Last week was Screen Free Week, and for the first time ever, I actually participated. A friend of mine had been trying to get me on board for years. So, three days before it officially started, I decided to take the plunge.
Man, talk about culture shock. My eyes opened up on Monday morning, and I immediately began to twitch. I really didn’t know what to do with myself. I am so accustomed to reaching for my phone first thing in the morning, really before my eyes are even open. It started with needing to know what the weather was going to be, then over time it progressed to Pinterest and Facebook. I spent hours lying in bed, reading. I would spend all day, some days, engaging in debate and argument with people who are near-strangers. I would scour the internet for new ideas, and then carefully file them away, and go off in search for more. It was informational bliss. The ideas, news, and stimulation went on and on and on, until I collapsed at the end of each day. Then I would wake up the next morning, clutch my phone in my hand, focus my eyes, and start all over again. All of a sudden, Monday morning, all of that stimulation was gone, and the only thing left was… me.
I immediately started to panic. Then, slowly, softly, came the realization that I was uncomfortable with my own thoughts. The whirlwind in my head came to a screeching halt, and I thought, “Hmmm, that’s interesting.” And so I made myself lie there for a while, on that first morning, and just watched my thoughts go by.
When I finally got up and came downstairs, the first thing I realized was that I was up hours before my usual time. I was up so much earlier, in fact, that I received funny looks from everyone, right from my husband, down on through the dog. So, I made myself a cup of tea, and sat down in my chair. And I did NOT turn the television on. My winter habit had been to sit down, have a cup of tea, and watch a documentary or a TED talk while knitting. Well, it had been such a long cold winter and spring, I realized that now I don’t know what else to do with myself. I left my tablet and phone upstairs, so even my usual forms of entertainment without the TV were not available. I wasn’t awake enough to read my book, or knit something complicated enough to hold my attention. And there I sat, without a clue what to do with myself. Pretty embarrassing, eh? Screen Free Week. Right. I can do this.
As I sat there, I realized a few things. The first was that my house was a disaster area. There’s always a certain amount of fur on the floor, what with five cats, a dog, and it being spring. They start in as I am still vacuuming, no joke. But this was a bit intense. And there was… stuff, for lack of a better word, everywhere; socks, napkins, books, papers, half-finished projects, and things waiting to be mended. We won’t even talk about the dust. I mean, wait a minute, didn’t I just get through with spring cleaning? How could this possibly have escaped my notice? How is it that I didn’t see… it… oh, that’s right, because I had been too busy looking at my phone. The other thing I noticed right away? My favorite chair faces the wall. It’s not like I didn’t know that, mind you. I’m not completely dense. But, the impact of such a simple thing had never occurred to me. There is nothing to look at from my favorite spot, except electronics. So that’s what I been doing.
Rapidly, I realized that I didn’t want to sit and stare at a blank wall all day, so I got up and set to work on the laundry, which is my usual Monday chore. Hours ahead of schedule. I didn’t forget about it part-way through either, for a change. I worked steadily through the day, had time to read my book in between folding loads, and the end result was that ALL of the laundry was done, folded, and put away before I went to bed. By Monday evening, I was an entire day ahead of schedule, and I had even talked to my mother and a few friends on the phone. I was even able to go to bed early. Whoah.
Tuesday dawned, and I got right up out of bed. Now what? Well, the house is still a mess, I’m nice and rested, and have nothing planned. So I spent the day cleaning the upstairs. I even cleaned out and reorganized my closet, and put a whole bunch of clothes that had gotten too big in a box to be put away (at least until I’m sure this weight loss is permanent). I deep cleaned the bathroom, and reorganized the library, finding homes for all the books that had been piling up on the desk. Wednesday, I did the ground floor, and deep cleaned the kitchen. I found time to talk to my mother at least once a day, and several other friends as well. I went to bed early every night, and bounced out of bed fully rested at dawn.
By Wednesday, I realized that I had not had to raise my voice once all week. I hadn’t lost my temper, felt grumpy, had an anxiety attack, or even felt overwhelmed. Not once. Nor had I asked the kids to be quiet at any time. In fact, I had encouraged their noise, games, and music. I had even started singing to myself again, something I haven’t done in years because I haven’t been able to stand the noise. Thursday morning, I looked around and realized that my house was spotless, and all the laundry was done. The weather was kind of cold and wet, so I sat and read my book all morning, and went to my knitting group in the afternoon. It felt completely decadent.
Friday, I decided that I was going to tackle a big project that I had been sure I would never have time for. A bit of puttering Thursday night had left the house immaculate once more. So, I headed down to the basement. Much like everyone else, our basement is our catch-all. And, um… I don’t really go down there if I can help it, so, it was stacked taller than me, with only a goat-path from the bottom of the stairs to the sliding glass doors on the side of the house. We are talking scary messy, here. And, it was getting kind of critical, because I really didn’t have any room for the stuff I need to can and dehydrate over the coming summer.
