My body is aware, before my mind is, that something essential to me is missing. I have the increasingly loud, nagging sense that I’ve left something behind. The anxiety rises, along with a constricted, empty feeling in my chest. I want to turn around, retrace my steps, get back whatever it is I’ve lost. I fear I’ll be lost, myself, without it.
I’ve left my cell phone on my friend Suzanne’s table, and now we’re speeding away from her house, headed to the ferry off Vashon Island. I realize for sure what’s happened once we’re on the ferry and I’m able to check my daypack pocket, where I usually keep the phone. I’m about to drive five hours south, and Suzanne herself is leaving the island for a few days. In the best-case scenario, I won’t have that phone back for a week. What if I have car trouble on the return trip to Eugene? What about my weekly phone call with my parents, with which I’d planned to break up the drive? What will I do back home at Lost Valley, where I often keep in touch with the co-parents of my community “kids” via phone message or text, especially when a change of clothes, a peanut butter sandwich, or comfort from a biological parent after scary encounters with large dogs or knee-scraping gravel patches is in order?
I lived nearly five decades without a cell phone, and never missed it. Now losing it can bring up feelings for me akin to separating from close friends or family. What happened?
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In reality, after a few minutes, I do adapt to the absence of my cell phone. I actually enjoy feeling more independent, less tethered to the world of instant communications, in which everything can seem urgent and nothing is fast enough. I am happy to trust my car’s ability to get me back home, and to not cram in a phone call on the way. I slow down internally to a pace more reminiscent of a long hike in the backcountry than of a sprint in a crowded stadium.
Back home, I am happy to not be answering phone calls about how to place ads in Communities (not my department; I refer them to Christopher Kindig)—and I find that Terra’s and River’s parents and I manage to communicate just fine, as we did before I regularly kept my cell phone on, through systems of old-fashioned voice signals, animal hoots, and intuition. In the worst case scenario, I need to sniff out the peanut butter (and whether it’s an appropriate choice right now) by relying on my own senses. The following week, I almost don’t want my cell phone to arrive in the mail—but it does, and I feel the background stress in my life notch up just a little bit. Its absence was instructive.
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More than three decades ago, Suzanne, about 20 others, and I climbed onto a bus to join a traveling experiential-education school, where for nine months we attempted to untether ourselves as much as possible from “Mother Culture.” Not only were cell phones unknown to us (or to anyone else at the time), but we were also usually inaccessible by land lines. Ten days or more could pass between encounters with phone booths; our mail pick-up stops (“General Delivery, Homestead, Florida,” etc.) occurred every two to four weeks. Our parents would wait for snail-mail letters and occasional phone calls. In the grand scope of history, our communication with our families as we trekked around the country was remarkably frequent and rapid; but by 21st century standards, we were almost as good as lost and unreachable in deep ocean trenches, sometimes for weeks on end.
While our engagement with one another was intense—students and guides typically met and talked as a whole group for several hours every day, in addition to traveling, camping, cooking, hiking, and doing almost everything else together too—we strove also for intense engagement with the natural world and intentional disengagement from technologies that could come between us and it, or us and each other. “Canned” entertainment of all kinds was banned; we entertained ourselves and one another without electronic assistance. This meant that we all learned songs and picked up instruments—many of us for the first time in our lives. We watched no television or movies, and had zero engagement with computers. We spent many hours talking with people directly; many days hiking in the wilderness; many hours on “solos,” each in our own spot, directly experiencing the natural world around us, often without mediation of even pen and paper.
We deliberately “did without” and sought experiences that would allow us to explore our relationships with other living beings, with the planet, with the cosmos—rather than solely with the predominantly human-centered, human-created world in which we had been raised, where most choices and experiences were defined and dictated by people. Constant communication with other human beings, constant emphasis on human community, constant reliance on tools of comfort and convenience that our species has developed—all of these were seen as interfering with our most primary community, our most important communication, our greatest security and comfort: our connection with Mother Earth.
