Disconnecting, disappearing

March 1, 2014

photo 1Sometimes 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:

Day three

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 …

Day four

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.

Day five
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’. 

and this:

‘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.


  1. You might have been reading my mind, Charlotte. I, too, feel a relentless, low-level exhaustion, interspersed with frothing rage, brought on by what I read in the papers and watch on the TV. My old man and I have turned away almost completely from the evening news – it quickens the pulse and renders us into a state of babbling anger each time we watch it. So we turn up the music instead most nights – loudly – to 11 sometimes. Cooking also helps. And walking the dog. It’s hard not to be demoralised on a daily basis by FB calls to action – and how ever more impotent they tend to make one feel, no matter how many petitions signed, or how many horrific images and stories shared to the already-converted. Enjoy your country calm, Charlotte. Lovely to have you back on this blog – food or no food, Sally

  2. love this Charlotte…

  3. Yes.

    Susan Wyndham’s lovely thoughtful piece on David Malouf also gave me pause for thought.

    You tell the truth Charlotte. That is great.

    Glad you have a spacious week.

  4. I’m currently reading a new book called Overwhelmed (Brigid Schulte) which is about the overwhelming sense of busyness in our lives these days. Technology is part of it but not all; it’s also about how we *feel* about time – turns out this is more important than how much actual time a task takes in determining how busy we feel. It’s a fascinating read. Anyway, a couple of facts from the book that tie in to the discussion above so thought I would share:
    1, if people are interrupted (by an SMS say) it can take up to 5 minutes to fully regain concentration on the original task
    2, a study showed office workers only achieve an average of 28 minutes of uninterrupted concentration a day (shocking at first but I think it’s probably accurate for my job. Open plan certainly doesn’t help!)

  5. Thanks kids. Wow Girlbooker that is incredible. 28 minutes! But I totally believe it. It’s what my friend Alison (who I’ve done some interviews with for writers) calls ‘fragmentia’ and she reckons it’s at the heart of a huge amount of stress in people’s lives (www.amindofonesown.com).

    Sally, you put it SO much better than I did. That’s it, exactly – the calls to action and the impotence and the sharing of outrage and distress among the converted. Thank you for articulating it.

    And thanks to everyone for comments in general here and the welcome the other day. Gee it’s nice to be back here. xxx

  6. Reblogged this on ulithorne and commented:
    When vintage comes around each year, and increasingly the moments in between, I too feel necessity (it feels beyond desire) to withdraw. Perhaps it is natural, the need to pull into yourself in order to focus and create your best work, but like Charlotte’ reflections below, it is also borne of a feeling of being overwhelmed by the excess noise and clutter. It’s easier to see these times in a rhythm of creativity, and then it feels tight to withdraw, rather than feeling as though you’ve just abandoned your conscious world!

  7. Thanks for your post Charlotte. I totally relate to what you are saying and have the same need to disconnect and disappear from the world and to have some space and time to reflect and let new ideas come in. Thank you.

  8. I too can relate!
    You know that word we love for this condition,Charlotte: crowdyhead? That is me. This year I made a resolution to socialise less, to try and be more focussed and productive as well as to absorb less media. And I am doing both but the frothing rage Sally expresses so eloquently still occurs and I get an attack of the guilts about stepping away from citizenship.

    I have picked one campaign for the year ( Jock Palfreeman, the young Australian jailed in Bulgaria, a case that has disturbed me since I first became aware of it,) as that is all I can manage in terms of time and not feeling spread even more thinly. I think this government is banking on us all trying to fight on all fronts- i.e. the environment, .asylum seekers, healthcare, education, the ABC, and they know we will exhaust ourselves. I really admire people who are able to juggle work, family and political commitment ( where does Tara Moss get her energy, I want me some of that! )

    Great conversation!

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