The writing on the wall

My mother’s birthday was a few days ago. She would have turned 92.

Birthdays, holidays, sentimental moments make us think of beloved people gone from our lives.  But today she’s on my mind mostly because of something she said more than once. On almost any night of the week our tiny Brooklyn apartment would be filled with family sitting around the kitchen table, smoking, drinking, laughing, fighting.  An uncle would storm out.  He’d be back the following night.

That’s the way it was with family.

That’s not the way it is anymore.

What my mother said, more than once—her eyes watery, her heart softened by a drink—was they don’t listen to me.  More often than not, trying to convince a grown sibling that he was (possibly) being too reactive to a situation got her nowhere. She had advice to offer. She wanted to be heard.

We called them ‘lively discussions,’ not arguments, and family dramas, not politics, were at the heart of them. Today we can’t even sit around the table anymore, and I don’t necessarily want to, which saddens me.  I could argue that politics has made it more urgent that we sit across from each other and air our thoughts.  But what, in truth, is more important than the personal dynamics that hold families together?

We use our Facebook walls to spout words that are not even necessarily our own—neatly constructed platitude-filled appeals that feed personal indignation in their longing for a time when the order of things seemed ruled by an unquestioned morality. Just to be clear, I have no issue with what we think of as moral questions that give rise to healthy discourse. It’s the simplistic picking and choosing—e.g., share this post if you agree that we used to cite the Pledge of Allegiance without worrying about offending anyone—that makes me bristle.

Everyone wants to be heard.

We all want to know that people are paying attention.

Last week brought a double whammy of despair to our country, with the most non-presidential of presidents at the helm. Thoughts and prayers, a given in the face of tragedies, gave way to editorials sounding the wake-up call to anyone still unwilling to connect the dots between the hate-mongering and lies of the man in the Oval Office and the violence his words and actions have given license to. What Has Trump Done to Us, America?, appearing in The Forward, got straight to the heart of things. I shared it on my Facebook wall yesterday, along with the hope that it might jolt anyone who does not see the writing on the wall into coming to their senses when it comes time to vote.

Transparent as my words are, they contain a not-so-veiled plea to cousins of mine who tend to vote Republican. Facebook, alas, may have replaced that crowded kitchen table as a place to air our viewpoints. Problem is, when you’re not looking someone in the eye it gets too easy to blow them off. Ignore the Facebook post. Delete the text. Voilà—the conversation never takes place.

They don’t listen to me, and I wish to high heaven they would.

And, yet, maybe there really is hope. How else to explain that in the middle of last week’s horrifying events 2,000 people attended a service at the National Cathedral in Washington to memorialize Matthew Shepard, the young gay man brutally murdered 20 years ago? His ashes would finally be interred. His life would be celebrated. And presiding over the service would be Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopalian Church.

Fiction Facebook Friendship

Tap your heels together three times, Dorothy.

You always had the power.

To go home.

These days find me longing for some kind of yesterday. Can’t say I loved high school (who really does?) but I can say I remember being enthralled by a book I was supposed to hate if for no other reason than it wasn’t cool to like.

Boring? Maybe to some (most?) of my friends, engrossing to me:

Silas Marner.

Who, as a young teen, could even contemplate a condition known as catalepsy?george eiiot

Then there was Eppie. Innocent if not truly orphaned, when she finds her way to the doorstep of the gentle recluse himself. The bonds of love sometimes have a way of surprising us, even if, in our hearts, we know it couldn’t be any other way.

And the author, a woman with a man’s name.

Middlemarch (not to be confused with Middlesex or Middle Earth) has me in its grip now. The pull of the narrative is immediate, sinewy sentences that require the kind of deep attention that always rewards. No small irony in this time traveling from a world in hyperdrive, more and more on edge by the day, to one that doesn’t seem as old hat as it should in its exploration of marriage, and social mores, and politics in 19th century England. Times change, narrative syntax evolves; but there’s a reason great works of literature, with their timeless perspective on the big themes of life, beg to be read again, and again.

