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Born in the US, raised on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, lived in Italy, the US, and Canada. Lover of language, travel, colour, and the natural world.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

On Being Connected

The wind is blowing through the enormous oaks outside. It is the third week of October and I went out to breakfast this morning with my journal and pen wearing a t-shirt and sandals. Sunlight filtered down through the Japanese maple that formed a canopy above my head. In the background a fountain bubbled peacefully. It is almost 20 degrees Celsius today. Ok so maybe it is not exactly hot, but still rather disorienting after six years of chilly autumns on Prince Edward Island. I am missing the dramatic shift through flaming fall colours that I looked forward to every year in Atlantic Canada. When I call friends there they bemoan the onset of winter, and I ask myself if the only reason I am missing it is because it is no longer my present reality.

This past Saturday I went to a yoga class in McKinley Park. There were about 60 of us out there under the trees. By the end of practice it was so hot I was sweating. The class was amazing, but I found myself feeling, as I have been feeling frequently since arriving in California, like I was on a movie set. Yoga in the park in October? Sunshine and lush vegetation and coffee shops and perfectly manicured gardens whose owners I never actually see working in them. I am surrounded by a culture of abundance and ease and comfort, and it makes me uncomfortable for some reason. If I want to pay a bill, I can get online and pay it. With most coffee shops offering free wireless, I could pay my bills while sitting outside in a lush garden sipping a latte and talking to a friend on an iphone. I find myself comparing this to hours of pushing and shoving through a line in Rome only to be informed by an irritated bureaucrat enveloped in cigarette smoke that pours out through the slot intended to receive money that I am in the wrong line. Most people would prefer paying online while comfortably seated in the local coffee shop, but for some reason I feel more comfortable when I am less comfortable. When I have to struggle a bit. When I have to engage with another human being, however frustrating that process proves to be, in order to pay my bills. And yes, I do recognize the irony of my considering life in Rome less comfortable. In comparison to many areas of the world, my entire life has been a steady flow of abundance. My discomfort fills me with questions.

I was watching a comedy act about the “iphone culture”. The one where everything the talker in a conversation says is compared visually (by the “listener”) with whatever is happening on the phone’s screen, and where the person with the phone takes frequent, albeit subtle downward glances at their phones. At one point the comedian asks: “what kind of culture is this? Is it ok for me to hold a magazine up in front of my face while someone is talking to me?” The clip was funny. But it was funny because it points out how unable we are to simply be present with each other. How we have this almost addictive need to be over-stimulated. Since when was an uninterrupted conversation with a friend not stimulating enough?

I was talking to an acquaintance the other day on Facebook chat. He is a photographer, and has a few pieces in a show that just opened in Philadelphia. His photographs are of people being distracted. I am intrigued by the idea of going to an art gallery to look at photos of myself being distracted. How would that make me feel? How would that make people who enjoy their phones and computers, watching television and playing video games more than I do feel? I ask him if he thinks it might make people change how they spend their time. He says he doesn’t know. “Why would they want to?” he asks me.

I know. I sound old. I see it in the expression of horror on the faces of my peers when they ask me why their text messages are not going through to me and I explain that it is because the number I gave them is a land line. Admitting to not owning is cell phone is akin to social suicide in California. I do not get invited out on social outings not because I am not welcome but because I am simply not in the loop. Not connected. Watching disbelief flash across the faces of new acquaintances has become my favourite new source of entertainment. I stand in social circles watching the introductions and flashing screens as names and contact information is exchanged. Connections being made at the speed of light.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not against progress. I just would rather hear a person’s story before I record their contact details. I would like to be able to associate a name and phone number with a personal story. A few days ago a friend asked me if I had the phone number for a mutual friend because his cell phone was not working, and that was the only place he had it recorded. I recited it to him from memory and he stood there staring at me aghast as if I had grown a second set of ears. “Do you know all of your friend’s phone numbers by heart?” he asked me. I had to admit that yes, I do.

I was walking through the park the other day and found a piece of folded up paper blowing along the sidewalk. I stopped to pick it up. It had a woman’s name and number neatly printed across it. It made me wonder what connection had potentially been lost when the recipient of this piece of paper had dropped – purposefully or accidentally—this woman’s contact information? It also made me think about the envelopes I have in my bedroom labelled by country with contact names and numbers and email addresses for friends scattered all across the world, some of them ripped off the corners of envelopes that had contained hand written letters, some of them scrolled on the corner of a newspaper or on a piece of art paper with a small doodle next to the information. One woman, a painter, wrote her contact information on a thick piece of high quality painting paper that she had used to test out the hue of a deep blue paint she had been using for one of her pieces. Whenever I wanted to call her I would thumb through my pile of contacts looking for the blue paint that reminded me of a late summer meal we enjoyed on the back porch of her home bathed in early evening golden light, after a long day on the beach, looking out at the deep blue Atlantic Ocean.

The Mexican yard crew are outside blowing leaves into piles and bagging them up and taking them away. They are on our block every day pruning, weeding, and bagging leaves. Interacting with the soil and making sure that all the gardens are beautiful. I struggle with the lack of intimate interaction between landowners (or in our case, renters) and the places we call home. Yes, it creates more jobs and is perhaps a more efficient use of time. While homeowners are at work, our homes are cleaned and our gardens manicured so that when we come home we can use the little time we have when we are not working to actually enjoy being at home. But what about jumping in the crunchy fall leaves? What about the excitement of planting bulbs that we know will push up out of the soil and blossom come spring? What about watching the squirrels dig holes to bury nuts and seeds for the winter months? What about those connections?

Every culture has its way of experiencing life. In Canada we rubbed up against the natural world – the soil, the sky, the snow and rain and wind, and the salty smell of the ocean every day. With the vastness of the natural world around us, it was hard not to. It was a rare night that I did not look up to see what phase the moon was in or search for the big and small dippers or the North Star. We moved slowly and inhaled deeply. Here I drive on six lane highways, do yoga to slow down, and catch glimpses of the moon through the trees every now and then as I am closing the blinds at night. I find remaining present to the natural world more of a struggle. I find myself surfing the Internet while talking on the phone and eating my breakfast. I find myself paying bills online. I listen to the wind whispering through the oaks and the roar of traffic rushing back and forth up and down the oak-lined street we live on. I wonder about connections and presence, sip hot herbal tea, think about what I will cook for supper tonight, what my friends back on Prince Edward Island, in Cyprus and Lebanon are doing in this moment, and about calling a friend that I have been too busy to connect with for over a week. I ask myself how I can remain connected but not distracted. Live in abundance, but still find the balance of moderation. 

How do you stay present and connected to your community and the natural world? What does presence look like for you?

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