There were boxes down there that I packed when I moved out of my parents’ house, which have never been unpacked since. I have known for years that I should just throw them out unopened, but there are family heirlooms in there, you know, stuff that I actually want to use in my house and give to my children. And I’m not just quite sure where my wedding photos are. You get the idea. It took me three whole days, but I went through every single box. I had stuff down there that I had forgotten entirely, like the sweater my parents brought me back from Ireland, and the antique linens given to me by my grandmother. I had stuff down there that I was sure had been lost along the way, like my very favorite bag (sweet grass and leather, from the 1970’s), and all of my husband’s good silk ties (which were in the bag, incidentally). I had boxes and boxes of fabric, and yes, one with knitting stuff that somehow wound up on the wrong side of the basement. I also had twenty-three boxes of children and baby clothes. Yeah, that’s what I said. Twenty-three. What? Don’t look at me like that. I meant to get around to going through them. It was on my list. Honest. But you know, last week I had time and space to do the really hard emotional work of cutting those twenty-three boxes down to one. And it is done. Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time in my entire adult life, I am unpacked and completely moved in to my house.
The upshot of all of this? My entire house, from rafters to basement doors was clean (except the studio, you know, because of all those extra boxes), I have a lot less stuff, and I hadn’t yelled at anyone all week. I was not lonely, and I managed to talk to nearly everyone I knew I was going to miss. The most astonishing thing was this; I was NOT bored. Not once, in fact. I felt at peace, and at ease with my world and everything in it. All. Week. I gotten up at dawn every day, rested, and with a song in my heart. Somewhere in there, I had also worked in the garden with my daughter, and nursed my son through the first stages of what turned out to be quite a nasty tummy bug. I am astonished at what I accomplished. I am even more astonished that I did not have to become a hermit in order to do it. Seriously, I even took a day off in the middle there.
But even more than what I accomplished was the emotional impact. Leaving all of Facebook and the internet behind made an enormous amount of room in my life. Room for my children, husband, and most importantly, myself. We played together, not just board games (though we certainly did a lot of that), but everything became a game. I gave them my full attention every time they needed it, and I never felt interrupted. At the bus stop in the morning, and upstairs one afternoon, I started teaching the kids how to sing rounds. Chores were done swiftly and largely without complaint, because I did not have to pry them from the television first. Now, they don’t watch much under normal circumstances, less than an hour a day, usually, unless I’m watching a documentary they want to see. But it turns out that even that little bit makes a huge difference in their disposition. There was a lot less fighting in my house than usual. The television makes a big difference to my disposition, too, it turns out. I turned the silly thing back on yesterday, because Jason was home from school, sick (still, poor baby). It wasn’t long until I found myself losing my patience again. By the end of the day, my temper had gone where the dead crabs go. And I still had it on. I went to bed late, and was cranky that I had to turn it off. Realizing this shocked the heck out of me.
So here’s where we get to the hardest part of all of this. I really don’t believe that this is something I can do in moderation. My best intentions simply aren’t enough. The whole experience of electronic media is overwhelmingly addictive for me. I know I’m not alone, here. It’s a huge phenomenon right across our culture. We all know it. We even joke about it. But after the last week… I don’t think it’s funny anymore. Social media and television completely thwart my ability to be present in my own life. That is what they are designed to do. My addiction to it completely sabotages what is most important in my life, and my propensity to dream instead of just doing is no less destructive to myself and my family than an addiction to drugs or alcohol. I just don’t see any argument that stands in the face of that. I know that in the past I have used the word ‘deserve’ in conjunction with my use of electronics. I work hard, right? I deserve a break. I deserve to watch television. I want to keep up with my friends, and the most efficient way to do that is Facebook. After all, no one should begrudge me that time, right? Well, no, in fact.
Here’s what I learned last week. Without TV or Facebook, when I am tired at the end of the day, I go to bed. If that is at 8 PM, so be it. And it usually is. I get more sleep without electronics, and in fact, better sleep. I am more rested, and can get way more done during the day. I also get more done during the day because I am not spending my time arguing with acquaintances over things that, ultimately, I really don’t care about. And let me tell you, over the last few months, not a day had gone by without an argument on Facebook, and usually more like three or four. I had begun to joke that the main purpose of Facebook is to violate the basic rules of polite conversation, to wit; do not discuss religion or politics. Also in there, is not airing your dirty laundry in public. You know what I realized about that? Like in so much else in my life, my grandmother and her peers knew what they were talking about. That stuff is like rat poison in any relationship. What winds up happening is that we all lose respect for one another, and we spend more time thinking and talking about our differences than our similarities. Furthermore, I think that Facebook, makes me worry more about the opinions of people I know way more than is ever healthy. I found myself putting everything up there, and then waiting to see who would respond. I found myself living my life through the lens of carefully composed snippets, instead of as an organic and dynamic whole. I started seeing other people that way, too. More than one friendship has turned to ash over the years.
So you know what I have decided that I deserve? I deserve to have a relationship with my children where I do not feel interrupted by them. I deserve a clean and organized house. I deserve time to pursue my passions and interests, instead of just reading about them. I deserve time in my garden. I deserve to expect civility from everyone in my life. I deserve to be a civil human being, myself. I deserve to have actual, whole, dynamic relationships with the people I love. I deserve a social life where I communicate differently with my nearest and dearest than I do with my acquaintances. I deserve to go to bed when I am tired, and to wake up rested. I deserve peace and quiet. I deserve room to experience my own thoughts. I deserve to sing. I deserve to write.