I’m now in the middle of my annual summer retreat to the LaHave Islands in Nova Scotia, Canada, and it’s no exaggeration to say I feel like a different person than the harried, exhausted woman who packed up and headed north on the highway three weeks ago.
I am sleeping better—my dreams are lucid and intriguing, with elaborate narrative plots that I enjoy following even if I lose the thread when I wake up.
I am writing again—going back to the manuscript of my memoir with fresh eyes and tightening, tweaking, reworking the introduction over and over until (I think) I get it right.
I am reading for pleasure—yes, you heard right! After a long school year in which, as a professor of literature and media studies, I could read only to prep classes, I am indulging in the guilty pleasure of reading mystery novels—Donna Leon’s Brunetti series, with their wonderful descriptions of Venice and Italian food.
I am spending long hours walking the empty beaches and cliffside trails, drinking in the natural beauty and letting the soothing sound of the waves banish all my worries and cares.
I am enjoying adapting to the rhythm of my parents’ life, which takes me right back to my peaceful childhood, where each day was spent in a judicious measure of work, conversation, meal preparation and relaxed eating. My parents sit together at their lovely dining room table—here in Nova Scotia, with the dramatic view of the bay outside their windows, and the constant sound of the waves on the rocks in their ears—and eat three beautifully prepared and served meals a day, a routine few Americans still maintain.
When I first arrived here three weeks ago, I thought this focus on meals took an awful lot of time and effort. But once I slowed down enough, I remembered something that my own grab-and-go existence had made me forget—just how worthwhile it is to take the time to prepare delicious meals, set a lovely table and eat in leisurely fashion, talking quietly over the day’s events. My entire body, aching and stressed when I arrived in Nova Scotia three weeks ago, is grateful.
Here on the island, where the most important questions are whether the tide is up or down and whether the fog is expected to blow out by lunchtime, life returns to its elemental rhythm, and it’s possible to feel how much is lost by the speed of our technology-dominated 21st century existence.
It’s possible to take a deep breath and remember that only 20 years ago, there was no Internet. There was no email. There were no cell phones, no smart phones, no texting. There were no digital music or video files, no VCRs or ipods, let alone streaming capabilities.
Remember what that was like? Everything moved a heck of a lot slower, that much is for sure. We wrote letters on paper and mailed them. We read books and big print newspapers that we had to schlep around with us in knapsacks. When we needed to look up a fact, we had to go to the library and look in the—get ready for it—card catalogue.
This was only twenty years ago, a mere flicker of time in the scale of human history. Imagine what a strain it is on our poor homo sapiens brains and bodies to keep up with the breakneck pace of modern digitized life, especially for those of us born and bred before the Great Digital Coming of the 1990s.
The brains of children born into this brave new technologized world are being wired differently. For many it is pure torture to slow down to ordinary time. Life without a screen and a wifi connection is unthinkable.
As we advance into the 21st century, I can see in my students the signs of smartphone addiction—the same nervousness and agitation, halfway through a 90-minute class, that smokers used to display in a previous generation. They have to get up and wander off to the bathroom as a pretext for checking in with the virtual world they crave.
I too get addicted during the course of the school year. I check email constantly and Facebook several times a day; I spend more time on the screen than I do out in the garden or walking in the woods or preparing meals and eating them with friends and family.
Only now, when I’m on a media holiday with my email vacation message set, can I appreciate the toll this society-wide digital addiction takes on each of us as individuals, and on human society writ large.
Yes, I love the power and reach of the Internet as much as the next person. I love being able to write my blog, send it out over wifi and have people all across the world reading it in a moment’s time. When my blog readership surpassed 100,000 visitors from more than 200 countries last month, I was thrilled.
But for deep thinking and sustained writing, I need to get away from that kaleidoscopic virtual reality and get in tune with the more primal rhythms of sunset and moonrise, tides flowing in and out again, seagulls soaring over the mermaid dive of a seal fishing quietly by the rocks.
Even if the closest thing to nature you can get is a city park, try spending a couple of hours there without your smart phone, and see what you notice. Watch how your breathing slows down and your tired, overworked brain relaxes when all it has to focus on is trees and bushes, maybe a sparrow or pigeon or two.
We don’t need expensive meditation retreats, yoga classes or far-flung vacations. We just need to give ourselves permission to unplug for a while.