I hear the ringtone, Just Breathe, and it's coming closer, up the stairs. It stops just before she hands it to me. "Daddy called," she announces.
I put down the eyeliner, the brown pencil I didn't begin writing with until two months ago after the make-up artist at the wedding told me I was crazy to never wear eyeliner. I didn't want to be crazy, so I bought my first eyeliner at the ripe old age of 37. And now I'm still crazy, but with fancier makeup.
I dial him back as I walk downstairs. "Did you say you were going grocery shopping?" he asks.
I grab my coat. "Yeah, we're leaving now. Why?"
"There's been a shooting at the high school in Chardon, and it sounds like a bunch of areas are blocked off, including that shopping center."
Shocked, I pepper him with questions he doesn't have answers for, hang up and head for the computer. It's been barely more than a half hour since the shooting, and even within the major channels, rumors fly. Two shooters, no make that one. Not yet apprehended, wait--no, now he's in custody. Four students wounded. No make that five.
I want to cry. I want to race into my son's second grade class and hug him until my arms fall off. I want to erase it, rewind, turn it into a drill, a false alarm, anything but the tragedy it's shaping up to be.
Of course I can't find a way to do any of these things, not even to cry. I know better than to try to make sense of this sort of thing. And I know how little good it does to add my lifted fist to the thousands already shaking at the sky. So what's left, then, except to pull the ones I love closer, to write my way back from anger to gratitude, to pray my way back from fear to faith, to breathe.
I hear the ringtone, Just Breathe, and it's coming closer, up the stairs. It stops just before she hands it to me. "Daddy called," she announces.
Yes. I love the view from here.
Long before the explosion of social media and its underlying technology, I wrote nearly every day. As in writing on paper, with a pen. I copied down quotes I loved, wrote (stupid) poems, and generally poured my heart out in the typical cringe-worthy way of a teenager or young adult. Even to this day, I've shared very little from these volumes with anyone. I wrote for catharsis alone, to find out what I was thinking, uncensored, unedited, fearlessly, knowing I had no audience.
Now I very rarely write without an audience in mind, whether it's for the blog, an article pitch, a book idea. And then I wonder why I feel stifled, fearful, cautious, why my writing feels stilted and contrived. It has become less about what's in my heart and more about what image I want to project. Less about personal catharsis and more about connecting with the reader. And there's nothing wrong with connecting with the reader, but I'm wondering whether in this culture of pervasive technology and chronic over-sharing, that this lived-out-loud life is robbing us of something precious. Have we lost the capacity to feel without texting or calling or telling someone how we're feeling? To form opinions without sharing (and defending) them online? This practice, this art of introspection, staying within ourselves long enough to process thoughts and emotions, have we written over it entirely in our clambering to be heard above the constant clatter of social media?
In her book Alone Together, Sherry Turkle shares anecdotes and quotes from interviews with teenagers growing up in the age of hyper-connectedness. She reflects on how two high school seniors, Claudia and Julia, rely on texting as a nearly exclusive way of experiencing and validating their emotions. She writes:
"What is not being cultivated here is the ability to be alone and reflect on one's emotions in private. On the contrary, teenagers report discomfort when they are without their cell phones. They need to be connected in order to feel like themselves. Put in a more positive way, both Claudia and Julia share feelings as part of discovering them. They cultivate a collaborative self."
I reluctantly admit that this resonates with me. When I read a beautiful passage in a book, my first reaction is often to wonder where I might share it, whether in a blog post, on Twitter or Facebook. When I have a breakthrough in perspective, I begin crafting a post in my head, plotting how I might explain it to whoever is listening. When I see a beautiful sunrise, rather than letting the moment envelop me and getting lost in my own thoughts as I once would, my first thought now is to take a picture with my phone.
This constant deciphering whether a thought or moment or a scene is worth sharing (online, with friends or readers) becomes a distraction from the moment itself. And if it seems worth sharing, then immediately, I am gone from that moment of introspection and beauty, and fidgeting with my phone to text or post or snap a picture. But if I stay in that moment, stay in my own head and never share it, I miss out on validation. It feels "less real" somehow.
