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Goodness, Deconcentration, and the Great Concavity

Easter, 2014. I put on a chartreuse dress and lilac suede sandals and Brady and I go uptown to my great aunt’s where we eat mille feuille from Lady M and drink probably too much white wine out of small, weighty hock glasses. On the way home I get off the subway two stops early and walk through Boerum Hill. It’s one of those slightly hard-edged robin’s egg spring days and I’m cloudy from the wine and a dread more existential than the standard sunday scaries. There’s a Quaker meeting house on the corner of Shermahorn and Boerum Place, a handsome red brick affair I’ve walked by countless times without registering its purpose but on this day I do. It cheers me immensely because Quakers don’t believe in god but they do believe in good and I think that if I concentrate more on trying to be good I won’t feel as bad about not liking my job and not knowing where and if my writing is going. 

When I get home I tell  Brady I want to become a Quaker. Months pass and I get a new job and start a new book and get married and run a marathon and try mdma for the second and third time and become good friends with my coworkers and go out and out and out. I don’t become a quaker but I think of it fondly. My New Year’s Eve vow is to be good, or better at being good. This will be my vow from here on out though I don’t know if I get any better. 

I’m still not a Quaker, not anything formal at all but I’ve been thinking about goodness a lot lately, about frameworks for goodness, about whether goodness and spirituality are the same thing or just have the same ends. I’ve been running more than usual, and we’ve had a stretch of indian summer days, just real komorebi weather; I’m running in the woods and on the backroads and the sugar maples are out in full force and the pine needles underfoot are springy and beautifully tawny and so it’s easy to wander into heady thoughts.

I’ve been thinking about goodness not as a counterweight to badness but to inwardness, which is my natural state and has been exacerbated by parenting small children and moving to the suburbs and working remotely and the internet.

I read Crossroads after reading Kathryn Schulz’s terrific review of it in the New Yorker and so go in primed for moral quandaries but then mostly get sucked into the story. It’s Franzen at his best: an unhappy family, a midwestern suburb, secrets, repression, small lives, little fires everywhere. (Everywhere.) Just masterful storytelling minus the petering ending and yes each of the characters grapples explicitly with goodness but not in ways that make me rethink my own.

To me, goodness is, in two words: initiated connection. Reaching out. Making and keeping plans. Sending letters, gifts, cards. Dropping off dinner or going on a walk or hosting a book club or finally getting my logistical act together enough to book flights to see family. 

 I guess more broadly i’ve been thinking about HOW TO BE (i hated that book at twenty-three oh boy absolutely hated it but maybe i wouldn’t now? Don’t care enough to find out). Time is so zippy, tesseracty right now — to quote Sarah Mancuso, I’ve become “the background against which the baby lives, become time.” Just a month of maternity leave to go and I want to come out of it with a solid foundation for BEING instead of manically keeping my head above water. 

So, goodness is one cornerstone (sheesh this metaphor). And the other is, bah, intentionality. IE stop wasting time on fleeting dopamine hits and shallow curiosities, aka instagram and the NYT Living section and (most) lifestyle blogs and maisonette and j press and, in so doing, narrow the mind’s periphery, and, in so doing, stop fretting so over the specks of dried leaf and lint in the carpet or the patch of maple syrup on the counter or the full compost bin or not having dinner sorted. The specks don’t matter and the counter will get cleaned and dinner will get made no matter what, whereas writing will not happen if the housework happens first.  IE: Order of operations.

Also: be more present with my children; pay attention to the unexpected and wonderful intricacies of their desires and imaginations. (Maybe this is where goodness and intentionality intersect?)

In this GQ profile of the world’s greatest free diver, I learn about a technique called attention deconcentration that really catches in the craw of my washing machine mind. Alexey Molchanov is a 34 year-old Russian who attributes his ability to descend 200m underwater sans oxygen this technique, which his mother pioneered:

There is a moment not much deeper into the dive when the body realizes that it is not getting oxygen the way that it usually does. This is, in part, the effect of the elevated carbon dioxide in the system…. And yet, if you pass through this traumatic phase, on the other side there is one of those unlocked secrets of the body: more oxygen. If pushed to its limit in this way, the body flips a switch, part of the mammalian diving reflex, like toggling to a reserve tank of gas. It Is just one of the body’s many extraordinary automatic mechanisms for staving off death — drowning, asphyxiation, brain damage, whatever — and one of the mechanisms that free drivers train to exploit. Blood begins to flow in from the extremities to the core, to the lungs and vital organs…Alex can feel the capillaries in his lungs expand and those in his extremities constrict. A warming occurs all over. A bear hug from the depths. 

…The key is to snap his attention back to the present moment, to train his brain as vigorously as he can train his body to almost physically overcome his thoughts and hold his mind in a state of nothingness and nowness. “I feel how my attention can get broadened in time and space,” he says. “I can be thinking about the future, I can be thinking about the past. All these thoughts everywhere. We have that a lot in life. But if I was just to pull them back into the now moment, pull my thoughts back, really physically, that’s the technique that feels like a technique that can be learned. When I practice it a lot, it’s like an arm movement. Physical. You just pull it back. And you get your attention to the shortest possible time moment.”


Distance running is the shortest I can process space time, the closest I get to the hyper-present. Not in the first few miles — those are the thinking miles. But sometime around the five mile mark — particularly if I’ve put instrumental music on, John Adams or Debussy or one of the Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross joints, thoughts recede.There’s a sense of clipping in, of the body as machine, or the machine of the body superceding the quibbling mind. Again, not the same as true deconcentration — certainly, no chimeric physical footwork, but maybe not too far off meditation.

Anyways. The baby’s awake; the sun beginning its inexorable fade. If you take one thing from this pellmell blather, please make it the Molchanov profile. Guaranteed mind expansion, no running shoes necessary.

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