Last night, lying in bed, I pondered a habit we've subtly fallen into during the pandemic. I previously hadn't taken a critical look because it seemed to satisfy some deep needs within myself – at least temporarily. The habit is being in constant communication with everyone in my life.
With the complete loss of in-person events in the spring of 2020, we originally moved as many as we could online: Concerts, workouts, art exhibits, spiritual community, and other social gatherings, even weddings. Zoom became the community center of the Internet. Plenty of people have written about that, though. What I'm more interested in is the way we communicate with each other individually, or in small groups, now that we can't see each other in person.
Screens take time
I used to be proud of my low screen time. I've worked online for years, so I usually try to leave them turned off after work is done for the day. Until last year, when I could no longer ask friends to grab lunch, go to a show, come over for a puzzle, see a movie, or work together in person.
I remember when Alexander joined the team in late 2019, he lived a quarter mile from me, so we'd work in cafés once or twice a week, in addition to the time I'd go alone to be in the bustling environment. But now, all the coworking time, the lunch-dates with friends, and the regular dates have been moved. And I'm finding the move to be more than just an addition of screen time. It's a change to the ways we interact with each other.
Before the shift to a digital realm, we'd bookend our time together with a hug, handshake, or kiss. Now that's been replaced with dopamine-heavy notifications of text messages, likes, and other signs that the people in our lives are engaging with us, none of which are natural to the human body. Or maybe I shouldn't have turned off vibrate.
Sure, it's still possible to have deep conversations with friends in the digital space, but the quantity far outweighs the quality.
What I want to focus on here is that very quantity, and the constant connectedness the online environment permeates. The one that leads us to have a false sense of connection – our bodies are connected to a slab of silicon, not a person whose vocal chords vibrate the air between us to convey their emotional state.
A few days ago, I was chatting with my friend Kaitlyn about how the way we listen to music has changed. I'd say – well, society says – we consume it more than we listen to it. The transactionalism of modernity. I was realizing that the playlist system Spotify promotes mirrors the constant hopping we do with photos (Instagram), video (TikTok), communication (Slack), dating (everything Match.com owns), and context itself.
Discover Weekly was my initial target for analysis. I find myself listening to it early in the week, really enjoying it, and discovering new songs each time. It's great. Then I add them to my yearly or seasonal playlists, possibly add albums related to those artists to my Play Later, and move on to other songs and albums.
Wait, why am I moving on so quickly? I asked. But then I got more specific and went with, Why do I listen to music while I'm working? It almost seems to be the antithesis of listening if I'm doing something else, right? If you're really listening to your friend, you're not also working. If anything, it's passive listening, maybe. It actually feels like music has become my heart and soul's substitute for green tea at 10am. And that could be fine if you have some appreciation and presence with it as you go – I, in passive listening, often do not.
This is probably going to change how I listen to music. I've long been an advocate of the album experience, but I've noticed lately how little I actually listen to lyrics most of the time. Amusingly, my subconscious still seems to pay attention to them, because whenever I intentionally listen to or read lyrics for songs I like, I find I connect even deeper than before – perhaps thanks to the artists doing an excellent job of "syncing" the music itself with the poetry of lyric, though that's not the case for something like Foster the People's "Pumped Up Kicks".
An eternal interlude
I wrote a poem in the winter a few years ago that felt somewhat relevant. Amusingly and most fitting to the flow of this blog post, I recently threw it away. It begins:
All that we consume is all that we are
And all that we are is consumed
By ourselves, others
It seems eternal
Clearly this was written in the depressing depths of a PNW winter. I still don't know what I meant by it.
Breathing the morning air
To combat the isolation, loneliness, aloneness (they aren't the same), and physical disconnection from the people I care about, I find myself sending messages to them throughout the day. In the early days of the pandemic, I FaceTimed and Zoomed a lot more, but got so burnt out that it's now only for special occasions. I used to call friends when I was doing dishes, cooking, or cleaning, but now I actually find myself less interested in doing that, perhaps so starved of in-person connection that the "substitutes" no longer work.
So we turn to sending text, voice, or video messages to each other throughout the day. These are almost always short, and not a replacement for quality time. They're also not like sending a letter, since the thought put into them is lacking and they aren't read with the same attention. I sure felt like they could be, though – I hoped they could. I tried to make them all those things, then I realized the effects it was having on me weren't ideal.
If I were looking at my current situation from 2019 eyes, I would say that I don't get enough alone time. You're probably thinking that sounds ridiculous – I live alone, only have a few close friends, and only see them once a week or every other week right now due to the pandemic. But being alone and enjoying a book, movie, album, or nice dinner while in constant communication with your friends is not alone time.
Now it's too easy to ignore taking break, to truly be alone. Why go through some of the pain that might cause when you can send someone a funny message, post a tweet, and get the reaction you think will sustain you? I spend a great deal of emotional energy on text and voice messages, because it's a big way I keep up with friends. This morning is the first time since backpacking in September that I haven't started the day by responding to other people. I started it by reading Vivek Murty's Together and writing this. It's been refreshing.
It was a rare morning, though. We start our day at the beckon of others. I was amazed that I'd not considered that. I already spend most of my day at work responding to coworkers in Slack, customers via email, questions and prompts on video calls, etc. I've spent most of my career in the customer service industry, which is built around responsiveness. Even when I was a writer at Envato, I was writing what my editors or readers wanted. Now I'm somehow realizing that classic thing many of us do, which is Wait, what do I want?
I'm not saying we should leave behind our responsiveness, or try to escape it. It's what brought the human species to where it is, to where I am, able to ponder such things. Besides, I like to feel needed, so I'm happy keeping it around. What I'm hoping to do here is shed light on the disconnection from ourselves that's created when we live in the worlds of others.
My favorite daily practice is to take a walk during lunchtime, and another when I get off work. I wrote a short poem about yesterday's, so we'll wrap this up with it.
Walks with the ordinary
I just had a most beautiful walk.
The rain had stopped, all the moss and grass becoming vibrantly green.
The birds brought the cold, leafless trees to life with their song.
The scents that would often escape me were contained slightly longer in the thick air, ready to be absorbed.
A woman escaped her home via an upstairs window to perch on the roof for a cigarette. She waved at me as I passed by, smiling.
A dog and his human encountered me on the sidewalk. He excitedly said hello, and when asked of his breed, his human said he was part golden, part deer. An illustrious creature.
If one needs a reminder of the Northwest’s ability to enchant the ordinary, this is one.