I can honestly say, without an ounce of hesitation, that brunch is my favorite meal. I love every single thing about it from the mingling of lunch and breakfast foods (important if you hate eggs) to bottomless mimosas (important if you love champagne), so it is not unusual to find me lingering over a leisurely meal on the weekends. If Heather isn’t in town to indulge with me, we usually stick to places close to home, which is precisely how we ended up seated next to a set of grandparents and their two grandsons a few months ago at a nearby diner.
I try to reserve my brunch entertainment to catching up on the news, and we used to have a ritual of sharing the local Sunday paper, which has now been replaced with the digital edition. Yet it was something about this family that caught my attention. I watched the two young boys, no more than 9 or 10, play on their phones while their grandmother sat across from them, staring at the two children who didn’t seem to notice her. Although my vantage point allowed me an unrestricted view of their screens, it was this woman who held my attention. There was an undisguised look of longing on her face, and I wanted nothing more than to tap each boy on the shoulder and point their gazes up and into her direction.
That Sunday afternoon, I started to wonder exactly what all I’d missed going on in front of me. How many moments have passed me by because something on a screen claimed my undivided attention? Was I so busy doing nothing that I hadn’t noticed?
I wish I could say that in those moments of reflection I changed my habits, but the truth is, I didn’t. Like most people these days, I have fully embraced the convenience of my smart phone and all the apps it has to offer. I spend tremendous amounts of time each day in the online world, teaching students, communicating with clients, and filling seconds to minutes to hours with a constant stream of information flow. My before-sleep ritual of reading an actual book has been replaced with scanning online headlines or upvoting cat pics. At first, I rationalized that the world we live in is so rapid fire that this was the only way I could stay informed. If I am completely honest, lately I’ve needed the mindless reprieve that the online world sometimes offers me.
The last few months, I’ve been working to make some changes in my daily life and in the way I consider my own place in this space and time. I tried to start slow, attempting to reclaim a hobby that had once been a passion. I learned that it takes me longer to get through a novel than it used to simply because I can’t sit and read for long stretches of time without getting bored or antsy—a stark contrast from the days where I consumed a book from beginning to end in one sitting. I have replaced my nonstop news consumption with podcasts while I work out, explaining to friends that listening to the news this way has actually helped me increase the time I spend exercising. In fairness, it is probably better for everyone that I put all the anger and confusion I experience while listening toward my cardio instead of punching people who, I’d argue, have collectively lost their minds.
Of all the things I’ve been working on, the one that has been the hardest has been re-engaging with the world. I still find myself pulling out my phone when I grab a quick lunch on my own, but I’ve stopped reaching for it when I am waiting in line, hoping to give the appearance of being busy in order to dissuade human interaction. I’ve put the stack of books I’ve been meaning to get to for the last five or so years next to the places where I am most prone to opening up a screen. I may not have cracked all of their spines, but this is one step closer to loosening my dependence on technology.
Don’t get me wrong: I love that my friends and I can text any hour of the day and stay connected when busy schedules and family obligations keep us from phone calls and visits. I anxiously seek out any pictures or videos of my nieces and nephews, thankful that social media and unlimited data plans allow me to see them grow up even when I can’t be physically there to witness it. I don’t want to lose those things, but I also don’t want to lose sight of the things that make me me either.
So I’ve been working on being more present in my life because I think that might be a big part of what’s going a little wonky in the world these days. We’ve gotten so reliant on our technology that I think we’re neglecting to notice the real right around us. That in each moment we spend looking down, something gets overlooked right in front of our faces. Maybe it is just that I am having to accept that I am firmly middle aged, but I am terrified of life going on around me and my not noticing. I think of all the missed opportunities I’ve had, ones that through choice or circumstance have left me with regrets. The trips I didn’t take. The conversations I didn’t have. The people I inevitably didn’t meet, and the moments I didn’t experience.
There will always be things that happen beyond our control, but the one thing we can do is choose to accept that there is a really big world out there, full of amazing people and music and moments. And in accepting their existence, my hope is that I am reminding myself that I should be out there experiencing those things, consuming every sight and sound that I can. Because for all of my justifications and, let’s be honest, excuses, I’ve been just as guilty as those two little boys.
I’ve traded time spent in conversation with just passing time.
Even though it’s been months, I keep wishing I’d taken one second to smile at that grandmother. To let her know that someone saw her and saw her longing. But I didn’t. Now, I can only work to ensure that I don’t miss any more of those irreplaceable moments with irreplaceable people. I know it is impossible to catch everything every moment of every day, but I don’t want to reserve my attention for just the big things anymore. I want my life to be full of those small moments, too. The ones I’ve been overlooking or that I’ve dismissed as insignificant. Because it breaks my heart to think that someone may have been staring across a table, waiting for me to look up, and I never knew.