Only Connect!

Only Connect

Only Connect!
                               - E.M. Forster, Howard’s End
     On a Friday evening I pull into the local pizza place. Parked next to me is a car with three passengers: a young mother in the front seat, her smart phone in her hand, her eyes on the screen. Two children are in the back. A four-year-old is in a car seat with a small digital pad in her hands, fingers pressing the screen. An older boy, maybe seven, sits next to her, absorbed in a digital tablet.
     It’s a summer evening, the air beginning to cool, the light still transparent at 7:30. Their windows are open, as are mine.  I turn off my car and wait a few moments, glancing over, seeing if I might catch their eye. Their eyes remain locked on their screens. Not only do they not notice me, they do not interact with each other.
     I walk into the pizza place. A few minutes later when I return, they are gone, and the opportunity for connection has vanished.
Hand-held Hostage
     Where is the shared experience in that family’s car? When the father came out with the pizza, did they put down their devices down and speak to him? Did they notice the aroma of the pizza, anticipate its taste, talk to each other? Or did they remain hostage to their hand-held devices? Who are they connecting with, if not with the people that are with them in the car? What will the memory of that moment be, or will there even be one? And if so, where will it be stored? On a digital server somewhere?  (See Huff Post Article on Why Hand Held Devices for Children Should Be Banned)
     I held out getting my own smart phone until last year. My husband and I had “dumb phones” (flip phones) until we could justify the expense. Once we converted, we were hooked. I am now guilty of checking my emails and Facebook an unnecessary amount of times during the day. It is so easy to do when I’m waiting at the bank drive-up, or riding in the car. I used to interact with the bank tellers more, and watch the passing scenery. Now I have to make a conscious effort not to give in to the tug of instant virtual gratification.
Map Queen
     Fourteen years ago, when we first moved to this house, people would stop and ask for directions when I was out walking. It’s easy to get confused on Connecticut country roads because they all look alike: winding, surrounded by woods on both sides, often unmarked by street signs. It wasn’t unusual to see a driver stopped, looking puzzled.
     I’d ask, “Do you know where you’re going? Do you need directions?” Then a conversation would occur, I’d direct them where they needed to go, and commiserate about how easy it is to get lost in these parts.
     Although now I still see people stopped, when I offer help they seem surprised, shake their heads, say “No, I’m just checking my GPS”. I want to say: Wouldn’t you rather talk to a person than a digital interface? Wouldn’t you like to know the shortcut and to avoid that road that is paved at the start but soon turns into a steep, rutted, dirt road that can tear out your car's suspension?
     I have always loved paper maps. In our house I’m known as the Map Queen because I have so many of them stuffed into my car door’s pocket. I throw the road atlas in the back seat whenever we take a trip. I like looking at a map. It brings me into the experience of our route, let’s me know where I am and where I’m going. Yes, I know, it can be seen as a metaphor for wanting to feel grounded and secure and perhaps in need of control, but navigation through this world is fun.
     On a paper map you can see a shortcut, or try a back road, or look, we’re just a few miles from this interesting looking place. With GPS, we follow the voice rather blindly, trusting a digital navigator to guide us. I’m a spiritually oriented person and I love trusting the invisible, but I'm interested in the form of the invisible that arises from within, not from the car dashboard.
Behind the Moon
     Only connect! When E.M. Forster wrote this, he wasn’t addressing the need for social connection, but it has become associated with that in this age of social media. (See New Republic article on context of this quote.)
     If I had to choose one quote to live by, it would be this one. It covers so much: only connect to the moment, to nature, to the deepest part of me, to whatever is presenting in my life, to whatever I’m experiencing, to that person across from me
     When we don’t reach out to a stranger, we diminish our sense of feeling safe in the world, of trusting it to be a generally friendly place.  We are isolated in our vehicles with our GPS, glued to our screens out in the world, frozen in front of the glowing squares in our homes.  How many times have you seen people at the same restaurant table completely ignoring each other while they tend to their lit rectangles?
     The experience of looking someone in the eye and seeing them, physically seeing them, of waiting to hear the answer while studying their face, of thinking of the life behind that face, this is what’s lost when we don’t connect with each other. No matter how much we’ve evolved and understand the physics of our existence and the oneness of everything, we still live and have our being in a physical world. The sensory experience of interacting with another of our species is a sweet, interesting, integral part of being human.
     Which is why we are naturally curious about each other. When I’m standing in the grocery line behind a parent with a baby, I hone right in on that little being. I want to make eye contact because that baby seems to know something that I want to experience again.
     When he was a boy, my husband asked his mother where he was before he was born.
     “Behind the moon,” she told him.
     I think babies may remember that place. When they hook into my gaze and stay with me, I want to go wherever they are going, and for those moments, I am a child again.
     That baby makes me smile, and I’m still smiling when it’s my turn to check out. I make eye contact with the cashier, exchange a few friendly words, and in doing so I acknowledge, however briefly, that we share the same place, the same planet, and that, on some level, we're all in this together. There is no digital equivalent for that kind of connection.