These are horrible, troubling, anxiety-ridden times. Paris . . .Brussels . . . no sane person sees any good there. Cuba? How you feel about it is intrinsically linked to whom you’re rooting for in the Reality TV show known as a presidential election. A wise friend on Facebook puts out a call to hide posts re: the Republication frontrunner (I can’t even say his name without becoming nauseous). A cousin spouts his negative thoughts re: our current president (one of the best ever, to my thinking).

I look for quotes by Rumi to share. Art, poetry, good books that move me. Links to music videos that do what only music can do to the spirit.

Along comes Marlene, a high school friend who connects with me on Facebook. Whatever divergent paths our lives since 1966 have taken us on, we’re here now, real friends in a virtual world. Synchronicity reveals its pretty head: like me, she’s a long-time fan of Leonard Cohen. Bruce Springsteen? Don’t even get us started. Turns out she lives in southern California, and when I tell her that my daughter has an extra pair of tickets to a Springsteen show (that will turn out to be historic as the four-hour finale at the L.A. Sports Arena), it’s a done deal.

In the best of all possible worlds, I’d hop on a plane, take a ticket for myself. It wouldn’t be the first time I flew out to go to a concert with my daughter.

In the real world, I smile at the photo an old high school friend has shared with my daughter, who has shared it with me. I may look back with mixed feelings at my high school self, but there’s only delight at the serendipity that has played its hand in reconnecting us, a connection magnified by the power of music. My physical body was (alas) not at that stupendous show, but trust me, I was there.

Bruce2

Dear high school self . . .

sara logoLast weekend I did what my high school self would have thought impossible . . . I ran a 5K. To someone whose attention on the soccer field as a young girl was more focused on the puppies on the sidelines and whose nickname all throughout middle school was “Goalie” (because she once accidentally asked to be goalie in a kickball game), this is a big deal. I tried tennis, horseback riding, you name it, but nothing stuck. Every year in high school gym class they would do a physical fitness test, which was total bullshit, of a mile run and other things I’ve chosen to forget. This was stupid because the test meant nothing and we never improved upon skills or anything afterwards. My “mile run” was similar to Hannah running with her boyfriend on HBO’s “Girls” . . . kicking and screaming and stopping to rest and walk the whole way . . . so probably a “14 minutes at best” mile.running blog pic

It wasn’t until my twenties, living in L.A., that I began getting hooked on fitness, especially spinning and my classes at Pink Iron. It was group fitness that got me started running a little bit. Getting revved up for a 5K had a lot do with my determination to prove to myself that I’m finally getting past some lingering pain from an ankle injury last summer.

I more than impressed myself in my first 5K (I don’t count a color run I did two years ago because I barely ran and it’s not really a race; it’s more of a “how much color can you get on you in a 5K contest). It was for a cause (Evelyn’s BFF) that I believe in (unfortunately I’ve known more than one woman who has battled breast cancer, some lucky, others not so lucky), and it was with a group of girls from my gym, who I knew would be great people to try running with. I never thought I would get a time of 34:02; my goal was 45 minutes and I more than surpassed that. I posted my time on Facebook, not just for other people to see, but more for a reminder to myself that I can achieve things I had no idea were in me (I’m coming at you, Kili).

As of today my, Facebook status has garnered 45 likes from people I’ve known through all stage of life, which makes me think, they’re either as proud of me as my friends or family or are, like, “holy shit, can’t believe that girl who only cared about music in high school can do more than jump around at a rock show.” I really didn’t expect this support and also really didn’t seek it out, I don’t think, but it got me wondering: why DO we feel the need to share things like this? Whenever I share something on social media, I really only think that I’m reaching my close friends, but between Facebook and Twitter, I have many more followers than just “close friends.”

I can vaguely remember a time when Facebook was for college (clearly based on “The Social Network” it was for much more than just college); about a year after it went live, we would post what classes we were in and find other people in our classes to “study with” if we thought they were cute. There were no statuses and there weren’t even photos in the beginning. It’s obviously turned into so much more as social networking has grown. Popularity is now measured in the amount of likes you get on a photo on Instagram, a status on Facebook, or how many birthday wishes you get.

