Look Up

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Just look around you — at the people crouched over their phones as they walk the streets, or drive their cars, or walk their dogs, or play with their children. Observe yourself in line for coffee, or in a quick work break, or driving, or even just going to the bathroom. Visit an airport and see the sea of craned necks and dead eyes. We have gone from looking up and around to constantly looking down.  Andrew Sullivan, I Used to Be a Human Being.

I read not too long ago that people are experiencing new kinds of neck strain because they’re always slightly bent over their cell phones. There are so many articles about our addiction to distraction, and specifically our smart phones, so I don’t think I need to convince anyone of that here. I struggle with disconnecting, and have been finding lately, that as a result, my thoughts are scattered, and I can’t focus for long periods of time. I’ve come to expect interruption.

I’m not going to knock social media because I myself have found genuine connection there on occasion. However, I do feel the conviction often when I’m looking at my phone or computer screen, that I’m living in a “virtual world” of mostly my creation- my friends, the publications I choose to subscribe to or “like,” carefully crafted personas rather than flawed people. It’s almost as though I am literally wearing virtual reality glasses. Every now and then, I look up and understand, “Oh, that’s my actual world in front of me.” But the truth is, sometimes the real world in front of me is too real, too wild, and too demanding. Instead of waking up in bed and stretching, I often ready myself to face the day by grabbing my phone and rationalizing that I’ll just check email and Facebook, my Dictionary Word of the Day, and read the NY Times headlines. Sometimes in my bedroom, darkened by blackout blinds, the screen light on my phone feels nearly blinding, but I squint and read on.

What most concerns me lately, though, is the false sense of an interior life that scrolling through feeds and articles gives me. My interior life should be reserved for, primarily, my thoughts and reflections, not the ingestion of hundreds of other articles, studies, suggestions, comments, and arguments. And yet, time spent looking down at my phone or computer screen has usurped much of what was previously interior time.

While there are many theories about the best way to “detox” from phone addictions and social media addiction,(Andrew Sullivan, who I quote above, went on a detox retreat)  I think maybe just making it a goal to look up, rather than down, is a great way to return to your interior life and the real world around you.

Two weekends ago, I sat on my porch with Audrey because it was a beautiful day. I sat sideways on our hammock just staring up at the sky and trees, framed by the ornate Victorian flourishes on the columns of our porch. If I hadn’t been looking up, I wouldn’t have noticed the bald eagle that flew right towards our house, feet from where we sat, directly in front of me. “Audrey, look!” I stammered out, and she turned to see the eagle in time before it disappeared. The bird’s flight was far too fast for me to even think about grabbing my phone to take a picture. Instead, we both savored the moment with simple, quiet words like, “Wow!” and “That was amazing.”

On my daily walk, my eyes are drawn to all of the tall trees around the walking path. In this screen-less time, I mull over writing projects and envision their structure, pray, or even just talk out loud, breath deeply, and sigh.  Now that we’re entering fall, I often just watch the leaves take their graceful journey downward.

Last week, as I returned home from an appointment and a few errands, feeling slightly defeated at the lack of progress on the day’s to-do list, I took a deep breath, and looked up before going in the house to unpack the groceries. Directly over my head, so high up in the sky, I had to lean back until my head was parallel to the ground, was a rainbow encircling the sun just visible between the two trees whose branches arched above me. This time I regret that I actually did get my phone and take a few photos of the rainbow. But you know what? I couldn’t capture it because you can’t capture a moment—the surprise and comfort and hope that rainbow gave me—on a phone camera.

The FOMO (fear of missing out) phenomena urges us on to look down, stay engaged, connected, in the know. But the real missing out, the missing out of moments, is happening every day. I don’t want to miss the moment when my child and I share the unexpected holiness of a majestic bird gracing our presence. I don’t want to miss the moments of quiet and stillness while the first autumn leaves slowly rain down in front of me. I don’t want to miss the rainbow right above me that urges me on even when the day’s tasks overwhelm me. I can’t purge screens or social media from my life completely, but maybe I can spend less time looking down, and more time…looking up.

Reading Names Aloud

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“Throughout the ancient world, naming was a sacred act. It was the word by which a child was called into his calling. It was the voice of destiny, summoning the child into his future with all its glorious promise.” Anne Hamilton, God’s Panoply: The Armour of God and the Kiss of Heaven

On Sunday, the anniversary of 9/11 felt much heavier than usual. Maybe that’s because it was the 15 year anniversary. Maybe it’s because I’ve been down there more these past few years staying with friends who live there. Or maybe it’s because my daughter is at an age where she now knows the events of that day.

