From my house I can see glaciers, mountains, the amazing Kachemak Bay and occasionally a moose family or a bear (but not Russia.) I write--primarily but not exclusively fiction--and work part time in a library.
I’m writing this on a Tuesday after work, and if I’m counting right, we’re on day 14 of a stretch of sunny days. For the record, this does not happen here in this part of Alaska. We have occasional sunny breaks from a rainy stint, but we don’t have this shade-seeking, sunhat-wearing, cold drink-drinking kind of weather after the middle of August. This late season unexpected bit of wonder is more than I could have hoped for, and my heart is near bursting with gratitude.
Our summer company has gone home for the season and things are slowing down around here. It gets dark before 10:00 p.m. nowadays, so we have an excuse to settle down a bit in the evenings. Last night before going to bed I stood in the yard and looked up at the sky for a while. It’s unusual to have non-freezing temperatures for stargazing.
Knowing so much is wrong with our world makes this moment right here, right now, feel impossibly perfect. These are simple pleasures I’m experiencing—cool grass under the blanket I’m sitting on, a cup of fresh-picked strawberries beside me—but I’d be a fool not to acknowledge the good luck that has brought me to this moment.
Right now there is hardly a breeze. Right here the low angle light is shining from the west across the meadow below our house and it’s illuminating the last of the summer’s insects as they do their slow hovering dance with the fireweed cotton. The birch and cottonwood trees are tipped in gold and against the blue of the sky and the green of our lawn and the orange of the nasturtiums, I cannot make sense of how the world can be so devastating and so wonderful at the same time.
I don’t know where I’m going with this. I don’t have a lesson or a moral or call to action. I’m just wishing I could share this. Wishing everyone could taste the tomatoes in our greenhouse that have been granted a couple extra weeks of sunshine for ripening. Wishing everyone could sit here and watch the boats skiff across the bay toward the harbor. Wishing I could wrap everyone in this blanket of how I feel right now and let them rest here for a while.
Two weeks ago I wrote a post in response to the Homer City Council’s canceled meeting. It was a personal post as it involved my daughter. Although I had her blessing, my writing put her in an interesting (and very public) spot. She watched from afar as hundreds of people read my blog post and the subsequent “Point of View” piece in the Homer News. Below is her own response to all the hullabaloo:
Thoughts on Homer Pride by Adella Sundmark
In response to the recent goings on in Homer, thank you to everyone who has shown the LGBTQ community love, compassion, and support. I want to share a little bit of my own perspective, because I worry that some people may have misunderstood where I am coming from.
I want to clarify that I do not, overall, feel unwelcome in Homer. I will be visiting home in about a week, and I can’t wait to go across the bay with my family, meet friends at Alice’s, and spend time with my black labs on East End Road. The city council members’ actions were certainly not welcoming or encouraging, however they are not, by themselves, how I decide where to live. They are just going to be one more thing in the back of my mind when I someday decide where I want to live with my girlfriend and our future family.
I want to live in a place where I can be my full self without fear. Is it because I am “too fragile” to handle the subtle (and not so subtle) homophobia and hatred that LGBTQ people experience every day? Absolutely not. I have handled plenty of that already and, by the looks of things, I have plenty more ahead of me. Am I going to consider where I am likely to be safe and welcome as someone in a visibly queer relationship? Will I try to minimize the homophobia my family and I will undoubtedly experience wherever we live? Of course.
To be honest, a proclamation in support of LGBTQ citizens is a relatively small gesture. It basically says, “We see that you exist, and we are okay with it.” Do I appreciate it? Yes. Is it earth shattering? No. However, the council members’ refusal to show up to a job that they were elected to do simply because recognizing the existence of people like me is so controversial? That is no small statement at all. That sends a message.
I think a lot of the controversy comes from people not understanding why things like Pride are important. If everyone is equal, why keep highlighting our differences and making such a big deal out of things? To those people, I see where you are coming from. I too want to live in a world where our differences don’t matter, everyone is equal, and pride parades aren’t necessary. However the reality is, LGBTQ people (and countless other minorities) have historically been, and continue to be, the subject of discrimination. Sometimes it comes in grand gestures of hatred, such as the horrific massacre of 49 LGBTQ people at Pulse Night Club in 2016. Sometimes it comes in more subtle ways, such as parents requesting their child not be in a lesbian teacher’s class because her lifestyle is “not appropriate” for children. Sometimes this hatred destroys families, such as when parents kick out a child because they don’t look or act or speak the way that a boy or girl “should.”
