Arts & Literature

Art in Paradise: The Spaces Between

Northampton writer Christian McEwen reminds readers of the joys and rewards of slowing down in

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

When Christian McEwen speaks, the melodious tones of her mild British accent (a hard one to place—she grew up in London and Scotland) convey a sense of well-centered calm. She seems like a good candidate to remind us that increased speed, that "multi-tasking" and the ubiquity of interactive screens aren't necessarily good for cultivating well-being or creativity.

It's all too easy to see the results of our culture's current trend toward technology overload. On a recent trip to a restaurant, I was astonished to find a television screen on my table. I would have been less surprised to find D.B. Cooper's credit card. At a nearby table sat six girls of perhaps 11 to 13. The cliche of effervescent, chattering tweens didn't hold: all six were silent, in thrall to a Disney show. One of the group divided her attention between the television and texting. In an hour or so, a handful of words passed between the six girls.

It's an extreme symptom of the brand of affliction that's overtaken most of the world, something McEwen calls "hurry sickness" in her new book, World Enough and Time. The pace of life has increased dramatically in the past few decades, she says, and the emphasis on speed and its attendant technology has taken people ever farther from real, face-to-face interaction. Her book is unusual: an amalgam of memoir, philosophy, literary sampler, and primer. Its purpose is to undo a bit of the damage caused by our modern affliction, largely, though not exclusively, to foster creativity. In addition to praising "slow" activities like reading, walking, and conversing face-to-face, McEwen offers, at the end of each chapter, "tactics" for cultivating mindfulness and mental space for deeper thinking and creativity.

"Each of the chapters can be seen as a door into normal joyfulness and a door beyond it to something that will lead you into writing, painting, whatever your art is," McEwen explained in a recent interview.

Though the Valley isn't necessarily a nirvana for seekers of a slow-paced life, it's got its advantages, and McEwen, a Northampton resident, has been here quite a while.

"I came to America when I was 22 or 23," she says. "I was living in New York, and I had a relationship that brought me here... I love New York, but I was very ready to leave it." She also cites the Cummington Community for the Arts as a major draw.

"People are less harried [here] and therefore more polite," she says. "The Valley has many wise things going for it."

On the other hand, "It's got all those students, all those academics, and they tend to be people who are trying to do too much with too little time."

Though it might be easy to dismiss McEwen as a mere contrarian or Luddite, it's worth noting that she is herself a user of technology, if in a measured way. "I have a laptop which I adore. I adore email," she says, explaining that it helps her stay in frequent touch with family back in Scotland. She's not a fan of cell phones, but when her computer died just as she needed to stay in contact for book publicity, "My poor publisher pressed a cell phone into my hands," she says, laughing.

McEwen isn't calling for the impossible, asking for the reversal of cultural trends and technological advances. "We've reached a point where we can't not use it. But we can contain it," she says. "No one wants to be on their death bed saying, 'I should have answered more email.'"

She posits an interesting end point to our technological obsessions, invoking the term "enantiodromia": "When something reaches the uttermost edge of itself, it does a leapfrog back into its opposite. Even people who are utterly in love with their machinery are realizing that some basic things are being lost.

"Some statistics say we spend an enormous amount of time—four or five hours per day—on screens of various sorts," she says. "That doesn't mean you're wedded to the screen for your evening or weekend time. Once you say that, you can open up to other activities."

World Enough and Time is a beautifully rendered, reflective work, one of careful prose and reminders of the joys and rewards of leading a life with its share of reflection and human interaction. For the time-challenged, McEwen has crafted the book as something like a reference work, ripe for dipping into a little at a time. It also stands up well to a long, slow read. However you do it, it's worth taking as long as it takes.

Christian McEwen leads a workshop Jan. 27-29 at the Rowe Camp and Conference Center. For info, call (413)339-4954 or email retreat@RoweCenter.org.

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