one month later...

Judith. Probably on her way to dig up and destroy something I planted.

Judith. Probably on her way to dig up and destroy something I planted.

The first fear I had about leaving social media was that if I went off-line, I would disappear. Fourteen years ago, I was homeschooling, raising four children, deep into the years when it is easy to feel you exist only to make other people’s lives run smoothly. On top of that we had a child with intense behavioral needs. We couldn’t leave him home, we couldn’t take him to other people’s homes. We were stuck. I often felt trapped and lonely. I desperately wanted to be seen and understood. I’d married young, skipped college, had children early; I was in a slow fall-out with church and religion which had previously been a constant in my life. I didn’t know anyone doing what I was doing every day, no one who thought the way I did.

Then I found blogging.

I discovered that writing helped me order my life, helped me process the hardships and joys. And eventually, it helped me find other people. The relationships I made became a lifeline for me for over a decade, seeing us through the hardest times of our lives. I found my voice, I found my calling, I found friendships - all because of the online world. I can honestly say my time online changed my whole life for the better. At some point, however, the balance tilted, and the online world (social media in particular) began to feel like less of a lifeline and more of an anchor. I told a friend recently, Instagram et al, began to feel like I’d moved into the dorms and was never going to be able to move out again. I thought about this for several years, going back and forth. On the one hand, instant connection, beauty, friendships. On the other, this deep knowledge that I was cheating myself from something more. That I was frittering away time and energy that I didn’t have to waste. It took a long, long time before I was brave enough to hit that delete button and face what it meant.

After that decision in June, it took a couple of weeks before the emails slowed down and the conversations began to die out. Every day, things are a little more quiet. It was disconcerting at first. By the third week, I lost all motivation to work. What was the point? No one was reading. No one knew if I was writing or not. I moved around my house in a fog for several days, feeling forgotten, useless, questioning my whole life. It finally hit me that this was what withdrawal feels like, my brain searching eagerly for some instant affirmation, a little hit of dopamine to assure myself I exist, people like me. Once I realized what was happening, I could begin facing those feelings and dealing with them.

“We must do our work for its own sake,” says Stephen Pressfield, and I’m just beginning to understand what that means. My inner self knew all along…if I want to go deeper, to discover what I am capable of, I need to move on. I need to do it alone, just me and the page, me and the work, me and the fear. But I also needed that beginning place, that safe space in which to find myself, to try out words, ideas, to make connections and understand possibilities. A month later, I’ve quit thinking of social media as a waste of my time. I feel grateful, and more gracious toward all of it, but I also feel more confident that its usefulness in my life has passed. I’m visible. I exist. I’m writing.(Even slow-blogging again!) I’m connecting with good people. I’m happy. And I can’t wait to see what comes next.

My advice now? Do what’s right for you. You’re the only one who knows what you really need. (And don’t be afraid to move on when the time comes. It’s all good!)

Love to you, friends.

tonia

Why I'm deleting my Instagram account for good.

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When I begin this post, I’m sitting by the window in a little cabin that Mark and I have rented to celebrate our anniversary. We’re on the west side of the Oregon Coast Range tucked against the edge of the woods. Down the road and over the highway, the Pacific Ocean rides its tides back and forth across the shoreline leaving a tumble of broken shells and Barnacle-encrusted Mussels in its wake. Here in the cabin, I look over a meadow, a fringe of Spruce and Hemlock. Everything has softened into the deep green glow of dusk.

Whenever we go away together, we try to leave the electronics behind as much as possible and though I confess to an occasional email check, this day has stretched itself out deliciously slow. We’ve hiked, read, ate, talked, napped, poured over field guides, until I feel the kind of deep satiety that comes from having stretched my faculties to the furthest reaches of the given hours. Now, while evening settles in, I’m here at this window, head full of words, spiral notebook and pen, the soft tick of the wind, the crack of fire in the woodstove.

