I haven’t lived in a city since cell phones or emails or the internet infiltrated our civilization. So as much as I long for my inner-child Chicago city fix, especially in the deep midwinter dormancy of Montana, when I get that fix, I’m always stunned, disoriented, and frankly worried for our world. The romance of the city, the beat and brash and bravado, the sensory glut, the shiny slick, and the glorious edge…all come at me catapult. I want to feel every bit of it. So I fight to keep my Montana filter-less-ness. I want to do a daring dance with empathy, staring it all down…knowing that I will have to turn away sooner than later, blur my eyes, hold my breath past remarkable stench and heart break. Still, I ask my heart to pound in pace with city vibrato, until I have to ask my better-sense to grab the back of my neck and force it forward. Downward. Observing only my boots and the sidewalk. You can’t take it all in, in the end, but I like to try for a wide-eyed aperture for as long as I can stand it.
I try to make that filter-less-ness last as long as I can because I want to see who we’ve become. I want to see that screens and satellite beams criss-crossing invisibly around us haven’t wound us so tight that we won’t be able to find our way out of this world wide web, if need be. (I sense that there will be a Need Be.) I want to believe that these buttons we push without a click or a feel to them, are making our lives easier and our propensity to wonder about the person crossing the street, greater. I want to believe that because it is possible to know so much now with those buttons and those screens and satellite strings…that we’re using that knowledge to linger in our longing to know each other. Yes? To sit longer at a meal and ask an extra question of our colleague or daughter or friend. To smile on the subway, especially at sad eyes, or to meet them with our own sad eyes. To step out of the sidewalk sea and sit on a bench for no other reason than: all of this knowledge has turned us into supreme seeking beings and it begs us to stop. Watch. Feel. See. Know. I want to believe all of that. But sitting there on a bench, watching the sidewalk sea…I don’t. I see people walking faster and faster and the beat driving them harder and harder. So serious and so purpose-driven and so confident about what’s around the bend.
Last week in San Francisco, after leading Haven Writing Workshops, helping people to figure out how to write a book and how to find their voices and figure out what they have to say…I sat there on a bench and I asked myself: How purposefully and confidently can we really walk when we depend on a small rectangle of light and its buttons and arrows to tell us where to go right and left, and when to walk straight or take a slight turn…or re-calculate. Or push in a few numbers and have a car appear that takes us where we want to go so that we don’t have to look at all. We seem so cock-sure. But my Montana-ness knows that it’s such a thin veneer and I wanted to cry out, “Don’t you all know how incapacitated we have all become??? How reliant? How clueless? Don’t you realize how fickle our power is if it depends on a cord or a battery or a plug???” Where oh where is our true power?
Because if and when the beams stop beaming and we are released from the satellite string…nay, rope….will we look up and at each other and say, “Woah. That was a weird dream. I dreamed I was fine. Great, even. But I’m not fine. Or great. At all. And you don’t look much better. Let’s not even ask each other how we are. Let’s just be with one another. That looks like a nice park bench. Come, let’s sit for a while and tell each other our stories. Without looking at that little rectangle of light thingy, whatever it is. Let me see your hand. It looks tired from holding that flat ‘smart’ thing. Remember when your hand used to hold reins and gallop to the river? Or hold the plow? Or palm the seed by the light of the full moon? Was that better then? Did we look at each other more? Did we not know where we were going but for news from the next town over from a wayward traveler? Or from the way cottonwoods flank river beds across a valley? Or that the shape of a nine-month pregnant belly meant that the world around that woman needed to ready itself for another miracle? Get the hot water boiling. Sterilized rags. Call the midwife?
Is our midwife named Siri now? (At least mine has a British accent, so I feel “smart” to have a chum like her when I wander around at her discretion, muttering to myself, this is not the zombie apocalypse. This is not the zombie apocalypse.)
Because that’s the thing: I have to be careful not to pretend like I am above any of it just because I don’t live in the thick of it. If Montana has taught me anything, it’s that I know I’m not above anything. In fact, being so removed from our city civilization for twenty-seven years, often has me in a state of less-than, full-FOMO, feeling like an underconfident and yes, under-competent Rip VanWinkle. Like when I’m in the city, I’ve been jolted awake from my own deep sleep, the opposite dream, in which I’ve been too long nestled in the cleavage of Mother Nature, going days without speaking to anyone, my only witness, the white-tailed deer. My cell phone doesn’t even work at my house. My wifi is fickle and so is my power. The fireplace is not decorative. It’s a hearth that would burn if all else failed in the way of technology, and there have been plenty of winter nights when it’s the keeper of my hope too. And I lie there staring at its flickering coals and feeling its heat, thinking that fire is where it all started. Fire was the initial step that humans took to what has become our giant step into our current state of things. How different was that first spark from what happens in Microsoft think-tanks in Palo Alto?
