Mary Oliver in the Metaverse | Sojourners

Mary Oliver in the Metaverse


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At the end of October, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave us a sneak peek into the metaverse, an augmented reality platform where users can hang out in virtual spaces. In a short video, we can watch as Zuckerberg plays poker in outer space (virtually), floats alongside koi fish (virtually), and gawks at 3D street art (virtually).

In the metaverse, you don’t just curate your surroundings — you also curate your own avatar. One of Zuckerberg’s poker pals, for instance, arrived at the virtual party as a robot wearing a baseball cap.

Around that time, I paused the video and asked myself something I wonder often: What would Mary Oliver think of this if she were alive? I imagined her hopping around the metaverse as a grasshopper. Specifically, the grasshopper from her poem “Summer’s Day” — “moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down ... gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.”

Of course, if Mary Oliver lived long enough to be invited to a happy hour in the metaverse, it’s doubtful that she’d attend. She had roses to sniff and seashores to allegorize! Quite famously, in that same grasshopper poem, she asks someone — everyone? — “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” If we take her poetry as diary, Oliver spent her life “idle and blessed,” attentive and astonished. Attention, she wrote, is the beginning of devotion, and attentiveness, the building blocks of the soul.

Over the past month, our writers have pointed out just how fragile and thin-stretched our attention actually is. “Managing attention in a time like this can be incredibly difficult,” wrote columnist Faith-Marie Zamblé in “America May Not Have Bread But It Sure Has Circuses.” “How do we cultivate practices of attention that mirror the values we hold dear in a world that is constantly trying to distract?”

In “How the Metaverse Will Pull Us Further Apart,” columnist Amar D. Peterman presented virtual reality as a sorta souped-up disembodiment: “The virtual utopia that Zuckerberg’s metaverse offers will not lead to community or belonging, but rather it will exacerbate our social depravity by making participants less human.” Yikes.

Even Cole Arthur Riley, creator of the social media account @BlackLiturgies, expressed weariness over technology (Instagram’s best liturgist doesn’t have a smartphone!): “I’m not too keen on the idea of my art being a way to draw people into a technology that isn’t always helpful and healing and healthy,” she told columnist Jeania Ree V. Moore.

Once, on a backpacking trip to the Sierra Nevadas, my friend Gabrielle broke the silence that we’d carried with us all the way up a mountain: “It would take a thousand lives to take in all the beauty this world has to offer,” she said in a Mary Oliver-ly tone.

I hope to see a lot of mountains — a lot of beauty — in this lifetime, ideally without VR goggles on. But I’ll try not to overly pooh-pooh the experience of those who visit the Himalayas in the metaverse. After all, I’m not afraid of Zuckerberg’s digital koi fish or his virtual spaceship. I’m afraid of his budget. Meta is investing billions of dollars into the metaverse. In other words, a shady tech behemoth is literally paying for our attention. It’s a valuable thing, and I worry about how they’ll cash in. Stay vigilant, grasshoppers.

1. How the Metaverse Will Pull Us Further Apart by Amar D. Peterman
“The only sure promise of the metaverse is disembodiment.”

2. 24 Quotes on Giving Thanks, Justice, and Radical Gratitude by Olivia Bardo
Mary Oliver most definitely has a quote in this list.

3. @BlackLiturgies Expresses the Sacred Truth of Black Life by Jeania Ree V. Moore
Cole Arthur Riley's viral social media account reframes what “liturgical” language sounds like.

4. America May Not Have Bread But It Sure Has Circuses by Faith-Marie Zamblé
“Algorithms and endless queues of ‘related videos’ were not made to encourage human flourishing, but rather to benefit shameless tech companies and their investors.”

5. The Subversive, Sapphic Spiritual Lives of Nuns in ‘Matrix’ by Caroline McTeer
In Lauren Groff's new novel, nuns challenge the patriarchy but their leadership is neither pure nor innocent.

6. Home to Our Hallowed Memories by Abby Olcese
Grief, relationship, and sacred space in Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman.

7. A Public Advocate Takes the Stage by Andrea M. Couture
Through Theater of War, Brooklyn's Jumaane Williams helps audiences process tragedy.

8. Libraries Are Tools for Liberation by Matthew Vega
Libraries and radical reading groups are unique spaces where the revolutionary transformation of our minds can take place.

9. Kapernick’s Resilence Shines Despite Artistic Flaws in New Show by Rebecca Riley
“The heated discourse around Kaepernick’s protest has both magnified and minimized him, spotlighting one facet of who he is and leaving everything else out, making Kaepernick more symbol than man.”

10. Better Than Tinder by Jenna Barnett
I kissed dating goodbye and started washing people’s feet with my hair.

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