Sometime after I get back from this trip I will delete my Instagram account once and for all. I deleted Facebook a couple of years ago, right after the election, horrified by the roaring train of anger it unleashed in me, the fracturing of relationships, the things I can’t unsay, and the things I can’t unknow about others. When the time came, I had no doubts about deleting Facebook; it was obviously not good for me. But Instagram is a little different. My experience there has been gentler, more encouraging. I like taking pictures, I like sharing quick thoughts (which feels more like chatting with friends through the day) and I like the people I have made relationships with. Still, it is time to go, and as promised, I will share my reasons why here.

**

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Instagram (and social media) requires my discontent:

Creating need in the user is an important part of social media’s success. Need for stimulation, novelty, ideas, approval, connection, and products is what keeps us going back again and again. The problem is there is no satisfaction point. The more I see, the more I want, the more I see that others have, the more I want, the more I share what I have and receive approval, the more I want. One of the first things that happens when I unplug from Instagram is a shift in my perception about my life: I’m happier with my home, my relationships, my work, and my appearance. Real contentment is the antidote to corporate manipulation and consumerist culture, but I can’t expect to have it while I’m using corporate/consumerist tools.


Instagram is distracting me all the time:

I won’t spend a lot of time on this because although it is a major factor in my decision-making, everyone knows this for themselves. It is time for me to just quit pretending I will ever be able to stick with the “moderation” route. No matter how I try to control it, eventually I will be picking up my device throughout the entire day “just checking.” There is no middle ground for me. (Since I quit looking at Instagram, I still unconsciously pick up my phone randomly and check the weather app. Still working on that addiction to novelty.)


Instagram is changing the way I work:

Nicholas Carr, in his 2010 book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, talks about the ways tools shape our brains. When the typewriter was invented, writers quickly adopted it for its speed and efficiency, but it wasn’t long before people noticed the structure of their sentences was changing too.

“One of Neitzche’s closest friends…noticed a change in the style of his writing…[his] prose had become tighter, more telegraphic. There was a new forcefulness to it, too, as though the machine’s power was, through some mysterious metaphysical mechanism, being transferred into the words it pressed into the page.”

Fr. John Culkin said, “We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and then they shape us.”

It’s possible that the typewriter made Neitzsche into a better writer, but I have not found that true for the social media tools I am using. Instagram was designed for images with short captions. Even though I used it for micro-blogging and put up longish posts regularly, I still found that the nature of the space - requiring frequent postings and tailored for quick engagement - was encouraging me to write too fast, too often, and too brief. A good skill set if I want to master social media or possibly online journalism, but not a good skill set for a novelist. (And not a good skill set for being a modern human, if we’re honest.) Over time I realized I was losing my inability to sit with an idea and think deeply about it, let alone write slowly and subtly about it. I am being inevitably shaped by the tool I am using the most often.


Instagram is not productive:

To be successful, an author needs a committed base of readers. I originally believed that in order to publish, I needed to gain a good number of followers on multiple platforms. (This may be important for a certain kind of writer, artist, or business owner, I don’t know.) But the truth is, at this point, even when my follower number grows on social media, I still only engage with about 200-300 people. Instagram’s numbers look promising, but they are fairly insignificant. Most of those followers will not care if I publish a book and most will not buy it, so from a career-perspective, spending an inordinate amount of time (between creating content, commenting, and the addiction factor, it’s a ridiculous amount of time) building a following on Instagram is not efficient or productive for me.

I am not published yet, so I could be wrong about this, but I think the negatives outweigh the positives when it comes to my professional engagement on Instagram. Writers build relationships with readers by writing and sharing their work and that’s what I’m focused on now.


Instagram is not actually that fun (sorry!):

An experience I’ve had multiple times: I take a social media break. A week later, I come back, open the Instagram app and scroll through, excited to see what I missed… and nothing is going on. I’m forever astonished at how boring it all is. Even the posts I am usually excited about are not that interesting viewed with my dopamine-cleared brain. This phase usually lasts for a half a day or so before I succumb and return to being so fascinated by what is in my feed I can’t stop looking at it every hour. This is called addictive behavior, my friends. Instagram only gets fun when my brain releases the chemical to make me think it’s fun Ugh.


