Reclaiming our lives from screens

Camden and Regent's Park area
Near our London neighborhood (May 2016).

Spring is coming slowly to Virginia. I feel fairly desperate for it, on the eve of snowfall.

I have been thinking about the season and its association with new beginnings. Recently, I was in Austin for SXSW with my team, and a subtle theme emerged from many of the presentations: Maybe technology isn’t all that good for our well-being. Maybe so much “innovation” is just making us sad and insane and lonely.

We were pondering the ways that people in 2018 are trying to become more human again. Increasingly, we’re feeling this urge to sever our ties to social media and detach from our soul-crushing dependence on digital devices.

In the midst of these conversations in Austin, I was plowing through Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Death of the Heart. This passage kept coming to mind as a tangential example of life, the freedom of the mind and body, the particular independence that we have as liberated creatures.

“To the person out walking that first evening of spring, nothing appears inanimate, nothing not sentient: darkening chimneys, viaducts, villas, glass-and-steel factories, chain stores seem to strike as deep as natural rocks, seem not only to exist but to dream. Atoms of light quiver between the branches of stretching-up black trees. It is in this unearthly first hour of spring twilight that earth’s almost agonised livingness is most felt. This hour is so dreadful to some people that they hurry indoors and turn on the lights—they are pursued by the scent of violets sold on the kerb.” — Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart

What a pleasure to be alive in such a season! And all of these details, so finely observed, could only come from someone who has never gotten a crick in her neck from staring at her Instagram feed for an hour.

You can tell from my recent posts, but 2018 is my year of fighting against being hijacked by technology. I want to be alive and in the world the way that Bowen was. Following are some of the small ways I’m reclaiming my life.

Focus on print.

I’m reading all the time, all day long, but I want to read for depth and comprehension. If this is my aim, the best way to read is in print. It’s far better for our brains and eyes and memories.

I am still a print-only reader of books, but in further pursuit of this effort, I’ve greatly reduced my online news diet. I try to read a bit in the New Yorker when it comes and receive a few newsy email digests, but that’s it now. I don’t keep up with the news in this feverish way that I once did. And it’s wonderful. I’m so happy about it. (For more inspiration in this area, see Farhad Manjoo’s piece in the New York Times about how he only read print newspapers for two months.)

Treat my phone like a landline.

Guion and I have been trying this one out: When we’re home, our phones live in one place. We don’t take them around the house with us, from room to room. We deposit them on a particular counter when we come home, and that’s where they live.

This small domestic habit has surprisingly profound effects on our ability to resist distraction and read and write and talk to each other. It is both depressing and heartening, to discover that such a small behavioral shift can have such a significant impact on our evenings.

Check Twitter only once or twice a week.

Twitter is so unfortunate! These days, I avoid it as much as I can and post primarily to complain about my dogs or share a quote. I sense my anxiety, my babbling technostress, and my cynicism increasing the longer I scroll through my feed. Now, I log on mostly to see what beautiful paintings Rabih Alameddine has posted or if Lulu has any new quips. That’s it.

Wait without looking at my phone.

I’ve been working on resisting the allure of my phone whenever I’m waiting. It’s a small choice, and one that seems to reek of sanctimony, but I’ve sincerely enjoyed this new habit.

Whenever we’re alone, our necks are tilted down at our phones. I do it too. And it’s incredible how blank the mind goes when we’re looking at a screen. We just turn off to the world. We barely exist in a given environment when we’re deep in our phones.

The smartphone is a pacifier. The device is burning with heat in our pockets, and we can’t resist it: We don’t want to feel or look lonely. It’s frightening to be too intimate with our thoughts and fears and desires. The phone distracts us from our inner life, makes us feel busy, envious, mildly piqued—anything but alone.

This insignificant choice, waiting without relying on my phone to comfort me, has had such a powerful effect on my mental state. I did not expect it. It’s as if I was remembering how to see again, how to observe the world around me. I’m particularly floored by this one. It made me realize how reliant I have been on my phone to placate me when I’m alone.

Consider the body.

It’s well documented that our devices are bad for our minds (pick a modern plague, any plague: anxiety, addiction, stress, self-esteem, fake news, porn, etc.). But our phones and laptops are also bad for our flesh-and-blood bodies.

This practice of waiting without looking at my phone has also made me incredibly conscious of my body: how it works for me, how it feels, how I carry myself. My posture has been wrecked by years of peering at screens. I still need to work on this one. If anyone has any good posture tips for maintenance throughout the day, please share; I’m all ears.

