I started this post in March, before I left New York and before my dad was in the hospital. I didn’t realize then that my timing would be perfect, allowing me to move back to California to be with my family when they needed me. When I first wrote this, I saved it as a draft and stopped myself from publishing it out of fear that no one would want to hire a web editor who had fallen out of love with tech.
But I’ve decided to fuck it, fear less and write more. So I’m publishing it now, and I’ll expand on it further, because I feel like my brain is actually changing shape the more time I take off from the ADD web.
I know that I’m lucky to have had a career on the web, and I hope to continue it. And I know I’m even luckier to be able to take this break; not everyone can afford to take time off. I will try not to take it for granted.
It’s my first work-from-home day. I am doing major spring cleaning in my room and setting up my workstation for writing and research. The laundry is tumbling away in the machine in our basement. I am using a desk lamp in order to get the light I need for reading. I purchased a new laptop and, other than the faintest hum from my external hard drive, I am working in sweet, sweet silence. It is marvelous.
That stillness, both atmospheric and internal, is what I have really been craving lately. New York City can be an overstimulating place to live in. When I got back from Sweden, I remember how hard it was for my brain to tune things out while I rode the subway — the smell of other people’s damp coats, the inane conversation about department store return policies, the wailing children clambering to look out the window and their exhausted parents pulling them back down. I haven’t fully recovered, actually. I still find it difficult to put my earbuds in and listen to music while there is so much visual noise happening around me. I long for books with broader pages so I can cut the movement of other riders out of my peripheral vision.
Working in the tech field was changing the way I communicated. I would come into work every day to deal with over 100 e-mails, while the different chat streams I used would ping warnings in multiple corners of my screen. Notifications ticked forward in tabs and headers, tantalizing in read-me-now red. My phone would beep and buzz with text messages and alarms. Each stream was meant to steal me away from another stream, and did so successfully.
Reading, both books and on the web, had become increasingly difficult. Writing felt impossible. These two things, which were such sustenance to me for most of my life, felt like long forgotten skills.
Technology has enabled many streams of communication. I can video chat with anyone around the world in real time, or Skype around the world for free; At the same time, those different streams have fractured our attention.
We live in an increasingly visual culture, one that sometimes disdains the rules and nuances of the written word. Rather than use words to express emotion, lots of people prefer to use memes and animated gifs, most often pop culture references; these might use a recipient’s relationship with a TV show as a conduit through which to bridge a tenuous connection. I wonder if screen addicts will ever know the pleasure of being so immersed in other people’s company that nobody reaches for their phone, hoping for a brief escape into something more interesting than the people they’re with.
Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Vine — the cult of visual ephemera rules right now. I’ve never been able to latch on. I was an English major, am a writer, and an amateur polyglot. I’m a luddite who loves the old technology of language, a seemingly obsolescent form of communication.
I look back at the activities I took up over the last year and I can see that they were all yearnings for human connection. My foray into swing dancing gave me an hour a week of physical communication with strangers. Learning Hungarian was another way for me to grasp at words.
When I realized I needed a hard reset, I put together a plan to restore my brain. I started small, first by buying physical books of poetry (Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins and Leaves of Grass). Reading brief text with a lot of white space helped to keep me focused on the page.
I went to the stationery store and bought a ridiculous amount of cards and letter writing materials. (Do you know how hard it is to find stationery sets these days? I went to two very popular paper stores and there were only about 8 sets to choose from. Nobody cares about letter writing anymore.)
I wrote to close friends. I wrote to faraway friends. I thought about how to articulate my feelings before committing them to the pretty, blank sheets. My handwriting was chicken-scratchy at times (apparently, I’m not alone — this fantastic Esquire article on the USPS talks about how the machines that read our addresses have had to adjust to worsening penmanship), and my thoughts would ping from one tangent to the next, just as they were disobediently bouncing around in my head. But each letter gave me a bit more confidence, a bit more assuredness that I knew what I was experiencing and I knew what the solution needed to be. And each response that came back to me was a transitive touch on the hand, the ink lettering as unique and expressive as the words themselves.
After I had sent some of these letters out, I came across this fitting passage in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience:
If the only point to writing were to transmit information, then it would deserve to become obsolete. But the point of writing is to create information, not simply to pass it along. In the past, educated persons used journals and personal correspondence to put their experiences into words, which allowed them to reflect on what had happened during the day…It is the slow, organically gorowing process of thought involved in writing that lets the ideas emerge in the first place.
And today, I’m here, back on ye old blog, stretching out muscles that haven’t been active in a long time. This is a big accomplishment for me. It feels right, and it feels good. Even if my thoughts are not yet plaiting together as neatly and beautifully as I want them to, I know the first step is to untangle them.