Things I Learned During Last Year’s Digital Detox and Promises I’m Making to Myself
I promised myself that I’d write more, and actually deliver on that promise to myself. Turns out the first piece is pretty personal, and I am OK with that. If you’re looking for one of my usual sporadic posts updating you on community news or giving you a cool How-To, that’s not this post. But more in that vein will be published here, on a regular basis, as of this week.
I’ve tried to take the end of every year as a period of reflection for some time, and not just because it’s prompted by the holidays, replete with the requisite advertising and ‘collective’ cultural narratives. It’s because its a time of year where my physical processes slow down – it’s Winter, after all – and my desire to have a prolonged period of uninterrupted down time becomes a need. Perhaps its the cold, perhaps its the cumulative effect of absorbing so many things over the short period of time that is one year, perhaps its getting older and these short periods of time, 365 days, moving so quickly they’re almost not there.
The conclusion of each year remains constant, though, no matter what else may be going on in my life. I hold that time sacred to meditate on what I’m doing, where I’m going, how the people I’m going there with and I will thrive together, and generally just working stuff out with people who matter to me. And in our always-connected-so-much-so-that-mentioning-it-is-now-cliché world, I also protect these times as ones where I am having in the moment, real life experiences, unchained from a laptop, and usually without my mobile. I want to be where I am, with the people that matter to me.
The refrains that I read so often, declaring that we need times like these – digital detoxes, mindful experiences, walks in nature and off the grid – feel cliched and stilted to me. It’s self-evident for me that human beings require this unmitigated time to function, to grow and prosper. There’s the scientific literature. There’s our own knowledge of how much better we function when we give our brains and bodies time to rest, our creativity a chance to wander and be, our interests outside of our offices and screens the opportunity to thrive. Why are we writing hand wringing love letters to a time before all this connectedness and missals about the importance of digital detox, instead of fighting our addiction to it all?
I know it’s hard, and I know that having enough time and space to be able to give up “the toys” for three weeks is an immense privilege. I have no children and I have a backup answering service in place if my family need to reach me in an emergency. Digital detox is easier when you know that someone will reach you if you must be reached, and when you are left with no excuse to hold onto the grip of your gadget. Digital detox is much easier when you can actually afford to take holiday and, more important, actually take holiday and be off the clock – remember when that used to be the definition of a holiday? – and not check back in at the office.
This year, I took two three weeks to do nothing but be with family. Moving to Amsterdam meant losing immediacy and time with those of them in the United States. Then there’s the family that live so far away from me that seeing them only once per year is difficult, and also an immense privilege. I spent time in California, admiring the landscape after much needed but still too little rains, breathing in the redwoods. I lounged in the sun in Florida, drinking champagne and enjoying round after round of delicious home cooked meals. Watched the kids grow up, chronicling the swift changes in them now that they’re just one year older. Flew to New Zealand, via Auckland, into Christchurch to spend time with my goddaughter and her mother. It’s been just one year since I’ve seen her, but that year was a fast one. She’s already forming sentences that astound me, and I cannot help but admire all her new abilities, that she now sleeps through the night, her boundless energy and curiosity.
Even with those three weeks taken, I still didn’t get to spend quality time with all of my family members. I am just now catching up with my boyfriend’s parents in Germany, celebrating their birthdays, which both took place over the past eight weeks. I will be see my own parents in two weeks in time California.
I spent my time sorting myself out, in the company of people dear to my heart. I helped them sort themselves out, and we understood the complexities of the universe together. We told each other stories. We ate each others recipes, made endless trips to the grocery store, laughed about the hardest things in our lives and the easiest ones.
In short, we lived and were people together. It was indescribably glorious, these simple things, these easy things, these moments of of existing and being. Even the hard things, with tears on each others blouses, accompanied by the most profane but justified exclamations, were delicious for their being hard won. And this time, this end of the year, 2014, I felt like I finally had finally internalized some very important lessons and learnings.
I’m writing them here because they need to be captured, and I know at some point I’ll want to share every one of them again with a person I love.
