Trees versus screens

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I’m in northern Michigan this week, in a small town called Omena which nestles a body of water called Ingalls Bay. It’s a special place for my family; my mother’s side has vacationed here for generations. Unlike other seaside towns, Omena has retained its appeal as an undiscovered, unspoiled place. A few large houses have appeared along the beach and sometimes the bay thrums with jet skis and motor boats, but there is little vehicular or pedestrian traffic and no condo developments. When you’re here, you feel like you’re in on a secret.

As a child, Omena’s remoteness didn’t appeal to me. The cottage we stayed in was called The Pioneer. Laura Ingalls Wilder could’ve woken up in it in 1992 and not felt too removed from her own time period. Its only nod to modernity was a small TV with poor reception. There was no cable, no Nintendo, no VCR. The Pioneer’s many other charms were little consolation; my brother and I complained of boredom. Sure, we spent time on the beach and we played with the toys we’d brought, but to entertain ourselves 100% of the time seemed impossible.

Of course, the options in the early 90s for entertainment by screen are quaint by today’s standards. Now we travel with our own personal TVs, not to mention all the other things our laptops, tablets, and phones can do. As an adult, I relish Omena’s isolation, the sense it gives me of being disconnected from the world. On my bi-yearly visits I bemoan the gains in connectivity that inevitably transpire. Six years ago you couldn’t get cell phone reception here. Two years ago there was no wi-fi, but my dad–the first of all of us to get a smart phone–could sit in the living room reading off Philadelphia sports scores and providing updates on the approaching hurricane. This year the cell phone reception is great and the cottage wi-fi is fast. One no longer has to drive into town to check e-mail. If I want to disconnect, to get away from it all for a week, I will have to practice discipline, re-learn how to be still.

I didn’t get off to the best start. Since my husband couldn’t come this year, I rode up with my parents. Marooned in the backseat like a child, I searched for ways to occupy myself during the 14-hour drive we split over two days. On the first day I couldn’t fall asleep and I got car sick when I tried to read, so I stared out the window with my headphones on until it got dark. Watching the trees go by–this was the constant view from the car window. I much prefer trees to strip malls, yet I quickly grew bored. Instead of letting my thoughts wander until my mind had emptied itself, I reached for a screen: my phone. I sent a few texts, refreshed e-mail, checked the weather, looked for hotels to sleep in and restaurants where we could stop for dinner.

Never mind the fact that we made our hotel and restaurant choices by following roadside signs. Never mind that the weather was available to me by rolling the window down. The screen pacified me. I reacted passively to its volley of information; I didn’t have to think, only to take in. When it did grow dark I tried Solitaire on my mom’s tablet for the first time. I had known the annihilating pleasure of the game as a teenager, but hadn’t played in a while–not since my last office job 4+ years ago. In less than a minute I was hooked. The soothing repetition of clicking. The reward of winning. I left my body; I left my mind; I knew nothing beyond the screen. When we finally pulled into the hotel parking lot around 10 pm my eyes throbbed, dry and painful, and my brain moved with the speed and sharpness of gravy. Tomorrow, I promised myself, I would really detox.

I did do more book-reading and window-staring on the second day of driving. There wasn’t much choice–my phone was down to 10% battery. But the drive was longer and eventually I was defeated by restlessness. I started to ask “how much longer?” every ten minutes. So I reached for Solitaire and missed every tree between Cadillac and Traverse City.

Screens don’t just pacify us; they also stimulate us. We feel like little gods at the mighty switchboard, the centers of our own digital universes. Our brains buzz with other people’s voices and vacation photos. Screens stuff us full of color and images, text and hyperlinks. We get full but not surfeited. Rather it’s the kind of full that’s like eating a big bowl of popcorn and calling it dinner.

Even when we are pacified, riveted by games or TV shows, we are not still. True stillness requires awareness. The ability to be still is not that different from the ability to steal ourselves–against the obstacles and tragedies we all encounter. Animals go still when they sense a predator. It’s a basic survival skill. And stillness offers us our true selves, free from outside influence.

