My mother is a yogi, a natural contortionist with an appetite that obeys Ayurveda doctrine. When I was in high school, I thought it was embarrassing. I brought friends home and instead of allowing us to turn on the television or huddle around our family computer, she’d turn off the lights, light a sole candle, place it in the middle of the floor, and ask us to sit with her and gaze at the flame. My friends loved Mary, she was unlike their own embarrassing mothers, so they were happy to candle gaze for the night. I was more resistant.
“Mindfulness, mindfulness, mindfulness,” she would chant.
“Is this over?” I would ask.
“Shanti shanti Shanti,” she always replied.
Despite my initial resistance, my mother succeeded in raising me to be largely uninterested in electronic stimuli defying my status as a child of the digital age. That was until last June anyway, when I succumbed to smartphone peer pressure and bought my first iPhone.
My pre-iPhone self was observant. I never got into candle gazing but I did turn my attention to people. While on the train, lingering in coffee shops, or sitting on park benches I enjoyed people watching. I am a big reader, devouring entire books in a single night, but always at home, never in public. The outside world was for observing.
Returning home from a day in the world, I would try to recall the characters I encountered that day. I would journal mannerisms that intrigued me, chronicle conversations that were shocking or that epitomized normality, and note what people were wearing and what they were reading. It was all for my future novel.
I also kept lists: movies to watch, bills to pay, hand lotions to try. Sometimes I lost my lists and my notes, but the act of writing helped me to remember, helped keep me present, kept me centered.
All around me, my friends and my subjects were jumping on the smartphone bandwagon. Car horns, baby laughter, and screeching subways were muted by ear buds that howled Rhianna. Regina Spektor, or Ra Ra Riot. Newspapers, magazines, and novels were replaced by kindles, words with friends, and facebook applications.
I got on the subway one day and looked about the car. It was a sparse but motley crowd; it should have been a perfect group for observation. But, to my disbelief, everyone was doing the same thing – every single person was absorbed in their handheld cyber universe. I was bored.
The phone I carried at the time was elderly by Verizon’s standards and so this June just days before my birthday, I bought my own iPhone 4. I went for the refurbished option trying to convince myself that it lessened my fall into digital materiality.
Within a week I was addicted to Instagram. I spent more time photographing my food than I did eating it.
I could hear my mother’s words, “Mindfulness at the table, Susanna”, but I drowned them out with Pandora radio.
Within two weeks I was a words with friends fanatic. Within three weeks I had surpassed my data plan. After a month, my text message outbox was in the thousands, much to my boyfriend’s dismay.
Last summer I read minimally. I stopped writing lists. I stopped observing the outside world and became overly self aware and self conscious – in the social media world. I rarely dressed up, went for a run, or cleaned my room but I was quick to monitor and prune my facebook wall and twitter feed. The glow of my iPhone became the only candle I gazed at. My future novel was doomed for failure.
At a Halloween party my boyfriend’s phone got stolen. He was reliant upon it for his alarm clock so when I left to go to work hours before him, I reset my cellphone alarm and left it for him. Immediately after my shift, I went to his work desperate for my phone. I greeted him with a quick kiss and then worriedly asked him if he remembered my phone. He did. We, my phone and I, were reunited and it felt so good.
I had to get to school, a healthy walk or an unnecessary bus ride. I headed to the bus stop. I wanted to sit with my head down, checking twitter, tumblr, instagram, facebook, my personal email, my school email, my bank account statement, missed calls, and text messages.
I was having a good hair day so as I waited for the bus I decided to instagram a #selfie.
I lifted the phone and it slipped through my careless fingers, landing screen side down with a sickening slap. I swear I heard the screams of the entire iPhone community and the sobs of the late Steve Jobs. Sure enough, my screen was splintered and cracked from camera to mouth piece. I fought tears.
I boarded the bus with my iPhone buried deep in my bag. I chose a seat next a squat white haired woman with her purse clutched by both hands atop her lap. She smiled at me when I sat down.
The bus lurched forward and the woman began talking to me, Surprised, I looked over at her.
“He’s so distracted, no? With his ear pods in,” she said gesturing to the man standing and swaying in front of us. “Everybody wears those pods. Where are yours?”
“I don’t wear them,” I lied. “Hurt my ears.”
“Oh yes, well people didn’t always where them. I never wore them, don’t think I will either.”
I resisted the woman’s conversation at first. She talked about her son and about the days before cellphones and I offered “Hmms” and “Oh yeas” obediently. My obedience turned to interest as she started talking about her mother’s irish soda bread and how she had a great recipe and how I should write it down because I look like a girl who likes food. It’s true, I do. I went through my bag, overlooking my phone, in search for a pen and paper. I was surprised to find a notebook with a pen tucked in the spiral. I dusted off the cobwebs and wrote down the recipe. I knew the recipe wasn’t complete and it probably won’t bake fabulous bread but I was happy to be her audience. I thanked her and told her my grandmother used to bake homemade bread too and I loved how the house smelled while it was cooking. I told her I wish I could share it with her but I didn’t know it offhand.
My bus stop was approaching so I stuffed my things in my bag and thanked her again as I got up to leave. The bus stopped and the doors unfolded. As I stepped forward the woman grabbed my phoneless hand with her strong, sturdy hand and said, “Honey, remember to listen to your mother.”
I bought a new notebook that day. I scrawled a title on the inside cover: Mindfulness. November 2012. My first entry was about the woman with the irish soda recipe and the strong hands.
Maybe my novel isn’t doomed after all.