My point is that Pride exists specifically because LGBTQ people are, to this day, not treated equally. It is a matter of civil rights. Think about why the Black Lives Matter movement is so important. Is it because other lives don’t matter? Of course not. It is because historically, and to this day, black people experience violence and discrimination due to their skin color. I understand that Black Lives Matter and Pride exist in completely different ways, however in both cases, they represent an attempt to counteract the unique discrimination that each group experiences.
I am not fragile, and I certainly don’t want any special crown for being gay. However the idea that people can be gay if they just stay quiet about it is a form of homophobia. The message I received from the council members who did not show up for their job was just that. Lets stay quiet on this one. Thankfully, I received a quite different message from many people in Homer.
If you want to live in a place where pride isn’t necessary, we’ve got work to do. I am not saying that everyone has to march in a parade. If that doesn’t work for you, think about what does. Maybe speak up when you hear kids calling a boy in their class a faggot. Maybe start reading articles by members of the LGBTQ community in an effort to better understand their experiences. Maybe take time to make sure your children know that you love them unconditionally, no matter who they turn out to be or love. In any case, do something. Perhaps more importantly, be respectful and supportive of others who are trying to do something. Show love and ask questions with an intent to learn. Happy Pride!
My daughter called me today from a rest stop an hour south of Philadelphia. Just two days ago she finished her first year as a school teacher, and now she and her girlfriend are moving to Atlanta where she has another teaching job lined up for the fall.
Sometimes I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that just a few short years ago I was driving her to school and staying in town late for Nutcracker practice. Now she’s off and running, in a serious relationship and with a career of her own.
Of course I’m excited for her, and proud too. She finished high school a year early and left for college. At age 21 she took a job teaching twenty-eight fifth graders in an underfunded school district. In terms of maturity, she is light years ahead of where I was when I was her age.
Because she was on the road when we spoke this morning, we didn’t have time for a long conversation, but after we chatted about her dog and their move south and her upcoming visit home, I asked her an important question. She’s always been open and upfront with Dean and I about her relationship with her girlfriend, but I’d never asked if I could write about it.
When I asked her directly if she minded if I write about her being in a same-sex relationship, she laughed a little.
“I don’t mind at all. I’m not trying to hide anything,” she said. “Are you going to write about the city council?”
I was surprised by her question because I didn’t know she still follows the news from home.
“Yes,” I said. “I don’t know what to write, but I feel compelled to write something.”
“You might mention that what happened doesn’t exactly make me want to move back to Homer anytime soon,” she said.
I suspect that the decision made by three of our council members the other night was not meant to be personal, and I’d like to grant them some grace. But hearing my daughter say those words hurt.
I think it’s important for Shelly Erickson, Tom Stroozas, and Heath Smith to know that on the other side of the country, one of Homer’s own was paying attention, and their flat out refusal to take part in something as simple as a Pride month recognition sent her a message that was not especially welcoming.
I don’t understand what could have motivated them. My best guess is that they are afraid. What, besides fear, could have left the three of them feeling like their best option was to not show up for the job they’ve been elected to do?
Are they afraid of the LGBTQ community? If that’s the case, they might do well to get to know some of their constituents, or possibly my daughter. They’ve probably seen her before, dancing in the Homer Nutcracker or singing in the school musical. It’s likely they’ve seen her name in the local newspaper for making the honor roll or for her participation in the Homer High School speech and debate team. If they spent even just a little time with her now they’d learn that she’s got a great sense of humor and is kind and compassionate. She’s the kind of young woman that most anyone would want to see come back and make Homer her home.
Are they afraid of the folks who voted them into office? Did the group of people who falsely conflated Pride with pro-abortion and anti-family sentiments intimidate them? Surely they were not shamed into sabotaging the city council meeting by a bunch of emails from a group of people who misunderstand what Pride is all about.
Maybe they’re afraid of their own discomfort around issues of homosexuality, trans-sexuality or queerness. If so, there are plenty of people who’d be happy to talk to them, or offer them resources so they can expand their knowledge base. I’ve discovered that learning about others’ lives and experiences is a good way to build empathy and extinguish fear.
