In just over a year, my mother-in-law has lost both of her parents. They were wonderful people and we all miss them. My wife’s grandfather died first, last year, not long after the lockdown started. It was sudden, but not a surprise either. He’d been declining steadily over the past few years. He fell at home and just never recovered.
After he passed, my wife’s grandma moved up and lived about 20 feet away from my in-laws. She seemed to be doing very well for a little while, apart from the deep sadness of losing her husband of over 50 years.
Over the winter, though, we noticed a change in her breathing. A labor and raspiness that wasn’t there before. Early in the spring, she had a scan and her cancer was back. The doctor gave her a couple of months, even with treatment.
She chose not to pursue treatment. People choose not to receive treatment for all sorts of reasons. Some people want to pursue naturopathic methods until it’s too late1. Others don’t seek treatment out of denial. Some want death on their own terms2. But Marlene Vittitow’s reason was different. When I think about it, I can’t help feeling fortunate to have known her in this life.
She took a few days before making her decision. She preferred not to go through treatment again. She’d done that years before, and she knew just how awful it was. And it wouldn’t do anything more than delay the inevitable. So, she met with her pastor to discuss it. Her main concern wasn’t about pain avoidance or even for more time with family. She was most concerned about if she should pursue treatment, so she might have time for even one more opportunity to share the gospel.
Hers was a life so well spent that she felt no need to fight to extend it. And so, it ended peacefully at 8:03 on 16 July 2021. My wife was able to be there, gathered around with her family, as she passed on to be with her Savior.
In “The Death of Ivan Ilych” Leo Tolstoy describes the horror with which Ivan Ilych faces the realization of his impending death. He is tormented by the question of if his life was a good life.
Grandma Vittitow’s life was, in many ways, “proper,” but not in the successful, esteemed-among-humanity sort of way. Instead, she lived a life of quiet faithfulness.
She was always the first to point attention, and thanks, back to God, where it belonged, in any and every situation. But especially so when she was the recipient of praise. Hers was a “faithful, hidden life.” But her tomb will not go unvisited.
A little while back, I posted about my commitment to posting on this blog. But it’s been a couple of weeks and I haven’t posted. I haven’t abandoned my blog, though. I have been working through a lot that’s been going on over the past few weeks, and I needed to scale back on what I was doing. There simply wasn’t enough time in the day to take care of everything.
Normally, I would have felt guilty about stepping back from some tasks and commitments, but this time I chose to reframe how I thought about it.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
I still stand by my commitment, but I’m beginning to learn what the Preacher in Ecclesiastes might have meant. Sometimes it is a time to refrain. When it’s time to refrain, it’s actually worse to try to push on. For my own mental and physical health, I took a little while to refrain. But I’m coming back.
When I was a young man, I started writing down quotes that I found interesting, inspiring, or funny. I think I was probably inspired by a book my grandpa published when I was twelve, 1001 Great Stories and Quotes. It’s a habit I’ve kept up over the years, though with waxing and waning consistency. When I hear or read something that sparks my interest, I try to record it for future reference.
If a man empties his purse into his head, no man can take it away from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.
— Benjamin Franklin, “Poor Richard’s Almanack”
After a year or so, I started keeping the quotes in a notebook dedicated to the purpose. I found it was much easier to reference them there than to sort through my regular journals or loose-leaf notes to find the quote I wanted. I didn’t order or arrange them in any way, other than the order in which I discovered them. This has had its benefits and its detriments.
I love quotations because it is a joy to find thoughts one might have, beautifully expressed with much authority by someone recognized wiser than oneself.
— Marlene Dietrich
One of the fun little bits is to go through them and see them in the order I wrote them down. Since I remember roughly when I wrote some of them, I can estimate about what time in my life that particular quote seemed important. As I now begin the process of transferring them to a new, more durable notebook, I am careful to keep them in the same order and to not remove any of them; even if I find them silly or unimportant now. When I look back later, it is almost a sort of diary or journal to see the things that struck me as important or deep as a teenager. It’s enjoyable to get an indirect peek back into my mind at those stages.
Contrariwise, the most annoying thing is probably that, with no organizing structure, it is difficult to find a specific quote. If I know the exact quote I am looking for, I have no real way to find it quickly unless I can remember when I first encountered it. It also has the downside of not being able to find related quotes easily. If quotes were grouped by topic, I would be able to look up one quote about, let’s say, quotations and there would be other quotes about quotations nearby. Instead, with them lacking any arrangement other than by date of discovery, it can certainly be annoying when I know exactly what I’m looking for. In order to navigate right to what I want, I would need to know roughly when I wrote it down and roughly the order of all the other quotes.
I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
But this is also its greatest strength, in my opinion. Since I am forced to skim through everything to find what I want, I am constantly experiencing the joy of rediscovery as I find quotes I had copied down and forgotten about. The joy of serendipity more than outweighs the inconveniences in finding what I wanted.
