Space

Weekdays, I can count on three emails in my inbox. One is the New York Times Daily Briefing, which, on good days, I read with care. The second is from theSkimm, also a daily news summary and which again, on good days, I read with care.

And the third is from Merriam-Webster: their Word-of-the-Day. They give me the word itself in the subject line, but I have to open the email to find out what it means. Every day it’s a small contest for me: Do I know this word, or must I read the email to find out? It’s a win-win.

Recent words I have already known: “abide,” “sensibility,” “delegate,” “grandiose.” Recent words I haven’t: “thimblerig,” “vanward,” “manticore,” “yegg,” and “hachure.”

Thursday’s word was “veld,” and I knew it instantly, but opened the email anyway because the word made me happy.

And then I saw I was wrong. I do know the word “veld,” but I had confused it with something else.

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All of this is done from my phone, usually standing at the kitchen counter where I have left it overnight. These three emails, as I have said, are always in my inbox on weekdays, but invariably there are others, and more accumulate over the course of the day.

I typically read these three and the most pressing others immediately, but the rest have the tendency to languish, as I hate dealing with email on my phone.

Instead, I use it for other things, like texting and browsing Instagram, looking up recipes, listening to sermons and podcasts, getting directions, looking at Facebook, and, occasionally, talking with people.

I am busy with my phone a lot.

***

My error with “veld” was the vowel. I read it and thought it was “vald,” which is German for forest–and that should have made me realize my error immediately, because Merriam-Webster’s words of the day are English words, and the English word for “forest” is, well, “forest.”

But it’s indicative of my problem with words that I immediately thought it was “vald,” because words are such delightful and heady things for me. I think my brain stands ready on the instant to be taken with a word, and this is what happened on Thursday morning as I (this time) sat in the sunshine on our front steps eating my granola and checking my email. I think, subconsciously, I wanted the word to be “vald.”

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Recently a friend told me about an article she’d read about phone addiction. Apparently, people go to therapy for phone addiction. They go to rehab.

I found this unsettling. And then understandable. After all, we have been warned. I am sure you’ve noticed it yourself, and then there are articles galore (this recent one on rehab among them) about our walking, heads bent to our phones; our waiting, heads bent to our phones; our eating in restaurants with–you know–heads bent to our phones.

There is much of excellent value on the phone, right? Recipes and news updates are only some of the many worthwhile resources at our fingertips. And in many ways, social media are among the best of these. When seeing a friend at the gym, I love being able to ask about her recent trip to the beach–something I enjoyed tangentially through her posts to Instagram. I love my friends’ adorable dog (or cat) pictures, their children’s grins or artwork, even a shot of that amazing meal they ate last night.

But a ten-second plunge into the world of Instagram (or Twitter or Facebook) can find me surfacing twenty minutes later, completely unaware I’d been under for so long–and completely unaware, during that plunge, of the world immediately around me.

***

I think I wanted the Merriam-Webster Word-of-the-Day to be “vald” because I’ve known it first-hand. For three breath-taking months before we had children, Bill and I lived in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Our village was perched on the side of some foothills: smooth, mounding land maintained by grazing cows.

Above these pastures, between our village and the snow-covered mountains in the distance, stood the “vald.” Occasionally we would go walking here, following paths through the pastureland and then into the woods.

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Me and my beloved Swiss neighbor and friend Susanne, heading into the vald.

The air is different inside. Snow-covered or roofed and shot through with green, the trees stand very tall and close together. One has a sense of the forest’s vastness: any direction looks very much like another, and its ceiling– the green boughs of trees– is both vaulting and enclosed. I found it beautiful for its silence, for the impression of being hidden and secret. One can have the sense of being submerged there. One can plunge into it, if you will.

Several fairy tales take place in the vald, remember? Children get lost in it. It is beautiful and also, often, very dark.

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***

I decided to put a new app on my phone to help me track how much I use it. The app, interestingly, is called “Space,” and it started with a brief questionnaire to determine what kind of phone-user I am (fighting boredom? getting side-tracked? plumbing rabbit-holes?) and then offered me a time limit.

I think it’s first suggestion was about two hours. It offered me two+ hours and 50 unlocks daily–both of which seemed too much to me. So I dialed it down. My goal is an hour max on the phone and unlocking it, over the course of the day, no more than 30 times.

Now the app will occasionally and briefly let me know how long I’ve been on it and how many times I’ve unlocked it already in a day. This is annoying when I’ve unlocked it 20 times because of an extended family-text conversation (“I had to,” I want to tell it). And it’s frustrating that minutes accumulate both during a 40-minute conversation with my parents and a ten-minute indulgence on Facebook. But it’s good to know when I’m just unlocking it to peruse Instagram–which I know I could conceivably and thoughtlessly do for a Long Time.

***

Thursday’s Merriam-Webster Word-of-the-Day was “veld,” which is an English word but which comes from Afrikaans, which comes from Dutch, which is related to German (so–maybe–my confusion?). And, interestingly, it also names a type of landscape–but it is one that is, perhaps, the direct opposite of a “vald.”

The veld is open grassland with the occasional shrub or tree, and it pertains specifically to such landscapes as found in southern Africa. But it may also be used freely of similar landscapes in other parts of Africa. I have found, for example, that it can and has been used of Kenya. The veld is a grassland, a prairie.  A savannah, if you will.

***

I would like to think that using my phone connects me with others. And it does (see the aforementioned notes about friends’ photos on Instagram– and there are those occasional and delightful Facebook conversations that can include input from multiple circles of my life).

But there is a dark interior world, I find, when it comes to my phone use. One that, on the surface, looks like it’s about other people and connecting with them, but that ultimately isn’t. What is it, I wonder, about this near-interaction that gets me turned in on myself, that has me thinking about me in comparison with others, that finds me (sometimes) less genuinely loving and more critical than I otherwise might be–than I want to be?

I would like to think that my phone is a gateway to life outside myself. Often it is. And often enough, it’s the opposite.

***

Once, when our children were ten, eight, and six, we spent some time in the Kenyan veld. It was the tail-end of a trip to Nairobi. My husband had started a music festival for a non-profit in a slum near the city, and he wanted to take our children there to see what we were supporting: the excellent work of the Kenyan woman who started it and the people who worked there and were served by it.

This trip to a developing nation didn’t come at what felt like a good time to me. I had just finished an exhausting first year back to teaching, and we were at the airport at six the next morning. At that time, no one from our church had taken such young children there, and I had been warned it might be dangerous. And fatigue played its tricks on me: despite our capable and experienced leadership, I was very anxious about safety.

But it was an amazing trip. Our children played with and enjoyed the children at Beacon of Hope, and I was befriended and taught to weave by women who worked there. It was an eye-opening experience for all of us, a chance to know and understand how different others’ lives can be–and also how much the same.

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An eight-year-old Everett with some new-found friends in Kware, Nairobi

 

This was two years before we had Facebook accounts. The first iPhone had only been released the year before. Instagram didn’t exist yet. And we spent the entire sixteen days with our heads up, our eyes and ears open, alive to the experiences immediately around us.

It didn’t fully register with me until we were on the Masai Mara that a safari was the planned rest and debriefing at the end of our trip–and that a safari had always been, since I was maybe sixteen, on my proverbial bucket list.

***

The easiest course, obviously, is to rid myself of the distraction. I should lose the phone.

But it isn’t the phone’s fault, and neither is it the fault of the friend on Instagram. The fault lies with me, not in what I see but in the way I see it, in what I think about and how I think about it, in what fills my mind, my imagination, my heart– regardless of the phone and long after the phone is turned off, put away, abandoned to the kitchen counter for the night.

***

The sky above the lodge was dark as we made our way up the hill. We were still waking up, pulling on extra layers and rubbing our eyes. Behind us our white tents glowed dimly among trees and low-growing plants, while ahead of us shone the lodge, surrounded with more cultivated vegetation. The whole resort was sculpted lawn, shining pool, manicured gardens. During the day and tucked in our tents at night, we felt like we were in the jungle. We lay awake fearing and a little bit hoping that we would hear the lions.

The touring trucks came for us just before daybreak, when the animals on the savannah would likely be feeding. We boarded them but didn’t sit down, holding on instead to the open framework of the trucks, already leaning into the cool Kenyan morning air.

We were there for only three nights, and this was our practice, early morning and evening, five times over the course of that stay.

How many times is enough? We never tired of it: driving away from the lodge in the near-dark, eyes wide and watching. We were looking for herds of elephants and zebra, for the mythical, long-necked giraffes. We wanted to see wildebeests in the wild and the graceful Thompson gazelles, the spotted cheetah all a blur as she chased her prey. We hoped for lions lolling along the dirt road, for a glimpse of a rhino–even if this only came from a distance.

But first we had to drive away from the lodge and the jungle of green that surrounded it. We had to go into the veld.

 

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