Now I realize that I am more engaged with social media and more dependent on technology (and by technology, I mean my blasted iPhone) than the average 30-something. In contrast, my husband and many of my closest friends do not blog or read blogs, rarely look at Facebook let alone update their status, and only use their phones for good old fashioned calls. What concerns me isn't necessarily the way my generation has or has not adapted to the internet age and embraced a tethered-to-technology way of living. I've lived more than half of my formative and adult years without this hyper-connectedness, and I know how to contrast it to the way I live now. I can catch myself in the error. I can correct my thinking, set limits as necessary, eliminate distractions, go back to the purity of journal writing.
What worries me is the generation growing up now, coming of age in a world where they don't know what it means to be "out of touch" with family or friends, even for an hour. Where life is lived as a series of status updates and wall posts and texts, all providing endless ways to compare themselves and feel inferior, endless ways to project an image while ignoring who it is they really are.
If I, with the confidence and wisdom that accompanies middle age, having had a host of life experiences and meaningful relationships, if I still struggle with feelings of inferiority (in the online comparison game no one wins), with feeling as though experiences are only validated if they are shared and seen, then how much more must a teenager struggle? I fear we have heaped upon them an impossible task, to come of age with a constant and cruel audience, leaving no room at all to cultivate the lost art of introspection.
With this in mind, I'd like to explore how we might rise above, be it as 41 or 14 year olds, to move beyond the distractions of this clattering, clambering online culture and to cultivate a quieter sense of self. I welcome your ideas, advice and perspective.
Do you identify with feeling more distracted and less free to be truly introspective given the permeation of social media and technology? If so, what steps have you taken or considered taking to find a place of balance? As a parent, how have you approached the issues of phones, internet use, social media with your children and teens? Any words of wisdom or advice to share on how we address these challenges with those coming of age in this everything-online generation?
I know it was because she was tired, worn out from the 1-2-3 punch of a packed 3-day weekend. And I know it was a power struggle I shouldn't have engaged in. She asked me to bring the baby dolls down for "the big show" and declared that she would get the chairs. I told her no, that whatever she wanted for the show she needed to bring down by herself, and to be prepared to put it all away by herself too.
"But you HAVE TO bring the baby dolls. I am ASKING YOU TO GET THEM RIGHT NOW! And now the show is going to have to be cancelled because YOU didn't bring the baby dolls!"
"I'm happy to watch the show when you have it set up how you'd like, but I'm not going to help you bring things downstairs."
"No, Mama. LOOK AT MY EYES. You are NOT followin' my in'tructions! And I'm waiting for you to make it right wid me!" She crossed her arms and popped one hip to the side.
I started to laugh. I knew laughing would make things worse, that her frustration would only grow. But I was tired too, tired of the whining and the demands and her insistence on having her way.
And the truth is, I didn't say no to carrying the baby dolls because of some grand wise master parenting plan. I simply didn't feel like going upstairs to bring those blasted baby dolls down to the family room. And I didn't want to help with the stupid show. I didn't even want to watch it. Is it too much to ask to get my own way? Isn't that one of perks of being the parent?
Even after I laughed, she didn't let it go. She asked me over and over to get the baby dolls so she could set up the show. I told her (calmly) over and over that I wouldn't. After what felt like a hundred rounds of this, she stomped her feet and started to cry. I sat down and pulled her onto my lap.
She buried her face in my neck and curled her body close. "Let's just cuddle for a minute," I said, brushing a tear from her cheek, kissing the top of her head.
"Alright," she said. "I think that's a good idea."
Sometimes neither of us get our way. And then sometimes, we both do.
Today I'm feeling less torn and more here. In part thanks to Lindsey, who shared this song. I played it this morning while I made the sandwiches. And then I played it again while I sliced the apples.
Today is play practice, and tomorrow is the Valentine's party, and I'm trying to be grateful that this life makes me available to help with both. Trying not to caveat to myself and to anyone who cares (no one) that this isn't my thing, my "core competency" as we used to say in the consulting world. As supporting evidence that this isn't my thing, I spent no less than two hours last night trying to pull together and print out a Valentine's bingo game. In the age of Google and Pinterest, where it's literally spelled right out for crafty illiterates such as myself, this sort of thing should take about 10 minutes.
