Sometimes I feel that life is a constant struggle between the obligation to participate in society – as a citizen with education and privilege and the responsibility that goes along with it – and the desire to disconnect completely, and burrow deep into one’s own life and head and the sanctuary of home and friends and safety. This week’s revelations about the horror of Manus Island and our successive governments’ instigation and approval of it has just deepened my desire for quietness and separation from the outside world. And, of course, silence and inaction is complicity. I know. I’ve done the minimum, like everybody else: signed petitions, expressed sorrow and rage. Nothing changes, the despair goes on.
Sometimes, a sabbatical from citizenship is the only thing that will return my equilibrium. This week, that means taking leave of absence from Facebook (quite some time ago I deleted my personal Twitter account), sinking down, going quiet. And yes, I realise the irony of talking about this here, in blogland – but somehow this space has always felt different, and quietly comforting, to me.
This morning I was reminded of the week I took off all ‘connected’ technology last year, which I wrote about for Good Weekend magazine – you can read it here. Rereading this diary of disconnection just now, I was suddenly urgently desiring of that quiet, private space it opened up in me. Here are a few bits of it:
I’m growing used to this luxurious, expansive sense of time. But without the interruptions of email and social media, or stray minutes scooting around the internet in search of some small fact, this intensity of focus is actually a little wearing. I’m embarrassed: as a novelist, I thought I was used to long stretches of hard concentration, but it seems I’m much scattier than I realised.
On the plus side, I’m reading much more than usual: long, uninterrupted hours of peaceful reading during the day. It feels indulgent and blessed, like a return to childhood …
My email-avalanche fear is building. But I rationalise that there can’t be more than 10 really urgent ones to deal with – if anything drastic was happening, people would surely phone. I’m realising how needy I am. Maybe it’s not a fear of being pursued, but the opposite: what if, instead of hundreds of claims for my attention when I return, there are none? What if nobody has even registered my absence?
Then two “emails” from bemused friends arrive – by snail mail. One is actually a printed-out email stuck to a postcard. The other, a chatty note from a friend across the city, is addressed to me c/- Luddites R Us. I’m enormously cheered, for with my newfound privacy has come a subtle kind of loneliness. I miss the breezy chatter and fleeting thoughtfulness that email and social media allow. I’ve never believed the internet forces people away from meaningful connection, and I’m relieved to find that belief unshaken. Online talk doesn’t replace in-person friendship; it’s another way of expressing and exploring it, in ways that are rich and varied, funny and real.
Floored by a savage head cold, I have to cancel coffee with my sister-in-law. Years of SMS arrangements seem to have eradicated my sense of telephone etiquette: when is it too early or too late to phone? A straight-out call seems intrusive. What a strange place I’ve got to.
Settling back into the yawning hours of privacy, I feel a little less like I’m wagging school, and more like I’ve been suspended. Will I ever see my friends again?
For the first time in years, I find myself actually reading the daily newspaper, and watching entire news bulletins at night. When I buy a printed magazine for the first time in 12 months, I realise that some of what I’m missing is not actual communication, but a kind of idle entertainment. Without the internet, most of my hours are spent with my mind fully occupied. I see now that the web, social media – even email – must provide me with a sort of twilight half-engagement. I thought I was an energetic, attentively focused sort of person. To discover how much mental laziness I possess is unsettling.
I don’t know whether it’s cause or effect, but I do know there’s a relationship between that laziness and the skittery, skating kind of feeling I get when there’s too much outside world coming in. But one of the best cures, the most solace, is to be found in writing. Other people’s, I mean, though a certain kind of calm does come back to me when I’m also fully engaged in my own.
Today this solace has come from reading Susan Wyndham’s beautiful, gentle, delicately wrought profile of writer David Malouf, a man who has always seemed to me to embody thoughtfulness. I was somehow heartened and calmed by this:
He knows his measured views can annoy more outspoken people, but he believes a writer should be open-minded, curious, doubtful, able to slip into other skins – ‘a person who is in two minds about everything, and when he’s given it a bit of thought finds that he’s in six minds about it’.
‘We don’t really understand other people’s lives, because the events we see are not the significant ones. What you’re interested in writing about are those unrevealed things that have shaped the course of people’s lives.’
Maybe one of the problems I have with all the anger at public policy now is the great weariness I feel in knowing we are all so certain of everything. I’m absolutely certain our Prime Minister is wrong, on almost everything, and he’s just as certain that I’m wrong. The space between we just fill with noise, and rage, and despair.
So. Back to books, and Malouf’s decision as a young man to leave Australia for Italy.
‘I wanted to go somewhere where I could sit down quietly and discover what else I had to write, if anything.’
Next week I’m going somewhere, to the place in the picture above in fact, to sit down quietly and discover the same thing. I feel calmer already.