The Virtues of Remote Desert Islands in the Age of Noise

In this issue
NOTE | The Virtues of Remote Desert Islands in the Age of Noise
NEW WORDS | Into the Desert Once Again + The best Christian prayer books (for beginners)
IN OTHER WORDS | Krista Tippett interviews Kate DiCamillo
NEWS | Live with OSV: Imaginative Prayer + New Resources for Imaginative Prayer
POSTSCRIPT | The Real Notes in Glass Bottles


The Virtues of Remote Desert Islands in the Age of Noise

Maybe Being Stranded on a Remote Desert Island Isn’t As Bad As We Were Led to Believe

Welcome to this inaugural edition of my new newsletter, Notes in Glass Bottles. If tides and winds and the vagaries of chance have brought these words to you, then I’d like first to reassure you that no, I’m not really stranded on a remote desert island; also, I’m not in urgent need of rescue, at least not yet.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t mind being stranded on an island (provided I had a small library at my disposal), given the current state of the world, by which I’m not referring to the assortment of possible apocalypses hanging over our heads, but to all the noise.

Everyone, it seems, has something to say, something to share; and, given the opportunity to share it, nearly everyone does. We’re all “creators” now, pushing out words and pictures and videos. We say we’re “expressing our identity,” as if self-expression were the foundation of identity: “I post, therefore I am.”

If you don’t generate your own personal data stream, do you even exist? The question might sound like rhetorical exaggeration to an older generation, but not to your average Millennial. Self-actualization now occurs mainly by transmission of one’s self to the world.

The confluence of all these personal data streams has become a torrent: According to one online source, the Internet stored 44 zettabytes of data in 2020. A zettabyte is about a trillion gigabytes, so 44 ZB is the equivalent of about 9.4 trillion DVDs, or 2.1 billion years’ worth of video…and we’re supposed to quadruple that output by 2025.

Granted, much of that data is code or otherwise not intended for human eyes; but even the output we can more readily measure is staggering: in an average day, 720,000 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube; 2,750 e-books are published on the Amazon Kindle platform; 2 million tweets are posted to Twitter; and so on.

A lot of this global content stream is noise, not genuine communication. Communication, by definition, requires a transmitter and a receiver: a speaker and a listener, for instance, or a writer and a reader. But where are all the listeners? We talk about the “creator economy,” not the “listener economy.” We pay creators, not listeners, either in cash or social authority, which might partially explain why so many people prefer transmitting to receiving. And even when we’re in “receiving” mode—scrolling or streaming—how often are we truly receptive? Are we really receiving one another?

The anecdotal evidence isn’t encouraging. A few years ago I attended a “Concert on the Green” at the Great River Shakespeare Festival and noticed that more than half the adults in my immediate vicinity were looking at their phones, even though a really good band was playing their hearts out not one hundred feet away.

Just today, I was skimming a long Twitter thread consisting of hundreds of people arguing a complicated hot-button topic; I was looking for enlightenment, but what I found was lots of loud transmission (otherwise known as shouting) and not a single example of listening.

On the other hand, I was at a vigil for Ukraine a few weeks ago where a nervous teen got up and said a few words from his heart; the gathered assembly, sensing his vulnerability, quieted down and attended, leaning forward, nodding—really receiving him. They made room for him, and in receiving him, they practiced hospitality.

My retreat room…windows and light!

A few weeks ago I packed a suitcase with some clothes and peanut butter sandwiches and a small library, and thus equipped, retreated to the equivalent of a remote island. Only the equivalent of, not the real thing, because the nearest remote island is too far away for my limited time and budget. My “island” was only a retreat center run by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse.

It was very, very quiet there.

It was the perfect setting for a little experiment in being: Who am I, apart from all the noise? Who am I, if I’m not making my own noise?

I left home reluctantly—there’s so much to do, and I wasn’t sure I really needed the time away.

As it turned out, I was wrong: I really did need that time of rest and silence. It was a wonderful four days of simply being. To my surprise, I didn’t vanish; instead, the space opened by the silence seemed full, not empty. The sun rose and wheeled round the arc of the sky. The windows brightened and dimmed, marking the passage of giants in the sky. Two stories below my window, college students bundled against the cold made their way noiselessly from where they had been to where they were going. Once a day, the sisters raised their thin voices in song. God seemed to speak to me in languages that had no words but that something deep inside me still understood. God is like that most of the time, I think—too fluid and too expansive to be so easily pinned down, so easily constrained.

As I prepared to come home, I turned once again to a question that I have been pondering for several years now. When I was a young adult, I thought my vocation was to be a writer—or, framed more broadly, a “communications professional.” But what does that mean today, in the age of the zettabyte?

