After the massacres in Paris and Mali, the downing of a Russian passenger jet, the first months of the 2016 presidential race, and various dust-ups on American college campuses, I am taking a break from the news. I feel like I have heard it all -- every angle that can possibly be expressed on every topic, repeated in a thousand variations, every day -- and I have had enough.
Until November 30, I will not so much as swipe a fingertip across my phone to read the news. Unless a town crier from a Renaissance Faire wanders by screaming the headlines into a bullhorn, I will know nothing about anything happening anywhere, all week.
(My six-year-old just came in and informed me, in detail, how she washed her hair in the sink, sprayed detangler on it, and combed it. Here was a bulletin from my world. Editorial spin: Great job!)
* * * *
Back when I was riding the bus into San Francisco, I sometimes read from a tiny book called The Pocket Thomas Merton. An idiosyncratic monk who died in 1968, Merton was an endearing figure: At some point, the hustle and bustle of a Trappist monastery became too much for him, and he retreated to a tool shed on the monastery grounds to think and write in PEACE AND QUIET.
Having lived a normal life as a college student in New York City, he had a great many acerbic observations about normal life. In a chapter called "Events and Pseudo-Events," Merton had this to say:
Nine-tenths of the news, as printed in the papers, is pseudo-news, manufactured events. Some days ten-tenths. The ritual morning trance, in which one scans columns of newsprint, creates a peculiar form of generalized pseudo-attention to a pseudo-reality. This experience is taken seriously. . . .
My own experience has been that renunciation of this self-hypnosis, of this participation in the unquiet universal trance, is no sacrifice of reality at all. To 'fall behind' in this sense is to get out of the big cloud of dust that everybody is kicking up, to breathe and to see a little more clearly.
In "Events and Pseudo-Events," Merton was distinguishing, as usual, between the real and unreal. What made a person or event "more real"? What existed but was "not real"? For Merton, these were not matters of opinion. They were matters of fact.
My own life existed all right, but very little of it seemed "real." Merton's confident parsing of lived experience -- real/unreal, real/unreal, real/unreal -- was fascinating, like a coin trick. How did he do it? Based on what?
Between long moments looking out the window -- sailboats on the Bay! -- I tried to figure out the trick.
* * * *
This morning, after three hours of not-looking-at-the-news, I felt good. It was 10 a.m. on a Saturday. The world could be in flames for all I knew.
I was sitting in a Vietnamese nail salon, awaiting my turn and not reading the magazines.
With nothing to think about, I gazed at the shelves of nail polish on the opposite wall. There was a painted mural of a tropical scene with a parrot in it. The bottles of polish -- pinks, reds, and purples -- shone in the sunlight from the shop window. Jewel tones.
A red goldfish swam in a nearby tank. Asian music -- a bow sawed moodily across a two-stringed instrument -- played on the stereo.
On my occasional trips to this nail salon, the waits annoy me. After about ten minutes, the place feels like purgatory. Enough with the music already! Is it my turn yet? Aren't there any better magazines?
Today I felt at peace. Alive! How lucky I was to be at a nail salon!
Later this afternoon, I went to the kids' room to fold laundry. Normally I would put off this task by scrolling through the latest updates on my phone, but today -- again, with nothing to think about -- I simply lay down and dozed off.
For fifteen minutes, I took -- literally -- a cat nap, as like a cat I had been staring at a spot of sunlight on the wall. It seemed interesting for ninety seconds, before I succumbed to oblivion.
Then I woke up, and the rest of the day was awesome.