Column: Curve your enthusiasm

The joy of steering your interests toward something completely different

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I discovered that Chicago is home to a major storytelling community, one you can find in a bar or on a stage every night of the week. This, too, changed my map of the city. I have attended Moth “story slams” from the South Side to the North Shore, sat in intimate Irish pubs being moved to laughter or tears or heartache by the sound of human voices. 

Find a microphone. Tell your story. This campfire has been burning for millennia. It is human connection in its purest form, the exact opposite of what often happens in social media.

On a visit to Alaska, I talked to a woman in a tiny fishing village. I asked her what she did for entertainment. “I watch the yard war. That plant over there has been trying to take over.” A close friend and fellow writer, Craig Vetter, talked about the joy of watching the earth speak, pushing out words that mean carrot or blueberry or lettuce. 

For most of my life I was inclined toward adrenaline sports, velocity. Then I inherited a garden. Over the past few years I have built a vocabulary and a library of reference books. I’ve started a calendar, photographing the arrival of bluebells, lilies, wood anemones, lobelias, bleeding hearts, astilbes. If this is July, that must be echinacea. I have seen plants change in the course of a day. I have sat in the backyard watching the fireflies rise.

I once met a college professor who upon retiring decided to learn Spanish. He had looked at the changing demographic of his home state and realized that to reach out to these new citizens, he would have to speak more than his native tongue. It was a form of greeting, of welcome, a skill that would allow him to continue to teach and to share. I witnessed a brief exchange – we may have been gutting houses after Hurricane Katrina – that gave me a glimpse of applied knowledge. 

I’ve known people who decided to learn Italian describe the pleasure of ordering a cappuccino on a plaza in Rome, the joy of being able to tell a laundry in Venice how they wanted their shirts done, the thrill of haggling for vegetables in a market halfway around the world. My next-door neighbor, who has spent his life learning dead languages and sorting through translations of the Old Testament, started taking French lessons from Monique, an 83-year-old neighbor, in exchange for shoveling her sidewalk in the winter. To his delight he found that following a single phrase as it tumbles through the centuries is to make the past a living creature.

To be on the learning curve you must be willing to be a beginner again, to wrestle with skills not entirely under your control. As we age, this will prove helpful.

In 1990, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi pioneered the psychology of optimal experience, studying the mental state of people focused on doing one thing well – rock climbers, surgeons, dancers, musicians. He found that facing a challenge ignited the brain. In his book Flow, he noted that most of life is made up of everyday activities – dressing, shaving, bathing, eating – that require almost no concentration. You can fly on autopilot or indulge in guilty pleasures – binge-watching entire seasons of Downton Abbey, Dexter, or Breaking Bad, completing the New York Times crossword puzzle in record time. But to attain flow – a state of full engagement, focus, and enjoyment – you have to tackle challenges that are just beyond your abilities, that are new. 

Concentration – undivided attention – is a powerful human force and a source of joy and fulfillment. Use it. 

-- James Petersen is a freelance writer, full-time storyteller, gardener, guitarist, motorcyclist, and now a grandfather.

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