If I could talk to Heath or Tom or Shelly personally, I’d reassure them that they don’t need to fear people like my daughter who, whether by choice or by design, love people differently than they do. I’d remind them that nobody is trying to dictate how they configure their own families and I’d point out to them that secrecy and shame are more harmful to families than love and acceptance.
I’d also encourage them to remember that their role as city council members is to help enhance the quality of life of those who live here. Being part of a declaration (or proclamation or recognition) of acceptance of the LGBTQ community members would have caused no harm, and it would have meant a great deal to many.
I understand that to those who are buying into an old story about what’s right and what’s wrong, it seems like the world is changing fast. But it’s time for the three members of our city council, and those who rallied to make an issue of the Pride recognition, to come to terms with the fact that LGBTQ folks have been a presence in our society throughout history. The level of openness is what’s new, and families and individuals and communities are better when people don’t feel they have to hide in shame.
Maybe it’s good that this happened, even though it’s been frustrating. Maybe someday we’ll live in a society that doesn’t need Pride marches or rainbow flags, but we’re not there yet. The council members who refused to attend Monday’s council meeting made a lot of us realize the importance of Pride month.
If it weren’t for all the outspoken folks and their supporters throughout the years, if it weren’t for their brave declarations of love and acceptance, my daughter might not feel as open and as trusting with us as she has been. She has nothing to hide, and so she hasn’t kept an important part of her life from us. And if not for those outspoken LGBTQ folks and their supporters throughout the years, I myself might not be so accepting. It’s a hard thing for me to admit, but it’s true. I was not raised to believe that homosexuality is okay. It wasn’t until I met some openly gay and lesbian and bisexual individuals that I questioned the belief system that had been dictating my opinions. I am more empathetic and compassionate because of people who refused to live in the shadows.
Our actions, our statements, our gestures—they make a difference. Especially when we’re in the public eye. If the three city council members feel that their values are compromised by something as simple as a show of support for the local LGBTQ community, I would suggest that city government is not the best place for them. If they meant no harm, if they regret their decision to sabotage the city council meeting that was supposed to take place on Monday night, it’s not too late for an apology.
I’m not interested in shaming the council members or harboring anger toward them, even though I disagree with them. All I really want is for my daughter to feel that there is a place for her in this community should she ever decide to move back.
I’m thinking that a good showing at next week’s Pride march will be an effective way to send her, and plenty of others, that message. The march starts at WKFL park at 11:00am. I hope to see you there.
I have spent a great bit of energy in my life trying to avoid conflict. When there is animosity between people my stomach is upset, I stay awake when I should be sleeping, and I second-guess myself and my role in the disagreement. I sincerely want people to get along and when they don’t, I’m uncomfortable.
In spite of myself and my absolute desire for all people to be happy and agreeable all the time, I sometimes feel compelled to bring up a topic that might lead to some heated discussion. I promise, I don’t want a fight.
Why am I being so careful before I even get to the topic at hand? Why am I telling you all how much of a wimp I am when it comes to conflict? It’s because I see a problem and I’d like to figure out how to solve it, but after last year’s recall effort, I’m timid about bringing up an issue that has divided our community in the past.
But I wonder if it’s possible to talk about doing away with single-use plastic bags in Homer without people in town turning on each other. My hope is that we can put our differences aside and actually take on an attitude of problem-solving. We don’t need to fight about this. We just need to fix the problem, and sometimes that starts with asking some questions:
Are there really too many plastic bags? Are they really a problem? If so, are we as a community responsible for doing something about it?
There are plenty of facts that tell a stark story when it comes to plastic bags. Here are a few of the numbers that are most startling to me:
Currently 100 billion plastic bags pass through the hands of U.S. consumers every year—almost one bag per person each day. Laid end-to-end, they could circle the equator 1,330 times.
An estimated 12 million barrels of oil is required to make that many plastic bags.
It takes 500 years or more for a plastic bag to degrade in a landfill. Unfortunately the bags don’t break down completely but instead photo-degrade, becoming microplastics that absorb toxins and continue to pollute the environment.
There is now six times more plastic debris in parts of the North Pacific Ocean than zooplankton.
These facts tell us that yes, there are too many plastic bags in the world, and yes, they are a problem. But what about that third question. Who’s responsible for doing something about it?
