Monday, February 8, 2021

    Every minute of every day, my phone is parked beside me, unless I’ve misplaced it, in which case I search for it, and it’s beside me again. Is my phone necessary, like air or water? Or is it an addiction, like a bottle of wine a day or Vicodin?

   After half a lifetime driving with maps sprawled out on the car’s front seat or a printout of MapQuest blowing about the dashboard, the wonder of a voice calling out, “Turn left on Roast Meat Mill Road and follow for half a mile” is never wasted on me. Without my phone, I’d be lost. In fact, because I possess absolutely no sense of direction, without a phone, I was lost.

   In dumping all the responsibility for discovery on my phone, however, am I shortchanging myself? Have I lost any ability to read a map? Have I lost my understanding of where I am in the greater scheme of things? Without my phone, can I remember my way home?

   Years ago, scientists at the California Institute of Technology figured out that humans carry a tiny crystal of magnetic material, magnetite, in the ethmoid bone. The ethmoid bone is tucked behind the nose, right between our eyes. Homing pigeons, migratory salmon, bats, honeybees all get their flawless sense of direction from magnetite. 

   Magnetite makes the ethmoid bone alert to the earth’s magnetic field, and that boosts our sense of direction. 

   Smack in the middle of our faces, a compass waits to show us the way. But in the past decades, we chose to turn to all sorts of technological devices to smooth the ride instead. TVs, phones, laptops, iPads: our eyes glue to them.  

   Americans clocked an average of five hours of free time each day, according to a 2019 RAND Corporation study that analyzed information gathered from tens of thousands of Americans from 2014 to 2016. The study found that even with all that extra free time, most people spent only 7 percent of their time on physical activity. For the rest, we sat in front of screens. 

   Which is what I’m doing right now. I’m no preacher. I’m just the messenger. 

   But I offer an idea.

   In the age of the pandemic, my reliance on screens has grown more potent than ever. Zoom calls keep me connected to the pulse of the world outside my window. TV shows – have you discovered “Lupin” on Netflix? I know, I’m not helping – distract me from Covid and winter’s cold. The phone – yes, that pocket-sized rectangle that hauls around a universe of information – lures me onto Instagram, into the New York Times, back to my text chains. 

   For years I lived without this information, and now I’m in a panic to ensure that, at every second, I can access it. 

    I’ve grown into Pavlov’s dog. And I need to take a break. 

    I’m challenging you to take one too. 

    Pick a day when you can step away from your computer, your phone, the TV.  Saturday, say, as long as your job doesn’t include Saturday. Read a book. Bake cookies. Play the violin, the piano, the guitar. Play chess. Needlepoint, knit, sew. Organize your workbench. Jog in place.

    Go for a walk. Up by me, a foot of snow cloaks the ground. That’s no excuse. I own boots. Snowpants. A buff to keep the cold from scorching my face.

   Ski. Snow shoe. Hike.

   Grab a camera, step outdoors, and make permanent the temporal nature of our existence. Grab binoculars, step outdoors, and wallow in the tenacity of birds, squirrels, field mice and more to make do in winter. Grab a notebook and pen, step outdoors, and wax poetic on the nature of nature. 

    Breathe a long breath and return to the core of who you are as an independent human. 

    With your very own compass in your very own nose. 

    For the purposes of this blog, if you are moved to write, sit down with a pen and paper, and chronicle your day. 

    As always, have fun. When you are done, read your work to a loved one, your cat, dog, or gerbil. The oven. The stars in the sky. If you are a participant or have been in the Candlelight Writing Workshops, send your story along to me. But not until Sunday, when you are back to the laptop, iPad, or phone. 

    I’d love to read it.

— Jane