E.B. White saw IT coming, careening our way, and IT’s here–the Moby Dick of modern times, Leviathan in proportion; the great white whale, beautiful yet destructive if provoked. And, IT’s been thrashing around leaving damage in ITs wake for a long while now. Give it up for Moby, though. He may be destructive, but he’s still glorious. He’s not that bad.
Flashback (I’ll get back to “IT” in a minute): last spring I woke up one morning, and reached for my smartphone just to check the time, still half asleep and bleary-eyed. Before I knew it, thirty minutes had passed. I was still in bed, lying on my side in a Jabba the Hutt pose scrolling through photos, texts and emails, on something that looked like I’d grown a third palm, and ultimately getting a kink in my neck. “Checking the time” had morphed into finding just the right emoticon to use for a text response, and checking/hoping for a few more likes on Instagram.
I got out of bed after that leisurely, yet surprisingly nauseating waste of time, shuffled to the kitchen to put the kettle on, my hair at an all-time Einstein, and went outside to enjoy a cup of chamomile tea on the back steps, forgetting my phone on the kitchen counter next to the stove.
The contrast between my earlier slug-pose in bed as I scrolled away on my phone, with the vibrant, grounded feeling of sitting outside noticing trees, dogs barking and the smell of peppermint and basil in the garden was shocking. When had I lost touch? I felt like the proverbial frog in the pot, and was nearly cooked. In that moment I vowed to power-off my phone and computer every night, then leave them powered-off every morning UNTIL I’d had a chance to say hello to my place in the outside real world—to have my John Muir moment—before I would turn on any screen.
It’s not like I never got outside before. I’ve always been a nature lover. I take nature walks to the river on good days. That’s how I meditate. I drive up the canyon for mini hikes, or putter around in the garden. On a not-so-good day during an autoimmune flare, I don’t. But, as I washed out the teacup in the sink after sitting outside, and I stretched out the pain in my neck from lying around in bed too long, I became acutely aware of my lack of upper body strength from too much screen time and not enough outside time. I could definitely use some strength training. My right and left thumbs are very fit, though.
In E.B. White’s day the IT he foresaw was The Elsewhere; it was the threat of the pending television sets being invented, and the possible distraction they would cause to living in the present moment. Today the IT, the Great White Whale, is still The Elsewhere. He would have shuddered at the number of distractions around us in The Elsewhere today. Did E.B. White envision that the choice to power off a telephone and leave it powered off first thing in morning would be a big recovery step for
me someone? I doubt it, but he was on to something big.
Ahead of his time, E.B. White favored absorbing “the primary and the near” rather than escaping to “the secondary and remote”, that airy, unsettling place to which he feared television would lure us; that airy, unsettling place we so often trek to in The Elsewhere. Ouch. Prophetic.
“Television will enormously enlarge the eye’s range, and, like radio, will advertise the Elsewhere. Together with the tabs, the mags, and the movies, it will insist that we forget the primary and the near in favor of the secondary and the remote.” [E.B. White: One Man’s Meat, “Removal” (1938)].
He and his wife, Katharine, both famous for their respective literary and editorial genius, chose to live their primary and near philosophy on a remote saltwater farm in Maine, where he continued to pound out home run essays on his old Underwood typewriter for the New Yorker magazine. Their love for nature and the peaceful life is legendary.
When I fell hard for E.B. White’s approachable essay collections, like One Man’s Meat, I realized how influential even his books for children had been for me in the ’60s, like Charlotte’s Web, or Trumpet of the Swan (why do you think I wanted to have our family drive for five hours to see and hear the trumpeter swans in the middle of winter in my fifties?) Take a gander at his writing. His thoughts are like glimpsing that rare bird, which stays in your memory.
The Elsewhere he talked about is an intangible place. It is a place of disconnection, detachment and disengagement. The Elsewhere, with capital letters, is not like going outside elsewhere (all lower caps) away from home. It’s not like driving elsewhere for five hours to walk for miles on snow shoes to a remote bird refuge in the falling snow, where migrating trumpeter swans glide on slow, dark rivers, just to listen to them honking among green pines.
The Elsewhere is not like going outside to sit on your front porch with a loved one sipping chamomile tea together, or to a friend’s field to pet some llamas. The Elsewhere, with capital letters, isn’t that kind of elsewhere at all. When we choose to visit The Elsewhere we are not connected, attached or engaged with the vibrant, tangible energy of nature, other people or life.
For us The Elsewhere is the place we go to dozens upon dozens of times per day to light up our faces with SCREEN-GLOW: smartphones, fitness tracker watches, computers, televisions, and movie theaters–toward the social network friends, words, and images that allure us.
Then there are the endless podcasts, magazines and books. Don’t get me wrong. Information is beautiful! There’s so much of it in The Elsewhere. This Great White Whale possesses a magnificence and glory that is truly beautiful! I love to enter the imagination of another person via a good movie or good book just like the next person. I love to learn a new recipe for grain-free gingerbread just like the next autoimmune champion. Or how to learn a foreign language of love, in my conversation with chronic illness.
I love to learn new stuff, and The Elsewhere is full of it. Not full of it, as in full of it, but full of good stuff if you’re careful about what you search for. If you’re not careful, though, it IS full of it. It’s like the Great White Whale: The Elsewhere can be glorious and magnificent. Just don’t provoke it. The Elsewhere helps us to stay apprised of current events and the condition/direction of our world politics (talk about full of it) so we can put in our two cents to help its direction.