Most of us who live near Kachemak Bay depend on, or at least are concerned about, the health of our marine environment. And while it’s difficult to make the connection between the bags we carry our groceries in and the halibut we eat for dinner, the fact is that a lot of those plastic bags make their way into the ocean. Once there, humans can’t manage them. Nature breaks them down as best as it can, but it can only do so much. It’s can’t break them down enough to biodegrade.
Some would say that the problem is not with the plastic itself, but with how it’s disposed of, and it’s true that we should think carefully about what we do with the plastic items we use once we’re done with them, but to me it seems the bigger problem is in the production. Our most effective way to address the plastic problem is to use less of it.
As long as the manufacturers of single use plastic bags are making money, they’re not going to stop producing them. They’re going to keep churning them out to the tune of 5 trillion bags per year. And consider for a moment that every bit of plastic that has ever been made is still in existence today. It does not biodegrade. As long as we keep consuming plastic, it will continue to be manufactured, and as long as it’s being manufactured, we’re essentially stockpiling it. We’re seeing the negative effects of too much plastic already, but what will this mean for our descendants in 100 or 200 years?
If we care at all, and I suspect most of us do at some level, we should try to solve this problem. Not because we’re legally obligated, but because it’s the right thing to do.
Individual communities can collectively make a huge dent in the demand for plastic bags, which is a good argument for banning single-use plastic bags. But the banning of plastic bags is a topic that has caused a great deal of angst in Homer in the past. In 2012 the City Council voted to ban single-use plastic bags, but then a few individuals took issue with the decision and brought it to a city-wide vote to overturn the ban. The arguments got heated at times. People on both sides of the issue felt insulted by the other.
All of that happened and yet the problem of too many single-use plastic bags being used in our community was never solved. A few people felt vindicated by the fact that a government entity didn’t get away with telling them what to do, and maybe a few more people started using reusable grocery bags. But it did not solve the problem we set out to solve in the first place. As a community, we’re still contributing to the problem of consuming too many plastic bags that will never biodegrade.
Other communities around Alaska have made the connection between their actions and the problem of too much unnecessary plastic: Wasilla, Kodiak, Cordova, Bethel. They’ve all decided to be a part of the solution.
So where does that leave Homer?
Can we come up with a real solution to the problem of our consumption of plastic bags?
If we’re too timid to talk about a plastic bag ban on a city-wide level, is there a more effective way to get the job done?
I know the over-consumption of single-use plastic bags is just one problem in a world with too many problems to count, but it’s also one that seems solvable. It’s something we can do while we’re figuring out what else needs to be done. We can even do it while we’re doing other things!
Instead of fighting for our right to contribute to the problem, let’s be a part of the solution. Let’s talk about it. All of us. Let’s take an honest look at the problem we have. Let’s educate ourselves and look for effective ways to solve it individually and as a community. The issue of too many plastic bags in the world needn’t be controversial. It’s not about personal freedom or individual rights. It’s about making a correction.
We humans sometimes make mistakes, and then we have to figure out how to fix them. That’s all we’re talking about here.
How do you think the problem should be addressed?
Sometimes an earthquake wakes you up. It shakes you out of your slumber and reminds you that there are things over which you have no control. It might end as fast as it started or, like the earthquake that hit in the early hours of January 23rd, it might last long enough for you to consider the beams of your house buckling or your windows cracking. It might go on long enough for you to think of the emergency preparedness measures you haven’t gotten around to yet. Do we have extra drinking water? Batteries? Fuel for the chainsaw?
After a shaker like that, most everyone is awake and experiencing a similar adrenaline rush. In the case of the earthquake the other night, phones were going off in bedrooms, living rooms and kitchens around town, transmitting alerts from the tsunami warning center. Sirens were sounding, and no one knew how it was going to end.
There was a sense that the odds were in our favor, that the wave wouldn’t amount to much. But nobody really knew for a while. How much water was displaced when the earth shifted? Was it a deep earthquake? Was it shallow? Those answers came in time, but when the voice on the loudspeakers said to evacuate to higher ground, images from recent tsunamis came to mind, like the one in 2004 that hit the Indian Ocean on Christmas Day and the one that took so many lives in Japan in 2011.
