I constantly feel pulled between two worlds: one where I'm hyper-connected and one where I'm not. I think about the space in our lives that we increasingly fill with texting, emailing, scrolling, pinning and liking, and I wonder: Is that space important to defend?
For me, the answer is yes. When I think about times I've felt most present and happy, I often think of the three months in 2011 I lived in Tokyo. You might assume I was hyper-connected (it was Tokyo, after all, and I was working at Google at the time), but I was almost completely unconnected. I didn't arrange for my personal cell to work internationally and I was given an ancient phone at work that I only used for emergencies because I couldn't be bothered with the translated menus. Also, it was a Japanese number and I knew no one besides my co-workers, so who was contacting me?
I spent all of my time outside of work wandering the city streets by foot, almost always with my phone turned off and at the bottom of my bag. There were no text messages, no maps, no calls, no apps and no playlists to connect me to anyone or anything. For the first time in my adult life, I was untethered.
You might think I spent a lot of time feeling lonely or lost or bored, but I felt sublimely happy and aware and excited. Though it did require a bit of planning on my part and a pocket sized map, I managed just fine.
In fact, I learned to enjoy my own company in a way I never had. Instead of fumbling for my phone on the metro when I was bored, I looked at the people around me. Instead of calling someone during my walk home to pass the time, I came to memorize details about each storefront along my route. I came to enjoy those times for what they were: moments to cherish, not voids to fill. Because of that, I remember the city in vivid detail. I remember the smell of ramen at one corner and the smell of delicate green tea matcha cakes at another. I remember the sounds of the rowdy expat bars in Roppongi, and I remember the way the Tokyo Tower glowed on my evening runs.
I remember one afternoon getting caught in a rain shower, a daily occurrence in Tokyo summers. I kept my pace slow, enjoying each warm drop that hit my face and admiring the endless sea of umbrellas bobbing around me. Three months prior, I would have sprinted for shelter and made sure my phone didn't get wet. But that day, like most days I spent in Tokyo, I felt a deep connection to the moment I was in and the place where I was.
You see, there is intimacy in being fully present in the moment, whether you're waiting for your train to arrive or standing in line at the grocery store. There is intimacy in sitting down for lunch across from a new friend and fully hearing what she is saying without being distracted by a text from someone else. There is intimacy in noticing strangers' faces as they walk past you because you're not looking at a little glowing screen. There is intimacy and grace, and peace, in experiencing what is right in front of you, whatever it is.
This isn't to say I want to move off the grid. I still spend most of my day on my laptop for work, so I'm connected whether I like it or not. I still love Instagram and Twitter. But I have made a lot of changes in this last year to get more of that Tokyo intimacy back in my life. Things like: I took Facebook off my phone, I turned all of my app and email notifications off and I went from answering all texts shortly after they came in to only responding to time sensitive or logistical texts ("What time are we meeting?"). Everything else sits there unanswered, for a while or forever. Even though it's normal in my generation to keep dozens of lightweight text conversations running in the background, I don't. I try to keep my phone away when I'm with people (especially at meals), and I put it in my bag when I'm walking so that I can actually see what's around me. My phone M.O could be summed up as: "Get in, get out."
Finding that balance between the world in my hand and the world in front of me is hard, but I think it's a balance worth chasing. Just as I want to give the people in my life my full attention when I'm with them, I want to give the world around me more of my full attention, too. I want to remember more moments like I'm in Tokyo again, like I'm in a new place, exploring and experiencing the world in ways that only our boundless human senses, with full attention, can do.