On Feeding My Body: Food and Its Role in Both the World and My Life
Eating healthy is just plain hard. Preparing meals from scratch that are healthy and well-balanced is a full-time job for one person for a family of four, and probably more than one person considering what I saw done to feed the many people welcomed into the family home for holiday meals in Florida. Purchasing ingredients that are of high quality is expensive, and affording high quality, clean food has itself become a privilege. A family of six, with two adults earning average incomes in the US, cannot both feed itself sufficiently and afford purchase organic / free range / locally grown / etc food products.
I have the privilege of being able to afford clean food. I am grateful that I can do so, and I am grateful to have eaten so many home cooked meals with the people I love over the past two months. I have always cared deeply about food politics, but it has become even more important to me recently. It all starts with food, and how its created, and how we share it or do not share, and how we feel about its appearance, and where it comes from, and who is able to get enough and who gets too much, and who does not get enough for their needs. And so many other things, and all of these considerations before food even enters our body systems to be processed into energy and action.
I need to eat in a way that is clean for my body and supports my overall well-being. Making good food choices is hard for a wide variety of reasons, but I have done it before and I’ve thrived. I’m already starting it up again and I feel that much better. Doing so while spending so much time on the road is hard, but it needs to be my first priority. (I also don’t know how I can give up coffee with milk and be a contented human being, but I am going to figure that out, too.)
Eating in the way that makes sense for my body is going to tough for many reasons, but the toughest for me is the interactions with other people. It requires explaining to people what you are eating and why you are eating that way. Cue the inevitable desire of others to gently – because they care – or loudly – because they’re jerks – inform that your way of eating is wrong. Cue folks who are gentle and genuinely curious, but whose questions feel probing, judgemental or just tiring. I just want to get on with it and have something to eat, to not have my dietary requirements be the subject of conversation, and to take in the nutrients I need with a minimum of fuss; more joy, less anxieties over food.
It is also hard because it is simply hard work. In the places I find myself in Europe, there’s very little to no just-in-time-compiled life available if you’re eating healthy. There’s no nipping out for a quick bagel sandwich and a latte (though the call of these things becomes unreasonably loud when you’re not consuming them). If you’re lucky, there’s a shoarma shop nearby that will serve you a salad with meat on it, or a stir fry place in the city center. You can always go out and get a steak or mixed grill, but that’s too costly to do regularly, even for just lunch. You have to plan your menus and meal-times more strictly due to short supermarket opening times; you have to make sure basic ingredients are consistently available and consumed quickly while still fresh; you have to have time to prepare them well so the taste incentivizes you to eat well instead of just conveniently.
I suppose that there are few healthy options for just-in-time-compiled-life eating in the US, either, but it feels like there are. Probably because I spent almost all my time while in the US within a 50 mile radius of Woodside, California – or in ORD / IAD / IAH. The latter definitely lack healthy food options. Then again, home was never like the rest of the US, even when I was a young child. Californian exceptionalism atop American exceptionalism, has been, I’ve learned, the order of the day for as long as I have been alive. For me, things like high quality fresh produce and left-leaning politics were just where we were, who we were and what we did. I vaguely remember rumblings from childhood that the rest of the country didn’t like us, and we Californians were hippie wierdos with radical ideas.
Now, I suppose, home has become “the establishment” since Silicon Valley now has its own TV show. But there’s never a salad with meat or a paleo treat far away, and you can always get an artichoke, soaked in olive oil and garlic. (And amazing tacos, and delicious Round Table Pizza with its tasty nostalgia, and any number of other things that must needs be avoided.)
I’m sit now, in a beautiful home in Germany, finally taking the time to write the thoughts that have swirled in my head for eight weeks. There is snow outside, magical and sparkling, cold and unforgiving, a joy to walk through and to leave to rest before a fire. Since I arrived yesterday, in the home of boyfriend’s parents, there has been someone in the kitchen every waking hour except for four of them, making food for four and cleaning the kitchen afterwards. Spending time with people you love takes time, and the Europeans do it over food. Every ingredient used is in its least processed form, each meal with more than 15 or 16 ingredients, four or five pans used to make it. Meals are lavish, times to be enjoyed, a place where the whole family rests and refreshes together.
