Jeff Longland

Relax, don't worry – have a home brew!

Archive for November 2013

Reflections on Permanence and Purpose

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During October, I had a lot of time to think about life and specifically, what I want of my life. I had the great fortune to do much of this thinking far from home in Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels and London. Four weeks away from the usual day-to-day. Three of those weeks in cities with immense history that dwarfs the history of all Canadian cities. No work, no responsibilities – just time… for eating baguettes, wandering city streets, drinking beer, and exploring museums.

Rows of Skulls

In the end…

Early in the trip, a theme quickly emerged: permanence. Wandering through Paris, I was astounded by the vast history everywhere. Here I was, in a city with a history stretching well before the Roman Republic. A city central to the Napoleonic Empire. A city where La Résistance worked amidst Paris’ massive underground tunnels – the same tunnels where Nazi soldiers established bunkers in World War II. I wondered about the individual people who lived in these buildings and walked these streets. I imagine there was largely hardship, occasionally punctuated by happy moments – likely brought by luxuries that I take for granted today. I was surrounded by an overwhelming history in a vibrant city where people continue to live. But the recurring question that preoccupied my thoughts was: who were these people as individuals and what is left of their lives today?

The sheer number of people whose lives are without permanence was underscored by a visit to the Catacombs of Paris where there are more than 6 million skeletons organized in an elaborate ossuary. There are no tombstones, no records of the individuals – just general records of the graveyards from which the skeletons were removed and when they were deposed in the catacombs. There are no individuals. A person’s skull or femur might be used as part of a wall or monument – but that’s the extent of individual permanence, if you can call it that. Nameless bones amidst a giant pile of nameless bones. There’s something about a pile of bones that makes you feel utterly insignificant and acutely aware that your eventual fate is much the same.

The jarring lack of individual permanence in the Catacombs was sharply contrasted by the history preserved in countless, stunning museums. I was floored by the volume of art. To be honest, I don’t know much about art – my knowledge is probably on par with the average person.  I know some artists and the names of a few pieces, but that’s about it. But visits to museums provided a window into people’s lives – individual narratives that I could follow.  In particular, I was enthralled with impressionism and the lives and works of Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh. I could trace the trajectories of their careers and lives: the challenges they faced, the families they raised, the places they lived.  I felt a tenuous connection to them as individuals.  But when I thought about the individuals represented in the museums, it’s a frighteningly small percentage of the people who lived in their era. The likelihood that anyone reading this insignificant blog post will leave some form of lasting legacy…  a rather depressing thought.  Nonetheless, the museums provided a foggy window into lives that still have a legacy today.

Starry Night Over the Rhone

Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I don’t intend for any of this to come across as profound, because it’s undoubtedly not. But it left me with considerable perspective from which to reflect on my life. What have I done with my life thus far? Why do I feel compelled to leave something of importance behind after I die? Will that legacy be important to me and those near me, or could it have some larger importance? Is it even reasonable to think I have the potential to leave some form of legacy? I still have more questions than answers, but grappling with these questions has left me with some clarity with which to move forward.

Picking Hops at UBC Farm

Picking hops at UBC Farm

First and foremost, I am happiest when practicing a craft. As such, I need to spend more time day-to-day as a craftsperson. I don’t expect any lasting legacy from this work, but there’s considerable self-fulfillment to be found in practicing a craft amidst a community of like-minded individuals. My work in edtech has largely been driven by community, characterized in recent years by those who have congregated around ds106radio. (My contributions are minimal and I’m no Jim Groom, Brian LambAudrey Watters or Grant Potter – I only mean to say that’s the community that inspires me). Similarly, I’ve become an avid homebrewer due to my love of the craft and the vast community that surrounds it. I came across a Van Gogh quote on the trip that captures my love of craft and community: “I know how much I still have to learn myself, but all the same I’m beginning to see light ahead of me and, one way or another, by practising on my own, by learning anything I can from others, I’ll continue to paint with passion” (Van Gogh, 22 Oct 1883). Whether it’s brewing, cooking, farming, music, software craftsmanship, systems administration, solving problems, or writing – I need to make craft a priority, personally and professionally. Hell, maybe I’ll take up painting.

Secondly, I need to come to terms with my mortality and that of those I love. I am fortunate to be in reasonably decent health and I haven’t lost many people in my life. But this will not always be the case. I have been fixated on illness and death for quite some time and I need to get over it. I need to find some way to accept death.  I need to take better care of myself (namely, lose weight) and stop worrying. On a train from Paris to Amsterdam, I was listening to The Japandroids and as the refrain goes in Young Hearts Spark Fire: “We used to dream, now we worry about dying … and I don’t wanna worry about dying, I just wanna worry about those Sunshine Girls”. It’s no master piece of art, but the passion is there. What matters is the present and it’s where I need to be living. More dreaming, more living.

Finally, I need to focus on family. Time passes so easily and I don’t make enough time for family. I need to make this a priority immediately. More FaceTime, more email, more phone calls, and more face-to-face visits. It’s also time to start a family of my own, which raises a barrage of questions like ‘should we buy a house?’ and ‘where?’ I am excited and terrified in equal proportions. A friend whom I won’t name here, has commented that while his wife is pregnant, he has trouble sleeping – lying awake, worrying about how to provide for them. I suspect I will be of a similar disposition. Having this in the forefront of my mind has certainly changed my thinking in recent weeks.

But getting back to permanence…  I’m left with the impression that permanence is fleeting and unlikely. Electronic artifacts are easily destroyed, by accident or malicious intent, or en masse by something like a coronal mass ejections. Even physical artifacts, like works of art, can be stolen and haphazardly destroyed. It’s depressing, but it’s a reminder to live in the present. Sing with your friends. Have fun. Make the most of the moments we’re afforded. It’s such a cliché, but with good reason. In the end, permanence is found in those you share your life with, which is why I’m rambling here to all of y’all…


Written by jlongland

November 26, 2013 at 9:18 pm

Posted in Uncategorized