Under a sky clear as day, egged on by a spring wind, my dog and I walked. We are always walking. Our steps marking the rise and set of our diurnal course. Our routes comfortingly familiar, traversing us from tip to toe. Sometimes we have company: children, husband, parent, friend, another dog. But mostly we are alone. Recently, in an ongoing effort to quell the anxiety of which I have written in previous columns, I decided to view our walks as opportunity. A moment in which to still my mind, breathe deeply, engage mindfully with the natural world. So there I was, grateful for the cloudlessness, the rainlessness, skin thrilling to the frigid breeze, when panic set in. I wasn't doing it right. Something was wrong. I fumbled in the capacious pockets of my puffer vest.
Pushed aside the chunks of dried lamb's lung brought along to lure back my runaway dog, the old bread bags collected to pick up her foul leavings, the heavy bunch of keys, until, finally, I alighted with sweet relief on its stone cold edges. My phone. Touching the Safari icon, I feverishly swiped through the last pages I had visited. There. There it was. An article laying out how to be present, how to acknowledge the flare of your nostrils with each inhalation, the parting of your lips with each exhalation. I read as I walked. I was outside, surrounded by glorious birdsong, a spread of trembling wild flowers before me, and I was transfixed, by a screen.
Setting off on a walk the other day with a friend, filled with the joys of our temporarily unencumbered state, I looked over at her. In one hand she clutched her phone, the size of a small personal computer. She followed my gaze. Laughed. It's ridiculous, isn't it, she said. But what if something happened? If someone needed to get hold of me? She paused. I guess we used to be okay, didn't we, before? Without them?
Were we? I don't even know anymore. Can no longer remember nor fathom how we lived or could live without smart phones. I reach for my phone in the middle of sun salutations at yoga. Someone may have texted me! On a rare night out alone with my husband, our phones lie on the table between us, lurking silently, like leashed sentries; in case the babysitter needs us. Later, in bed, backs to each other, clasping our devices, he'll claim he is only checking a few emails. Just the headlines, I'll promise. And before we know it we are lost, disappeared down a vortex of links leading to yet more drivel. I'll find myself intently watching a YouTube video of a Malaysian drag queen demonstrating how to execute the perfect french plait when I could be reading a novel or making love. The other night, fighting sleep, my husband snoring gently next to me, his phone still in hand, I read an article online about the importance of turning off screens 90 minutes before you retire to bed. My eyes stung grittily and the irony was not lost on me.
Jon Krop, who writes on meditation in the modern age, says we are addicted to the distraction smart phones provide. "It's as if going a single second without something to occupy our minds would be intolerable." We use our phones to read menus before we get to the restaurant, destroying the pleasure of discovery in situ. We use our phones to look up that name on the tip of our tongues, rather than exercising our brains by teasing it out.
Last weekend the cover story of this magazine asked how much is too much when it comes to kids and screen time. Reading it, I felt both smug and fearful. My children aren't allowed screens in their bedrooms, nor before or after school. And yet when my husband and I are tired or grumpy it's a free-for-all, great swathes of our children's lives consumed by the computer/iPad/TV. It occurred to me, though, that in some ways it's us, their parents, with the problem, only there's no one to tell us to get off that bloody screen.