On vacation in the Yucatan, a month or so ago, after exploring the archaeological ruins, we perched up at an outside table at a beachside restaurant for sunset. Breathing in the heaviness of the afternoon humidity, we watched the clouds, pregnant with rain, shift from moody gray to lavender. The storm had brought a chill to the air and churned tangles of seaweed up onto the shore. The air almost tasted of electricity. Out to sea, fingers of lightening reached down to touch the whitecaps, as if stirring an alchemical pot of primordial elements.
All around us, children played in the sand, their parents sipping wine or margaritas or dining on the fresh fish that we had seen the local fisherman step off the boat with. Laughter and chatter danced with the rising wind. Looking around, my gaze flicked over and then returned to a family at a nearby table. As I watched, I witnessed an entire conversation occurring without a sound. The family — mom, dad, brother and sister — was completely engrossed in a private, silent discussion.
Hands flashed, fingers shaping words in a language only they were aware of. What they discussed, I will never know, but what I remember was the complete engrossment and the engagement of facial expressions and eye contact.
And they didn’t have a phone in sight. How could they? They needed their hands to talk and had to focus on each other’s faces to understand the stories. They were completely in synch with one another.
How often these days do we enjoy a conversation with another without feeling the pull of the cell phone tugging at us? How often are we so completely absorbed in the moment at hand that we have forgotten the allure of that text that “might” be there?
The world has shifted from the early days of “You’ve Got Mail.” I remember when I was a kid and my dad received a digital watch for his birthday. It seemed so exciting and revolutionary that this timepiece also had a calculator built in. My father still owned his old slide rule — something I never learned to use — which he had used while earning three undergraduate degrees in math, physics and philosophy and then a PhD. I can’t even fathom how this could have been done with this simple hand-held device. And yet, at some point, this was probably a revolutionary invention as well.
We have far more power in the phones we clutch in our hands today than was used to put a man on the moon. They are powerful tools, and they allow us to connect with others whom we might never have contact with otherwise. The other day, Swami Vishnudas, a teacher I met in Rishikesh, India, commented on a photo I had put up on facebook. How crazy is that? And my mother keeps up with all the news on her iPad. She knows all about the things I am doing even before I call her.
And to have the ability to search the web for any bit of information we are seeking is life-changing. I remember having a set of children’s encyclopedias when I was a kid. I loved the feeling of pulling a book off of the shelf and searching through it, my imagination absorbed in the photos of exotic animals living in the jungle, or of a Tibetan village high up on the plains of the Himalayas.
I also loved dictionaries and thesauruses — and I still so. Despite knowing that I can find the spelling of any word online, sometimes I still like to just open the dictionary and find new words.
I also still love the multi-sensory experience of a real book — the crispness of an unturned page, the smell of the ink, the weight of it in my hand. I never willingly buy a digital book if it is one that I think I will keep. There is something about underlining, adding hearts and stars and notes in the margins that, for me, is not replicable with a digital file.
Studies have shown that we learn better when we write by hand than when we type. And, it makes me wonder about children’s brains when they are no longer required to learn how to write cursive lettering, or when they bring a laptop to class and are subject to the pressing temptation to check their e-mails.
I recently read that during a forty-minute study period, a three-minute text exchange cut retention in half and a single e-mail interruption will cost a worker an average of twenty-four minutes of lost time.
But, what about the advent of the “pen” for the iPad? Is it really so different from an actual pen and paper? There is still a tactile sensation of writing. And what about a kid who doesn’t know a word or wants to know a fact in that moment about what is being taught in class? The access to information at our fingertips today is powerful.
And so, perhaps, the answer is about cultivating “Habits of Time,” being more mindful of focusing on the gaze of someone we are having tea and conversation with and being fully “in the moment,” but also knowing that should we desire to reach across the world and talk to Swami Vishnudas, living by the banks of the cold clear water of the Ganges where it spills over from the Himalayans to Rishikesh, we can do that too.
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