We learned many things on the bus, but among the most essential were how to slow down, how to be alone (away from not only humans but human artifacts), and the much deeper connections to ourselves, each other, and the earth community that could result from those things.
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As I drive away from Vashon, it isn’t just my cell phone I am leaving behind: it is the feeling I’ve had over the past week, first at our Ecobus reunion and then while staying with Suzanne and her housemate for four days. Over that time, Suzanne and I seemed to rekindle that feeling we had on the bus, when (to paraphrase a book title by the program’s founder) “our classroom was wild America.” Back in those days, we had time to explore neglected cultures and landscapes, disengage from what society expected of us, contemplate the “underbelly of the beast,” seek the truth to be found in listening to the earth as best we could. Saying “no” to the dominant culture and the technologies which facilitated it was necessary to say “yes” to everything else.
And we said a lot of “yes”es. Collectively, we learned hundreds of traditional songs and tunes during our time on the bus; many dozens of those songs were shared and known by all of us. Suzanne learned more songs than perhaps anyone else. Thirty-plus years later, she still remembered them—or was able to recall them after (by her own account) having forgotten their existence for decades. We spent evenings on Vashon singing those songs again, remembering the old days, enjoying the shared bond created by the inarguable “reality” that we’d experienced during our years on the bus. Those unmediated experiences still seemed more present to me than any number of movies I might have watched in the interim; and those songs were still more emotionally potent than any recorded music I’d discovered since then.
My missing cell phone, I realize, is not the source of my distress at all. Rather, I am mourning the loss of that shared reality, re-experienced during my time on Vashon, but now becoming subsumed in the onrush of daily life. My cell phone has become a security blanket, a way to hold onto my identity as I re-enter a world in which I feel more alienated (or at least temporarily re-enter it, as I drive down the highway back to the refuge of my home community).
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The laptop computer on which I am typing this article is a much more significant security blanket for me these days. Because it is, for all intents and purposes, the “editorial office” of this magazine, it’s especially important to me, as it allows me to do the work that I feel is part of my calling. After leaving Vashon, it also allows me to keep in touch with Suzanne, at least initially. And it is an important tool for communication within my home intentional community. On all three counts, after returning home, I am thankful to be living in the age of high technology. Mostly.
I also notice that the more emotional weight I give to communications via computer, the more distress it is capable of generating in me. Why didn’t so-and-so respond to my email? Where is the article that author promised to send me a week ago? Why hasn’t Suzanne either emailed or called in weeks, since our initial nostalgic flurry of messages? Why, instead, am I receiving endless petitions about causes I’ve already signed petitions for? And why do I have a sinking, off-balance feeling every time we in the Lost Valley community lose our internet signal? Why do I feel I so stymied when I can’t get online?
And when I do get online, why do I allow myself to get thrown off-kilter by the occasional inflammatory, emotionally-charged, non-NVC (nonviolent-communication)-compliant email sent to the community email list? (I already know the pattern: despite our group living agreements specifying email etiquette, a resident will either not realize their importance in maintaining healthy communication and community dynamics, or not care. When “things don’t work out” with someone in the community, the sending of inappropriate emails is often a key element either leading to or foreshadowing that person’s departure.)
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Midway through a visit to the midwest later this summer, I leave the internet and cell phone world behind entirely. I enter Stillwaters Sanctuary (the Possibility Alliance’s home base in La Plata, Missouri), where community members maintain an environment free of computers, cell phones, and electricity. I am caught up on magazine work, satisfied with the state of my electronic communications with family and friends, and relieved to be taking a vacation from the internet-connected world. I have twinges of apprehension as I power everything down—part of my sense of purpose/identity seems to have become associated with these technologies and how I use them—but I am also excited to simplify, to live more fully in the here and now in a group of people committed to doing the same.
Within a few days, I am so thoroughly comfortable with the less-driven way of life that this disconnection allows that I am convinced I could keep living this way indefinitely, given sufficiently copacetic physical surroundings and a supportive social situation. Come to think of it, I’ve done that (lived computer- and cell-phone-free, sometimes even grid-electricity-free) for many years of my life; it should come as no surprise that I could do it again. I imagine that it might even feel more fulfilling, at least in the short term, than being on what can seem like an electronic-communications hamster wheel while simultaneously engaging as much as I can in the “real world” as well.