As is so often the case with traumatic events, we tell the story over and over- at least our small version of the larger story. I tell Audrey how I saw the towers on my bus ride into work right before the Lincoln tunnel- how it was always my signal that I was almost there. I tell her how by the time I walked to my building on 45th Street, the first plane had crashed and co-workers had the image up on their computer screens. Still, my friend and I went down to the 7th floor to get bagels for breakfast, ignorant to what was already unfolding. Back upstairs, the second plane had hit. By then we all knew. A voicemail on my phone from my dad asking if I was OK, sounding choked up at the end of his message, confirmed how bad it was. “When I heard grandpa’s voice, I knew it was unlike anything that had ever happened during my lifetime,” I tell her. I tell her about how I met her dad at his office where we could look out his window and clearly see the smoking towers downtown, and how we wandered around trying to catch a cab uptown to his apartment with two of our co-workers, how there was no cell service, no subways, buses, or trains running, and yet how people walked around for the most part like it was an ordinary day which made it even more surreal.

I tell her we finally got a ride in a stranger’s car who dropped us off on the other side of the GWB. “A stranger!!???” she is astounded. “This was very different.” I tell her how weeks and maybe months afterwards, the subways and streets were covered with flyers and photos of people that were “missing.” “You know how sad you get when you see those “missing dog” posters when we’re driving?” I ask. “Well, these were hundreds of posters for missing people.” “Wow.”

We looked at a book my company, Random House, had made memorializing the towers and given out to all employees. Inside are pictures of the construction and the history. I take out two other photo albums and find a picture of me as a two or three-year-old with my dad and brother, the towers in the background. In another album is a picture of me taken by Dan with the towers straight above me. I don’t tell her all of this to traumatize her, but because I think she is old enough to understand this simplified version, and because I promised then I would never forget, and I will not always be here to remember.

She’s been down to the reflecting pools and she knows those giant footprints are where the Towers stood. She imagines that the Towers fell the way blocks do, sideways, and asks me about the other nearby buildings and how they survived. I try to explain how they collapsed in and on themselves. Then she asks, “But wait, if the people flying the plane knew they would die too, why would they still do that?” What she’s really asking is “How could someone’s hatred surpass their love of life? Their own life?” Seven-year olds know the value of life. She is eager to wake up every morning, and hates going to sleep each night because she feels like she’s missing out on life.

Later, before church, I turn on the television and we listen for just a bit to the reading of the names. I can think of no better way to honor those who lost their lives than this reading of the names interrupted only by the ringing bell and moments of silence marking each plane’s impact and the falling of the Towers, as well as the plane hitting the Pentagon, and the field in Pennsylvania.

When I hear each name, first, middle, last, I imagine a parent naming their newborn, listening to the sound of its cadence.

I think about how there is nothing more sacred than a name. It was, after all, our first job in the garden, to name things. “I don’t think Bluey even knows he’s a fish,” Audrey says sometimes. “No, he doesn’t know that name. That is one difference between humans and animals. We name things.”

I keep a list of people I am praying for and I try to go through it each morning. If I tell someone I am praying for them, I want to mean it, but those prayers aren’t usually lengthy. Quite often, they are simply the names read aloud with short pauses in between, very similar to the reading at the 9/11 service. I’m a lover of words, but these names embraced on either side by silence, like an offering in my outstretched palms, often feels more powerful than all of my finest words.

I hear that morning from the newscasters that there was some discussion of not proceeding with the naming this year and going forward, but I’m glad they did. When we come back from church 2-1/2 hours later, I turn on the TV again. “They’re still reading those?” Audrey says with astonishment. “Yes, they are,” is all I can say.

 

Currently Reading: The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

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To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair. Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

I don’t read a lot of fiction at all, but this is one of my favorite books, and I haven’t read it since I was a newlywed. Folding down favorite pages while balancing on the subway on my commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan, it quickly became one of my favorite books.