Instagram (owned by Facebook) is not a company I want to support:

Integrity matters to me. Corporate responsibility matters to me. Facebook/Instagram spies on us, co-opts our expertise and uses it for profit, sells our information to advertisers and political machines and manipulates our behaviors. It does not represent the kind of company that I would normally support and it’s time I quit doing it

Jaron Lanier has lots to say about this if you want to read more.


I like who I am without Instagram:

I like that I’m not taking pictures of everything I do. I like that I can just have a thought and not share it right away. I like that I am not distracted from personal relationships. I like that I don’t know everything my friends are doing already so I want to go out more, have dinner, real conversations. I like how focused I am. I like how I can sit and be quiet without a device nearby. I like that there is space in my thoughts for more than, “I wonder if anyone posted/commented/messaged…” I like the freedom I feel. I like the way my brain and body feel. I like that my experiences are my own. I like that I’m not feeling inadequate or left out. I like that I’m not part of the crisis/reaction cycle that happens on social media. I like that I have all day to think about an event and not know anyone’s opinion about it until I have a real face to face conversation. I like that I can make an adult decision about what tools are right for me and which are not. I like how content and peaceful I feel. I like how my mind creates its own novelty and comes up with new solutions, new questions, new projects all the time.

Turns out, I’m interested, connected, focused, happy, and content, all on my own.

**

These are my reasons for leaving Instagram. We’re all in different places and different seasons, so don’t feel you need to justify your choices to me. I don’t judge anyone for using social media. This is just where I’m at now after many years of social media use. If you find something in this post that rings true for you, I hope you’ll feel empowered to really consider it and make the choice that’s right for you!

Peace keep you, friends!

rabbit and bone

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Night closes gently over the desert sky in a curtain of pink and amber.  The dark, when it comes, spreads slowly down, as if from the center of a dome, pushing at the last of the pale light, driving it into the horizon. Then the stars come out, hundreds of them, a sequined carpet unfurled against the blackness overhead.  In the middle of it all, the Milky Way, shimmering faintly, hinting at color - purple, blue, a thin shaft of gold.  There is almost no sound.  Somewhere out in the miles of open land around us there are creatures stirring, moths that flutter toward any hint of artificial light, coyotes after their rodent prey, cattle sighing and squirming, adjusting themselves to their prickly beds, but we hear none of it.  It is only the two of us, wrapped in blankets, puzzling out constellations in a whisper, watching for stars to fall.

It was my daughter’s idea to come.  A birthday gift, to write, to connect.  Out here we have no internet to call upon, no cell phones to hunch over.  There is each day, there is each other.

We write.  We read each other’s stories and talk through possible plot lines.  We agonize over edits and the stubbornness of characters. When the words begin to blur together, we go for walks. Together. Alone.

The cabin is perched on the high point of a rolling hill, from there, you can see the jackrabbit trails winding through the sagebrush. Down on the ground though, the trails are invisible.  I head out for a walk alone.  There is no destination to aim for, no obvious route to follow.  I keep the cabin in my sights and begin to wander.  After a half hour or so, I find an old dirt road.  It is criss-crossed with the tracks of dogs (or coyotes), the occasional set of elk prints.  No one has driven or walked it for a long time.  I follow it uphill to a barbed wire fence, then turn around and follow it downhill till I find another.  A mile away I can see the roof of the cabin shining in the sun.  I wave to it, wondering if my daughter is sitting on the porch, watching me amble around on roads that lead nowhere.  If I were doing this in the city, the French would have a word for me: flaneur - the stroller, the passionate wanderer.  Out here, I look more like a simpleton, coated in dust and sweat, stumbling into rabbit holes and over rocks, snagging my ankles on the prehistoric flora, walking uphill, then down.  But there is no one here but my daughter to see and she understands.  While I walk my mind unknots.  I can feel the muscles in my legs contracting and expanding, hear my breath pulling in and pushing out.  I am here.  I am alive.

