Art Life

et Mir


A second post, a counterpart not a contrapost, to the measures of “mera”.

As a child, I was fascinated by the space station “Mir”. The first base of humanity in space. The first kernel of a city in the stars.

Yes, yes. I know it’s not the first historically. But I was a child. It was the first to me.

The Slavic word “mir” is itself fascinating because it doesn’t translate neatly into English. It means both peace and world, with connotations of calm (not merely the absence of strife). If Wiktionary is to be believed, it is cognate with Latin “mitis” (mild, calm, peaceful) and Albanian “mirë” (good).

The pursuit of this inner peace-calm-unity-with-world seems very popular these days, with ugly words like mindfulness doubling as marketing slogans for over-worked worry-plagued post-modern corporate peons facing down the barrels of looming ecological and social catastrophe neatly packaged for 24-7 consumption by a profit-oriented ad-supported attention-harvesting media industry.

Mmm. That sentence was a word-worm. Long, overlong.

But it makes the point.

I dislike the word “mindfulness”.

Ugly. Long. Obsequious. Oily. Slippery.

A lie, if you will.

I don’t want “mindfulness”, I want “mir”.

And I suspect I am not alone. It is why the oblivion of the bottle or exertion or ecstasy or spiritual excess is so popular.

I do not want to be full-of-mind, I want to be calm and one-with-the-world. You know, at “mir” – at rest in the world.

Another fun thing with the word “mir” is that most Anglophones have a terrible time pronouncing a simple single-tap trilled “r”.

But that’s just me revelling in difference, and rather impolitic. Back to “mir”, the concept, not so much the syllable.

“Mir” is a counterpart to “mera” in the burnout department. If “mera” or “measure” defines the alarm bell ringing to alert me that I am overdoing things, that I am stretched too thin, spread too far, then “mir” is the antipode to burnout. When I am defined by “mir”, when I am “miren”, then I am not burned out.

Over the last year, I haven’t just been observing what causes me to feel the fluster rising and the anxious stress pounding, but also how this is often (usually?) inversely proportional with my sense of inner peace.

Now, this year I find myself in a peculiar situation. For the first time in my life, I find myself working (mostly) for myself on my own projects to support myself. This is, in some ways, a luxury. In other ways, it is a difficulty.

I can take time to rest when I want to.

I am responsible every time I take time to rest.

I can no longer take a breather on company time, because company time is my time.

Suddenly, I am entirely and fully responsible to myself for my own time, and, crucially, my own “mir”.

This has made me acutely and painfully aware of my utter dependence on my own equilibrium and well-being to actually do productive work … and thus feed myself.

In my recollection, this dependence is somewhat obscured in a collective corporate setting. There, a pleasant inertia, a gentle tide of getting along and working along pulled me to work and produce—if not masterworks then enough to keep me in food and clothes and board. But, the dependence was there nonetheless. And, as the dependence was, so, I suspect, my ponderings on “mir” may be more broadly applicable.

Who can say?

In any case, I have found a lot of the modern attention economy to be profoundly inimical to my inner peace.

Alerts, telephones, to-do lists, notifications, messages, emails, chats, slacks, and more. As the number of communication channels has grown, their usefulness has fallen off and become actually harmful to my ability to work—to write and create.

On the other hand, I have found communication absolutely crucial to maintaining my equilibrium, my feeling of belonging and meaning, my connections with friends and family and wider world.

The technology is great. Being able to video chat with a friend over beers and 8,000 kilometres is incredible.

But the implementation within an attention economy is sheer noise and grit and torment.

A solution I found—and one I implement imperfectly—is to give up on the pre-internet-era idea of punctually responding to the telephone.

In an era of postal services and expensive phone calls, the phone implied an urgent message. The rattling ringing clarion of its bell threw us off our seats and running to the receiver to say, “Hello, — residence. How may I help you?” Or something to that effect.

Meanwhile, most friendly correspondence was by letter or postcard. It came when it came, sat on the table a while, and was responded to at leisure.

Since those simple, gentle days, before email and cell-phone, communication channels have proliferated and spread their tendrils.

Now I carry email and social media and chat apps and more in my pocket at all times.

A little personal Hermes to connect me with every mercurial person in the world. Potentially.

Last year, in search of balance and overwhelmed by—I now see—the early warnings of burnout, I started to experiment with digital detoxes. I’m still experimenting. Most social media apps are no longer allowed on my phone. Emails I may send from my phone, in extremis, but never read there. The rules and rituals vary with trial and whim.

Another thing I’ve experienced is becoming a little bit Internet-famous. I made a gamebook, and some people liked it quite a lot, so I ended up hearing from more people.

The overwhelming majority of people getting in touch have been lovely and kind.

But some haven’t.

A few months ago, a musician reached out to me over Instagram (yet another channel) about collaborating—their music, my words and art. I thought the idea was great but didn’t have an idea of how to pursue it or the bandwidth to figure out a clear path.

We chatted, but nothing conclusive.

Some weeks pass, and they ask what’s up. A message I missed (remember, many channels).

Later, in late November, I received an irate and hurt message from them, still over Instagram, accusing me of ghosting them, destroying a business partnership with them, and generally having little chance of future success by behaving so unprofessionally.

I overwrote a response to them, before realizing of a sudden … I was not at fault here. I had committed to nothing. I had not seen a message, but further, I had no obligation to communicate at length with someone who was, essentially, a stranger.

I overwrote further responses.

Then I realized the angry artist had pre-emptively blocked me on Instagram after sending their accusatory message.

I felt rather sheepish, but my response also helped me realized that my “measure” was quite full, and I needed some rest. I needed some “mir”.

Hence, a trigger for last week’s break.

But also a trigger for me to ponder my communication strategies.

I think I should throw more grit into the noise machine.

Make it easier to chat for pleasure, harder to be reached for less pleasant tasks. After all, my work is essentially a solitary creative process. The fewer notifications I see, the more and better I write and draw.

And, at the end of the day, my actual business partners still seem to have no trouble finding me.

I should just perhaps be more explicit with everyone that I am trying to treat digital communications more like physical letters from the bygone era of the mid-90s and before: artefacts to treasure and respond to when time and whim encourage.

But, by Hermes, I have no idea how to set an out-of-office responder on Instagram!

Ah, well, I’ll just have to hope for understanding and accept the misunderstandings that occur anyway.

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