Hold things in the mind.

I rely on my phone to remember everything for me. I used to have a strong memory; I used to memorize full speeches and poems, and once, in my fervent youth, entire (albeit short) books of the Bible. But now? I have to make a list even if it just contains three items. Our memories have grown despairingly weak. Because we don’t need to remember anything anymore: This is what our devices are for. Convenient props for the mind.

I’ve been thinking about memory for years, since being so fascinated by Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, and I have realized how much my brain power improves when my device isn’t a mental crutch. For me, an act as small as taking notes by hand, with a pen on paper, is a tiny step in the right direction.

Cherish everything that has no digital life.

Your stupid German shepherds who dig trenches in your backyard because they’re bored. Your shelf full of dog-eared paperbacks. Your weak-limbed daffodils crushed by March snow. Your friend’s baby, who has no idea who the president is and doesn’t care about the moronic thing he said today. Your church’s community dinner that follows the service. Your grandfather. These are some of the things that can bring us back to ourselves.

Here’s the concluding hope:

People are getting smarter about tech usage. We’re all a little less naïve about the consequences of our digital dependence. In the wake of the latest Facebook scandal and just overall, more and more people are getting off social media. Surely some new, terrible platform will replace Facebook and Twitter, but I believe we could be witnessing the twilight of their popularity. Maybe we can collectively turn the tide before it’s too late for our hearts and minds.

Amid the Russian bots and fake news and conspiracy theories and data breaches, I feel buoyed by a little hope. Every sign-off, every step away from the machine is optimism. Humans are taking back small measures of their humanity.

Her towels, her house

A pair of colorful beach towels, folded so that they resemble books on a shelf, reside in my coat closet. I have left them there, undisturbed, for almost a year now. They belonged to my grandmother. She died a year ago today.

Oddly enough, I have strong memories of these towels. Ma-Maw would wrap us kids up in them when we’d dash into their house from the lake. We’d be shivering in the freezing house, dripping all over her floors in our Disney one-pieces, and she’d have a stack of these big beach towels by the door to fold us in.

The towels came into my possession when my mother gave me three framed prints from Japan that lived in my grandparents’ house.

Home, August 2016
One of the prints.

I had always loved these prints, as a child, because of my study of Japanese, and I was honored to receive them. To protect the frames in the car, Mom had wrapped them in these two towels.

When I unwrapped the prints, shortly after her funeral, I burst into tears in my dining room. Not because of the art but because of the towels. The towels smelled exactly like her. It was as if she was suddenly in the room next to me. My eyes still swim with tears when I remember this, which is strange, that the mere memory of a scent could produce such a strong reaction.

The towels don’t really smell like her anymore. Over the past year, they’ve absorbed our scent, whatever it is (probably a mix of old books and German shepherd dander), and lost hers. But if I bury my face in them, nose deep into the well-worn fibers, I can pick up the faintest hint of her.

I am not sentimental about objects. I throw everything away with gleeful fervor. But these towels, weird as they may be, may always live in my closet, untouched, unused.

Sapona Lane
Me, in front of their house, in August 1995, apparently.

The last time we saw my grandparents’ house was the day of my grandmother’s funeral. All 10 of us grandkids went together, as a final pilgrimage to the house that we so adored.

We silently split up and wandered through the house, each of us taking a separate path, seeking out the room we had most loved: And I remember how sad and somber it felt, because she was not there. The house itself seemed to wilt. There were mildewy patterns on the gingerbread trim. Even the shadows seemed gloomy. The things that were once cute—a concrete owl on the front porch, her numerous rabbit figurines—now were strange and sad.

Grandkids at Sapona Lane
The last time we saw the house. March 2016.

“It was as if the house knew they weren’t living there anymore,” I told my mother, and she agreed. The house took on a grief of its own.

The house is sold now, and I am glad of it. Not only because of the needed income for my grandfather but because it would be horrible to keep thinking of it empty, without the two of them. The house needs a new life, just as we do.

I don’t think I’ll ever get over the loss of her. I don’t expect to. But it is comforting to remember her, in all of the ways that she resurfaces in my life.

In three ways

At work
New work space.

“Nobody was taking any notice of me yet there was a lovely comforting sensation that beneficent things were being done for me somewhere. I think, as human experiences go, that is one of my favourite ones.” — Claire-Louise Bennett, Pond

Lies I tell at parties

“I’m not much of a hypochondriac.”

“We don’t really watch that much TV.”