It seems to me that we often make things too easy on ourselves. For a while, I used an app on my phone to collect and organize my quotes. It was really nice and I loved it. When the app died, I was upset at first, but I’m really grateful now. It had made finding the exact quote I wanted so easy that I had completely lost the serendipitous discovery. As a result, I ended up returning to the same handful of quotes because those were the ones that came to memory. Since switching back to a physical notebook, I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been looking for a quote and stopped because I ran into a quote I had completely forgotten about; which spoke to me more in the moment than the quote for which I started searching.
This experience is worth too much to me. I want to go back to a system where I can find my saved quotes more readily, but I worry that it will cost too much.
This leads me to my current decision. As a mentioned above, I found that the notebook in which I kept my collection of quotes was beginning to fall apart, so I’ve started transferring all the quotes in their exact original order into a new notebook. But, as I build out my PKM (Personal Knowledge Management. More on this in the future…) in Obsidian, I really want to put my quotes in there as well. I can cross-link them and index and tag them to tease out how the ideas and concepts interrelate. But I’m hesitant to do that because I feel it would be better not to lose that serendipitous re-discovery.
But, I suppose the beauty of a digital system is that if I find that I am not using the notebook to rediscover what I had loved and forgotten, I can always delete the digital notes and force myself back.
I’ve recently come to learn two things about myself. The first is that I enjoy writing. I really enjoy writing. When I get in the flow and the words just seem to come pouring out of my fingers. It is an incredibly rewarding feeling. Last year I wrote the first draft of a book in three months because I enjoyed doing it and didn’t want to stop writing each day.
Since then, I haven’t done much with it because the second thing I’ve learned is that I do not enjoy reading what I’ve written; I hate it.
As I’ve been slowly doing a first rough pass through the book to polish up the roughest parts of it I have more than once almost thrown in the towel and thrown the whole thing away. I read it, and it’s not anything like what I want to have written. My vocabulary feels too limited, my sentence structures are childish, and my brilliant insights are incredibly shallow. I feel like I need to rewrite the whole thing from scratch.
It’s scary to put things out there into the world. When I write I often feel as if I’m having a conversation with my imagined readers, I can almost picture them. It’s calming and makes the whole experience feel wonderfully relational. But as I prepare to actually publish something that same imaginary scenario becomes frightening, even paralyzing. When I’m writing I can adjust my words, restructure my sentences and control what I’m saying. And I control my imaginary readers in the same way, they’re all happy with it because I’m enjoying the writing process. But once I push the text out to the world it is fixed. I cannot change it anymore and the people who read it will be actual humans with their own opinions, not figments of my imagination who are receptive to my ideas and blind to my oversights.
I put care into what I’m writing and vulnerability is hard. It’s scary to let other people read and judge my work, knowing that they may not like it. Often I’ll get partway through typing something and that fear sets in and kills the creativity. The words languish in the text editor.
Am I a fraud; am I putting my naïveté on full display? When I fire up my text editor to continue working on a draft I look back on the words I’ve written, and they feel so juvenile, so poorly constructed and fragmented.
There’s a ton of fear, which I write about in the book. Creativity has a ton of fear involved, and you never get rid of it. But you just acknowledge it and still work anyway.
That really struck me because I really look up to what Joey has been able to do, all he’s been able to build and create at Baronfig. To hear that he knows that fear as well gave me so much encouragement.
Perhaps these feelings are part of the process.
Perhaps this anxiety is an aspect of creating that I need to learn to accept and even embrace.
Perhaps I simply need to take a deep breath and click “Publish.”
As I tried to come up with an idea for this month’s blog post I started thinking about ideas themselves. Where do they come from and how? In short, how does ideation happen? I want to think grand and lofty thoughts, so how do I do that?
I think we are all familiar with the phenomenon of the spark of inspiration. It comes unexpectedly and often at the time when we are least prepared to accept it. For me it always seems to come with my hands are wet, so I can neither write nor type. We can help steer these ideas, I propose. We are not slave to their whims. While what I suggest may not guarantee the thoughts and ideas we want they will be more likely to arise.
That spark of inspiration stems from the subconscious, and we know from experience that we have some influence in the subconscious feedback loop. If you are foolish, like me, you have discovered that indulging in the horror genre before bed has a certain, somewhat predictable, effect on your sleep. Even mundane things we’ve dealt with during the day we may find echoed in our sleep.
Our ideas are similarly informed and influenced by the things to which we expose ourselves. So, my challenge to myself and to you is to figure out the kind of thoughts you want to think. Because the oddity of it is that thought begets thought and idea. What you think about becomes what you are more likely to think about. Once you have decided the thoughts and ideas that you wish to have take an honest appraisal of the things you read and watch and listen to as well as the conversations you have. Are they consistent with the ideas you desire? If not, perhaps it is time to make a change. For me it is going to mean less television, most of the shows I watch are just mindless escapist shows, and more reading, especially classics (I just started Oliver Twist) and my Bible and books on theology. What would it look like for you?
