Small circle, clear vision

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I saw this image on Pinterest a while ago and thought “that’s sounds about right”, pinned it, and forgot about it until recently.

When I was a teenager, before I had a laptop or a smart phone, before I had Facebook or Instagram, and before I knew what blogs even were, I would get on our family’s desktop computer (which was out in the open where everyone could see what you were up to) and I would get lost down Wikipedia rabbit holes sometimes for hours at a time. Now I have a small portable device always at the ready to tempt me down the far more appealing rabbit holes of social media. Not for two or three hour long blocks (although sometimes after Leo’s in bed…) but as a default for the frequent small pockets of empty time in my day.

A couple things happened that made that Pinterest quote pop back into my head. I couldn’t manage to text people in my life back but I could manage to fill lots of time with glimpses of other people’s lives on their blogs or Instagram accounts. I kept getting ideas for making this blog better or pursuing other projects bound up in the internet, but the idea of any more obligations to social media in my life made me feel sick and stretched thin (and I realize I’m way behind and do far, far less on social media than professional bloggers or Instagram “influencers”).

Instagram can be a really wonderful place. I’ve found so many artists whose work stuns and truly inspires me. I’ve found so many people there that I’m sure I would be great friends with if we met in real life. I’ve followed so many people whose rosy-cheeked, vintage-dressed flock of children make me think #familygoals. And I’ve made connections with kindred spirits who actually have reciprocated warmly. But it’s also a weird place when it starts making you wish you could unrealistically be bosom friends with one hundred other people. And it’s weird when you start desiring to be more like someone based on the fact that their children only have wooden toys rather than for some real virtue they possess.

And blogs are really wonderful and weird as well. They’ve been useful to me–before I had a baby, mom blogs made me less scared of motherhood. And when I first started reading blogs in college, I became engrossed with them. I adored these hilarious, warm, and wonderful bloggers and their families. I wanted to be friends with them. But I have never been able shake a weirdness about blogging: we create spaces on the internet revolving around our lives for strangers to read and look at. It’s always been strange to me how much I know about these people’s lives who know nothing about me.

I know the defense of these things usually has to do with finding or building community and I get that and I think it can be true. But the more I’ve followed and read and liked and commented on Instagram accounts and blogs, the less I’ve actually felt a part of a real community. Because at the end of the day, is simply being one among a sea of thousands of followers of a single person who will never invest the same amount of interest in your life, really being a part of a true community?

I do like the escape to beautiful images that Instagram affords me. But I’ve been realizing more and more how such a seemingly harmless thing as infinitely scrolling through lovely images can fill up your mind leaving little room for more important things. How beautifully styled pictures of bloggers homes and children, these little pieces of beauty from everday life, can in fact create an aesthetic glut. Along these lines, I recently read and was gripped by Maria Popova’s commentary on Susan Sontag’s collection of essays, “On Photography”:

“the social media photostream — the ultimate attempt to control, frame, and package our lives — our idealized lives — for presentation to others, and even to ourselves. The aggression Sontag sees in this purposeful manipulation of reality through the idealized photographic image applies even more poignantly to the aggressive self-framing we practice as we portray ourselves pictorially on Facebook, Instagram, and the like:

Images which idealize (like most fashion and animal photography) are no less aggressive than work which makes a virtue of plainness (like class pictures, still lifes of the bleaker sort, and mug shots). There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera.

Online, thirty-some years after Sontag’s observation, this aggression precipitates a kind of social media violence of self-assertion — a forcible framing of our identity for presentation, for idealization, for currency in an economy of envy.”

There’s nothing wrong with reading a blogger’s tips for surviving the newborn phase or seeing a beautiful image of architecture with some poetic caption or reading a meme that makes you laugh. But dozens and dozens of mildly useful blogposts and hundreds and hundreds of decreasingly inspiring Instagram squares and thousands and thousands of sort of entertaining Facebook statuses and memes can make for a fractured, poisoned attention and soul.

I’m not writing this as an admonition for using Instagram at all or for following someone who has a large following. I don’t think every Instagram account I follow needs to involve a tangible friendship between me and the person. And this isn’t a completely cyncial diatribe about the impersonality of the Internet. I absolutely believe true friendships can arise out of the Internet. And I think those friendships can form without you having to hand over your entire attention to the mercy of social media.

But because it feels like I have been handing my entire attention over to social media and have come out exhausted by the aesthetic aggression of it all, I’ve been making a few resolutions for a smaller circle and a clearer vision:

-Cutting back on the sheer amount of instagrammers I follow and the amount of blogs I read no matter how harmless or even helpful they are. If I’m not really compelled to what the person is saying, I need to silence that source of noise in my life.

-Delete Facebook. I’ve deactivated it for now but I think I really need it dunzo. I know people who have either completely deleted their Facebook accounts or have never had one and their lives don’t seem lacking in any way.

-Carve out a specific block of time each week for writing letters and thank you notes.

-Actually work on some sort of prayer life.

-Read or clean or memorize poetry or do Slovak language flashcards while Leo’s playing independently instead of being on my phone.

-Write, paint, or practice self-care during Leo’s naptime or after bedtime rather than just vegging on social media or watching Netflix.