“Isn’t that cake delicious? It’s so good, wow.”

How a conversation can collapse (a humorous exhibit)

Man 1: My son married his sister [pointing to other man off stage]. Isn’t that funny? We’ve become like a clan. You [looking at me] should probably get in on this and marry one of them too.

Me: Oh, it’s too late for me.

Man 2: Don’t say that. I had a friend once who got married at 60…

Woman 1: I don’t think that’s what she means. I think she means she’s already married.

Me: Yes. I am married.

Man 2: Oh, I’m sorry. I…

Man 1: Let’s continue our tour.

Mornings and aliens

November home life
The fiddle-leaf fig is feeling cornered.

We have breakfast together now, perhaps for the first time in our marriage. Our previous day jobs were structured so that our mornings rarely overlapped. A shared breakfast is pleasant, even if it is short.

He tells me some music news that completely sails over my head; I make lists on scraps of paper; one of us will feed the overeager dogs.

We sit down at the table, facing each other. We each have a cup of Yorkshire Gold (Sgt. Brody’s favorite) and talk about what we’ve read or are thinking about. We are interrupted by getting up and down to let Eden out into the yard. Lately, we tend to share dark and gloomy political predictions. We wax poetic about all the ways America will go wrong in the next four years.

This morning, he regaled me with ideas from an article about intelligent life and made me feel anxious about (a) finding it in a far-off galaxy and then (b) being obliterated by it because it will not value human consciousness.

“They will not recognize the value of preserving consciousness,” he said, “because they will have no need for it.”

“So, they’ll see us like chickens?”

“Yes. And feel the same way we do about eating chickens. No moral hesitation.”

He stood up to leave, already a minute past the time he was supposed to be at work.

“Wait, I have a thing!” I said. “Listen to my thing.”

And I told him about a law in Nebraska that let parents abandon children without legal repercussions, but the law forgot to stipulate an age limit, and so within days, dozens of parents were dropping off kids from the ages of 3 to 17. It was the lead of an article that Catherine sent me yesterday.

“You would read a thing like that,” he said. And kissed my cheek. And we left for work.

(But really, where did Sgt. Brody learn to love Yorkshire Gold? It is not easily found in our shared state of Virginia; I have to buy it online. And as far as we know, he never lived in England. I call foul on this choice by the screenwriters.)

A piece of a wasted hour

October with Wei
Virginia is perfect this time of year. (A vineyard nearby.)

“Still, a great deal of light falls on everything.” — Vincent van Gogh, in a letter

Annals of Everyday Sexism, No. 1,204

I told him some about my new job and what I would be doing and how I was so excited about it, about the work itself and about all of the new challenges and opportunities it would bring.

“It sounds like Guion and I would be better at that job than you would be,” he said as soon as I finished.

I blinked. “No,” I said. “I don’t think so.”

“Really?”

“Yes,” I said, and then with uncharacteristic firmness, “I am going to be great at this job.” My blood was feeling hot in my face.

He furrowed his brows, implying he didn’t believe me. But for once, I had a retort ready.

“Just because I’m not constantly talking about myself and how great I am all the time doesn’t mean I don’t have any skills,” I said, turning away.

“Oh, you’re adorable,” he said, in the purest of patronizing tones. And all this despite the fact that he is several years younger than me.

(You are not surprised when it happens, this kind of thing, because it has been happening all your life, but you are now almost 30 and ready to say something about it when it does. To name a thing, to call it what it is, to not hedge anymore.)

That said, I just finished the first week at my new job, and I am feeling all of the good feels: happy, grateful, fortunate, enlightened, challenged, hopeful, thrilled, capable, eager.

“Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened, and its deepest mystery probed?” — Annie Dillard

I just finished The Abundance, which I thought was a new collection of Annie Dillard essays because I didn’t read the subtitle carefully. It isn’t; it’s almost entirely old stuff, repackaged. But her old stuff is still beautiful and challenging and mind-expanding, and I was happy to re-read it. If I ever were to aspire to nonfiction in this way, Dillard is all that I could ever hope to be. Her boundless curiosity, her lyricism, her patience, her directness. It will always be difficult to convince me than any other American essayist can surpass her.

Up next on the reading docket: A big haul from the library book sale (somewhat thick, heady European novels that have been on my list for a long time + James Baldwin + John McPhee + Simone de Beauvoir’s short stories) and the Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector (I’m scared).