Somewhere in the back of mind, I know this approach used to be the standard, but now it feels like a miracle to be indulged in, savored, saved up for remembering in the real world where meals come out of cartons, waxed paper boxes and peat-based plastic bowls.
Eating healthfully takes time, and its something I have to make the proper time for in order to survive. The more I age, the more I remember my genetic predispositions to poor health outcomes like diabetes and high blood pressure. Making a place in my life for slowness around food and around feeding my body will make me a better and healthier person, and I am going to do it. I am committed.
Sure, sometimes it will be difficult in the expected ways, instead of limited selection room service menus late at night ways. Like the struggle to explain to my boyfriend’s parents that I need to be on strict low carbohydrate diet for now, and for the next 30 days. There will be no cappuccinos, our normal after meal favorite together, no fruit, and no afternoon cake. They are wonderful, reasonable people who believe in moderation in all things. I normally agree, but in this case there’s no moderation when considering my carbohydrate intake and the results to my health. And they are loving, and are accommodating, and are in their kitchen now – and again! – creating lunch, making raw fennel salad and sausages. After some very confused looks, they served up cold cuts and raw vegetables, radish and cucumber, for breakfast this morning. No rolls, no toast.
Their cultural values tell them I am guest in their home, so I cannot opt to not inconvenience them by cooking for my own strange – if I am being generous to myself, I’ll call them particular – needs. I’d rather never disappoint them, or make it harder for them, so if I can eat properly here for the next week, the following three weeks should be a cake walk. Easy as pie. Ehrmm…. The pleasures and politics and rewards and intricacies of food.
It will be hard, always, for me to eat healthy. It will never be simple, easy or convenient. This fact must simply be accepted and dealt with. And I am going to do it. I am committed.
Creativity and Generativity, and Making Space for Myself in It
I don’t think I’m alone in this amongst people, and particularly amongst women, but most of my creativity and energy goes into helping other people make things happen for themselves. Whether its care for a hurt family member (we’ve had a number of injuries over the past six months), or emotional bullwarking as friends’ marriages change, some collapsing, or the usual demands of being an adult and a partner to another human in our enlightened modern world. Add in the energy spent on employment, volunteer projects, peer mentoring and generally being an active member of your community who provides care and feeing within it, and there historically hasn’t been much left for me to indulge myself.
That also needs to change. I get a tremendous amount accomplished and feel proud of myself for it, but struggle to find the time to write pieces like this one because I lack time or the energy to motivate myself to write. Nothing kills the urge to write and the energy to do so quite like a blank page.
I lack time, energy and drive to chronicle all the things that I accomplish both personally and professionally. A healthy but now-unhealthy-for-our-social-media-driven-times dose of “let your good deeds be done in secret” operates as a subthread in my consciousness at all times. And with that comes the requisite discontents for my career – if its not documented, it didn’t happen – and for my own self-satisfaction, lacking a single place I can look back on all that I’ve done, and to call it good. (And, for that matter, to improve the bad, but I think my inner critic does a pretty great job keeping tabs on the bits I don’t do well.)
Balance must be found for me between doing things and accomplishment and having the time to celebrate and document it, between accruing and sharing knowledge and doing so in a way that is more broadcast and less 1:1. And simply having time for free form writing with no particular purpose other than to please myself has to occur, too, for my own peace of mind, growth and joy.
I vowed at the end of 2014 to write more, to publish one blog post per week on topics important to me. To get words out onto a screen-that’s-like-a-page consistently. It’s not the first time I’ve made this promise to myself, will not be the last, but it feels so good to actually be writing right now. Not just reading articles, essays and Tweets, many of them how hard it is to write. Actually writing.
And I will be writing this year, creating for me, creating to share knowledge with other people, and holding time for myself to do that sacred and inviolable. I am still not quite certain how I am going to accomplish that, but I know its needed. I know its value. I know it will be difficult to maintain. I know it is coming, and that I will do it, and that pushing my need to expend this creative energy on myself to the back burner will no longer work.
