It was a 160-gig, white, hand-me-down iPod classic, by today’s standards a brick, cumbersome and heavy. To me, it was five ounces of pure pleasure. We had been parted for more than a week, and I was overjoyed by its unexpected return. I thought I had misplaced my treasure, but in fact, it was stolen by a ruddy-cheeked, 18-year-old man-boy. All I really remember about his confession in the dean of students’ office is his crisp white oxford with an oversized embroidered navy Ralph Lauren Polo logo. The iconic horse and rider seemed to take up the entire left side of his chest. The student apologized, but we both knew he wasn’t sorry about what he did, only sorry that he was caught.
I didn’t care. I hadn’t liked him before, and now my feelings were justified.
After surviving another day of teaching (and false apologies), I was all set to spend my entire evening wiping out his terrible taste in music, ditching what may have been Eminem or John Mayer’s latest tunes, for my Foo Fighters dad rock and hippieish Natalie Merchant.
On that day, I was also downloading to my brand-new Kindle. I was an early adopter of the e-reader. My mother-in-law, who had purchased one for me after watching an episode of Oprah’s favorite things years earlier, had given me the latest version for my 31st birthday.
New technology was my version of keeping up with the Joneses. I wanted the newest, freshest things. By March 11, 2010, I was actively pulling my vertebra out of place by carrying my smartphone, iPod and Kindle in a large handbag, always worn on my right shoulder. I couldn’t step out of my home without all three. If I forgot even one device, I would turn the car around, preferring to be late to work than be without my distractions.
Looking back, I wonder if March 11 should count as the beginning of my addiction to the unquiet.
Today, my devices have changed in size - sleeker, slimmer, less taxing on the back - but my compulsion to collect has not abated. The true scale of my compulsion is found in my subscription set - Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus, CBS All Access, ESPN+, Google Music, Hoopla, on and on ad nauseum. It’s as if my time doesn’t count if I am quietly doing nothing.
I keep myself on a daily diet of words, sounds and pictures. Other people’s stories overtake the voice telling my own. I fall into months of solitude that feel filled with friends, companionship, and conversation. It’s only when I look up from my Kindle or hit the last episode of a podcast series that I realize I am alone and have been for quite some time.
I used to spend great lengths of time in self-reflection. I would write and rewrite. Ideas churning inside me, desperate for a way out.
Lately, I’ve been actively seeking out time to not write and not reflect. I have successfully not journaled for two years. Mornings, when I was most creative, are now blearily given up to sleep after a late night of watching Murder, She Wrote, working online puzzles, and endlessly scrolling through Facebook.
I can’t remember the last essay I completed. The weekly date I have with my writing partner has fallen to every other week. Often, instead of working on a piece, I’ll work the New York Times crossword, telling myself I’m working with words and that is enough. Any alone time that could be dedicated to writing is quickly filled with television or Buzzfeed quizzes. I’m actively and passively doing anything I can think of to not reflect, and I wonder what it is that I am frightened of.
I’ve had some moderate success. I was hired and worked as a travel writer for three years. I’ve had two creative essays published, and one according to the publisher “gained traction and the attention of important people online.”
At the time, I thought this was the door opening. Full-time writing gigs, or at least a creative writing side hustle, were right around the corner. I attended writing retreats, and when people asked what I did for a living, I proudly replied I was a writer. I was creating important pieces that people would hungry to read. I submitted everything I wrote. Six months into my dry spell, my mom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. It was a devastating blow. I wrote about it at length. When I look back at that time, my writing is filled with cliché and is little more than a journal logging my emotions.
As the years have passed, my mom’s disease has progressed in ways I didn’t understand it would. Her persistent tremors drain her more than I realized they would. Her medicines increase her exhaustion. She’s always telling me if the disease doesn’t kill you, then the cure will.
People think about the physical part of Parkinson’s, but rarely do they realize what a toll it can take on your brain. Early in her diagnosis, the doctor took my dad into a room alone and asked if my mom was a gambler? The very idea made my dad laugh, but the doctor was very serious. He said some patients become chronic gamblers. Parkinson’s is a neurological disorder, and it causes people to have circular thinking patterns. They go round and round – get addicted to one thought. For many, that means going to the casino to win back the money they lost last time.
So far, my mom and dad’s retirement fund is still safe. Still, I can see my mom on the precipice. She’s good most days, but lately, she tells and retells me the same story, calls and recalls to tell me the same important news.
In the last ten years, I’ve become the sandwich generation that I used to read about. I’m busy raising my children and spending an increasing amount of time worrying for my parents. I’m not mad or resentful. I enjoy time spent with my kids and my parents, but if I slow down, for even just a minute, I can feel a deep well of sorrow bubbling up inside of me. In moments like these, I hold tight to my electronic distraction devices hoping to unsee my mother’s slow decline.
I am weary of my glassy eyes and tender heart. I am desperately chasing joy, romance, laughter, and all the other bright shiny feelings. I don’t care if I find that in a podcast, book, song, or television show. I just know right now I’m having a hard time hold with this enormous grief.. I am struggling to stay present, so my digital retreat feels as necessary as breathing.
Mary Knobbe is a writer in St. Louis. You can read her work on Narritive.ly or in Paddle Shots II. In her spare time, Mary goes to as many rock concerts as she can possibly afford. She may be addicted to coffee and has a definite obsession with the New York Times crossword puzzle.