Friday, April 28, 2017

Cultivating Creativity

 Travel and tell no one,
live a true love story and tell no one,
live happily and tell no one,
people ruin beautiful things.
~Khalil Gibran

            The day I received my first cell phone in the mail it became indispensable. I remember that day more than what life was like before. Before cell phones, before social media, before smart phones and smart TVs. Yet I lived the first thirty some years of my life without a cell phone or smart device. How can a decade of post-modern living almost obliterate a way of life?
            It was late summer of 2006, and I lived in Kansas City, Missouri where I homeschooled my two daughters, Lexi and Laina, then ages eleven and eight. Excited for our first camping trip with our homeschool group, we packed and loaded the car. Our group planned to meet at a Hyvee parking lot to caravan to the campground 30 miles outside of St. Louis. Normally, I would have printed off directions to the state park; however, since we were following others, I thought there was no need. I didn’t even write down the name of the place. The day we were scheduled to leave, my Samsung flip phone arrived in the mail. While I decided it would be cool to have a phone and many of my friends had recently acquired one, it was more of an afterthought at that time. I went ahead and set it up so that I would have it if needed. Just in case of an emergency.

            Lexi, Laina, and I sang on the drive, following Jen the whole way until we reached the town just outside of the state park. While driving through the town, somehow, I started following the wrong car and missed the entrance to the park. There I was in a strange place with my two daughters and no one I knew in sight. Dusk approached, and as I pulled into a parking lot to call Jen with my brand-new cell phone, I wondered what I would have done without it? How did I survive thirty years without that convenience? Luckily, I had her phone number, and we were just a few minutes from the entrance of Dr. Edmund A. Babler Memorial State Park. Soon, we arrived at the campsite and began to set up our tent next to our homeschooling friends. From that day on, my cell phone has been in my pocket, purse, or hand. Almost always close by. Something that I can’t, now, imagine living without.

In my earlier twenties, I lived in Germany for a year. Before kids, before daily email, before cell phones, before GPS systems, I moved to a country whose language I did not know with only one person around that I did know. Yet somehow, I navigated the streets of Augsburg and  Berlin. I made friends, found a job, learned a new language, took photos, and traveled in Europe…all without a cell phone. I only called my family a few times that year, though did write and mail letters every week. A mere ten years later, I discovered life with a cell phone. Now, I cannot imagine sending my twenty-year-old daughter off to a college that's hours away let alone to Europe without a cell phone, without a way to contact me if needed. How did this change our lives so much in such a short time?!

            Lexi received her first cell phone for her thirteenth birthday as a fun gift, an electronic toy. However, we gave one to Laina when she was ten because she was going away for a week-long gymnastics camp and I wanted her to have a lifeline. I have only had a handful of Samsung phones, using them until forced to upgrade because something broke.
            Earlier last year, I needed to upgrade but wasn’t allowed to because of my plan, so I bought my first smart phone from Craigslist. Again, the instant I had it, I couldn’t imagine life without it.
After being a loyal T-Mobile customer for ten years despite their connection problems and lack of customer curtesy, I switched to Verizon last summer; T-Mobile screwed me over for the last time, and since the option was available, for the first time in my life, I have the newest smart phone. I bought the Samsung Edge 7 while Lexi and Laina received the new iPhone 7. I first got the Note 7 and had to return it because of the recall based on explosions! Then, the screen messed up on the first Edge 7 I had. I don’t like having the newest, most expensive phone because it’s too much pressure and stress. I’m holding $800 in my hand, and if it breaks or falls in water, I’m screwed. Plus, I’m finding that the newest phones have kinks that are still being ironed out, and the time and trouble it takes to call and return one phone for another is annoying. And, it seems like everything is made to break down these days. Six months in and Laina dropped her iPhone, and we had to pay close to $200 to fix it.
Recent surveys show that 70% of Americans own a cell phone, and within ten weeks of purchase, approximately 45% damage their new phones in some way. Most shockingly, over five billion dollars has been spent on fixing iPhones. It sounds like many Americans can relate to my frustrations.  

“It is through technology, not despite it, that LSD visions were realized. Leary called the personal computer “the LSD of the 1990s.” And in a 2006 report in Wired magazine, many early computer pioneers are said to have been users of LSD. Steve Jobs, Apple’s presiding genius, described his own LSD experience as “one of the two or three most important things” he has done in his life. So here it is — a world in which we all do more than just inhale. It is through the iPod that, in Leary’s once contentious words, we turn on, tune in and drop out.” ~Edward Rothstein in “A Mind-Altering Drug Altered a Culture as Well” published on May 5, 2008 in The New York Times