Just off the highway on the way to the cabin, we’d seen a hand-lettered sign on the side of the road.  “Beetle-Cleaned Skulls For Sale,” it read.  We were fresh from the city, sealed into our speeding car, dust-free, oblivious.  We looked at each other and laughed.  Who would want a beetle-cleaned skull?  That was ages ago, when I was young.  The sun is just descending into the western half of the sky, the landscape stretching unvaried before me, sage and grey and yellow-brown.  I search the ground, confident that in this liminal space I will find some bleached white testimony of a former life - a tibia, a jawbone, a knot of vertebrae.  Memento mori.  What is life without the awareness of death?  I find  the brittle grey bones of the sagebrush, and they crumble beneath my feet.

When it is time to leave the cabin and return home, we stand in the doorway, reluctance making us heavy and slow.  We are unshowered, grit in every crevice; we’ve eaten endless bowls of beans and rice; we have no idea of what is going on in the world outside the desert. At home we will be warm and clean and well fed.  There will be stories to tell and hugs to give, but we do not want to go.

“Supposing you only saw the stars once every year. Think what you would think,” said Tasha Tudor.  I do not have to think very hard.  How long since I saw the stars as I did in the desert?  A year?  A decade?   How long since I felt silence deep as water, slipped bodily into the stream of slow time?  Long, so long.  We clean the cabin, load up the car, stand in the dust and look out over the hills one last time, then once more.  "The wonder of it!"  I am here.  I am alive.  I make no resolve save to place myself here again and again.

mentors: the body

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The quasi-Pentecostal world I grew up in was a world of the spirit, of feeling.  Our bodies were present of course – our legs carried us to church, our hands leapt skyward in worship, our voiceboxes grew hoarse with singing – but the body was only a container for the spiritual.  And it was easily led astray, easily tainted, and destined to be abandoned one day.  The idea that the body itself had wisdom,  that it, like the rest of the physical world held old echoes of order and knowledge, or thrummed with the power to guide the spirit, was completely foreign to me.

On top of that, I was a sedentary, bookish girl.  I got an F in the one Physical Education class I didn’t manage to avoid.  If ever there was a person disconnected from their own muscle and bone, it was me. The discovery of my body as a wise mentor has been a slow one.  I’m sure it began with a connection to foods and nutrition, but I think my real awareness came when I began to do yoga daily.   The quiet focus, intentional alignment, patient postures, slow breathing, all began to work on me, ironically, in a deeply spiritual way.  One morning, my online teacher said,  “Breathe deep, spread your arms wide, take up space,” and something clicked for me.  I could take up space in the world.  I didn’t need to apologize for my belief or unbelief, for my difference, for my feeling.  I could stretch my arms, speak out, inhabit the ground where I stood.  Trying to hold a balancing posture gave me an idea of how muscles can work in opposition, one leg pulling, the other pushing, but both aimed at creating a beautiful form, a powerful line.  It’s the embodiment of what I’m constantly facing with my work – the push of family against the pull of words.  Tension, the body is teaching me,  is not the enemy, but a friend.  The lessons are plentiful, and every time I roll out that mat, I learn more.

Yoga gave me confidence to push my body even further.  I took up running in January, something I’ve tried and given up on about every two years since high school.  But the strength and balance I found in yoga helped me confront the challenges of running in a new way.  And as I’ve stuck running out, my body has responded with more to teach me. For example, the beginning of a run is always terrible.  Every single time.  But it gets better, and thirty minutes later, I feel like the Queen of the World. Progress is made incrementally.  I’ve worked my way up from couldn’t-run-a-full-minute to three miles straight by going just a little further each day.  First I make it to that post, then the next day, the tree, the next day the stop sign.  It’s not that much different from writing a novel: press through the mental blocks, each day get a little distance, and the results will come.  I never saw it so clearly until I’d practiced it with my own legs and lungs.

As Jigar Gor, an Ayurvedic physician, says, “Yoga is not about touching your toes, it’s about what you learn on the way down.”  One of my most important mentors lives with me every single day and I'm pretty astounded by that.