I composed this blog entry first on paper while sitting in the sun’s gaze, facing the lake as its surface undulated gently in the wind. The lake was striped with four darkening shades of blue. My toes moved in the sand, savoring its graininess. Clouds as thin as tracing paper stretched across the sky. My mind felt sharp, focused, no longer running away from itself. I was alive and present to the sensations of my immediate environment. I wasn’t worried about what I was missing. I was finally still. On my walk back to the cottage, I looked at every tree.

Literary Expectations

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Recently I’ve been working on two personal essays, which is new terrain for me. For help and inspiration, I’m reading Beth Kephart’s Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir. This post is in response to one of the writing prompts in the book: “What do you expect of others as you read, and what do you expect of yourself as a writer?” (19).

Over the years I’ve expected different things from the books I read. When I was a child I wanted to be transported to other worlds. Curled up next to the heating vent in my bedroom, I travelled across time and geography. To the 19th century American frontier in the Little House on the Prairie books. To Quaker life in old Philadelphia in Thee, Hannah. To the Swiss Alps in Heidi. And to all the periods of American history covered by the American Girl series. I was fascinated by the past and I loved to imagine living the lives of my favorite heroines.

As I reached puberty, I looked for female characters I could identify with or aspire to be like. The Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High series provided glimpses of teen life and romance. I idolized the author of the former, Ann M. Martin, once waiting in line all day at the mall to get her autograph. All I knew about her was that she was a writer who lived in New York City–exactly the life I wanted to have when I grew up.

In high school I didn’t read much outside of the required reading for school. I did discover Sylvia Plath in the tenth grade, after a friend wrote a book report on The Bell Jar. Like the book’s heroine Esther, I was depressed. Thus my appetite for female writers and characters who articulated my feelings continued. I also found solace in the teen alienation and rebellion depicted in novels like The Catcher in the Rye and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. 

In college I read to find out how to be in the world. The friends I made through Livejournal, who were mostly other literary-inclined young women, introduced me to classic feminist texts as well as writers like Anais Nin and Anne Sexton. In my college English classes I devoured plenty of fiction and some of it–Mrs. Dalloway in particular comes to mind–saved me during periods of major depression. Outside of school I dug into nonfiction and memoir, hungry for women’s voices and lives.

When, at age twenty-four, I moved to Prague to teach English, I rediscovered fiction as a source of escape, comfort, and companionship. Just before I left I met the man who is now my husband, and he gave me his well-used paperback copy of Middlemarch. Lying on my narrow, hard bed, I sank with relief into this great huge novel. It warded off the loneliness I felt, having come to this foreign country by myself, without knowing anyone.

Today, my reading expectations have realigned themselves with my childhood. I read to learn about the world, past and present; to experience countries I haven’t yet visited and cultures I know nothing of. I could get this information from nonfiction books, too, but literature–by which I mean fiction, poetry, and memoir/creative-nonfiction–provides something different. It places me in the life of another person and makes me empathize with that life, all of its experiences and choices. Literature reminds me of how small the world really is, a discovery I first made when I visited Israel at age twenty to meet one of my Livejournal friends and saw that the life of a girl living on the other side of the world was still very much like mine. I revisit that discovery when I read, which right now means Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. And sometimes I still read for the comfort of finding women like me, who have felt what I feel, and whose lives I can learn something from and emulate. But my focus has shifted from the internal to the external.

My writing has been moving in the same direction. It’s become less directly autobiographical and, when I do base stories on real people and/or events, I’m better able to spin them into fiction–up, up and away from the original facts. I may not be able to convincingly transport my reader to Nigeria, but I can take a Nigerian reader to Philadelphia and the lower-middle-class suburban landscape I grew up in.

As a writer, I want to provide a strong sense of place as well as the political/economic/social setting. I want to write realistic, complicated characters, especially women and their many choices and conflicts. And I want to draw my characters from all races/classes/walks of life. From my prose I expect clarity, beauty, and original imagery. Physical descriptions of people, weather, and landscapes can be a challenge.

In the personal essays I’ve been working on, I expect my writing to resonate beyond my own life, to illuminate a broader truth or truths. And I hope it comforts someone out there, maybe one of the questioning young women I used to be.

These are admittedly lofty expectations to hold myself to. How will I achieve them? By following my writing motto: “Never never never, ever ever ever, give up” (from the Center City Philadelphia Bikram Yoga studio).