I dropped my phone in the toilet at the perfect moment.
I was working with eighth graders on the topic of social media, identifying the good of technology as well as the need to unplug and enforce some strategic self-restrictions.Concurrently, I had not been walking the walk, instead feeling particularly frantic and busy brained, a feeling that I despise. So when, plop, I heard my phone fall out of my back pocket into the toilet, I shook my head and started to laugh. Of course. Good. This is actually exactly what I needed.
I fished the phone out, dried it off and put it in rice. I was kind of relieved, expecting it to be broken forever. Phones break, and it’s a valid, acceptable excuse to get off the grid for a few hours, days or weeks. When it worked perfectly later that day, I immediately went back to being frantic and busy brained, squeezing work into the nooks and crannies of my day. Then, after working for two days, it stopped working unless it was plugged into the wall. So I am using my cell phone like a landline. Remember those? And I love it. My brain felt the freedom immediately.
Meanwhile, Dan, Simon and I headed up to a cabin for one night with friends. On the drive there, the busy part of my brain wondered why we had to drive two hours to hang out with friends that lived minutes away from our house. On the drive home, I had my answer. When Simon took a nap, so did I. When he was awake, we went outside and played in the leaves as long as possible. After he went to bed, I laughed and connected with friends. I didn’t once open my computer. Why? Because I wasn’t at home. After one day away, I felt renewed.
None of this is rocket science. It is the lesson I have to keep learning over and over again. It is when you think you are too busy to take a break that a break will help the most. Why do I keep fighting it when I know what the right thing is? I was so stuck that it took a wet phone and spending a day away from my house to make me snap out of it and become a human being again.
Sara Groves has a new album coming out soon. In preparation for that, she allowed a film crew to follow her around while she ran errands, and what came out gets at why it is so hard for me to take a day away from work.
She speaks about how pragmatism has infected every institution, every corner of our lives. We focus on usefulness, and as a singer and songwriter, she thinks it is the artist’s job to push back on that undercurrent. Artists, in order to create, need to take up an amount of space that seems extravagant and wasteful to the rest of the world.
I have found that to be true as a writer as well. My professor would say, “If writers don’t take time to be contemplative, who will? That is our role in society, to be brave enough to do nothing. To sit and think. To go on long walks in the rain and to not speak until we have something to say.” When I went to study writing, I worked hard and fast. I was considered productive and useful. As my teacher, she pushed me to slow down, to count doing nothing and sitting and thinking as the most necessary part of the process. Writing stopped seeming like production and started feeling like art. It started to feel decadent and wonderfully extravagant. If I rushed, I could produce something, but it didn’t glow. I had to embrace the subversive parts of the creative process. I had to be wasteful with my time.
Lately, I have gotten far away from this grad school self who took time to contemplate and do nothing. The frantic busy brain status quo snuck back in and has taken hold again and again.
Groves reminds us that the push to be useful is so strong that when we take a break to contemplate or create or do nothing, we feel guilty. We have to carve out time to take Sabbath, to take a long walk, to find peace and wisdom inside of our beings. The children, the older folks, the artists, the homeless, they are good at taking up this space. They have let go of this drive to be useful and sit in the pocket of being. They are inviting us into this extravagant wastefulness where we are not useful, we are not productive, but there is space to rest. There is space for beauty to be created.
I am struggling to carve out that time. I wanted to return to it, but kept choosing not to. Then I dropped my phone in the toilet and headed up to a cabin for a day. These two things reminded me that I can restrict myself. I can do the right thing even when external factors don’t force me to.
Taking a whole day off does feels extravagant and wasteful. And essential. So I’m beginning as I always do, with small steps. I’m going to pick a day each week to stay away from my phone and computer. I’m going to let my child invite me into a whole day of extravagant play. I know, deep down, that space will be renewing. The space the world may call wasteful, we can choose to call sacred.