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When I reenter internet and cell phone land, I find that Suzanne called me four days ago, just as soon as I went into radio silence, apologizing for letting emails slip and asking me to call her back as soon as possible. She is now kind of wondering why I haven’t responded for four days (“You could have waited at least 10 minutes to call me back!” she jokes when she hears my voice). Three weeks later, I am the one wondering why, in the midst of planning a possible mini-expedition—a joint road trip from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest later this year—she has suddenly stopped responding to cell phone or email, and I haven’t heard from her for more than two weeks.
It turns out this time she has lost her cell phone—also, like mine, in her house. She has also lost my phone number, which was stored in her cell phone but nowhere else.
Ironically, in attempting to recapture and reinvigorate real-life connections cultivated without these technologies, I’ve put faith in these technologies, and been let down. Good old-fashioned telepathy seems a lot more reliable.
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I feel ambivalent, at best, about these technologies. If it were up to me to create any of them—to acquire the materials that go into them, to put them together, to create the infrastructure that supports their use—I would certainly not do it. I know that the creation, distribution, use, and disposal of these devices have significant environmental and social impacts; they’re dependent on rare earth metals and resource-intensive global systems. I need to stay in a certain amount of denial in order to feel good about my use of any of them. But in the world as it stands, in my life as it stands, they are tools I feel I need to use; using them, judiciously, seems a better choice for me, at least for now, than not using them.
At the same time, I don’t want to feel attached or addicted to them. One thing protecting me against this is the fact that I do get sick of them—after a certain number of hours, I can’t be on the computer any longer, or talk on the phone any longer. To restore my own physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual equilibrium, I need to do something else.
Also to my advantage in staying in relative balance with these things is the fact that I’ve lived without them; I know that the realities that they connect me to generally pale in comparison to the reality that I find in present, tactile life, directly experienced. I can live without computers and their kin; but without the more direct reality that feeds me daily, my soul would wither.
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Where do I find that reality, if not in modern technology?
Among other places, I find it in long runs through the woods, which bring me into occasional random encounters with bears, owls, and even cougars, but more commonly just immerse me into ecological communities of plants and animals, rocks, soil, water, and sky that now seem like family to me.
I find it in unstructured play time with young children in my community, whose sense of adventure, imagination, curiosity, and wonder encourage me to keep my eyes constantly open to what is around me, and to trust the beauty and naturalness of all of our feelings.
I find it in intentional community life, where countless daily interactions help us weave new stories of what groups of people can create together; where conflicts allow us to learn and grow in cooperation; where we each discover how to keep balance between stillness and motion, constancy and change, compassion and “justice,” order and productive chaos; and where, if one maintains awareness, there is never a dull moment.
And I find it in personal relationships with friends, family, and others who are also exploring how we can better relate to one another, how we can be authentic and present, how we can strip away the impediments to fully experiencing and appreciating life.
Thankfully, nothing in the list above is computer-dependent.
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Often, “real life” becomes so engaging—or daily activities so involving—that articles like this one, already written in my mind, never make it out of my fingers. I need to discipline myself to disengage, to separate myself—which is what I’ve done to write this. I’m sitting in a park several miles from my home community, undisturbed by anyone, enjoying a breezy, pleasant, overcast day, visited by myriad birds, surrounded by oak, ash, maple, fir, cedar, with my laptop plugged into the power outlet located conveniently in the middle of the picnic area.
For now, I’m at peace with the world, even as I type into this very manipulated, processed, and rearranged conglomeration of earth elements that came at a cost to both earth and people. I am hoping that I can create some benefit to counterbalance that cost. And ultimately, I also realize that I can’t know causes and effects, or the ultimate reasons for things—including why I ended up in this park. All I know is that it’s beautiful, maybe reason enough in itself for me to tote my laptop here.
Chris Roth edits Communities.