I will also spend more time with my stencils, stationery and other tangible items in the real world that require writing. I have always loved the act of writing. I miss doing it daily and note the often quizzical looks of others as I continue to use a paper notebook. Its a way that works for me. I shall hold it dear to me, and will do it as long as my hands can still hold a writing instrument. Spending time with family has reminded me that we live, we exist, and we age, and that the ability to put pen to paper should never be taken as a given.
And I will relish the privilege I have to take time to be creative and generative, to take pride in how I can use my resources to help others while still having space for self-care and self-nurturing. I will relish it by using it. I will dedicate time to honor what I have done, to write it down so I can reflect upon what I have done, why I am doing it, and who helped me be able to make it occur.
Feeding My Brain
Somewhere in all the thoughts of home and hearth, of creating and destroying, of reckoning my last year and the ones before it, I’ve become ever more aware of the impact of what I consume on my physical and emotional health. Obviously, food is a big part of this equation, but not the only nor most important one. Even though I can already feel myself slipping into being one of those people obsessed with their diet and what foods take in, its an obsession I’ve realized is required for my own well-being. I hope those that love me can forgive the next few months.
I’ve realized the need to be just as obsessive about what I read and watch if I want to remain emotionally healthy. Practicing self-care, and the space to do so, is privilege and one I will use. Stepping away from the traditional 24-hours always television news cycle, both the voices it amplified and knowledge of the ones it ignored, was something I did long ago. It’s something I need to do now again with digital media, to not spend so many precious cycles in the pursuit of dopamine and new information. To not spend hours in the pursuit of watching and consuming as people traffic in misery and scandal. To not let only negative words, sad stories and violent narratives be the environment in which I operate.
To read more novels and works of fiction. To crack the spines of my (too many of them) unread books, to meander in universes barely discovered, to cleanse the brain of its daily cares and give it something else to feed upon. To lessen the amount of violence I see before me on screens. To not ignore the world and withdraw from it, but to have a healthier approach to it and a better barrier for taking in the firehose of data available from every news site, social network and streaming film.
To nourish my mind with useful things, to understand and grapple with injustice and the places of life which are painful, but not to dwell in them. To use this separation to give me a greater resiliency that I may do things that are of greater meaning and greater personal satisfaction. To seek out answers in the spirit of joy and transformation. To take in information only as it helps me grow, change, refine my perspective, instead of merely to entertain or inform me of things I already know, reinforcing self-evident truths. To know that I am fortunate to have this space to do these things and to shelter myself when others cannot do so. To draw strength from that shelteredness to help others who are not as fortunate.
I will create a space for the life of the mind that will be sacred and inviolable. It will be filled with the writings of Atwood and Gaiman and Pratchett and the rest, with the scent of journals and crisp paper, with the taste of coffee (without milk) and a wider perspective and deeper thinking than compelled by the article-of-the-moment. It will be warm; it will cozy; it will be challenging and uncomfortable; it will be welcoming and needed. It will be rich with meaning, even if only for me, and that’s completely all right. It only needs to be for me. It is an important part of the well-spring from which I will nurture myself.
On Making More
I’m renewing my commitment to write weekly. I said it above and I will say it again here. No more excuses, no more having something else come up that makes it easier to ignore the high activation energy to write. No more stalling, but no self-belittling for the times that I slip.
If you’ve read this far, I’m imaging you to be a friend, someone I’ve spent a lot of time with in real life. I’m picturing you cheering me on, nodding in agreement, being happy to read my life affirmations. And I’m hoping you’ll help me, keep me honest, read what I write, comment on it, give me encouragement, tell me the things that you wish I would talk about here. Remind me of the best conversations we’ve had that were wonderful and useful, the lessons that we learned together that everyone can use. Check in on how the eating is going, in a gentle way. Understand that there will be weeks I don’t eat properly, and I’ll probably be grumpy admitting it. But being there to care, and to ask, and to push me to meet these goals and live up to these reflections will be invaluable for me.
We’re all in this together. Time for me to do a better job of keeping myself in it with everyone I care for, and doing my planning for that in long-term and the short-term.
I’ll be glad to have your help while I’m doing it.