I was in Kaktovik a few years ago for work and was hanging out in a public building for a reason I can’t remember. An elderly man seated on a folding chair was chatting with someone and he included me in his storytelling by way of eye contact. He was animated, smiling and gesturing as he talked.
“I tell my grandkids,” he said, “when they get old and die and rigor mortis sets in, they’re going to go like this,” and his thumbs rose, suspended over an imaginary cellphone. He hunched his neck in and over his lap.
I laughed, but a little nervously. I’m like your grandkids, I thought, obsessed with my phone.
I thought of that man not long ago when I realized my phone had been in airplane mode for three days and I still didn’t want to turn it back on. I’d gone out to Byers Lake in Denali State Park to stay in a cabin for a couple nights over my birthday. I turned my phone on airplane mode when we arrived because I didn’t have any signal and figured I should conserve the battery.
When the two-night stay was over and we were driving back home — through Trapper Creek, then Talkeetna, Willow, Houston, Wasilla and finally back to Palmer — I kept my phone in airplane mode.
We got home and I helped clean out the car and put things away. I watered the garden. I still didn’t turn my phone back on.
And so on through the weekend.
What I noticed while out at the cabin for those few nights was that as the hours passed, I stopped noticing them. There was warm, orange light cast on the snowy side of Kesugi Ridge looming over the bright blue lake. That must mean it’s getting late. It was warm out when I got up and drank my coffee, gazing out over the water. That must mean it’s pretty late in the morning.
I got hungry, I ate. I went hiking, it took as long as it took. We got back, and I read on and off for I don’t know how many hours.
If my brain weren’t constantly locked in my phone for those many hours throughout the week, what else could it do?
Of course when I finally did turn my phone back on, I didn’t put it down for a month.
I’ve been consuming every piece of news I can get my hands on — not just about coronavirus, but also about racial justice. My phone is my window into learning and acting. Even and especially on the heels of time away, I didn’t feel it was right to shed my primary tool of witnessing while making my calls and signing the petitions.
I read about a guy once who just decided to take a year off from the news. My immediate reaction to this was disdain. It’s your responsibility to take in the news, I thought. You need to know what is going on so you can act.
What a brazen act of privilege, I thought. To simply opt out.
The twin to my disdain was envy.
I don’t want to grow into an old person whose rigor mortis hunches her over an imaginary phone. Or to be a relatively young person who spends an appalling number of hours that way.
I want to be someone who is capable of training focus and holding it there. That includes focus during a brief getaway, like when I’m losing track of time at the cabin at Byers Lake because of whatever activity I’m in. It includes focus at work, because work is something I carry a fixed sense of integrity around — someone is paying me; I need to do the best I can.
And it includes focus for fixing what feels like an increasingly broken world. I won’t see or be able to participate in that world with my neck hunched, looking down. I need to be able to look around and to see both in myself and beyond a screen. I need to spend enough time like that so that my phone goes back to being what it should be — a tool, a device, an implement. It’s not a focal point of life.
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