Night and day

I recently found my 100-page diary (titled Night and Day), which I maintained in a password-protected Word doc from the summer of 2006 to the summer of 2009. It’s solid-gold humiliation material. So much moony behavior; so deadly serious most of the time, too. I was very dramatic about boys, of course, and there was a lot of hyper-piety in there, too, along with some vapid musings about what I was reading and thinking about. It’s tremendously entertaining and it wants to make me bite all my nails off. 

Ten years hence, it is nice to be older, to be relatively self-aware. I no longer look at myself as this grandstanding literary heroine. I feel very subdued and normal and problematic. But I still wonder if I will feel a similar sense of shame when I am 38 and I stumble on this blog.

(Probably.)

Original 6
Original 6 with Scoop. (We have a habit of stealing neighbors’ dogs.)

My life is so good right now, and I wouldn’t change anything about its domestic arrangement, but I was thinking about how fun and lively it was when it was just the nuclear family: the four siblings and Mom and Dad, at home together all the time. We had a really good time together, the Original 6. We were noisy and all-consuming and imaginative. We spent a lot of time outdoors, and if we were indoors, we were dressing up in costumes and building sofa forts and Lego universes. Mom and Dad gave us this childhood that I recall as this unbroken reel of happiness. I shared a big bedroom (the Harem) with Kelsey and Grace during my last years at home, and it was the most fun and the most annoying all at once. We were always in each other’s business.

(I’ve been digitally archiving piles of family photos, and it’s making me feel nostalgic.)

This rush of nostalgia helps me understand, for the first time, how sad my family was when I went to college. Being the eldest, I was the first to go; I was elated and I couldn’t even fathom why they were so gloomy. But I understand a bit of it now. They weren’t going to miss me (I was a skinny tyrant) — they were mourning the loss of wholeness of the family.

It is necessary and good that children grow up and want to leave home. Can you imagine the hellishness if we all still lived with our parents and tried to replicate our childhood relationships with them and our siblings, forever? I recognize this fully. But I still like to indulge in that sweet sadness of remembering what was. It is good to remember and to be happy for what you shared together.

Farsons
Original 4 on Kelsey’s 9th birthday.

Multitudinous selves

Day two
From our second day in Paris; magical mini-canal in some park.

(It’s the most cliché thing, but re-reading Proust makes me feel like I should live in Paris. We should all live in Paris. It’s the only city, right?)

Totally blissed out, throwing so much shade #gsdofinstagram #germanshepherd #doglife #shade
Eden, on Saturday.

I think about dogs a lot; probably 30% of my waking life is thinking about dogs. And I have two extremely high-maintenance dogs who are constantly underfoot, and I write a dog blog, and YET, whenever I see photos of dogs in a news story or a live dog walking down the street, my first thought, every single time, is: I need MORE dogs in my life. I inherited this brokenness from my father. I asked him once why he thought we were both so obsessed with dogs, to an almost debilitating degree. And he answered quickly, without thinking: “It’s probably because our parents didn’t love us enough.”

Walt Whitman lived at peace with the fact that he contradicted himself. He said that he contained multitudes. Proust asks the next question. How much of one’s multitudinous self can a person reveal or embody at one time? The first answer is plain common sense; it all depends. It depends on many things, from chance and volition to memory and forgetting. The second answer is categorical. No matter how we go about it, we cannot be all of ourselves all at once. Narrow light beams of perception and of recollection illuminate the present and the past in vivid fragments. The clarity of those fragments is sometimes very great. They may even overlap and reinforce one another. However, to summon our entire self into simultaneous existence lies beyond our powers. We live by synecdoche, by cycles of being. More profoundly than any other novelist, Proust perceived this state of things and worked as an economist of the personality.

— Proust’s Way, Roger Shattuck

Discussing Swann’s Way with my book club next week, and I am doing an unnecessary amount of prep to lead the discussion, but I love it so much; I love being steeped in it.

I feel really happy and hopeful and distractible. I am trying to write more, and it is going mostly badly, but I feel free about it. And maybe that, that sense of liberty, has been the goal all along.

An invisible package of unearned assets

Versailles
A statue at Versailles.

“I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.”

— Peggy MacIntosh (1988), quoted in What Does It Mean to Be White?, by Robin DiAngelo (2012)

I have been thinking about this quote so much this week. I read African-American writers all summer but had been lulled into this sense that I was somehow removed from the ongoing struggle for civil rights in America, that it was not about me, a white woman; it was a cause to care about and advocate for but somehow outside my purview or even responsibility. DiAngelo’s book was an experience of having the scales fall from my eyes. I have been thinking about white complicity for some months now, but nowhere nearly as deeply as I have upon reading What Does It Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy. I have so much more to say and process on the subject, but I feel like (a) I’m having a personal awakening, and (b) I’m ashamed that it’s taken me this long. Please forgive me. Forgive me for my lifetime of white blindness. I am working on myself.