What is the vocation of the writer when nearly everyone who owns a smartphone—some 6.5 billion people—is effectively a mass communicator, putting out thousands of words and images and videos to hundreds or thousands of people every year?

If there’s anything the world doesn’t need, it’s one more voice adding to all the noise.

It would be neat if I had a ready answer to these questions, but I’m afraid I’m going to leave you hanging, because I’m still figuring that out. I only know two things:

First, I love ideas, I love words, and I love communicating—that is to say, I love making meaningful connections with other people. This is still my vocation, even if the world is tens of thousands of times noisier now than when I wrote (and hand-assembled) my first “book” at age 10.

Second, this is the way I have always made my living; and given my extremely poor eyesight and lack of formal training and experience in any other field, it still seems to be the most practical way to make a living…although I’m not nearly as certain about that as I once was.

For now, at least, I’ll forge forward, doing my best to write in a way that makes meaningful connections…and leaves ample space for the silence.

My hope is that this newsletter will be a space for that to happen. Once a week, I’ll write a little note from my “island” and toss it into the vast ocean, hoping it reaches someone who finds in it more meaning than noise. Maybe that person will be you; if it is, feel free to send me a note back.


If It’s February in Minnesota, Isn’t Lent Redundant?

If it’s February in Minnesota, isn’t Lent redundant? That’s what I ask in my reflection on Lent, Into the Desert Once Again.

Also, check out my list of the best Christian prayer books (for beginners) over at the new book recommendation website Shepherd. These are the books I’d hand to anyone who wants to move beyond rote or discursive prayer into more meditative and contemplative modes of prayer


Kate DiCamillo on the Vocation of the Writer

Last week, I listened to Krista Tippett’s interview with one of my favorite authors, Kate DiCamillo. I love Kate for the bravery of her writing: she isn’t afraid of writing about hard things, even though she is writing for children. This by itself would make her conventional among modern children’s writers, but she is equally unafraid to write about the power of love, and magic, and wonder: “We (writers for the young) have been given the sacred task of making hearts large through story. We are working to make hearts that are capable of containing much joy and much sorrow, hearts capacious enough to contain the complexities and mysteries … of ourselves and of each other.” Exactly. You can listen to the conversation or read a transcript at On Being, or wherever you get your podcasts.


Join me for a live conversation March 31

Live event: Imaginative prayer. It has been a few months now since the launch of my latest book, Imagine You Walked with Jesus, and I’m beginning to wrap up my launch activities, but this week, I have one last live event with Our Sunday Visitor, a conversation with Tracy Stewart about imaginative prayer. Join us on Thursday, March 31, at 2 p.m. ET (1 pm CT, 12 pm MT, 11 am PT) for a 25-minute conversation about imaginative prayer, also known as Ignatian contemplative prayer. You can register and then watch the recorded interview later, too. Register here.

Speaking of imaginative prayer, I’ve put up some new supplemental resources at the Gracewatch website; they’re free during the launch period. You can find extra reading guides, group session outlines, sample journal entries, and more.


The Real Messages in Bottles

Naming this new iteration of my newsletter Notes in Glass Bottles made me curious about the real thing, and that led me down a rabbit hole (of course), from which I bring back the following tidbits for your consideration:

The oldest ever note in a bottle was found on an Australian beach in 2018; it had been put into the ocean by the German naval observatory ship Paula on June 12, 1886 as part of a 69-year-old science experiment. Of the thousands of bottles thrown overboard as part of the experiment, only 662 messages were ever recovered, so if you ever find yourself stranded on an island for real, I wouldn’t bet on a note in a bottle as your only hope of rescue.

On the other hand, it’s not impossible, according to an article in Reader’s Digest: In 2019, a trio of hikers on a three-day wilderness rafting trip got stranded above a waterfall with no cell service and no one else around. (They’d been planning to rappel down the cliff, as one of them had done before, but the ropes were missing.) They placed a note in a water bottle, tossed it into the river, and hunkered down to wait. Downriver, a pair of young girls saw the bottle, swam out to get it, and handed it over to the adults who were with them. The hikers were rescued the next day.

If you’re up for diving down an Internet rabbit hole, you can read this extremely long and detailed history of messages in bottles on Wikipedia.

Interestingly, as I’m writing these words I’ve been listening to a Spotify playlist called “Mood Booster,” and it just served up the T. Swift song “Message in a Bottle,” which may very well be a funny coincidence but which I’m going to take as a wink and a nod from whatever angels look after writers.

Stay warm, stay well…


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