been walking for three or four days on a former railway converted to a bike path. In addition to the new buildings and strip malls, I saw a few gas stations, some fast food drive-thrus, and of course, parking lots. It was at that moment that Hawking’s idea about colonizing space became dislodged. I saw people ordering food from their vehicles, moving about this place as if trying not to touch the ground, absorbed in the wonderful things we love to absorb ourselves in: tiny little screens on cell phones, the dashboard controls, the drive-through interface, the display on the gas pump, and shopping bags full of zesty, processed food that will not rot well at all.
How appropriate, I thought. This is all very good practice for space travel. If we are going to colonize space, we are going to have to learn how to live without touching the ground. We are going to have to be able to conduct most of our communications electronically. We are going to have to learn how to live in small, sealed containers. I could do that, I think, but it would wear me down.
However, my inclination at the moment is to involve myself in things that are on the other end of the spectrum of mediated experience: to learn things that bring me closer to the ground, to learn the pleasures and dangers of communicating face to face. While I think I will never forget the pleasure of movies, screens and remote media, I want to know what it is like to spend extended periods of time being entertained by the people who are near to me. The question I was asking myself, after walking more or less alone through a rarified corridor for several days, being confronted by strip-mall culture is, “Is this how we want to be living?” Of course, everyone can answer for himself.
First off, let’s remember why it is important to ask this kind of question, “Is this how we want to be living?” Depending on the circumstances of the person asking, questions like this may be about things that we feel are beyond our control, or matters where we have no choice. So why bother asking? Questioning is powerful because it is inherently open-ended and unfinished. It is an act that produces liquidity, requires improvisation. It invites participation and solution making. It is an act that, rather than closing things off, produces openings. Another great thing about it is that we are all capable of it. Our minds are constantly spewing forth questions. Only a few of the questions are allowed to surface; that is our training. For me, the exciting implication in the question “Is this how we want to be living?” is that we learned how to live this way: strip mall culture. We taught each other to live this way, so it stands to reason that we could eventually teach each other something else, maybe numerous other ways of living. - Mike Wolf/Mess Hall (Rogers Park, Chicago)

Thoughtful and romantic (in a hopeful/positive/possible way) Mr. Wolf. Thank you. Time for bed cause my friend Ted and I are going to thrash at the Wilson Yard skate park tomorrow!

Sk8boarding iz not a crime dewd.


Conrad said...

That's pretty much amazing....as I type on my computer in a dark dorm room, completely removed from any actual contact with the world. But really I love reading and hearing things like that, it makes me feel good about the world and people for some reason.

...its not you, its your narrative said...

It makes me feel good about the world and people too! I'm excited to be in physical contact... to experience un-media-mediated interaction. It really is a risk. Who knows if I'll be annoyed by someone, or laugh at a joke, or share in grief... Face to face is scary/awesome/worth it. I've been thinking about these questions of space, neighborhood and community, and I really think that it has to be a little bit planned, formed, and thoughtful. Trying to get involved in some different ways...

Kristin B said...

In the summer of 2003, I was on a summer study abroad trip with a group from my school. One of the components of our study abroad was a 10 day-long practicum in rural northwestern Germany. The group I was with ended up at a former cloister-turned-pilgrim-hostel, run by a Lutheran pastor and his wife, who regularly led pilgrimages around northern Germany. I had the privilege of participating in the beginning of one of these pilgrimages, after a few days of bailing hay and gardening. It was really the first time that I had been outside for such an extended period of time - we were walking upwards of 25 km/day, sleeping on the floors of old churches along the way. I was tracing the footsteps of St. Brigitte from Sweden with about 60 other people, old and young, Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, and agnostic, from the east and from the west. It was such a powerful and transcendental experience, and made me long for authentic interaction, in an un-media-mediated setting (I like that word, you should copyright it). I ended up going back a few more times, and try to go back whenever I can.
I think you're right on, Matt. It does have to be intentional, planned, and thoughtful. It doesn't just happen as a byproduct. And it's a risk. But a risk well worth it.
Thanks for the thoughtful post. Let me know if you want to go on a pilgrimage. =)


...its not you, its your narrative said...

Woah! Kloster Tempzin looks amazing. My German is way rusty (not that it was ever even good in the first place). How did you end up there?

In terms of local planning - there is a potluck at Berry tomorrow night (wednesday) and some Berry folks are planning on doing Karaoke at the Hidden Cove on Thursday night! Our last experience was so incredible, it's hard to not go back. See video on Seth's youtube site:

Erica singing Disney:

Us dancing while a Gwar fan sings Whitney:

Also - reporting back from my trip with ted to the skate park: the community there is really nice and pretty awesome! There were all these older guys hanging out skating the bowl, which was really inspiring, and some young guns. I'm really new to park skating, but everyone was really helpful!

Hannah said...

That really was great. I've been thinking a lot about community lately. My junior year of college I lived in an intentional community, and then this past August-January I did so again, this time with other Americorps volunteers. But it wasn't until leaving that setting and moving away to a place where I know only one other person that the lessons and goals of community have really been trying to do something with me. After church this Sunday I went to a class called 'On being human', which was meant to be a discussion on how we can better relate to other humans. And all that I could think was "community." I feel like I could go on and on, but I guess I'll have to take that rambling over to my own blog.

Anonymous said...

Skateboarding is another way of not touching the ground, but then again it can also bring you way closer to the ground than walking...hope you're better than I am!

This is very inspiring. Although, a lot of things have inspired me to live like this. Inspiring nonetheless, and a good excuse for doing so.

Ryan Hammer said...

Today, while working, while driving around our fair city, I couldn't escape the notion this Mike Wolf raised in relation to Mr. Hawking's comments about our future as space settlers. The notion that we are well on our way towards such an existence. Living through separation, removed from the ground, from each other, communicating through screens. Henry Miller realized this too, some 50 or 60 years ago, when he titled one of his books "The Air-Conditioned Nightmare". We're all, more and more, living in our air-tight, temperature-controlled, media-mediated bubbles, pods, vessels, shuttles, et ceteras! Nightmare indeed! Thank you, Matt, for posting this extended quote. It's needed. We all need to renew this knowledge within ourselves and within each other each and every day. Moment to moment! Let's keep trying, failing, forgetting, trying again, succeeding, failing, learning, loving, trying and trying all the way to wholeness! Yes! Yes! Yes!

I LOVE YOU said...