The odds might have been in our favor, but sometimes terrible things happen. Most Alaskans know what happened to Valdez and Seward in 1964. We’ve read stories about the destruction of the village of Chenega when a landslide from the Good Friday earthquake generated a 27 foot tsunami and killed nearly half of its inhabitants.
Regardless of the damage, or lack thereof, experiencing an earthquake is a humbling thing. Some would say when the earth trembles it’s an Act of God.
I pay attention to terminology that involves God, partly because I was raised in such a way that God and Jesus and all things biblical were a part of my everyday life.
My ideas of God have shifted over time. And like the earth underneath my feet, they continue to shift. Sometimes the changes in my spiritual life are so slow they’re hardly noticeable. Other times they’re more abrupt.
When the term Act of God is used, it implies that humans are off the hook. When the earth shifted the other night, it wasn’t our fault. No person or group of people could be blamed for the 7.9 magnitude earthquake, nor could it have been prevented. It’s a rare situation when humans are absolved without having to confess anything first, which is refreshing when most of the terrible things we hear about on the news are caused by humans.
In the case of an earthquake, the left can’t blame the right. The baby boomers can’t blame the millennials. Cat lovers can’t blame dog lovers. That temporary absence of blame presents us with an opportunity to just be human for a while, all on the same page for just a few moments.
The term Act of God summons the image of a Leonardo Da Vinci-type god pointing his finger at that spot in the ocean 175 miles from Kodiak City and sending some kind of supernatural shockwave to the epicenter 15.5 miles below the earth’s surface. It’s the stuff of mythology, and it makes for great stories. But we’ve learned a few things in the last few centuries. Now we know a new story. We have an explanation for a natural, geological phenomenon that once baffled us.
Even those of us lacking advanced geological knowledge know that sometimes the earth moves. We’ve seen the high school textbook drawings of fault lines and the earth’s layers. We get that earthquakes are a matter of physics even if we don’t have a scientific vocabulary to explain it.
And I find that there is room for God in physics. There is room for God in natural, scientific explanations. That God isn’t anything like a guy in the sky, though.
Giving god or gods credit for things we don’t understand is old news. We’ve been doing it for centuries.
Recently Franklin Graham, the son of famous televangelist Billy Graham said in reference to Donald Trump, “I believe that he’s the president of this nation because God allowed it. And I think on election night God intervened. He wasn’t supposed to win–he was supposed to lose. And I think it was God who worked in a mysterious way on election night to turn the tables.”
I agree with Franklin that Trump wasn’t supposed to win, that he was supposed to lose, but I don’t believe that god pointed his finger and performed magic to sway the vote on that fateful election night in November 2016. In this case, I believe there are people to blame, that there are circumstances that made it happen, and if we had all been more vigilant, Trump’s presidency might have been prevented. But to suggest that Trump’s presidency is the result of divine intervention feels like an insult to the divine.
If you believe in a Christian God, what do you believe He requires of you? Does He ask you to do bad things like lie, bag out on your financial obligations, incite violence, or vilify certain groups of people? Does He ask you to endorse candidates who do?
Can you offer an instance where Jesus asks an individual to lie or cheat or steal in order to help further His cause?
Yet many believe that God chose Donald Trump even though all the evidence points to him being driven by greed, fame, self-importance and power. If God is good, then isn’t goodness something worth upholding?
Much of my understanding of goodness comes from my upbringing, which taught me to follow the example of Christ. To be good, to be Christ-like, requires compassion, empathy, generosity, honesty, and humility.
Our president is not a virtuous man. He’s built his empire by slighting others. He is dishonest. He would not know humility if it smacked him in the head. If we’re using Jesus Christ’s teachings as the standard for what is right, and that’s what Christians claim to do, how does their support for Donald Trump make any sense? So many followers of Christ don’t seem to recognize the disconnection, or if they do see it, they’re not addressing it. It’s a loud silence.
The disconnection between reality and faith is something I think about, almost like an obsession. I’m standing on one side of the fault line, looking across at where I started. The space between the two sides is growing. It’s full of a lifetime’s worth of questions.
Last weekend while my husband and I were preparing dinner, the subject of writing came up. He said, “I miss your Lofty Minded posts.” Then I told him that in the past year I’ve started lots of posts but have decided against publishing them. A look through my saved files shows 32 blog posts I’ve started and abandoned since the last time I posted. I’m not sure what to make of this, only that I’ve had a hard time processing all that’s going on in the world, and it’s affected my writing.
