I gave my 7th graders an assignment called “Tech Fast” to complete over the holidays. It’s a rite of passage for the middle-schoolers: for two days, students are to live without technology of any kind—no cell phones, no computers, no music, no television. In the season of giving and receiving, news of the assignment was not received all that well, but the kids came back in January, still alive, having completed the Tech Fast, looking much like they did when they left before break.
The intent was not (despite what some of the 7th graders believed) to torture. We had just read Fahrenheit 451, a book that loudly depicts the potential hazards of overuse of and dependency on technology. I had never read it before teaching it this year; I had always believed that Bradbury wrote the novel as a reaction against McCarthyism and censorship. But Bradbury explains that his book stemmed from something less political, from something more personal. Fahrenheit isn’t about what happens when governments decide what people should or should not read. It is about what might happen when free people with access to every book imaginable, make the conscious decision not to read.
Bradbury’s main character Montag is married to Mildred, who sits all day with “seashells” in her ears, listening to her television “relatives” endlessly talk of nothing from the three walls of screens surrounding her (constant, deafening noise, chatter, lights), and all Mildred wants is for her husband to buck up and buy that fourth wall. Mildred can’t hold a conversation. Mildred can’t think a creative thought, and when she does stop long enough to think, she attempts suicide. Mildred is one of a slew of hopelessly sad depictions living in a dangerously familiar future society.
But Bradbury’s Clarisse, Montag’s neighbor, is a young girl who fully participates with the world around her. She asks questions and initiates discussions. Montag hears laughter move across the lawn from Clarisse’s house—a hearty, relaxed, natural laughter, coming from a lit home, not one darkened at night so folks can better view a screen. “Montag heard the voices talking, talking, talking, giving, talking, weaving, reweaving their hypnotic web.” My students were drawn to Clarisse immediately and understood it—right away—that Clarisse is the person to be. We talked about what it means, to talk. And better yet, what it means to listen.
During one lesson I brought in my iPod and played Miles Davis, my choice of jazz representative—an example of culture counter to the mainstream 1950’s society Bradbury was criticizing. Students listened to songs from Kind of Blue, and as they sat, they wrote reactions in their journals describing the “back and forth,” “weaving,” “dynamics,” even “tension,” in the music they heard. Jazz is like talking, we all decided.
And when you really talk, when you sit down to have a conversation, there is potential for pause, for volume, for conflict and tension, for resolve, for back and forth, for storytelling.
When I was in high school, my friends knew the rule, and if they were new friends, they figured the rule out pretty quickly: Whatever you do, don’t call my house between the hours of 6 and 7 pm because you are not going to like the way you feel if my mom answers the phone. I experienced Empathy Embarrassment–guilt grated like the Parmesan on my spaghetti–as I witnessed my mom curtly informing said “friend” that he or she was calling during dinnertime. The hour was sacred at the Regan household, the time when we all–at whatever age and stage, if we were living under my mom’s roof—would sit down together, to eat . . . and to talk.
I learned to love the time and rely on the talking. Our tiny, circular kitchen table was the place and still is. Even today I can picture my parents sitting there together just before dinner, snacking on cheese and crackers, sipping wine, retelling the moments of the day. My mom did her best advising at that kitchen table: she persevered, counselling us through teenage angst and young-adult worry. And my dad, he continues to tell the greatest stories from his spot at the table, his hands resting on the crossword or wrapped around a coffee mug.
My kids get to listen to my dad now, which is lovely to witness: Pop-Pop’s one to break into instantaneous song. He’ll narrow in to talk to one of my girls and I’ll get to see her eyes widen with delight. It honestly does not matter that I’ve heard each story countless times before. I welcome the tales, like I comfortably toss on my favorite pair of pj-pants at the end of a long day. The weaving and reweaving, the giving and taking: there’s not a lot better as far as I’m concerned.
It’s nice that I grew up that way, as did so many others. As parents, my husband and I are trying to prioritize reading, creativity, outside play, all that good stuff. It’s also nice that the fate of humanity is not resting on my shoulders because I was obsessive about watching The Voice last fall and so were my kids. If Blake Shelton and Adam Levine were to somehow start talking to me directly from three surrounding walls at high volume, I have to say, I would not be unhappy. My husband and I have agreed more than once that it would be fun to have beers with Blake and Adam. So there are times, I do feel a little Mildred coming on.
And there are Mildred’s out there: There are people who need to turn off the television. There are people who need to read a book. This is real.
What I find to be real as well, as I teach my 7th graders, is a genuine feeling of hope. Granted, I teach just a slice of humanity, I understand, but if I am to generalize about “kids these days,” I conclude that all is not lost. In an earlier project, I asked students to write about an object that symbolizes them in some way, and they wrote about soccer balls, pianos, skateboards—not many if any wrote about an Xbox or a Wii.
The Tech Fast, yes, it challenged them, but it did not bury them. They took to their sleds; they played board games with their siblings; they talked to their parents. They resoundingly agreed that the Fast didn’t change their lives all that much: no one picked up a new language or discovered anything astonishingly new about herself. Using less technology simply allowed the kids to do more of something else.
It’s just that “simple” that I want to appreciate and I can when I visit my old home: I feel a little more Clarisse coming on. It’s what can happen when I surround myself with people I love. We talked: my dad, my siblings, my in-laws. We faced each other around kitchen tables, high-topped counters, and comfortable couches. We told stories, sang songs.
We went for walks, hit a museum, read books.
I use Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, and so do some of my students. So too will my own kids, I’m fairly certain, unless new takes over “old” by then. Right now I am here at this computer. Pandora plays softly. I need and appreciate technology.
But sitting around a childhood kitchen table reminds me that instead of looking for the next best thing on Pinterest (or whatever the gadget or Website), I also need to value what it is that I already know–what’s embedded in me, what’s been passed on. Bring back a cookie recipe from my mother’s hand-written card, flip through an old songbook and teach my girls to harmonize to Moonlight Bay, just like my mother did, and just like her mother did before.
Tell an old story. Talk and talk and weave and talk some more. Light up the house. Laugh until it hurts.
Her fancy was running riot along those days ahead of her. Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own. She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.
-Henry David Thoreau
Two of my favorite writers are Henry David Thoreau and Kate Chopin. I love Chopin’s style—deceivingly simple, jarring. Her stories stick with me days after I finish them. I don’t re-read a lot, but I revisit Chopin’s Story of an Hour like I keep coming back to ice cream. And Thoreau—if I can’t take a year and live in the woods, then at the very least, wherever I am, I’d love to live deliberately. That’s his message. Granted, his messages have been stamped on Hallmark- and post-cards, but if I’m going to try to teach my kids anything, I’m going to encourage them to simplify their lives; I’m going to suggest that they move towards their dreams.
I’ve been in a book club for several years. During discussions we sometimes get heavy into character flaws and conflicts . . . then we stop talking about in-laws and start discussing the book itself. I recently sent my book club friends an email asking for something lighter—for them to jot down a few of their dreams and wishes. It felt a little funny, like I was talking politics at a cocktail party, but they got right back to me, and I have to say (as I wrote about in my piece Mad Skills), I learned new things about old friends.
Some were funny—Liz has been gluten free for a month, so she described a literal dream from two nights earlier of eating a grilled cheese sandwich, butter dripping from crisp bread.
Some read like letters to faraway places—one friend wants to host the Today Show, another to own a shop selling all things happy and handmade; another dreams of doing mission work.
Some were as distinct as photographs—I was at Carrie’s ranch, mountains on one side, flat lands on the other, weather perfect, crops yielding top dollar. I saw the large cabin, her boots and Wranglers. (No foolin’, this girl can dream—I’d put money down this one is going to happen.)
Most were compartmentalized. Tina sent a to-do wish list: run a marathon, cruise the world, learn another language. But being remembered as a good mom is her dream-of-choice. Liz, despite her hankering for bubbling cheddar, wants a backyard her kids can get lost in. Jordan—right now—is making the time for her family. It’s in the future that she would like to make a difference in somebody else’s life. It’s in the future that she’d like to re-learn the drums, have the chance to sit down in a solitary place and just hammer it out.
One of my dreams is fairly generic. You know the one: I’m at the Telluride Music Festival (or it could be Tanglewood) listening to James Taylor on the main stage when he invites me up to sing back-up to “Millworker.” It has to be this song because even though he recorded it with only one vocal track, it sounds beautiful with harmony, and, in my dreams, I’m just the girl to do it.
But I’ve got more: own a beach house, grow old like Diane Keaton.
And more: publish oodles, write pieces that will make my girls and Dave Barry laugh.
I could go on, but, what I’m finding these days is that I don’t. I really don’t spend enough energy focusing on my dreams.
You may assume, then, that I am successfully and purposefully living in the moment, attentive to The Now, but I am not doing that either. Thoreau writes, to be awake is to be alive, and in that Transcendental sense, I find I am barely keeping my eyes open.
I was obviously awake yesterday morning as I stood at the bus stop, but I will tell you I was not living deliberately in any sort of Walden Pond-way. I was not taking note of the blue bird’s faint silvery warbling, or the geese sailing, or the brooks singing glee to the spring. I was clutching my coffee mug like a life ring.
And later when Lexi and I arrived at the grocery store, I did see that nice lady in the produce aisle as she stood smiling at us while Lexi was chirping away about the Princess of Gardania. I did hear that same nice lady when she chimed, “Enjoy it now because it doesn’t last!” I smiled back, nodded, and thought to myself, I will; I definitely will. But right now I just need to figure out the difference between arugula and kale.
I left the grocery store, slipped a bit on my flip-flop because of a single, gentle rain that had fallen, and I was suddenly reminded of being in Cape Cod the summer before Caroline was born. As I loaded the bags into my car, I recalled a particular morning in Chatham, remembered the dog walkers enjoying coffee, and then – BAM – I was alive. I looked right at Lexi, told her that I would someday take her and her sister to the Cape, and my heart jumped a bit.
It’s funny how a dream can wake you up.
We have a lot to balance, obviously. Our families and jobs demand our attention. Of course it’s about balance. (The word, “deliberate” derives from “Libra,” the scale.) Even Thoreau knew that constantly being in the moment is reaching for something unattainable. Yes, he writes to be awake is to be alive, but he also writes that he never met a man who was quite awake.
Lexi will be in kindergarten next year. I wonder, have I spent enough time taking all of her in, playing Dance Party in the basement, lights off, watching her smile through the strobe-like twirl of a flash light?
And Caroline, almost finished one year of kindergarten—do I really see her now, the gaping gorgeous hole in her grin, and how she earnestly studies flyers, hymnals, street signs, catalogues, no printed word safe from her I’m-reading-now blue eyes?
Thoreau says, live the life you always imagined.
I say, I will. I really will try. But honestly, Henry David, never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined these girls of mine.
Thoreau says, go confidently in the direction of your dreams.
I say, arugula looks like spinach, and kale is a bit darker and curlier.
Then I say, I’d like to raise great kids, enjoy good health and happiness, and spend as much time as I can outside in beautiful places.
Hammer it out.
Let life be long.