Through the Looking-Glass

Through the Looking-Glass

My pastor says you can trap bees on the bottom of mason jars without lids, because they don’t look up. So they just walk around bitterly, bumping into the glass walls. Go outside. Look up. Secret of life.

-Anne Lamott

So there we were.
Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas (US Virgin Islands).
June, 2013.

If ever there was holy water, this was it.
A few of us had a bird’s eye view of minnows swimming gentle figure eights around our happy feet, as did the pelicans apparently (who swooped in from time to time for lunch). Technically, we were soldiers on a mission; so we could certainly appreciate the dive-bombing pelicans’ expert execution.
Some of us were soaking up sunbeams on the silky white sand beach that snuggled up to Magens Bay.
Every eardrum fondly embracing the echoes of steel drums wafting through the omnipresent island breeze (and whistling sweetly through the Calabash trees).
We were an Army Band, after all.

That same whispered wind was filling our nostrils with the scent of a harvest baptized in grill fire – a feast prepared with kind of loving grace that you can literally taste. Intoxicating aromas. Full-on food comas.
We ate and drank like queens and kings that day – really for the entire stay; our hosts (the Virgin Islands National Guard’s 73rd Army Band) had rolled out the ruby red carpet for us.
I remember stopping many times to look up at the friendly skies and give thanks. Somehow, we were in paradise playing music. Getting paid for an experience for which many would pay dearly – of which many more could only dream.
‘Surreal’ is what I’m saying.
I almost felt bad about it.
Almost.

However, I didn’t feel bad at all about not bringing my smart phone on the trip.  The flutist who had watched me put it in my glove compartment before we left base was dumbfounded. Offended, almost. He looked down at it and looked up at me.
“Man, you’re not taking your phone?”, he inquired.
“Nope.”, I replied.
“Won’t you miss stuff? Emails, texts, calls, gigs? What about emergencies?”, he said fearfully.
“We’ll be in St. Thomas”, I answered. “Can’t do much of anything for anyone here when we’re all the way out there. Besides – I just kind of want to take it all in. Be present, you know?”.
Granted, I had no family commitments of note in that season of life. No strings attached. I was single then.
So was he.
But he was not at all interested in my ‘unplugged’ philosophy.

An hour later, at 30,000 ft, I looked up and out the window, admiring the cloudless canvas. If memory serves, he spent most of the flight looking down at his cloud (his phone).
In his defense, he wasn’t alone. Not by any stretch.
Half the plane’s necks were craned toward their devices – their faces buried in their Facebook feeds. The stories of their Instagram lives. Swiping right and/or left. Snapping selfies for Snapchat. Tweeting. Playing ‘Angry Birds’. Scrolling. Trolling.

I observed this as much in the air as on the ground, long after we’d touched down in St. Thomas.
And this had become the view I was accustomed to in most of life – people plugged into things that were plugged in. No one looked up.
On planes, trains, and in automobiles. At restaurants, bars, concerts, sporting events, family gatherings, dates, classes, meetings, etc.
People were living their lives through glass walls – trapped almost; their electronics had become extensions of their bodies (and vice versa). Human androids, continually programmed by the latest update, upgrade, or upload of breaking news.
They dared not look up (or away) from their ‘looking-glasses’, as they lived in mortal fear of missing something.
And, ironically, from my vantage point, it seemed like they were missing everything.
Life.

I’d look up at a restaurant to notice the couple at the next table looking down silently – both souls swimming in their screens (for the entire meal). I could look up and around at almost any public place and see few (if any) faces. Mostly heads bowed, eyes glazed over, and fingertips tapping.
Folks frequently bumping into each other – because very few were looking up.
Too numb to be bitter.

To be clear, we had the time of our lives in St. Thomas.
It was all good. All love.
People were able to capture some truly lovely moments in time.
And I was also mindful of how much time was spent on phones taking pictures – as opposed to making pictures. And then uploading, posting, sharing, liking, tagging, etc.

I was mindful of the conversations in which questions sprung up organically, and were immediately looked up (and answered) via instantaneous Google search. Which often put a quick lid on any potential soul-searching. And left any sense of ‘wonder’ to wander away bitterly.
I often wonder if technology has gifted us convenience, while robbing us of the wisdom harvested through the ‘digging’ process.
Blinded the inner witness?

I’ll admit – I’m biased (and probably a little bitter).
I’m a poet. And a contemplative mystic, of sorts.
For me, one of the most beautiful things about a verse (poetry, scripture, song, etc) is its ability to paint a picture in language. To express an experience in a way that brings the reader’s imagination to life. To invite an innervision of evoked imagery – and light a transforming fire in the darkness.

Thanksgiving is upon us (almost).
I’m not telling you to leave your phones in your glove compartments if and when you gather with loved ones (that could cause much bitterness).
Take pictures. Even photos of your food, if you must. Video chat with your far-away beloveds. Livestream.
Do your thing.
I’m saying – while you’re doing all of that, look up. Look around. Take in the view. Give thanks. Wonder. Be present.
And also – maybe put a lid on your looking-glasses (your electronics) from time to time. From my perspective, you’ll miss far more with your head down than you will with your head up. Even the stuff you might prefer to miss, unfortunately.
Dare to unplug every now and then. Save a scene in the reservoir of your spirit, and live to tell the tale.
Dare to describe.

I suppose I could’ve just posted a picture here of my St. Thomas experience.
But would that really have been worth a thousand words?

In Your Eyes,
Anthony

2 Comments

  1. Karin A Remington

    Thank you for these words.

    I always remember a precious line from “Father of the Bride” (with Steve Martin): I’m paraphrasing, because it’s been awhile, but it was: “Dad, can’t you just pay really close attention? Please? Drop the camera, just pay attention.”

    My little girl, now 21, probably remembers her dad mostly with a camera in his face in her face. He was able to give her many photo/video clips, which is nice in a way. But not as many memories of her dad, because he was always the guy behind the camera.

  2. Gail M Thompson

    We eat out frequently and I am astonished by the number of diners who never talk to each other. Are they texting each other across the table? Half our language is nonverbal. How can we know the delicate meaning of what we hear? Not participating in social media does make me miss some things. Not enough to change my tune. Language, expression, tone, nuance is the music I want to hear. Thank you Anthony once again for reinforcing conversation.

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