hanging up ~ a month of digital simplicity

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I’m not addicted to my cell phone.

Really.

Unfortunately, other people are addicted to my cell phone—as in, they expect me to answer said phone when it rings, and to respond to the various flashing and clicking of text messages that pose smoldering questions:

“Where are you?”

“Are you at home?”

“Can I call you?”

Other people expect me to receive email on this device (“Class is canceled” would have arrived 15 minutes before class was set to begin) and to keep my calendar updated electronically, mostly so I can confirm my availability without undue delay. To them, my phone is a computer … a lifestyle manager … a tracking device.

To me, my phone is … wait for it … a phone, albeit with a (Bonus!) zippy little camera.

This month, when I decided to turn my focus to simplifying my digital life, I knew where the struggle would lurk. I turned off my computer on the weekends (easy), eschewed electronic books all together (relieving), embarked on a blogging sabbatical (refreshing), and crafted all my writing by hand or on my manual typewriter before tackling revisions via word processing (time-consuming, yet awesome).

By mid-month I had also scrubbed my email inbox, my computer desktop, and the downloads folder on my laptop. For the record, I was not actually aware of the existence of a downloads folder on my laptop, so if we’re awarding points here, that should count for extra.

Chucking old computer files turned out to be much breezier than shuffling through boxes of paper. You click, you swipe, you empty the virtual trash. Whoosh! Celebrate with chocolate.

Sorting hundreds of digital photos proved more daunting, so I settled for backing those up via Dropbox and calling it good. Maybe I’ll learn to scrapbook someday. (Though I would almost certainly turn scrapbooking into a dizzying hobby of hoarding pretty paper and fancy cutters, so, best to avoid.)

Back to the cell phone. Because, as I said, no matter whatever mostly-feigned front of irresponsibility I submit to the world, my phone just keeps ringing and dinging.

Not too long ago, I didn’t even have a “mobile device.” I remember driving with my daughter when she was four or five and singing to herself in the back seat. Suddenly, she wanted to call my sister. We can’t call her, I explained. We don’t have a phone in our car. We giggled at the silliness of it all.

Today, a mere eight years later, I am expected to have a phone in the car, in the backyard, or somehow lashed to my body with elaborate cords of near-desperate connectivity—at all times. This expectation is not self-imposed. It is served with relish by a society that has come alarmingly close to perfecting instantaneous thought transfer from one human brain to another via overpriced technology.

Mostly I go along with this expectation with good enough humor. Other times I feel dangerously close to losing my mind. A few weeks after “upgrading” to my current phone, I was still frustrated by its tangles of noise and confusion. Learning how to use it made me feel snared, motivated, and inadequate at the same time.

“I don’t love it,” I admitted one day.

To which my daughter simply replied, “You’re not supposed to love it. It’s a phone.”

Wisdom. There’s no app for that.

Recently, this same child performed in her first official cello recital. I figured I’d better turn off my cell phone before the music began. The problem was, I didn’t know how to turn off my cell phone. I knew how to silence the ringer. I knew how to switch the setting to “Do Not Disturb.” But I had not yet mastered the art of making the little green and black rectangle that carries my address book, my alarm clock, and my most recent family photos actually power down into complete darkness.

Am I the only one troubled by that?

And so, I seriously considered reprogramming the thing to its factory settings and dropping it into the nearest trash receptacle or potted plant.

But, you know, my calendar is on there now, so how would I … oh wait. Maybe this addiction is mine to claim after all.

When my child started playing her cello piece, I naturally forgot all about the buzzing and blipping that is supposed to streamline my life. It turns out I don’t want to streamline my life. I want to live it.

The cello was invented in the 17th century. (For the record: I looked that up in an encyclopedia. Made of paper and cardboard and ink.)

My daughter, born at the dawning of the 21st century, coaxed such lovely and compelling music from the strings of her life that day—had one single note been interrupted by a mobile device I would have calmly ground the glass and metal and whatever-else-is-in-those-things to powder beneath my heel.

The other cellists from the school likewise blessed us with the eternal. Mozart (1756-1791). Bach (1685-1750). Boccherini (1743-1805). Shostakovich (1906-1975).

I didn’t take a single photograph or video of the cellists as they released lifetimes—centuries, really—of dedication, passion, and creativity. I was transfixed. Enchanted. Present.

I can easily describe in words the interruptions of today’s technobabble—the chimes and the blips, the dings and the beeps. I cannot, however, adequately describe the resonance of a cello. I cannot describe the surprising (and delighted?) chirping of the baby chickadee who hopped in front of my window this week trying to discern the nature of raindrops. I cannot adequately write about the rhythmic flapping of my dog’s ears as she shakes off motion itself and eases into a deep, deep rest at my feet.

These are sounds that must be settled in to with intention. These are sounds worth powering down to experience.

Perhaps the most radical act of simplicity in this culture of ours is to simply be—without recording or sharing or interrupting the unfurling of the present.

As another school year is folded away, so is my daughter’s school-district-issued Chromebook. She, as of yet, possesses no cell phone, no video games, no Facebook or Instagram account. What she does have is a bicycle and a backyard. A library. A cello. Time for the flowering of imagination. These gifts are among my best for her. She uses them abundantly, and she uses them well.

Welcome Summer. I hope you are not the last of your kind.

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