So I wonder:
Have we always been like we are now, just with different gizmos and the same ambition? So cock-sure in our questions and so hungry for answers? Did we claw our way up the invention ladder to this world of technology that has become our norm, yes even in Montana, (though my best friend still has dial-up and doesn’t have a cell phone at all), and has our technology really made life easier? Has it really connected us? How do we really feel…alone in the dark with our little rectangular screens giving us answers about where to go and what to do and how someone else is feeling and what they are doing?
All week long, walking the city streets, I saw despair, is what I saw. Emptiness. A lot of people in comfortable, yet chic, shoes, a yoga mat slung over their shoulder, ears full of headphones, Bluetooth, earbuds, talking into the ozone. Loudly. I saw people looking into screens for answers, not into each others’ eyes. The conversations that came easily were with– get this: Uber and Lyft drivers…most of them new to this country and trying to figure it out too. And thus, also looking at screens for answers—shortest route, traffic, construction. But still, into the rearview mirror, asking me how my day was going. I didn’t tell them any of this. I told them “Great!” Like everyone else. I guess a filter can only last so long, unless you want your heart to break.
So before it did, with two more days in the city, I promised to linger longer at each table with my little rectangular notebook instead of my phone. Pen to paper I wrote what I could see and recognize about our city civilization that lasts, regardless of how we have, and will continue to, develop as a species. I asked myself: what’s been here from the beginning and what will be with us always, besides the fact that none of us is getting out of here alive.
It was the stuff you’d think it was. I wrote:
I believe in people’s central goodness. Just look at the way that man helped that older woman with the cane get to her seat, and waited with her until she was settled.
I believe in our need for community. Just look at the way this restaurant has a communal table and that it’s fuller than the bar.
I believe in our fear. Everyone’s talking about the earthquake last night and recalling 1989. And no one is cavalier. “Isn’t there a way for them to know when they’re coming?” I asked. No. Not even Siri can tell us that.
I believe in the collective. Otherwise, why wouldn’t we all do as my literary hero, and perhaps me too:
“The world that used to nurse us
now keeps shouting inane instructions.
That’s why I ran to the woods.”
― Jim Harrison
I believe in our ability to stay. Hold vigil. Keep the hearth warm, whatever that means for each of us. The tenacity of the homeless who brave the nights in doorways with one blanket and maybe some cardboard.
I also believe in our hope. When it’s time to take a new step in a new direction. And it might be a surprise step. I believe in our ability to believe that there’s something around the bend that might change everything, and it might change everything for the better. Better being a relative term.
And I think all of these core beliefs apply to any sort of living—country, city, suburban. But it does require us stopping from time to time, moment to moment, and removing the filter to check in on where our civilization is and isn’t. So find a bench. A stoop. Some steps. And stop. Take pause.
I’m about to go to Morocco for a month of it. Alone. This is my deep bow after all these years of day-to-day hands-on mothering. It’s also my call to action for what’s ahead—to live into it bravely and whole-heartedly. And who knows if my cell phone or my GPS will help me navigate the labyrinthine medinas and markets and if I’ll find my way effectively across the desert. I don’t speak Arabic, or even French. I’m going to get by on these core beliefs. I’ll be writing about it along the way. I think we all need to take a giant step out of our lives and see who we really are, alone in the world, without technology. Become disoriented and wobbly and look our fear in the eye and each others’ fear too. I found some good walking shoes. My daughter gave me a beautiful blank-paged journal for Christmas. I have a good book. I have my beliefs and I have my central goodness, which I have to believe is greater than my fear. Just like love. Just…like…you.
Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2019
You do NOT have to be a writer to come– just a seeker who loves the written word, and longs to find your unique voice. It’s here…in the stunning wilderness of Montana! Click for more info.
March 20-24 (full with wait list)
May 8-12 (ah, the sweet month of May in Montana…darling buds and all.)
June 12-16 (great time of year for teachers. Time to fill YOUR cup!)
June 26-30 (ditto)
Sept 18-22 (my favorite time of year. Still warm during the day. Fire in the fireplace at night.)
Sept 25-29 (ditto)
***Haven Wander: Morocco (February 2019) is full