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.

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