But, don’t we dip in to the Elsewhere too much, just TOO much?
Andrew Reiner, of the Washington Post, wondered in this lovely article if E.B. White’s peaceful Maine still exists, so he took a trip to White’s part of Maine in search of his own “primary and the near”. If anyone can convey E.B. White’s world, it’s Reiner. How can you not enjoy Reiner’s articles when he infuses them with phrases like, “I was suddenly overcome with a compulsion of religious proportions to enter the water”, after he spied some canoes near the lake E.B White once loved. Reiner finally came away from his search for E.B. White’s Maine saying, “I was baptized by the peace of it all”.
So, I guess his answer was yes. Yes, it’s still possible to find places where slow living is so authentic and beautiful, that a good portion of the population hasn’t found the need to learn terms like “The Slow Movement” or “unplugged”. They’d possibly say, “You’re saying you’re constipated? And, what’s unplugged? Where?” Then offer you a remedy for constipation.
I haven’t been to rural Maine in twenty-five years, where we used to visit Uncle Lew and Aunt Bonnie in the woods, but I’m learning through my own experience that we don’t have to go too far to find the primary and the near. It can be a mindset. When we power-off for a bit every day, the primary and the near—people, nature, hobbies, tangible interests, caring for our physical selves, and spiritual inclinations—start popping out all over, and practically come to US. Just watch and see.
I sit here at the computer typing this essay, my eyes burning holes through my head from eye strain, forgoing the hike I’d planned today in favor of finishing my thoughts: live in the moment! unplug from your devices! live in the primary and the near! The irony doesn’t escape me. But, at least I started my day totally powered-off and unplugged, as I do every morning now, so there’s that.
So, do you think we can “unplug” and set aside our phones–for just 5 minutes fewer than we did the day before? Then, maybe for 10 minutes fewer the next day? Can we just start scrolling LESS? Can we hold on to the primary and the near by stepping outside today to say, “Right now I see a mountain. Right now I hear a dog barking. Right now I smell the fragrant pile of Christmas trees in the neighborhood dumpster. Right now I feel how cold my toes are. Right now I FEEL!” YES! I’m sure we can. Still … lucky is the guy or gal who gets to go to Maine.
“Clearly the race today is between loud speaking and soft, between the things that are and the things that seem to be . . . Radio has already given sound a wide currency, and sound “effects” are taking the place once enjoyed by sound itself.” [E.B. White: One Man’s Meat, “Removal” (1938)].
But it’s not just me. I’m actually late to the party. Our culture is collectively arriving at the same conclusion this year: we are too plugged in. Arianna Huffington, of The Huffington Post, pleas with us to unplug in her book, Thrive. It’s a story about her emergency wake-up call and the urgent need she faced to slow down, unplug, and get enough sleep.
At this writing, the Instagram feed, Folk Rebellion, promoting living life with less phone, has 13K (13 thousand) followers. I’m doing my part with SitSipnBe.com, and I’m proud to say, as of today, I have seventeen followers on Instagram. After clicking the ‘publish’ button for this essay, it’s gonna go viral I’m sure, and my followers may soar up to twenty.
So, take a minute and notice how screens do cast a glow on our faces for more hours a day, than not. Singles these days are falling in love, not with people’s faces, but with the top of their heads, while that someone is looking down texting, checking Instagram or Facebook on their phone. Take a minute and notice, too, we don’t get enough sleep. We push ourselves too hard. We are out of touch with nature and the people closest to us.
Shakespeare wasn’t far off the mark. We, like Lysander in Shakespeare’s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, have reached a point of saturation! While Lysander was under a mistaken love spell, he thought he despised his true love, Hermia. As he gazed at her sleeping in the woods he said, “For as a surfeit of the sweetest things/ The deepest loathing to the stomach brings.” Surfeit means “disgust caused by excess”, and I think we are starting to feel that with The Elsewhere. Excess simply means . . . just tone it down. That’s all. We can tone it down.
In the end, the spell was broken, Lysander and Hermia fell back in love and all that. But it’s that quote about an excess of the sweetest things that gets me. Too much of a good thing really does make us imbalanced and leaves us scratching our heads as to how we got to where we’re at. There’s a way to find balance and health again.
When earpieces were first invented years ago for cellphones I began to notice business people walking around on sidewalks talking to no one in particular. I’m not going to lie, the first few times I wondered, wow, they sure dress well for a homeless person.
Here’s to holding on to the “primary and the near” while advertisements for the Elsewhere scream for our attention.
Our faces can light up again, not with screen-glow, but with a spontaneous smile at seeing a beautiful sunrise. Our faces can light up again simply by seeing the eyes and faces of the ones we’re with, or watching a teapot coming to a boil so you can go outside and sit with a cup in the palm of your hand, instead of a phone.
[ P.S. I’ve unwittingly misquoted Shakespeare to my children for years, “Too much of a good thing, the deepest loathing to the stomach brings”, combining a quote from As You Like It, with a quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I like my mistake, so sue me. I keep quoting it.]
And, the photo at the beginning of this essay is my favorite image of E.B. White.