My husband and I live in Belgium, and in our neighborhoods during the spring and summer months there are local brocantes, the French term for what we would call a flea market in the United States. The difference is that these are local neighborhood flea markets, where people can setup shop right in front of their house and take whatever they don’t want from inside to sell outside.
This has become one of our favorite elements of life in Belgium. At one of our very first brocante, my husband (after a very long wallow) decided to buy an old Olivetti typewriter. Before this, he had been finding old cameras.
My husband is what he refers to as an “amateur” photographer and takes incredible photographs of landscapes, birds, and beyond. I think the word amateur has more stigma than is needed to describe my husband’s photographic skill set. I am most definitely biased, but I find his perspective and composition of images both stunning and poignant. Regardless of whether or not he actively tries to sell his work, he is a professional.
At any rate, the typewriter seemed to awaken something deeply primal within him. Different from the old cameras, this was a machine he could take apart and tinker with. It was something he could use right away that had practical value. I had found a shop that specialized in old cameras and even sold and developed 35mm film and then surprised him with a gift certificate from several family members so he could pick out an old camera, but in the words of Shakespeare, the dye had been cast. He was all a flutter for Monsieur Olivetti. I should say Monsignor Olivetti, as I have since learned that these machines come from an Italian-based company. Like me, my husband has led many lives in one, one of which was as an archivist and another as a research librarian. Suffice it to say that I know a lot more than I ever imagined about typewriters.
In addition to becoming immersed in the world of typewriters, my husband has learned how to repair them. I often joke that we are the two opposite sides of the “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” coin. If something stops working, he will dive in and figure out how something works and also how to fix it while I throw my hands up and dramatically declare it is time to get a new one.
This difference may have something to do with the fact that my husband has infinitely more patience when it comes to hands-on projects. He is a better baker for this reason as well. He pays close attention to detail and accuracy, whereas I take a spoon and figure, that’s about a tablespoon. I am sure it will be fine. I can tell you from experience that this is rarely the case when it comes to baked goods. Accuracy is key.
Suffice it to say that I am proud of my sweetie for this paradigm shift in his existence. I should really say that this has been a rediscovery for him. He has told me that he used to write solely on a typewriter and that he finds the experience of writing on one of these analog machines to be entirely different than that of writing on a computer.
We have an age gap between us, but even still I can recall learning to type on an enormous typewriter when I was in high school. I was—and still am—very competitive, so I learned to type very fast in order to get the most words per minute of anyone in my class.
The Internet arrived late in my high school career, and I can remember the experience of chatting with teens my age in California to be entirely mind blowing. I spent the next four years in undergraduate school, beginning to negotiate the path of life in connection with modern technology. All students were assigned an email address, which was a combination of the first letter of their first name and their entire last name. For me, Marieke Slovin, this was a relatively unfortunate assignment. Football players never tired of asking me if I realized my email address was Ms. Lovin’. Yes, I would reply.
I love my husband even more for recognizing the IT interpretation, reminisicent of MS DOS or Microsoft Word: MS Lovin.
Along with my peers, I rolled with this new life path, one that intersected quite profoundly with technology. Upon graduating, I decided to move to the Pacific Northwest for an internship in environmental education with a non-profit based out of the North Cascades in Washington State. My mom insisted that I get one of those new fangled cell phones that had become all the rage so I could be reachable at any time and in case of emergency since I was driving across the country and leaving behind the civilized world of the Northeast.
The irony, of course, was that my cell phone was pretty much on roaming the entire drive and then I was living in housing in a wilderness national park, where there was zero cell phone single and also no internet. Even as I progress from intern to seasonal park ranger, I was living in rural-topia, where dial up was connected to ancient phone lines and ran at about 56 kbps, if that.
It was a visit home to Massachusetts that my younger sibling introduced me to a fascinating new world called Facebook. The first post was titled: “My sibling knows my password.”
I can recall getting really revved up anytime I was downvalley and near a computer with “high speed Internet” because I could get online and actually accomplish menial tasks like sending emails and messages on Facebook. I would send a rash of messages on Facebook and then return upriver. In the meantime, people would respond, but they would have to wait another several months before I found myself at a computer with high speed Internet and could respond. Needless to say, I lost touch with most of my friends from high school and college because I was not participating in this new social media virtual reality.
I cannot say that I felt the loss all that deeply because I was more deeply entrenched in my life new life. I lived in a beautiful place. I was learning about flora and fauna. I was discovering sights, sounds, and experiences that were new and exciting. And most importantly, these were experiences that took place in the world outside of a computer or phone.
A couple of years later when I started graduate school in Bellingham, Washington, I remember feeling like I had walked onto a movie set in a future space age and that either I or everyone else had completely lost it. Students were walking around talking out loud to themselves, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this was not “normal” behavior. I soon realized they had headsets that were attached to their cell phone so they could talk hands-free. Even with this new information, I was still thrown through a loop every time I passed someone just chatting away at the open air.
At this point, I did have a cell phone and was a regular texting fiend. I had spent the previous year teaching English in elementary schools in northwest France, and texting was far less expensive than calling so all of the teaching assistants texted instead of communicating verbally. I didn’t realize that this was a foreshadowing of a shift in communication in general, which would serve to disconnect and distance people from one another. I was a poor student, so it just made sense to save money.