 

 

 

Being Sick, Like Buddha

 

Buddha Boy

Recently the stomach flu that’s been making the rounds hit me. Being ill for three days gave me an opportunity to practice dying, (yes, you read that right), and to cultivate a more Buddha-like temperament.

Surrender

On the first day, I am pinned to the bed, unable to lift my head. I have to surrender to what my body demands: total rest. Since I’m a healthy, productive woman living in the go-go-go, connect-connect-connect twenty-first century, it’s a complete change to be barely able to make the necessary phone calls and emails to cancel my day’s work schedule. But I’ve learned that the quickest path to feeling well again is to allow my body to do its natural - and miraculous - healing.

I usually take my body for granted, although I do occasionally have moments of appreciation. The pulse of its natural, unerring urge to life was demonstrated when my mother was dying of lymphoma. During her last few days, I watched her twitch and toss, under the influence of morphine, as her body slowly gave up its grip on life. The only thing she was able to say when conscious was “I know, I know”, which we took to mean she knew she was dying and she was alright with it. But her mind accepted before her body was willing. The need for surrender does not come easily to our physical vehicles, which cling to life with ferocity.

I think about my attachment to not just my physical existence, but all the things in my world which form my identity and which I rely on to bring me comfort and beauty. I consider what it’s like to say goodbye to my home, to the people I love. I wonder about the moment of death, will I be aware and step willingly into the mystery of it? These are thoughts I usually don’t ponder, and I touch the freedom - and fear - of letting go. Maybe death is like taking off a tight shoe, the soul sighing with relief.

Being Mindful

Gate Garden Untethered from my daily routine, I become more present. I take in the view out the window,  which I’ve seen a thousand times, with new eyes, eyes that don’t breeze over details. I notice the shape of the trees, the branch that was torn off in the last storm, the way the tops of the pines are loaded with tiny pine cones. And I tap into a well of gratitude for the world I inhabit. On the second day, I wake up with a little more strength. I stare at the blue walls of our bedroom. The blue paint - Windmill, it’s called, although I wonder if the windmills in the Netherlands are painted blue - appear alive to me, so alive I consume it through my eyes. It travels into my body like ephemeral nourishment. I experience the energy of color in a new way and I promise myself I won’t forget.

Later that day I feel able to step outside on the porch and sit in the sun, or rather lie in the sun on the long porch step, while I lazily toss a tennis ball for the grateful dog. I cover my eyes with my arm and allow the sun to warm me. It feels like a gift. The dog is happy, and I’m content with this simple moment. I’m not thinking about what I need to do next.

Charlie

When I return to bed, which has become a cozy nest, with pillows surrounding me and the afghan my mother knit me while I was in college covering me, I am thankful. I finger my mother’s handiwork and wonder how many times she ripped out rows to achieve the perfect result which, four decades later, still warms me. Some of the fringe was braided by one of my college roommates, and here is her hand, too, which I now have time to remember. I recall something endearing about her, how she didn’t know how to finish her laugh. One evening we taught her how, practicing the tapering end of a good laugh. I wonder what her laugh sounds like now.

Gratitude

On the third day I venture into the yard. In the garden, last night’s rain is puddled in the umbrella-like leaves of the Lady’s Mantle, the rain drops nestled symmetrically in the leaves’ folds. I see the world anew, stop to examine the buds on the dwarf cherry tree, listen to the hum of the bumblebees, notice their number - hundreds - turning that tree into a hovering hub of activity. I experience the world with the sense of wonder and innocence of a three-year old and although I know it won’t last, that within a day or two the spell will wear off, I appreciate it and want to retain it. Lady's Mantle Decades ago my first meditation teacher counseled his students to let death be our counselor. He introduced us to the the idea that in welcoming as companions the impermanence of life and the unpredictable nature of death, we could become more awake, aware, and alive. Being temporarily sick can be an opportunity to step closer to death, and to life.