What's really maddening about it is that I was holed in the office printing pink swirly bingo cards when I could have been laughing at Portlandia with my husband or penning a moving literary essay or writing a song on my guitar (or learning how to actually play the guitar).
I've decided that there is a way I've always wanted to define myself, and there is a way that I actually am. And the actually am way is significantly less interesting. I am going to have to make peace with that fact, but not until after I learn the guitar.
In a very last minute, claustrophobia-induced move, Larry and I took the kids to dinner and to see The Muppets movie at the cheap seats this weekend. We wanted to go out by ourselves, but the kids are still in that clingy stage of needing supervision for trivial things such as dinner and getting themselves tucked into bed. So between going out with the kids or not at all, we chose out with the kids.
I laughed my way through the movie, because yes, I still love the muppets after all these years. Like, totally, a lot. My kids have already put in a request that I stop shouting "maniacal laugh, maniacal laugh, maaaniacal laaaaugh!" after I deny their requests for such things as leaving their fort up for one more night.
I just got back from my non-paying night job as play practice monitor. Three point five hours supervising up to 87 children, most of them second graders. The word "fried" comes to mind. It will quite possibly be the only word that comes to mind for the next 24 hours.
This post has been brought to you by the brilliant Just Write movement, brainchild of the lovely Heather of the Extraordinary Ordinary. So if it seems rambling and pointless, you can blame Heather. Totally all her fault. (Maniacal laugh...maniacal laugh....MANIACAL LAUGH!!) Also? Tuesday seems to be my trigger word, at least when it comes to writing.
I walk up the stairs from the dingy basement, past the silted bootprints on the blue tiled stairs, remnants of the recent flood. I hand them the toys I discovered in the mislabeled storage box, the one I only unpacked because water seeped through cardboard. They squeal, delighted. "Oh this one! I LOVE this one! Look, these are the puzzles we had in Maine! Do you remember, Dani?"
He walks to the kitchen, tugs on my sweater. "Mom, where did you even find these?! Playing with all these toys makes me feel like I'm back in Maine again, like we're playing in our old house." He turns to his sister. "Don't you feel so happy, Dani, when you remember Maine?"
My sister texts me that the orders are in. She's moving to Germany. My very first thought is to hope I can follow her there.
I thirst equally for adventure and community, knowing how slim the chances are of ever finding them in the same glass. I'm overcome with wanderlust one moment, aching for roots the next. Sometimes over pancakes on Saturday, we ask each other, "Where would you go, if you could live anywhere?" The kids always answer without hesitation: "Maine!" But my husband and I just stare into our coffee, thumbing through a mental rolodex of possibility. The answer is always, "I don't know..."
I'm realizing even as I type this out that when I feel most torn between the lure of possibility and the pull of the past, it is when I'm feeling most disconnected in the present. These notions that things will be better when..., that things were better back then..., they loop together as a noose around the neck of this moment, choking joy. How quickly I forget that life is right now, not last year in Maine, not next year in Germany, or DC or Dayton.
The contented, wiser version of myself shakes the shoulders of the restless, foolish me, holds this present life high in front of my face, points to it and says cherish this. Sometimes I listen and obey. But not today. Today I rebel like a melancholy teenager and stay lost in daydreams about Germany, adrift in memories of Maine. Today I sit idly as the remember whens and maybe thens take my present life captive. Today I don't even try to escape.
It's 11:11, and I just put the loaves in the oven. He went to bed begging to bring Irish soda bread to school tomorrow, to pass out to his class during his ancestry presentation. I told him no. Too crumbly. Too messy. Too delicate to transport in his backpack. And besides, I didn't have any buttermilk.
But then his teacher emailed back an hour ago, said he was welcome to bring even a crumbly messy treat. And I remembered how to make buttermilk with a bit of lemon juice. And then I thought of his face in the morning when he would discover the loaves, and well, I got straight to work.
Every day he grows further and further into unfamiliar territory, stretching beyond the ages I've imagined him to be, spelling words like "hygiene" and "posture" without help (though I still have to remind him to wash his hair when he showers). Sometimes I don't know what to make of it all, how this little man came to live here, and whatever happened to the baby boy who used to sleep in the crook of my arm.
I hope when he's a teenager, when perhaps he's feeling stifled or misunderstood or anxious or disconnected, I hope he remembers the morning when he was seven and in the second grade, the morning when he woke up to the sight and smell of soda bread, and to the feeling of being loved, always.