Technology had dramatically shifted once again when I entered a doctoral program several years later. I needed to make a call, and one of my cohort members handed me an enormous rectangular phone with a black screen. There were no buttons, and I just stared dumbly at it before finally asking her how it worked.
Enter smartphones. I managed to avoid the smartphone craze for the next four years, and then I caved and got one. Almost overnight, my relationship with technology changed in an extreme way. Suddenly, I could be connected to my network of friends, colleagues, and family anytime I was connected to a cell phone tower, which was pretty much constant at this point because I was living in Lowell, Massachusetts. I had traded in wilderness park rangering for an urban historical park.
I began participating more regularly in the social media realm when I was living in a bush community in the middle of nowhere Alaska. Why? I was lonely. I move a lot, and so I leave behind the people and communities with whom I was once closely connected. I often feel alone and in a kind of limbo between one place and the next.
For a while I found Facebook to be a helpful way to share updates on my life. It was far easier than the mass emails I would send to friends and family, if not more personal, and I could share many more photos with more ease. People could comment. I could send messages back and forth. It seemed like a place where everything was possible.
I believe it was 2014 when I purchased my first smartphone. The move to “civilization” and the world of Internet and regular cell phone service has entirely shifted my way of being with my Self and the world. I have not managed to maintain healthy boundaries with this personal paradigm shift. Many moves since I began investing more time and energy in the world of Facebook and smartphones, and I am exhausted.
There are myriad studies that have shown that the trend toward spending more and more time connected to social media and various information communication technologies has had deleterious effects on individual well being and has also one a disservice to children learning how to interact socially with other kids their age. There is very little recourse for the choices we make in the virtual world. A person can unfriend another person without having to witness the emotional toll.
For me, I find that more often than not I create more suffering than joy from the time I spend online. I see photo and updates from people from places I have left, and I feel sad that I am no longer a part of their lives. I am watching their children grow up through photographs. Their lives seem happier and more successful than mine. And even though I know how one-dimensional this “reality” tends to be, I still find myself comparing my accomplishments and state of being with others.
The number one no no if you want to be happy is to compare yourself to other people.
I already know this. So why do I persist in participating in a pastime that I know will not bring me joy? I literally wrote an entire dissertation on all of the ways I can create sustainability in my life. Why not pursue those instead?
Is it because of the ease with which I can continue to perpetuate unhealthy behavior? All I have to do is look on an app on my phone or open a new window on my computer, et voila! My own personal torture can begin anew.
I did not grow up with a personal computer or the Internet, so I know it is possible to keep myself occupied without spending all day every day plugged in. Now, I find myself getting fidgety without my phone in my hand. It is like I am missing a limb and missing out on whatever might be happening the little strange bubble of existence I have created through my Facebook profile. Has someone liked one of my photos? What does it mean if they liked but didn’t love that photo? The real evil is in the updates to messenger. Now I can see when someone has read a message I sent, so I am left to wonder why they aren’t immediately responding. Do they not like me? Do they find me irritating? Are they wondering why someone who has moved away is still trying to be a part of their life?
Not only that, but my main source of income has become working as an editor. This means that I am tethered to my computer and phone in case a client contacts me with an article or thesis to review.
With the time distance between Belgium and the United States, this also means that I often wind up working late at night. This sends my already sensitive system into a tizzy, and it takes a long time for my mind and body to settle and ground enough for sleep.
In my constant pursuit of self-sustainability, I have employed many different methods to reduce the elements of life that create suffering. This means my own version of Marie Kondo. Anything that is irritating or causes stress instead of joy has to go. This began with material possessions, and it has evolved to include behavior, people, and pastimes.
I have decided against applying for jobs that will require me to spend more time on my computer. I have deleted apps from my phone, fallen off the wagon and added them back, then deleted them again. Having a US phone in Belgium helps keep down the app use when I am out and about because the connection is so slow, but since I spend most of my days at home it is just too easy to check my Facebook page every 30 seconds.
I love books, and I spent many years moving boxes of books from one place to another. Eventually, it became too expensive and cumbersome, so I began giving away and selling books. My rule, inspired by a friend, was that I could keep the books that were not replaceable. Though to connect with Marie Kondo was unbeknownst to me at the time, I also kept books that sparked joy.
Before moving to Belgium, my husband suggested that I try ebooks. I rebelled. I am a book purist. I love holding a book in my hand. I can remember specific passages based on where I read them on the page and the visual image and shape of the paragraph. With an ebook, everything just looks the same; homogenized.
When my husband suggested using a bird app instead of a field guide, I was horrified. It was so much easier to flip through written pages to compare birds than it was to try to go back and forth between species on my phone.
My husband eventually won me over on the pros of using an app, mostly because it was so much lighter to carry my phone, which I also used as a camera, than an a heavy book in addition to everything else I was carrying: binoculars, water, nature’s calling kit, etc. That being said, if I really want to study a bird (and I am at home and not in the immediate outdoor environment), I still prefer the book.
