During week two of my tech detox, I decided to focus on solitude. In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport talks about the importance of spending time alone with one’s thoughts, drawing on historical figures such as Thoreau and Lincoln to support the idea that spending time alone is important for problem-solving and creativity. So this week, I took out my earbuds and went walking.
Solitude is hard to come by when you’re the parent of small children, particularly when you are the primary caretaker. I decided to sneak in my walks by swapping out driving to preschool with taking the train. My younger son was only too happy to walk downhill to the light rail station, and once he was dropped off I got some quiet and exercise.
The first few days, this regimen went pretty well. On Thursday I planned to take advantage of Seattle’s first Thursday program and hit up SAM while the kids were in school. I have been neglecting my “Artist’s Dates” and feeling stuck with a short story I was writing, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to fill my well.
Then it snowed. My husband opened the curtain that morning and groaned, “I thought we were done with this!” My kids couldn’t believe I was forcing them to go to school. (They’ve clearly gone soft from too many snow days.) Nevertheless, I persisted. As we walked to the light rail station that morning, I realized that my brown leather boots, the sole pair of boots I had left, had a leak.
I stomped the snow off my boots, I shoved a paper towel into the toe, I wondered why my wool socks weren’t up to the task of keeping my feet warm. I had an irrepressible urge to listen to whip out my earbuds and put on some music or a podcast.
That’s when I realized that I often use music and podcasts as a way to distract myself from unpleasant circumstances. And it’s not just podcasts: after a hard day, I’ll sink onto my sofa with The Daily Show or by watching some comedy. Instead of dealing with things that make me uncomfortable, I’ll often turn to media to cheer me up.
So I fought the urge. On the train to SAM, my right foot thoroughly frozen, I journaled instead of listening. I allowed myself to really feel the discomfort and irritation. And then I remembered that I was heading downtown, why didn’t I just stop and pick up a new pair of boots and wool socks? I quickly found what I was looking for at Nordstrom Rack. As I slipped on my new socks and boots, I felt grateful that I could afford to replace hole-y boots spur-of-the-moment. I put my wet boots and socks into the Nordstrom bag and headed back to the light rail station, to take the train one stop to SAM.
Waiting at the top of a broken escalator stood a woman with two rolling suitcases and a cup of coffee. She looked up and asked me if I could help her carry a bag down the stairs. As we chatted, I found out she was a doctor from Germany, visiting town for a conference on pediatric tropical diseases. I helped her buy a ticket to the airport and mentioned that I was en route to SAM. She had a little time before he flight, so she joined me for a quick walk-through. We ended up exchanging info and she offered to tour me around the Black Forrest if I’m ever in the neighborhood.
Walking around SAM, I enjoyed looking at the art as well as people-watching. Moms and preschool teachers led small children through the galleries, and the kids’ reactions to the art were so genuine. Sitting in the lobby later, (new boots do need to be broken in, after all) I watched a group of teenage girls, observing how they walked through the space and hung onto their girlfriends. One girl in particular got my attention, she had the awkward carriage of someone getting used to a newly tall body. It was the breakthrough that my short story needed.
I think this day would’ve gone very differently if I’d had my earbuds in the whole time. I probably would’ve enjoyed what I was listening to, but I wonder if I would’ve decided to buy new boots, have met Elke, or would have people-watched as carefully with the auditory distraction.
The wonderful thing about city life is that it is communal. Public transit, in particular, has a way of fostering community among people from many walks of life. Driving a car is an adversarial pursuit, it’s about me getting where I need to go ahead of others. When we take transit, we are all in it together. We must negotiate space, we hear, smell, and brush up against each other. As I took the light rail back to preschool, I noticed the ubiquity of white earbuds, and wonder how that effects our feelings of community.
I’m not going to give up my earbuds entirely, but it did make me think about how often I forego my earbuds to attend the world around me and the world within.