On Being Present

Blackberry Photograph

‘I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair

That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.

Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not. ‘

Excerpt from Seamus Heaney’s ‘Blackberry-Picking’.

On a recent holiday, my iPhone died an abrupt death. While other phones chirped and squeaked into life as we waited at the baggage carousel, mine refused to turn on. When it finally did  flicker to life, I had few precious minutes to check my emails before it faded to unresponsive black. Staring at the now piece-of-junk in my hands, my thoughts turned from ‘what’s wrong with my phone!’ to ‘what’s wrong with me?’ There I was, on a sun-soaked balcony in a little Spanish town crying out to be explored, the beauty of its Old Town laid out before me like feast but instead of looking out or up, I was tethered to a fancy plastic box.

My predicament isn’t unique. It’s the subject of countless editorials, articles, probably even a Ted Talk.  Anybody given to the slightest bit of introspection has probably found themselves wondering about our fascination with and addiction to technology. Because it is an addiction, this compulsion to be plugged in at all times, to converse or ‘connect’ with people we wouldn’t recognize in the street,  the creeping suspicion that our lives don’t matter unless we are sharing them at all times in 140 characters or less.

After about twenty-four hours, I forgot about my phone and everything that goes with it. Time slowed down. My brain rewired itself. I recorded things the old fashioned way, with words and photos I would actually get developed. Sometimes, the only recording I did was in my mind. It was enough.

The passing of Seamus Heaney was a gut-punch. His poetry illuminated the sublime in the so-called ‘everyday’. By being present to notice the little things, Heaney created work that brought and will forever bring joy and hope to so many. As Kurt Vonnegut beautifully put it, ‘enjoy the little things in life for one day you’ll look back and realise they were the big things.’

 There is magic in the simple act of paying attention.

In the mad dash to digitize our lives as we live them, are we actually enjoying them? Are we noticing what really matters? Or are we locking ourselves into a cycle of perpetual distraction, half-living, always vaguely anxious, too busy recording our memories to live them fully?

We’re not going to stop having this discussion anytime soon but if you’d like some food for thought on the matter, We Live In Public is a fascinating documentary on Internet pioneer Josh Harris, who was convinced the way forward for the Internet was mass sharing and recording of our lives. Good call, Josh. Zan McQuade’s essay ‘Has the job of remembering been outsourced to the Internet?’ raises interesting questions about collective memory and how we store our personal histories.

One last thing…

When you write (with the phone and Internet off, naturally) you indulge in some pretty antisocial habits: daydreaming, weird timekeeping, drinking alarming amounts of tea or wine, depending on the day or the deadline. So, it is really nice to get a little recognition in the real world for your endeavors. On that note, I’m delighted to be on a shortlist of ten writers for the Penguin/RTÉ Guide Short Story Competition 2013 and also, I’m delighted to be on the long list for the 2013 Over The Edge New Writer Award. Scribble, scribble, scribble. When the writing force is strong within you, that’s all a gal can do.

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