A couple of quick things:
1. I'm still writing regularly over at Run for their Lives, and there's a new post up today about a magical way to lose 25 pounds while consuming unlimited amounts of dark chocolate peanut M&Ms and Chick-Fila. Okay, not really. It's just a post about running gear and apps and stuff. But if you want to humor me and pretend that it's something magical and exciting and click on over, I'd be much obliged.
3. And because things have been a bit deep and heavy on the old blog lately, I thought I would mix it up a bit with these sage words from Jack Handey: "Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you're a mile away and you have their shoes.”
4. And since we're talking about shoes, you should know that I love this song.
(Hello new shoes, buh-bye bye blues.)
I'm a phony and a fake. It's the one line that stayed with me long after I finished Graham Greene's The End of the Affair. The line Sarah Miles writes in her diary, the words I wish didn't resonate, but do.
I want to tell this fictional Sarah that we all feel that way, maybe not always, but often. If I am honest at least with myself, I see how I walk around in an invisible bubble of pretense. I want to smile real at the PTO meeting, but I don't feel the slightest bit happy. So I force my lips to each corner and say hello. And if there's time only for a one word answer, then of course I'll say "fine" or "great" or "good." Fine is never enough to be the truth. More than half of the time, I'm not sure what the truth even is, what is buried beneath the fine, the artificial sweet, the have-it-all-togetherness.
My dearest, deepest friends tell me I'm authentic, that I don't hide the mess, that it's refreshing. And I tell them the same. This is probably why they are my dearest deepest friends. But even to them, have I ever told the whole truth? I'm afraid I haven't. I'm afraid I don't know the whole truth.
Like Sarah, the place where I feel most phony is when I talk or write of spiritual things. What business do I have acting as if I understand any of this? What business do I have to speak of grace, when I know full well how I've trampled it with covert rebellion and quiet conceit?
But I'll tell you, the only place I have ever felt like something other than a complete fraud--it is when my heart breaks in front of Him. He sees through me like the woman at the well. He tells me He is the Truth, and that this Truth is enough for the both of us. It only lasts for minutes at a time, this stillness where I feel completely seen and forgiven and loved and real. But I like to imagine it is a foretaste, that heaven is a thousand years and then more of this feeling. For real.
(Full disclosure--this started out as the write-your-heart-out-for-five-minutes drill. And then continued for about 25 minutes. So more like five times five minute Friday.) :-)
She tries on my hairband, the one she sees me wear running. She tells me she isn't sure who she is going to marry yet. "You're five, silly." I tell her. "There's plenty of time."
She switches out my plain black band for her frilly pink crown and asks, "You choose-ded Daddy because he is your best, best friend, right Mama?" I tell her yes, that's exactly right.
We're sitting on the couch in the first quiet moments of evening. He opens the laptop and starts reading the blog. "Just skip over that first one," I tell him. "It's me droning on being all deep and contemplative. BOOOR-ing..."
"Yeah, I started reading it," he says, "but then I nodded off." He fake snores, and I laugh for real.
"This one's good," he says, "and look at all the comments."
"Yeah, I usually don't get very many comments anymore," I admit.
He grins. "Well, maybe if you would just write better--"
I laugh again, take a swipe at his head.
Yes, this is exactly why I choose-ded him.
Sometimes I question what it is I have to say, and why anyone would care to hear it. There's something so audacious about art of any kind, something so assumptive. I don't think I have the chops to write in that brave and daring way, the way that asserts I am worth your time. It probably says something about me that I'd rather write in oblivion than be labeled a narcissist.
Yet when I read back over the blog--which I do when I'm feeling particularly uninspired--which is often--I slowly return to the belief that I'm writing primarily for my own good. To remember, to remind, to speak truth to myself.
It might be the sort of truth and memory that only applies to me, or it might stretch universal. It might be the sort of post that my husband mocks (reading it aloud in his high-pitched voice with his chin thrust forward and his head tilted to the right). Or it might be the sort of post that makes us both weep when we read it 15 years later. I'm realizing that whether it's worth the time of anyone else is irrelevant, as long as it's worth mine.
And I think it is.