I have already mentioned that the challenge with preferring books is that I move a lot, and books take up space and weight. When we were preparing to move to Belgium, I was in the middle of reading Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. If you had read this series, you know that each book is enormous.
I recall lying in bed one night in Edmonds, where I spent two months waiting for my visa to be approved, and texting my husband to ask how on earth I was going to bring all of these crazy heavy books with me in my very limited suitcase space. His response? He sent the entire series as ebooks.
This was a revelation for me, and for the past few years we have been in Belgium I have downloaded and read many books on my Macbook Air. Sure, I prefer to hold a book in my hand, but there are benefits to ebooks. For one, I can save many on my computer. I can also highlight passages without worrying about “ruining” a physical book. If I tire of the highlights, I can delete them. No harm. No foul.
What I have noticed as a definite drawback of reading an ebook, particularly on my computer (I never joined the Harry Potter bandwagon, and Kindle was never enticing for me either), is that it is far too easy to get distracted by temptation. I read a few sentences and wonder what is happening in Facebook land or if I have received any email. I have also read studies that show that screen time at night can make it more difficult to sleep, which is the time of day I usually read.
In addition, if I read on my computer at night, I get simultaneous texts from my phone and What’s App. This is distracting and counters the beneficial effects of reading for calming my system before sleep.
I have been feeling the increasingly uncomfortable effects of technology in my daily life, and this morning, I decided enough was enough. I am tired of the discomfort I feel when my phone is not within reach. I know from having spent time in places without cell service over the past couple of years that if there is no option to use my phone I feel far better about leaving it behind. It is freeing. There is a relief in knowing no one can possibly reach me, and I have no need or ability to check email or anything else going on in the world beyond my immediate geographic vicinity. I can be truly present where I am and with whatever I am doing, especially if it is not doing.
Not doing is very challenging for me, but that is subject for another day.
This afternoon, I went into the big city to the British bookstore, Waterstone’s. I went in search of a poetry book and then decided to see if my favorite book series was there. I have been reading this series pretty much nonstop for at least the past year. My husband introduced me to it on a road trip from Arizona to the Pacific Northwest to visit family. We listened to CD recordings (speaking of antiquated technology [and vocabulary], remember CDs?) of the Deborah Harkness All Souls Trilogy, and it made the usually painful experience of sitting still for hours at a time far more enjoyable. I was so hooked by the story that we would arrive somewhere, and I wouldn’t want to get out of the car.
I picked out a poetry book by William Carlos Williams and a copy of the first book in the All Souls Trilogy: A Discovery of Witches.
I picked out a poetry book by William Carlos Williams and a copy of the first book in the All Souls Trilogy: A Discovery of Witches. I had to ask the staff if they had a copy was a different cover. The only copy on the shelf had the actors from the recent television series production, and I prefer the images I have created from my imagination. As an aside, it was a strange experience being in a store in a French and Dutch speaking city where I could actually speak in English. On the one hand, I had the feeling that I would be cheating or doing something forbidden by speaking English with the staff. On the other, I wondered if they would form judgment about me depending on which language I chose to speak. In the end, I spoke English. It is my mother tongue, after all. An unexpected boon was that I wound up with a copy that had been in a back room and which later my husband noticed had what seemed to be an actual authentic signature from the author. Not bad.
Back to the All Souls Trilogy. I read this book series before bed every night because it seems to be the only text I have found that I find soothing enough to relax my system enough for sleep. I know it by heart at this point, so there are no surprises, which means very little to rile my system or cause stress. For someone who has struggled with stress, anxiety, and sleep for their entire life, this has been an excellent discovery.
Reading and rereading the same book series over and over again means I am not currently making much of a dent in the list of all the possible books one should read in a lifetime, but life is long (as my husband likes to remind me). I imagine and hope that at some point I will work through enough traumas to move on to other literary pastures.
On my way home, I texted my husband to tell him I had visited a bookstore and bought the book. He said he was going to suggest that very thing.
Later in the evening, it occurred to me that there was a drawback to having the physical book in hand. The greatest advantage of reading an ebook—for me, at least—is that I can make the font really big. The main drawback with the physical book in hand is that the text is crazy small, and buying an already large tome with big font would make the book three times the size. I would need some kind of podium to set it on, so for now I might have to settle on finding a magnifying glass in addition to my regular glasses or a pince-nez as my husband joked.
Since falling down the typewriter rabbit hole, my husband has been talking a quite a bit about slow media. The more I think about it, the more I realize I have an urgent need to unplug as well. My system feels like it is in crisis most of the time. These days, my parasympathetic nervous system goes into full fight, flight, freeze alert mode at the literal drop of a pin.
Something needs to change so I can begin the process of fully healing and learning to ground. Even as one being in the midst of a fast-paced, technology-crazed society, I can at least remove my own attachment to the borg. I might be surrounded, but I can try to create an eye in the electrical storm.
My next step is to follow suit and begin writing on a typewriter instead of my computer. This way, there are fewer distractions, apart from the usual things I notice while working from home; namely, that there is dog fur everywhere that I will want to vacuum, the sink is full of dishes, and that there has to be a better way to organize all of my husband’s many typewriters.