Using a voice slightly reminiscent of Holden Caulfield in the Catcher in the Rye, but less dreary, older/wiser, more hopeful and truly unique, and a backdrop of New Orleans-think French Quarter balconies and melancholic Southern charm with an edge, Percy touches upon the deepest questions of life:

“But this morning when I got up, I dressed as usual and began as usual to put my belongings into my pockets: wallet, notebook (for writing down occasional thoughts), pencil, keys, handkerchief, pocket slide rule (for calculating percentage returns on principal). They looked both unfamiliar and at the same time full of clues. I stood in the center of the room and gazed at the little pile, sighting through a hole made by thumb and forefinger. What was unfamiliar about them was that I could see them. They might have belonged to someone else. A man can look at this little pile on his bureau for thirty years and never once see it. It is as invisible as his own hand. Once I saw it, however, the search became possible.”

“What is the nature of the search? you ask. Really it is very simple, at least for a fellow like me; so simple that it is easily overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. This morning, for example, I felt as if I had come to myself on a strange island. And what does such a castaway do? Why, he pokes around the neighborhood and he doesn’t miss a trick. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”

I didn’t reread the book in its entirety, but I did skim through it the first year after my husband died. I knew I would find something there for my own search, and I did. Loss too makes everything look “unfamiliar and at the same time full of clues.” It does, I suppose, make the search and the seeking possible.

It is jarring, but a good idea, to see your own intimate belongings, your own self even, as unfamiliar every now and then, to not be so sunk in the everydayness of our own lives, to be “on to something,” as Percy says.

Growing Up

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“She was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.”  Kate Chopin, “The Awakening”

I gave up even trying to write at some point this summer. Other than a few weeks of scattered camps, I had Audrey at home, plus two part-time jobs I took on. I also had visits from my mother-in-law and brother-in-laws. I decided it was OK to give up on trying to sit down and write. It wasn’t worth the angst it created to be trying to do something and not have the time. And, as I told Audrey the other day as I took out my notecards to jot down a note for a piece- “I’m always writing.” In fact, the majority of my writing doesn’t take place at the keyboard. It takes place all over and in my mind and in the course of months and sometimes years, jotted down on notecards in my purse, collected until my basket’s full and it’s time to empty it out in words. I have collected much this summer. My basket is full.

Today I will keep it short because I am transitioning back to a “school day” schedule, and trying to be kind to myself especially amidst the heavy emotions I always feel at this time of year. My temptation is always to write a lengthy to-do list for my entire life and begin on it straightaway, but instead I’ve chosen to nurture myself with the things that are good for me that I’ve missed this summer. Journaling, walking, writing. It is my daughter’s first day of third grade. There was no lingering, no hug goodbye even at the school door. Just running in with friends, the back of her backpack (and the giant bag of supplies I had to buy for school that she could barely lift). At home, post-PTA parent breakfast, it is quiet while I journal. I hear the sirens again, the ambulance and the fire department’s. I hadn’t heard them all summer having her with me daily. Now I listen again, to see which direction they go in.

One day in July or August, we were pulling out of our driveway, when I commented on how nice our house is. I’m not sure that it really is, but I was trying to be positive and grateful (and I am). We only live in the downstairs portion as it’s broken into two apartments, but it’s an old Victorian house, apparently built in 1878 and also has the claim of being the home where a town hero grew up. “You’re lucky you get to grow up there,” I told Audrey. “So are you,” was her reply. “You’re growing up there too; grown-ups still grow up.” Yes, I am- growing up here alongside her.

There are things to do- the mothers at the PTA breakfast with their phone calendars out were reading off lists of classes and lessons and putting in back-to-school night dates. But I sit here a little longer this morning in the stillness. The evergreens outside my dining room windows are swaying, and I feel their aliveness, their kinship, when I am still like this.

 

Benediction

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The world lives by the blessing of God and of the righteous and thus has a future. Blessing means laying one’s hands on something and saying, Despite everything, you belong to God. This is what we do with the world that inflicts such suffering on us. We do not abandon it; we do not repudiate, despise or condemn it. Instead we call it back to God, we give it hope, we lay our hand on it and say: May God’s blessing come upon you, may God renew you; be blessed, world created by God, you who belong to your Creator and Redeemer.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The world sours,
o’er fraught with dangers,
sinister and taut.

warm,
summer,
stupefied.

no salve or sieve
on bloody streets-
surreal scenes.

no word
for the anguished mother,
hard sand, bent knees.

no pages of letters
in mailboxes,
on doorsteps,
tucked on windshields,
arrive
in the aftermath.

No prose.
Only gravity’s
vocabulary,
waves in distant,
silent, space—
Gaping sleeves of vestments
raised—

the
Benediction—
a laying on
of hands.

 

Image via Universe Today