Sometimes suddenly I realize I have taken something too far. That a habit, a diet, or lifestyle has oozed past the edges allotted for it in an ideal, well-balanced life. Like I find myself eating too much sugar, or working too much, or singing too little.
I’ve let go of beating myself up about it. That was a thing I did as a teenager…and through my twenties…and up until a few years ago. Back when I subscribed to a belief system of austerity, rather than balance. Back when I believed I could be strict, static, and superhuman. Back when I believed that perfection was the ideal.
Then I kept living. I kept climbing up, falling down, and looping through enough cycles to see that none of them are as tragic or permanent as I feared.
So when I recently realized how much time I’d been spending scrolling social media, I felt a twinge of embarrassment, but not a pang of shame. I understood my reasons, and the appeal. How it had been there for me this year, and had soothed the rash of disconnect brought on by moving and COVID and all that. Soothed…but not healed.
It took real friends to spark some reflection. Friends who I will get to know naturally, by talking and sharing, not by snooping. Friends who do not have robust social media presences through which to browse, but who willingly offer their inner worlds and their histories through honest spoken word. Friends who talk about limiting their time online, who call on the phone like we used to. (Remember that?) Friends who make me look at my own habits and pick through to see if there are any a little excessive.
It was a particular moment, waiting to hear back from a new friend, wondering what they might be doing, that I thought to check their account, to see their “story”. Their virtual story. The one with all the highlights completely stripped of context. That one.
In that moment as my pointer finger hovered over the little search bar, (searching for clues on someone who does not have to be a mystery), I realized how automatic that action had become. Bored, anxious? Just scroll a little. Fill that space a little.
I excused it. I forgave myself. I had been working a lot. I had been tired. That was my way to relax in the moments between busy living. But in that specific moment, the thought of my new friend, and the idea that they might have other ways of filling those spaces, made me wonder what I used to do to fill those spaces, back before I had all this. I only got my first internet phone ten years ago. How did I fill moments waiting in the car, or relaxing between shifts, or evenings alone.
Yeah, I’ve been stressed, I’ve been busy. But when is life not busy? If busyness is my excuse, then I will excuse this habit forever.
No. Something has got to shift. I’ve got to build a new system, a new habit, a new normal.
I looked around. A stack of books sat untouched on my shelf, the bounty of my Christmas boxes. I used to read, right? In the corner, a mangled old spiral notebook leaked loose pages onto my desk. There are songs in there that are waiting for verses. I noticed my yoga mat and noticed my achey back. I could stretch for five minutes. It doesn’t have to be a lot.
I walked out to the deck and breathed deep and raised my arms overhead. Hey, yeah…there you are body. Now that’s something real, something tangible. My breathe lead me from the deck to my garden, overgrown and unfinished and unfit for planting. Waiting for my attention. I rooted around, pulled a few weeds, got some dirt under my fingernails, not too much, but enough to fill me with a little more ‘real’.
I had been worried about conserving energy, about staying focused from one client to the next, but touching the earth had seemed to fill me more than touching that screen. I was reminded that I am an animal with more senses than the sense of belonging.
So I made a little goal. I didn’t need to deactivate my account or delete my apps. I wasn’t that deep in the hole. But I did need something to break the muscle memory, like a little reminder. So I moved the icons off my home screen, just to the very back, and I gave myself permission to check once, maybe twice a day. Intentionally. To answer messages. Not to scroll mindlessly, and not out of some automatic habit.
I laughed at myself the first time my thumb automatically pounced on the screen where instagram used to be, opening instead a surfing app. I was sitting in my car between massages, trying to fill the space before my next move. ’Well, that is appropriate,’ I thought, ‘maybe I should go check the waves.’
I sat in indecision. I didn’t reach for my phone. I just exhaled. Breaking habits. Then came a thought, (an urge), to go to Parking Lots. Just a desire to be there more than any of the other beaches, but a clear desire. And with that decision, I remembered this thing, this intuition, that breathes freely when given the space. I drove down the hill to the shore and wondered if maybe it wasn’t about how to fill the spaces differently, but about leaving them a little open.
Not five minutes after I parked and stood and breathed in the sea breeze, a white Corolla pulled in, and my friend beamed at me through the tinted window. The friend I hadn’t heard from, the one I’d been wondering about. The one I couldn’t get in touch with. He parked beside my little red car and jumped out, instantly engaging me in an excited chatter I’d forgotten existed.
I was a bit startled, with no screen to hide behind, no filters to apply. I bubbled back, awkwardly effervescing more information than I was sure if another human could absorb. All my pent up reality tumbled out in a sudden social pressure release. He just smiled, and asked mature, attentive questions, and listened patiently, and my excited ramble turned steadier, and our exchange calmer, and I felt myself fill with a connection and joy I’d forgotten existed. I felt myself morphing back into the human animal I used to be. Like coming out of a spell.
I started to see then that there are two worlds. There is the world in there. Virtual images and momentary bursts of validation. A very mental world, where the fulfillment is chemicals bouncing from your eyes to your brain, sometimes flooding your body. Like a fantasy, like a dream, very much contained up there, in there.
And there is the world out there, a world of senses and natural laws. Of soil under your fingernails, and breeze in your lungs. Of hydrogen atoms spit up by the waves and swallowed by your cells to alkalize your body. Of energy passed through the space between two living, breathing bodies as they speak and share their stories.
And, I believe, further still, that there is a world of universal laws. Where you surrender and wait a beat before filling spaces, before taking control. Where you just ask a little what’s supposed to happen next, where you’re supposed to go, who you’re supposed to see, and the universe, ever eager to play the miraculous symphony of serendipity, comes bursting in with answers.
Since I’ve been stepping out from in there, they’ve happened again and again, these coincidences. Even the unfortunate events prove themselves productive and intended when I remember to exhale, look out and wonder, ‘Now, why this?’ It’s the magic I’ve been missing from before the dream.
It’s like life was just waiting outside that little box. Just there, like it’s always been, following its natural laws this whole time. Waiting for us to come back out and play.
**(In waiting to write this piece, another lovely author, Terah Van Dusen published her own recent experience with a social media detox, urging and inspiring me to ‘get-it-done’!)