It is a hallmark of mankind that we, like water, follow the path of least resistance. When we meet difficulty we push and fight against it. From this steady erosion of difficulty we have many of our greatest inventions. Ocean voyages are long and dangerous, so we have taught ourselves to fly. Waiting for news to arrive through the post takes too long, so we have created the telegraph, the telephone, the television, and finally, that culminating wonder, the internet. (And still we complain about our data speeds being too slow.) We have worn down the resistance we have met in the pursuit of our goals. But have we perhaps made things too easy?
Strength and growth come only through continuous effort and struggle.
It is easy now to publish an idea almost the moment it enters the mind. But this can lead to shallow thoughts. Even if the idea happens to be coherent (my first ideas seldom are) it is not yet tempered and tested.
Perhaps in the march of technological progress the sweet spot for critical thinking is always a few steps behind. Every development in technology is heralded as the death of its forebears. But, it seems that after the settling in period the forebear only becomes more valuable as it becomes less mundane and more thoughtfully produced.
I loathe editing. I like to think that I do all of my editing in my head before I even tough pen to paper. In school I used to pride myself in having virtually no changes between my first draft and my final draft. The temptation to quickly type what comes to mind and click “Publish” is strong. But it is a mistake. Because while I like to think all of my editing is in my head it is insufficient work to develop the idea. I need to slow down and flesh out my ideas before rushing them out into the world.
But I need more than just to slow down, I need to have friction. I need to have the pushback for the idea to really grow and develop. I need to do things the hard way. So, from this need (and admittedly from a sense of nostalgia) I’ve developed the following system for writing.
I write my first draft in my Confidant and then type it, with some editing, on my typewriter as a second draft. The typewritten draft is the one that bears the most abuse as it is now double-spaced. And since it is no longer in my handwriting it feels less personal to correct it. I also take this chance to look for any underlying themes that had not occurred to me before, and to make corresponding organizational changes.
At this point I retype the draft again and hand that new draft over to my wife for her to abuse. With her input I make any final changes as I finally commit it digitally to the CMS. (If I entered it before I run the risk of posting it before I am ready, just to get it done.) One final read through and I finally publish.
There are several reasons I choose to do it this way. For one, I really enjoy it. It is quite relaxing and it makes me feel something like solidarity with past writers and thinkers that I admire. It is also extremely versatile, in my journal I can outline, draft, and doodle all within a few square inches. And it is the ultimate distraction-free editor. I have also heard of studies which have shown a strong link between writing things by hand and better retention and processing of the information, as compared to typing. And my own experience, while anecdotal, would bear this out.
But, most importantly, it forces me to slow down and think differently. My thoughts come to me smoother and more connectedly as I drag the nib of my pen across the page in a smooth, even cadence, as opposed to the stoccato march of a cursor across the blue-hued screen. In fact, there are some things that the most difficult part of writing is finding the most coherent string which ties my thoughts together. A sensation I have never experienced when typing my first draft.
With a typewriter, at least with my typewriter, I cannot type as fast else the arms catch and jam. This too helps me to slow down and think through the words I am using.
What is also amazing to me is how surprisingly freeing it is to lack a DELETE key. Without the ability to remove evidence of error I may start typing words and phrases I did not intend by accident or muscle memory. I am still left with those marks on the page. And more than once those marks have caused a spark and made me reevaluate or rephrase a thought or sentence, and I have been happier with the result. Inspirations strikes in the strangest of ways.
My exact strategy may not be correct for anyone else, but I think that everyone can benefit from resistance. Like our muscles, our ideas need resistance in their development if they are to be robust enough to do their work. As an aside, this is also why I think it is important to seek out opposing viewpoints. It is my opinion that a great many arguments are weaker than they deserve to be because no one challenges the paradigms in the echo chamber of similar thought.
This older way may be more difficult, but perhaps it is that which makes it better. To be clear, I am no luddite. I work in I.T. for a Fortune 500 company, and have, without exaggeration, had dreams of code and command line. (I even type all my posts in Markdown.) But my experience has been that as I have gotten more and more digital my thoughts have become more and more transitory, vapid and inconsequential. It is inarguable that the computer is the easiest, most powerful tool for writing, publishing, and general creation in the history of the human race. But, it makes it so easy that we can too easily say much while meaning little, if anything.
I propose that the superiority of the old way is twofold. First, it acts as a gatekeeper of quality. The thoughts and ideas not worth sharing are abandoned or improved at their inception. And since the development process is artificially slowed the mind is forced to dwell on the idea longer, leading to it being sharpened and strengthened.
This strategy may not be for everyone, but it certainly is for me. And I encourage you to slow yourself down and apply some resistance to your thoughts as well.