Every couple of weeks – especially as weather warms toward summer – my seven year old daughter and I have what has become known as “adventure day.” We put on clothes suitable for the weather and head outside, usually to a local park or nature preserve, but sometimes just down the path behind the house, with the intent to explore. One late spring morning, as we meandered through newly greened woods, stepping over old logs and around patches of unfurling ferns, we came upon a grove of lupines. Seeds from the neighbor’s gardens had migrated over to this secluded patch of forgotten forest to claim the clearing we’d stumbled upon. There must have been at least thirty purple, blue, and pink flowers, some nearly four feet tall, offering us their jewel-like splendor that day. Exploring our immediate area resulted in discovering a treasure trove of late spring wonder. Forgetting my phone was the unexpected bonus – doing so offered an opportunity to be fully present, instead of plucking myself out of the moment to snap a photo and post about it on social media.
I’m still working on my photo/presence balance, but it’s getting better.
A few years ago, I got really sick. I got a poetry collection out of it [coming in November!], but at the time it wasn’t what I would call a good time. For nearly eight months, I struggled with a mysterious illness that persisted well after all the doctors I saw said, “You should start feeling better soon” while handing me their prescription recommendations and saying things like, “but you don’t LOOK sick.” I still wonder where the those three seasons went, or where I was for them, and I’m still processing the anger I felt when I couldn’t figure out how to get better physically. When the fog finally started to lift, it felt a little like waking up from a dream, the scary or depressing kind that you are ready to leave behind. The issues that came to light during my illness didn’t just vanish, so I remain diligent about continuing to look at them: the need to be in control, to be viewed as competent and in the know, the constant push to do more and be more, the desire to prove my worth. Maybe it helps just to have clarified the issues – to have called them out. The exploration of what brings healing after a period of struggle can be confusing time. My work is not done, but a bit more of a path has been cleared now. Bring present enough to notice wildflowers helps.
Heading outside the first few weeks I felt up for it again (after so many months of needing physical rest) served as a reminder that I am most content when in the “here and now” with myself, others, and the natural things of the world. Moving through a quiet forest, roaming with a child around a shimmering lake, following a deer path along a ridge, breathing in crisp, fresh air — these things are what is real and what matters. It’s not the photo I take or the likes that it gets on instagram, or the new followers that it entices to join my virtual following (um, but thanks for being here..). It’s the actual experience. Perhaps this is obvious, but then again, it’s easy to forget in this social media driven culture in which so many of us have become fully invested. I need to check myself regularly – it’s all too easy to get sucked into the allure of virtual validation.
Writer David Cain blogged once about his desire to put the internet in the basement – he declared he’d reached “peak internet” for himself. Ironically, the basement is where the little router box that provides our wifi lives in our house. But, as it is in most modern spaces, the internet is pervasive. It seems to be able to find its way into every nook and cranny. Its allure is addicting , and I don’t like how it seems to dictate what I do and how I spend my time. Attention economy is a thing these days, you know. Our attention is a valuable commodity. (And that scrolling motion? That’s actually addicting, kind of like a slot machine is addicting. It’s that aspect of the unknown, the “what if I see something really great next…just ..a few…more….scrolls…..” There are various delays and algorithms engineered into social media apps precisely to get a person to use the app for a longer period of time.)
I am old enough to remember the days when the internet was still a destination – something you had to either go to (i.e. the library) to or wait for (i.e. dial-up). It was annoying at the time, and having to do that now is almost unthinkable. *Unless you are a digital minimalist, which is also now a thing. Despite the annoyance, that distance was somewhat freeing. There are countless memes that express sentiments like “offline is the new luxury,” and perhaps that’s the truth, at least for the average middle class individual. The rise of internet technology has provided more opportunities for communication, the globalization of communities, and connection to more options than ever before. Those things offer a sense of “freedom” as well, of course: To do or connect with whatever you want.
[aside: I heard author Dave Treuer speak the other day, about his new book Heartbeat of Wounded Knee – and he mentioned that while many Native folks on reservations don’t have computers, or even a consistent living arrangement, they do have phones, and that has proven an important tool, one that has allowed them to continue to adapt and build resiliency while facing a culture that so often doesn’t offer equality and respect. Basically, there’s another whole blog post or 17 that could be written about how disconnecting just isn’t the best, or a viable, option for many groups of folks. Being able to do so by choice is a function of privilege.]
But those who have the choice…. the internet and our devices keep us, in a sense, captive to the quest to always be searching. To “find our tribe” our most well-suited hobbies or our dream vocation or the healthiest and most super of foods. That sort of “freedom” can prevent us from investing fully in what is right in front of our faces. What if we focused on getting what we needed, whether that be community or hobbies or jobs or entertainment or food, from the ten to twenty miles around our homes?
What if we weren’t made to exist in global communities? What if we really did keep the internet in the basement, only to take it out when it was truly needed as a tool or on special occasions for specific purposes? What if we only used smartphones for emergencies, like navigating an unfamiliar city at night? I remember that world, and even though my current employment and projects literally depend on the easy access to the internet, I miss parts of it.
All of this to say, I have found that my health and wellbeing depends on fostering the right balance of analog and digital in this digital focused world. I have read three books in quick succession on how to live better with technology, and they all point toward the same basic principles — and they are things we know already, deep in our bones: Be where you are. Develop the capacity to notice the details of the days. Reclaim your attention from that which wants to make it a commodity on the open market. Use new technology, but don’t let it use you. Take time to explore what exists right outside the front door, from local flora and fauna to community to resources. Ensure your energy is being directed toward what is truly life-giving.
What does life belong to? This is a question we could all do well to ask on a regular basis. I will be asking myself this over and over again, because staying present and aware in the age of the internet, in the age of the “attention economy,” must be a daily practice. We must remember that true exploration takes investment in the here and now. We must reclaim the capacity to walk out back, without a phone. We must reclaim our attention and offer it to things like wild lupines that dance in a late spring breeze, offering themselves to us when we take the time to notice.
The three books: