Two and a half years ago, I took a leave of absence from law school while my life was in a dark moment of transition. There I was, awkwardly standing in a fleet of leaders at the US Conference of Mayors, when out of nowhere Arianna Huffington appeared to tell me how much she liked my jacket. After that conversation, Arianna offered me the opportunity of a lifetime, which was my own little space in the Huffington Post to share my ideas.
Since then, my life has improved exponentially, and I have the job of my dreams doing research and writing stories for several publications that empower victims of unimaginable horrors who cannot speak for themselves. Thus, when Arianna came to Tufts University [my alma mater] to speak last spring, it was essential for me to take the day off from work and seize the opportunity to say thank you to her. On my way in the door, I purchased a copy of Arianna's new book, Thrive, which she signed for me as I nervously fumbled words while trying to explain in a small moment to her how much her act of kindness had meant to me and so many others.
Arianna's latest book held for me many valuable insights about the power of a moment in time, that sleep is more valuable than caffeine and the false appearance of productivity, and the need to turn off our devices and tune into ourselves. And I remember thinking to myself that things like the "Unplugged Challenge" are the types of insights and activities people can afford to participate in after they have already made it big and struck it rich. Until I actually did it, and it did change my life for the better in ways I never imagined possible.
For me, turning off my phone during Fourth of July weekend was not necessarily voluntary so much as a product of a value decision that came down in favor of life's essentials. It was the week before my son left for sleepover camp, and I needed things like the rent paid and groceries, I needed to take my child on the birthday camping trip in Maine I had already paid for last winter, and I needed to follow through with my commitment to host and train Milo [a young man affiliated with a child advocacy nonprofit who had flown out from California that week]. The phone I just wanted and could survive without. So I just didn't pay the bill for two weeks.
Funny things started to happen when you shut your phone off, one of them being that you discover how long it would take the people in your life to notice if [God forbid] you suddenly dropped dead one day in your own home. The other thing that happens is that you see more of people's faces and become more aware of the people who are in your life, and how much quality time you spend with them.
Since the day my son was conceived, I have known my child better than I know myself. My child is my satellite, and I can feel his energy around me no matter where he is in the universe. All of my achievements in life have only come about because of my eternal quest to please my son, to improve our corner of the universe and make him proud of me. We have shared many laughs together because he knows how much I hate ice cream, yet while I was pregnant I used to eat it all the time because I knew from the enthusiastic acrobatics I could feel him performing inside me as a gesture of thanks that he loved the taste. To this day, ice cream is the only dessert I consistently keep in the house because my child loves it and there is no risk that I will be the one eating it.
During that Fourth of July weekend, it felt amazing to walk down the beach in Maine with my child where my attention was 100-percent present in the moment, skipping rocks across the surf. We held a fishing derby in a small pond in the woods for several hours where we caught nothing but laughs and a few tree branches.
Yet as I watched my child and his friends on the beach, I could not take my eyes off them for a number of reasons, one of them being that my son kept looking back at me to see if I was paying attention, then he would smile and wave to me to let me know he was having fun. It was then that I realized the reason why my child did this so frequently that afternoon was that he was not used to catching my gaze, and that consequently, I had probably missed a lot of those moments.
I want you to know that there are tears streaming down my face as I write this. What breaks my heart is that all my son was asking me for was to see my smile, to please me with a gesture of his own happiness and to encourage me to be happy with him. He wanted something so badly that was small and reasonable, which is why I now deeply regret my past choices to give my gaze and approval to a 5 inch x 2.3 inch. hunk of plastic connected to people who were not there instead of him. Who ever I was probably texting last summer at the beach could not possibly have needed or appreciated me nearly as much as my child does.
Over time, what happened was that my investment in a noisy hunk of plastic created a crisis in values, which I then imposed upon my child because I kept sending the wrong message to my son about how much I valued the things that are important to him. A year ago, the highlight of his day was probably the hug I gave him after he successfully skipped a rock seven times across the surface of the water, but did I miss this event while texting then lie and tell him I saw it to save myself the moment it would have taken to look up and see it first hand for myself?
The truth is I don't know the answer to that question, but I knew then that I could not buy or steal back the privilege of viewing the moments my son loved so dearly that he would rehash the story of the rock 50 times to ensure that if I hadn't seen it, I still wouldn't forget it.
The other realization I came to while watching my son play with his friends at the beach was that it was not too long ago that all of these kids were literally the size of a footballs, and now they were old enough to flirt with each other. When I offered my son ice cream, he ran off on the girl he was talking to, then returned to share it with her. On one hand I was touched by my son's kind spontaneous gesture, but how many moments like this did I realistically have left before I was too "uncool" to hang out with my child and his friends?
Actually, that moment had already passed the year before when my son met that girl and explained to me in not so many words that I was the most embarrassing mother on a beach full of parents who were mostly happily graying hippies wearing tie dye shirts. The only reason my son allowed me to watch the Fourth of July fireworks with him this year was that the girls he flirted with that insisted I stay. But it was not because I was suddenly "the cool mom" again, it was that these girls were trying to impress my little mamma's boy by currying my favor.
This is in itself a terrifying reality for any mother to face, but the worst part was actually that I knew by then that how decoratively useless I was because the kids would have been just as safe and happy if I had chosen to sit 20 feet away. And when I had outlived my usefulness, they all went and got slurpies with my money, then came back and sat somewhere else. But my son still kept looking back at me to see if I was watching, and sometimes he would dash over to give me a hug if I was lucky.
Cooking meals from scratch is something I love to do because it is one of the most important ways to show people, particularly little boys, that you love them. Yet when I got I it became abundantly clear that had slacked off on shopping and meal preparation. Ironically, it was only without the possibility of a phone dragging me away that I was able to make my son some fantastic meals before I dropped him off at camp in New Hampshire last weekend.
Sending my son to Man Camp used to be a break for me, but this year was different. After I watched my son scamper off into the woods so happy to be with his friends, I rushed to the car because I did not want ruin his moment by letting him see me cry. As I drove away, there was no one I could talk to because I still didn't have a phone.
On the way home, I stopped Wolfgang's Pizza and asked if I could get a slice to go for the long drive. The guy at the counter said "Usually yes, but I am working alone today and it's after the lunch hour when we sell pizza by the slice." He actually was about to dash and see what he could offer, when I realized I didn't have to rush off, I could order what ever I wanted. And thankfully I did because that Greek pizza was the best pizza I have ever had. Since I didn't have my phone, pacing the floor impatiently while it was made was not an option, so I read a magazine at a table instead. When the man handed it to me, we had this moment where he asked me if I was surprised how quickly he had made the pizza, and when I thanked him I saw a huge smile come across his face that I likely would have missed just a few weeks before if my phone when my phone was still in service.
How many people have over the years gone out of their way to be kind to me, but I never noticed because I was on the phone?
On the way home, I thought about many of the relationships I no longer maintained, and stopped to say hello to old friends without calling first. Though it is taboo to do this, you would not believe how happy these friends were to see me after so many years.
Although I never told anyone the reason why my phone was off, by the time I arrived home, there were emails waiting for me from people who had heard through the grapevine that I was disconnected and who wanted to help me. Someone I barely knew had already gone and bought me a phone that was way better than anything I have ever owned. Most of the people who reached out were victims whose lives I had touched through stories I had written, and but the offer that surprised me most, the most generous offer, came from someone who I had written off years ago after many epic battles which produced no victories for anyone. It was a moment of healing for us that was long over due. You all know who you are, and I am so grateful to you for reminding me of the goodness that exists in my world.
Lastly, thank you Arianna for everything you have done for me and the wisdom you shared which has allowed me to better appreciate the wonderful world my son and I share.