The glory of going off the grid

The view of Lake Champlain from Burlington, VT.
We are analog creatures living in a digital age.

This past weekend, I attended an orientation in Putney, Vermont for a teaching and leading gig I’m undertaking this summer, for National Geographic Student Expeditions. The orientation was held at the Putney Student Travel barn, a beautiful, zen facility in the rustic, woodsy state that holds a larger part of my heart every time I visit. My cell phone got little to no service and, for most of the time we were there, I was too busy orienting myself, ticking off items from the checklist of tasks that needed to be completed by the end of the event, communing with the awesome, talented kindred spirits that comprise my fellow leaders and the facility’s staff members and of course, swimming in the pond and laying in the grass, scribbling away in my moleskine. I couldn’t facebook. I couldn’t tweet. I couldn’t blog.

I loved it.

Every time I go off the grid, even for a couple of days, I’m reminded of something: we are more than names and pictures on a screen. Dropping that little blue pin on foursquare is not the reason I go places. I don’t embark on life experiences to add it to my linkedin profile. As odd as it feels to blog about the necessity of getting off the screen and enjoying the world we have the immense privilege of inhabiting, I couldn’t help but share the sensation that I had, logging back into twitter this morning, for the first time in four days.

Let me juxtapose something for you.

On Sunday at 8:30 a.m., I woke up on a cot in the attic of a cabin where about 20 other people were sleeping. My beach towel was my pillow, and my sleeping bag lay askew over my back, having been tossed off sometime during a fitful and balmy night. Sun streamed in the open, burning holes in a thick mist that blanketed the Green Mountains which crouched around us, barely visible through the fog. I lay there for awhile, listening to the quiet sounds that punctuated the silence. Birds chirping. A bee buzzing against the screen. Other humans breathing. Quiet conversation murmuring from those who had already started breakfast downstairs. There is such an abiding peace in isolating ourselves from everything but the planet and its inhabitants.

Today at about the same time, the door slammed heavy behind me as my heels clacked into the newsroom where I work, bells on the door handle jangling my arrival. I clicked on my computer and watched it shimmer to life, plugged in my cell phone and snapped on my desk lamp in three, practiced motions as I checked my desk phone messages with my other hand. The radio blared a Top 40 song underneath the whir of the air conditioner, my coworkers in other cubicles speaking to customers on the phones that rang every few minutes like they were set to timers, the front door opening and closing as people came in and out with their greetings. I scrolled through email, twitter, facebook, linkedin, news sites, word documents, an RSS avalanche of information to the rhythm of fingers clacking, clacking, clacking away at keyboards as the printer buzzed its answers to the beeping fax machine, phones ringing in their input as the hours slid mechanically by.
It felt frenetic and forced after the peace of the woods, like we had all tethered ourselves into something like the first pair of draft horses were hooked into their harnesses. So many of us spend our days and nights like that: bombarded by communication that electrifies the air like so many spirits, it invades our own.

I acknowledge and understand the necessity of our wired world. I love connecting with my friends and colleagues online, using the Internet to find new contacts and the astounding wealth of information and so often, inspiration that it holds. I love that I can stay in touch with friends, across the world, with the click of a button. But I also can’t help but feel that we lose something of our natural selves when we spend our time so tied in to technology in the constant manner that we are. It strikes me, every time I leave it, how exhausting the endless pressure to stream our lives can be.
There’s a beauty in the world that we can’t capture on a computer screen. The crunch of decomposing leaves beneath our feet, the particular glimmer of pollen on a spiderweb just after sunrise. The silence of another’s breath or the touch of skin on skin, on real, warm, pulsating skin.

I challenge everyone to feel that world, today. To stand in awe of whatever portion of it lies around you. To close your eyes and remember where you came from and where you’ll go, where your cell phone or MacBook can’t follow. To appreciate the wisdom of the trees, who don’t have Google + accounts. To remember the nuance in a voice. To use your body for something other than propelling toward the next communication.

We are not our computers, friends. We are citizens of a planet that begs us to notice it.

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