-Become more involved at my parish.

I’ve been listening to Emma on audiobook these days and I’m so struck by smallness and the intimacy of the communities Jane Austen creates. There’s certainly more occasions for annoyance or frustration with a small community of flesh and blood people than a wide community spread thousands of miles apart hidden behind or filtered through smartphones. But there’s also so many more occasions for growth and real affection for one’s neighbors. And that’s the sort of community I want to be more a part of.

So since I like to pick other peoples brains: has social media improved your life or has it been more problematic? Have you developed worthwhile friendships through it? How do you keep it from being an energy-sucker? And do you think there’s something necessarily artificial or aggressive about it?

Small circle, clear vision

Film Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

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Our movie nights tend to go something like this:

I scroll endlessly on Netflix, adding a bunch of movies to my watch-list that I may at some point be in the mood to watch but am not currently, ask my husband what he wants to watch, am met with feigned indifference hiding a hankering for a foreign art film and, while maybe in the depths of my heart I want to watch something heady as well, my immediate desire is for something light and fluffy, so I suggest a lot of options of that sort and all get shut down. After roughly an hour and half of going back and forth like this, we decide on a tv show which feels less like a commitment than a film even though we usually watch enough episodes to equal a film and a half.

I made my 2016 watch list to help with this indecisiveness. 90% of the films are recommendations from The Catholic Catalogue. Certain people like to tease that I won’t watch a film unless it has the TCC stamp of approval but whatevs. Those ladies know what they’re about.

The other night, on The Catholic Catalogue‘s recommendation, I picked Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and my husband and I both loved it. I think it’s the best possible answer to The Fault in Our Stars.

There may be legitimately good things about The Fault in Our Stars. (Don’t ask me. I read the book to see what the hype was all about and found the writing nearly unbearable to swallow.) However, the reason it succeeds so well is because it feeds adolescent (and not so adolescent) girls’ raging desires for romance. And a youthful romantic story driven by the urgency of death makes it all the more compelling (yolo and all that).

But Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which also deals with teens and cancer, is all about friendship and maybe that’s why it hasn’t enjoyed the same amount of popularity. (Though I suspect the cult around John Green has something to do with it.)

We worship coupledom as a culture, and, in the microcosm of high school, that worship is intensified. The majority of young people believe that members of the opposite sex cannot have deep platonic friendships, that to have feelings for another person necessitates pursuing a relationship with that person, that they can’t not be in a relationship at all times, and, as depicted by The Fault in Our Stars, that a romantic relationship is the end all be all of life. (Oh and things like this do not help.)

I don’t want to absolutely discredit the teenage experience of romance, but so many young people are pursuing romantic relationships without healthy relationships to look up to and emulate and without genuine guidance from older friends and family members with their best interests at heart. I think that far more needed than sex ed courses focused on instilling a hellish fear of STDs and unplanned pregnancies in teens and supplying them with condoms because our expectations for them are so low is a cultural conversation about friendship and the dignity of the human person that might inspire them to love rather than use one another. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl contributes to such a conversation.

The main character, Greg, has spent his life avoiding real friendships. He refers to his best friend, Earl, as his co-worker since they make films together. He is on good but superficial terms with all the cliques in his high school so as to escape notice. When his mom makes him spend time with Rachel, who has just been diagnosed with leukemia, he is resistant. But he does and they quickly become friends.

Greg’s fears that becoming friends with another person will make him vulnerable are soon realized. Again and again, Rachel challenges Greg’s comfortable invisible existence and shallow ties to other people. The possibility of death forces them to truly get to know one another and for Greg to face the possibility of having his heart broken.

However, with true friendship comes not only vulnerability but a richer experience of life. Greg discovers the joy of helping a friend, who is often weak, exhausted, and discouraged, enjoy what might be the last months of her life. When Earl shares their films with Rachel, Greg is angry that he has betrayed something of theirs that is so personal to her. What he doesn’t expect is how liberating and gratifying it is for someone you care about to appreciate those deepest, most vulnerable aspects of yourself.

Earl, who also becomes Rachel’s friend through Greg, for the first time is able to transcend his objectification of girls (at least momentarily) and see Rachel’s unique dignity. In their film tribute to her, he tells her: “It’s just crazy how patient you’ve been. You know, I know if it was me that had cancer, uh… I’d be upset and angry and trying to beat everybody’s ass half the time. So I’m just, I’m just amazed at how patient you’ve been. You, you make me feel blessed.”

Romantic feeling–and much less, sex–don’t have to be essential elements for a relationship between two persons to involve emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and moral companionship. In fact, for emotionally immature people, sensual romance can cloud their vision and obstruct the path to that companionship. Perhaps Greg and Rachel’s (and Earl’s) friendship doesn’t develop in all those aspects but it does show us that young people have the capacity to pursue deep, meaningful, and life-changing friendships.

Of course I can’t finish this review without these oft-quoted lines from C.S. Lewis:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

Be forewarned that there is crass teenage humor in this film. Nevertheless, it would make for a great youth group or theology of the body club movie night and discussion…or for a stay-at-home-date-night for people like me and my husband who went to public high school and hated being there lololol

Film Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl