When we were young, my older brother had this little do-it-yourself radio kit he liked to play with. It seemed to me to consist of nothing more than a few wires he strung up on Mom’s clothesline and some dials in a box. He would work at it all afternoon and finally pick up some faint music or someone talking vaguely from the distance. This was the early 1960s, the idea of radio flowing into our ears from multiple personal devices was off in the future: I was mystified by how he could be receiving anything with these wires and knobs. He attempted several ways to explain it to me, but finally condensed it into the only soundbite I recall from his lecture: there are voices in the air, and I’m trying to catch them.
How far we’ve come from this fascination with radio, or with long-distance communication. Now, what was a mystery has become a daily necessity. My daughter dropped her cell phone in the toilet at school the other day. Back home, she asked for rice to nestle it in, there being a rumor that this fixes a phone that has been dropped in the toilet, which, almost inconceivably to me, must be a common problem. Our pantry was not well stocked with rice at the crucial moment, which she took as an obvious sign of bad parenting and let us know about it. She immediately began to plead for a replacement telephone, asserting that each moment she had to spend without it also indicated our lack of parenting skill or concern.
Here’s the thing: I do not have, and I do not use, a cell phone. I’m not sure why, but I think I would rather lose a limb than carry a little telephone around with me all the time. I am fond of Garrison Keillor’s observation that ‘a cell phone makes a man a receptionist.’ I don’t want to be a receptionist. When I leave work, when I am alone, when I should have some quiet time amid a hectic day, I cherish that quiet time. I’m sorry, but I don’t want to hear from you in those moments. I want to listen to Dvorak’s Serenade in A. I want to think about the next chapter of my book. I don’t want a text message telling me that you are driving home in traffic, that you are buying mangoes, that your favorite ballplayer got a hit. Good for you, but I don’t care.
Another blogger whose posts I enjoy reading (emptychalice.com) wrote recently about taking a Spirit Walk: just walking down the street for a distance in silence and being attentive to little things all around. He described the experience as being, in his elegant phrase, ‘a luxury of time.’ How little we do such things! We grow frantic in any moment spent without an electronic interface, some media washing over us, some communication on our devices. My daughter, after a few days of not having her telephone, was livid, stressed and distraught. ‘My life,’ she screamed, with no hint of irony, ‘is on my phone!’ I was embarrassed for both of us. This, more than anything she could have accused me of, made me feel like a bad parent.
When I am writing about the seasons, I am aware that modern life removes us ever more thoroughly from any meaningful interface with them. There are people who get into their cars in the garage, drive to work and park in an indoor parking lot, take the elevator up to their office, and then repeat the whole sequence in reverse, arriving back home to an evening of television without ever setting foot outside. It may be the dead of winter or burning hot summer, but it scarcely matters. We don’t experience it physically, and we keep our minds clogged with ephemera and trivia pumped into us constantly via assorted electronica.
I practice yoga every morning, and have done so for years. Someone asked me the other day if I also meditate, the two being linked in the popular imagination. No, I said, it has been years since I could clear my mind. And it’s true. I am always thinking about things, whether those things are worth a second’s thought or not. I can’t stop. I would like to have the ‘luxury of time,’ I would love to hear if the universe means to tell me anything. There are voices in the air, but we don’t need a kit to capture them. The voices we should be listening for can’t be captured, and most of what we receive is interference and background noise which it gets harder every day to filter out.