Each time I’ve almost posted, I’ve changed my mind. Sometimes because what I was trying to say came across as too angry, or hasty, or cynical. Other times the posts felt pointless, either because the subject matter was already being covered better by a hundred other writers, or because while putting my thoughts out there might get a few amens and yeses, in the end it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference.
I think my dilemma is that I’m expecting too much of my writing. I’m expecting it to give answers. I’m expecting it to come to obvious conclusions. I’m expecting it to make some kind of difference.
While it should have been obvious ages ago, I’m just now figuring out that my writing isn’t supposed to do any of those things. My writing is just meant to be me, here in my world, talking to you in yours.
In my world it’s cold today.
It’s cold but it’s calm and bright. When you stand at just the right angle and turn your face directly toward the sun on days like this, you can feel a little heat.
And so I found myself out there this afternoon, chasing the sun. I wandered around our five acres without a destination or a purpose other than to just be here, now. It’s become something of a medicine for me, this kind of wandering around familiar ground. I revisit the same places and each time I’m an explorer. Each time I come across something I hadn’t expected to see. Maybe a squirrel squirreling away her winter stash, or a lanky birch tree hidden among the spruce. It’s small scale exploration, but exploration just the same.
When I was out there restoring myself, I visited the chicken coop. Not to offer food or to check for eggs, but to watch them go about their chicken lives. I watched them cluck and peck at each other while I put the pieces of this essay together in my head, then I walked down the hill through the wild roses to the island of tall trees in the meadow. This fall I found a corvid’s nest in one of the spruces there, and a secret hideaway in the alders that looked like it might have been a bear’s home.
Then I cut through the tall grass to the area below our fire pit where the nettles are thick. In early summer, when they were just inches high, we collected buckets of them to save for winter.
Now it’s winter and in the evenings we light candles and we sip mint tea infused with those springtime nettles. I have it in my mind that whatever goodness is hidden in their dried leaves will work on us throughout the winter, give us some edge to help us through.
In the mornings we pull on wool socks and sweaters and stoke the fire in the wood stove. We drink creamy coffee with afghans draped over our laps while we read the morning news and wait for the house to warm up. We lean into the comforts of winter because to fight it would be pointless and because at the height of summer it never gets truly dark and for months at a time there are no stars or planets to be seen and the milky way is something we nearly forget until one night it’s back and we remember that it was never really gone.
I remember my first winter in Alaska.
We lived further north than we live now, deep inside a shaded valley where the sun didn’t rise above the mountains for two months. My husband worked the swing shift and sometimes, when the snow wasn’t too deep, I’d walk with my baby on my back from our house to the trails that led to the Eagle River. I was never comfortable walking through the woods like that, alone and in the near-dark, but I’d go anyhow. Along the way I’d remind myself that the bears were asleep, that it was unlikely I’d run into a person who’d want to do me harm, that if we started to get too cold I could turn back toward home.
I’d walk in spite of the fear because I knew I’d go nuts if I stayed cooped up all the time. I’d go out in the cold and dark so that I could come home again, back to the heat and the light.
Now it’s late and the house is quiet except for its usual hums and the crackling of the fire. My husband has gone to bed and I’m at my keyboard again.
I hesitate to tell you that I’m sad, but it’s true. It’s easier to say that I’m worried.
I worry about the big picture things. I worry about our planet being controlled by power hungry billionaires. I worry about our government being run by an administration that lacks a moral compass. I worry about justice. I worry that we’re becoming a country that accepts mass shootings as a byproduct of freedom. I worry about the decline of honey bees and about giant copper mines in salmon country. I worry about the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide levels, and the acidity of the ocean.
This year I’ve wondered how to write about these things. I’ve wondered if I should even bother.
Now I’m setting myself and my writing free from the responsibility of holding back the impending avalanche. Instead I’m sending it out there to flap in the wind like a prayer flag. No expectations, no answers, no obvious conclusions. Just words in the air, free from the burden of having to change anything.
The idea of taking a break from social media first came to me a couple of weeks ago in Zion National Park. Actually I’ve thought about it on several occasions, but it hit me with some urgency on that one particular day.