And it is always good to be outside oneself, to focus sincerely on someone else and her life or his experiences.

I whipped myself into a brief rage today over something very trivial, a benefit that I was usually given that was temporarily taken away (only for a day!), and I was angry until my (weird/genial) coworker asked me to touch his hair and assess if my curly-girl recommendations were working, and I thought, Oh, this person is ridiculous, and I am being ridiculous, and everything is going to be fine. Drink some green tea and get over yourself, Self.

Currently reading:

  • The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, ed. Jesmyn Ward
  • The End of the Story, Lydia Davis
  • Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, Mary Roach
  • In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way: A Graphic Novel, Stéphane Heuet

All that exists seduces

Front yard, Aug. 2016
Happy hostas and hydrangea in the front yard.

Life, my love, is a great seduction in which all that exists seduces.

— Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G.H. 

(It’s going to be very Clarice-y around here until I finish The Passion According to G.H.)

I haven’t thought about Trump for days. I am at peace. I am looking forward to not thinking about him ever again for years upon years.

I am forcing my book club to read Swann’s Way, and I am so looking forward to talking with them about it. I re-read it (the glorious Lydia Davis* translation) this summer, mostly sprawled in an uncomfortable armchair in our London flat, and was continually hushed and inspired. I think I may start reading a volume a year again.

*Lydia Davis, QUEEN OF MY HEART, is a visiting fellow at the University of Virginia this semester, and I am going to every event she does here. Every one. My goal is for her to leave Charlottesville and be all, Who was that curly-haired goon who sat in the front row of all my lectures?

It is idle to fault a net for having holes

Home, August 2016
Japanese print in our dining room. Formerly hung in my beloved grandparents’ home.

“Am I disorganized because I lost something I didn’t need? In this new cowardice of mine—cowardice is the newest thing to happen to me, it’s my greatest adventure, this cowardice of mine is a field so wide that only the great courage leads me to accept it—in my new cowardice, which is like waking one morning in a foreigner’s house, I don’t know if I’ll have the courage just to go. It’s hard to get lost. It’s so hard that I’ll probably quickly figure out some way to find myself, even if finding myself is once again my vital lie. Until now finding myself was already having an idea of a person and fitting myself into it: I’d incarnate myself into this organized person, and didn’t even feel the great effort of construction that is living. The idea I had of what a person is came from my third leg, the one that pinned me to the ground. But, and now? Will I be freer?”

— The Passion According to G.H., Clarice Lispector (translation by Idra Novey)

Clarice Lispector is blowing my mind right now. I don’t know what she’s on about 50% of the time, but I am so in. I’m committed to whatever game she is playing.

“Don’t you try to Ryan Lochte your way out of this one,” Guion said to me, during a recent disagreement. Normally, we both would have laughed at this off-the-cuff cultural appropriation, but we were too deadly serious in the moment to even crack a smile. I think we can laugh about it now, though, now that “to Ryan Lochte” has become a verb.

No one is ever at the same “life stage” as anyone else and that is OK. (A recent realization.) I used to think “same life stage” was a precursor to deep friendship. It certainly makes it easier to forge a connection with people who are in the same general social/relational place as you (e.g., single, dating, consciously not dating, married but childless, married with just one child, etc.), but I’ve ceased to believe that it is a prerequisite or even preferable. It is silly of me to think that (a) people will always be around who map their lives to my life stage and (b) when they cease to share my life stage, this occasions a natural breakdown of the friendship. Neither is true. When a life stage changes, we may have to work harder to maintain that bond, to find time to see each other, but it is not a moment for grief or an ending. It is good to have people in one’s life who are not consumed with exactly the same things. It is good to be around people who know nothing of your life stage. It is broadening, deepening, humbling.

Charlottesville 2.0 (our post-Europe life) so far has been a continual lesson in patience. And a reminder of the rich, unspoken joys of our community here.

Even amid the oppressive heat and the skunks residing under our shed, everything about my daily life remains good and solid and happy because Mom gave me an e-cloth mop upon our return to America, and it is all I ever dreamed about and more.

*Post title comes from The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson, which she (apparently) lifted from her encyclopedia.