I’ve got another couple mentors I want to share, so more to come.  Feel free to add your own thoughts about the body as a teacher, or to share the mentors you’re encountering in your own life.

As Adriene Mishler says, “The awesome in me bows to the awesome in you.”

reVision

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A few months ago I pulled out my journal and wrote:  I’m changing my life.  I’m not even sure I knew what I meant when I wrote it, I knew it didn’t mean anything earth-shattering, but I could sense a shift coming.  Every once in a while things just click into place and you find yourself moved from one space to the next.  Around that time I got rid of my smartphone. (Best decision I ever made, truly.) Since then, a friend and I started working our way through The Well-Educated Mind.  I really committed to running. I recalibrated my writing goals to make them both more consistent and more manageable.  I started outlining a new novel.  I let go of some restrictions I’d put on myself that weren’t serving a good purpose.  I got rid of time wasters (like watching Netflix/movies at home) that were cluttering my creative process.  I started working on projects I’ve been procrastinating for years.  Somehow, without thinking too much about it, I really did start changing my life.

*

For our anniversary, we rented a house overlooking a tidal bay on Puget Sound.  In the mornings, the sun shone off the water and osprey circled overhead, cormorants rode the low air streams.  Later in the day, the tide lifted its skirts and left a mudflat behind.  The herons moved in, dozens of them, joint and feather, long gray necks snaking into the silt to find clams, a luckless fish.  We made coffee on the stovetop, dark and gritty, sat by the big windows watching their strange high step across the muddy plain in fascination.  Hour after hour, water returned, the herons waded, their long legs disappearing inch by inch until they lifted their wings and fled.  The low lands filled in, the flat became a stream again, a river.

On the second day we slipped our kayaks into the high tide and paddled toward the ocean.  The air was scented with brine and rot, that particular tang of the sea.  Jelly fish floated around us, yellow, orange, a skirt of white – giant eggs poaching under the surface.  I have a bit of thalassaphobia. (I came to kayaking partly to confront that fear.)  So while my husband was delighted, I thought, oh my god, if jellyfish, what else is under there?  That’s all it took for the panic to rise up.

The value of being afraid in a kayak over a body of water is there’s nowhere to run.  I had to force my mind to reason, force my arms to paddle, my breath to slow.  It wasn’t long before the anxiety had passed and I had gained that small accomplishment, the vanquishing of a fear, to take with me for good.  It occurred to me later, tucked back into the house, scrubbed of sea salt and sweat, that changing your life in any way at all hinges on facing down fears.  (As a perfectionist, my fear often involves failure.  Better to never start something at all than to do a poor job, or to quit midway.)  You have to take yourself in hand and risk it.

Sometimes changing our lives though, is really about changing our thinking.  I turned 47 this month, and the last of our kids graduated high school in May.  Cue midlife angst. Halfway through your life the doors start closing.  For almost five decades I have made choices, traveled a path, and that creates natural limits.  For example, it doesn’t really make sense for me to go for that college degree at this point (too much money when I’m already doing what I love and don’t plan to change it.) And there are other things – big things I thought I wanted earlier in my life that are unlikely to happen now.  There’s fear involved with shutting those doors – will I get to my deathbed and regret?  (Probably not.)  But I’ve been working on facing those insecurities, redefining the idea of “success”, changing my language, being confident in the direction I have chosen for myself.  It takes just as much intentional work to do that as it did to paddle through a bay of jellyfish

.I’m someone who believes fully in the value of a small and focused life.  It’s a constant challenge to own that in a big, splashy, motion-forward culture.  I keep refining, letting go of the things that tangle me up, make me feel inadequate.  Some of those are outward things – the smartphone, social media, the television – but there’s an equal amount of self-talk, intangible expectations, perfectionism, and discontent that trap too.  If I’ve made a goal for 47 it’s to deal honestly with the interior struggles as well as the outer struggles.

June 19, 2018:  I’m changing my life. (Ongoing.)