Now, it’s April of 2017, and I’m tired. Tired of the exposure it allows into my life, the responsibility it places on us, and the distractions that it holds. Tired is such an infinitesimal word to describe it, though. I’m exhausted, or in other words, over stimulated, over stressed, overwhelmed, lonely, and depressed. From what others have shared, I don’t think I’m alone in this. My smart phone provides 24-hour access to social media, news, emails, and games, and it took spring break for me to realize that I don’t take time to think anymore and can no longer be creative, sit in silence, simply be. These things take time, space, and cultivation. Otherwise, we lose them. I’m remembering that it takes practice and commitment, that creativity and thinking are habits of the mind that we must choose to foster.
How did I come to focus on this? First, I’ve been bored with Facebook for a while and considering taking a break from it. My girls will be thrilled, having encouraged me to do so many times in the recent past, but I admit that I’m addicted. For instance, endlessly, we are sharing a meal we made or a new restaurant we are trying or our thousandth photo of a pet or child or selfie. Or, the most recent headlines ding in with tragedy and horror. Or people are posting fights over politics or religion. No matter what, there is always another notification to check out. Every morning, I check social media first. Throughout the day, I check in, especially when a notification pops up, and let’s face it…when is there not a new notification. Every evening, the last thing I do, even after brushing my teeth, is check social media and/or play Candy Crush or Words with Friends. Through this smart phone, the constant TV shows, and relentless advertising and news media, I am never alone even when I’m alone. These days, my thoughts are rarely my own.
Continuously our minds receive images, words, ideas. Incessantly, we are bombarded by violence, threats, danger in our community/city/state/country/world, photoshopped images of what we should look like, ads of what we should buy or what we should eat, sex, alcohol, prescription drugs, major headlines, fake news, and the list goes on. My mind never gets a break from input unless I am sleeping. And all the while, I’m either checking in or thinking, What if I miss something? What if something important happens on social media? What will I DO if I’m not checking in off and on all day every day?
And even when with family or friends, too often everyone has their phone right at their fingertips. Even if we put them aside for a meal or game or conversation, we must check in, we’re worried that someone might need us, or we want to post our activity. And all the while, we’re either checking in or thinking, even if only subconsciously, What if something happens to my kids and they need me? What if I forget to post this? What would we DO without our smart phones in the palms of our hands?
Yes, we do have freewill and choice. Just because we’re connected to the “grid” doesn’t mean we must look. Or does it? How much of this is habit or even programming versus choice?
What happened to long afternoons of conversation and games? What happened to enjoying an activity without the need to broadcast it? Why do we feel such a need to over share the details and photos of our lives? What would life be like without social media and smart phones? Is it too late to return to that way of life?
I teach composition and critical thinking at a local college, so I know that writing and thinking take time. As writing instructors, we lament that our students won’t put down their cell phones, that they refuse to take the time to write and think; however, are we modeling those important habits? Lack of process, lack of critical thinking, lack of time for these things…Is this simply a symptom of post-modern day life in this new digital world or is it a choice, a habit. Or all of the above? Even if it is partly a choice, how are we to teach and live in this brave new world without embracing the new technological advancements? There are positives to consider. For instance, the opportunities for connection, knowledge, and convenience, as well as a platform for being heard and using our voices and creativity. How do we embrace electronic devices without losing what is important for process and thinking, for creativity and product, for self? How are we to balance both? Is it possible? What would a balanced life look like in this fast-paced, information-loaded society?
And what about the body? I started exercising again this spring—swimming, walking on the treadmill, lifting weights. I used to love doing these things partly because of the time it gave me to think and daydream, but now I only want to work out if there’s someone to talk to or something to watch during the process. Additionally, I used to drive in the car and listen to music which offered me time for thinking and daydreaming, but now I only want to talk to someone or check social media at stoplights. Am I losing my ability to be alone with my own thoughts, to sit in silence, to create, to dream?
Maybe it’s partly the rough political climate and probably partially the losses we’ve endured the past three years in my extended family. I still hadn’t written anything new, until now, since my uncle died two years ago this month (except for the letters that I wrote to him during the first year of grieving). 

When you let go, you create space
for better things to enter your life.
~quote from recent Facebook post

Now that I realize all of this, I choose to cultivate creativity, to make space for silence, to actively develop daydreaming. I choose to create habits in my life that will foster my creativity and critical thinking.
Step one: Take a break from social media.  For thirty days in June, I am going to take a break from my accounts and uninstall them from my cell phone. Even writing this right now seems scary. How will I get my fix? But who knows. I may like it. Maybe I will go longer or deactivate or delete them completely, but for now, I’m limiting my social media time to a short time in the afternoons or evenings. I’m putting a stop to allowing the ping of a notification to control me and attempting to find balance again, to provide time and space for creativity and thinking. How will I like it?! I won’t know until after the experience, but once I begin, if you need to reach me, you can call or text me. Also, I invite you to follow my blog as I may post there:
Step two: Make a list of activities in the real world that make me happy and choose something from the list to do every week. Go on adventures that fuel my heart and soul. Like spend time in nature, read more books, snorkel a coral reef, swim in a waterfall, have deep conversations with friends, howl at the moon, glide on a sailboat, hike in a rainforest, or climb to the top of a lighthouse. Some of these I can experience here where I live while others are on my bucket list, something I hope to travel to and do someday.
Step three: Keep exercising. But put down the phone and stay in the moment.
Step four: Start each day by praying, reading a devotion, and writing morning pages.
Step five: End each day by writing in a gratitude journal to focus appreciation on the blessings in my life.
Step six: Spend time outside every day. Get fresh air and sunshine.
Step seven: Connect with people in my life away from the screen. 

Hope….that is the feeling fluttering inside, something that I haven’t experienced in a long time. Hope that I will find happiness again. Hope that my heart will blossom again. Hope that spring will come for me again. That I will enjoy something for its own sake rather than focus on posting it. That I can be excited about something again. 

How is your life different with a cell phone? With a smart phone? Are you addicted to social media? Are you worried about your children and teens and their use of smart phones?  Have you found a way to balance living with smart devices so that they don't overpower your life? I would love to hear your experience and tips. 

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