My sister knew of a place away from the crowds where we could see petroglyphs, and as I stood in front of the panel she’d led us to, trying to decipher the meaning behind the images so painstakingly carved into the sandstone, I tried to summon the real-life person who once stood exactly where I was standing. What was their motive for carving images into the wall? Were they making art or were they telling a story? (Or both?) Were they leaving news for others who might be passing by, or did they just feel like creating something?
Most of the images were straight forward, your standard deer or snake or human. Others were more fantastical. One image looked like a human lightning bolt. Several seemed purposefully out of proportion. A few even looked a little otherworldly with their cone shaped heads. In addition to the human and animal figures, there were lots of spirals and squiggly lines. I’m no expert at deciphering the meaning behind the images left on rocks hundreds of years ago, but still I tried. What were they saying?
I am not a Luddite. I do not intend to eschew technology. But being there, in front of that panel of images, I had an intense desire to experience an uncluttered mind, one that I imagined the original petroglyph artists to have had. No electricity, no diesel engines, no radio, no television, no internet, no social media. This is not to say that the people of that age didn’t have in-depth or complicated thoughts, but they did not have the constant barrage of information coming at them the way we do now. What was it like to not have that kind of input, that kind of noise? I’d like to know.
Then on Ash Wednesday, a poet friend posted on her blog that she was giving up Facebook for Lent. I’ve always respected the tradition of Lent and I’ve participated on occasion. In the food department I’ve gone through times of not eating meat or sugar or dairy. I usually came away from the experience having a better understanding of my body and my cravings.
My friend’s blog post inspired me, and I saw it as an opportunity to de-clutter my mind. After a couple of hours of stewing it over, I decided to give it a go. I cut myself off, without a post or statement of any kind making my intentions known. I just walked away.
This year Lent lasts for 46 days. I’m on day 17 as I write this. Do I miss social media? Yes, I miss certain aspects of it. My town is experiencing a bit of a political shakeup and I’m sure I’m missing some interesting dialogue about it. I’m sure there have been wonderful poems/articles/photos/opinions/memes/stories/jokes/videos/rants that I’ve missed. I’m sure there have been opportunities for personal connection that have passed me by, like congratulating a friend on some success or offering a bit of moral support. I also miss the glimpses into the day-to-day lives of my friends and family.
Just like when I’ve given up sugar in the past, the first few days were the hardest. I had to resist my compulsion to go to Twitter when I had a few minutes to spare. I had to put aside thoughts of posting things. (Oh wow, what a beautiful sunset. I should take a photo and post it!) (I am outraged/enlightened/delighted by the article I just read. I should repost it on Facebook!) I hadn’t realized just how much of my thought space had been consumed by thinking about checking and posting my social media accounts. After a few days the compulsions began to diminish.
Without spending my time scrolling or falling prey to the endless reading of articles and online conversations, I began to have more time. Instead of spending twenty minutes here and there throughout my day on Twitter or Facebook, I’m filling that time with more focused reading and writing. I’m cooking more and listening to music and stretching. I’ve even picked up my long-neglected instruments a couple of times.
I’m still reading the news every day, and trying to stay politically informed and engaged, but I’m not so consumed. Reading and responding to everyone else’s outrage on social media is fun and a bit cathartic from time to time, but it might have been giving me the false sense that I was doing something meaningful. Now I’m acting more and talking about it less.
The biggest benefit I’m experiencing is the overall reduction of noise. Not the literal noise, but the thought-noise that had crept into my mind, the chatter I was hearing in response to all the conversations I scrolled past and read every day. I’ve made some space in my brain and I’ve been better able to focus on writing and reading. I’ve been sleeping soundly. I don’t feel quite as hurried.
It seems like humans, at least most of us, are wired for connection. We’re not meant to feel alone. Social media is a way for us to reach out to others and a way to be heard. I’m not giving it up forever. But this break has opened my eyes to the ways I’d taken it too far.
It’s been nearly three weeks since I stood in front of the petroglyphs in Zion National Park and I’m still thinking about the minds of the people who created them. What would it feel like to be alive without any exposure to media, to not know what is going on in countries halfway around the world? More specifically, I wonder if their uncluttered minds had room for spiritual connections that our modern, media-focused culture has managed to squeeze out. There really is no knowing, but by removing myself from social media for a while I’ve created the tiniest bit of space in which to ponder these questions. It’s a small space, but it seems important, the way wilderness is important, and worthy of protection.