At this point, I have a serious love/hate relationship with it. When it’s good, it’s really good. The recent ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (yes, I did it)  has been incredible for those affected by the disease.  Also, a lot of gyms do “check in for charity” where if you check in on Facebook, money is donated to a good cause (this month at my gym our cause is animals, so obviously I’m checking in as often as I can remember to!). It can also be a huge time suck, looking at people’s wedding or baby photos (most of whom you haven’t actually spoken to in years), etc.

Whenever I disconnect to reconnect (usually due to being in areas of little to no cell phone service), I feel so much better about life. I’m not absorbing useless information and I often say I’ll just delete Facebook and Instagram when I’m back in service land. The second I’m back in society, I’m addicted again. There’s a give and take with staying connected to people for work or personal reasons, so I’ve learned it’s important to set boundaries. Only let myself indulge at certain hours, or a certain amount of times a day. It’s something I’m working on, but something that’s important to me – to stay present. That’s how you run a race anyway, isn’t it?

It’s a beautiful day; so why are you on Facebook?

Sure, you’re outside on your deck, laptop/iPad/iPhone/iWhatever at the ready. And you’ve set yourself a time limit, twenty minutes max. Only curiosity trumps will power once you start scrolling through status updates of friends, perusing pages you follow. Overload is an understatement, but something is bound to slow you down, make you take note; how quickly twenty minutes roll into thirty.
Ruscha copyNo matter how you slice it, you’re kind of hooked. ‘Vacation from Facebook’ should be a hashtag (if it isn’t already), considering the growing body of commentary on what-Facebook-has-wrought. I Liked Everything I Saw on Facebook for Two Days. Here’s What It Did to Me, writes Matt Honan in a piece largely about the FB algorithm and its insidious effect on his news feed. Laura Dimon’s piece in The Atlantic last year, What Witchcraft Is Facebook?, considers whether a woman’s symptoms of conversion disorder were ‘contracted’ via social media. The comments the piece engendered tell a story all their own. Then there’s the blog, Facebook Detox, or you can cut to the chase and read Heather Hummel’s Huffington Post piece, How a 21-Day Facebook Detox Makes you More Creative.

Duh

I’ve backed off a little of late. No epiphany or demanding life circumstances pushing me in that direction except maybe the sense that there is no revelation without some reflection. Maybe, too, my curiosity re: how our neurology got so entangled in social media has gotten me searching for answers. Didn’t have to look very far. An opinion piece in the New York Times Sunday Review two weeks ago (Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain), tells me that on a typical day we take in five times as much information as we did in 1986. The time we spend reading status updates, tweets and text messages competes with time spent on often meatier issues. It’s a brain drain.

So why do we do it? A friend of mine (prior to our Facebook days and forever), a sensitive, poetic soul, once likened Facebook to the town square. We share thoughts, post photos, foster interaction. When it’s good, it’s really really good. Connecting with long-lost friends is a blessing. Connecting with kindred spirits in that serendipitous way Cyberspace brings us into circles outside of our immediate, physical world, gives a different meaning to friendship.

What I genuinely love most is the give and take. Show me a striking photo or piece of art, link me to a poem, post a quote about or by a writer I admire and I stop scrolling. I pay attention. I share.  Everyone needs a good music break during the day, give the brain some relief from headline news with its pounding repetition.

What I like least—and I know I’m not alone here—is the diminishment of boundaries a public forum like Facebook fosters. Its very framework makes us feel the need to say something—about ourselves, about a friend’s status update, about world affairs. If you can’t change a cousin’s political persuasions at a family gathering, what makes you think you’ll fare better on his Facebook wall? Of course, those gatherings may be few and far between these days, what with families more dispersed, but the need to connect is as primal as it gets. And a world that seems smaller and scarier by the day has us reaching for all the reassurances we can find. Or playing the provocateur.

We all want to be heard, if not seen. A selfie that goes unnoticed only affirms the delusion that there’s nothing we can’t do ourselves; what does it take, really, to let someone know you saw/you liked/you commented?

We want all our needs met. We want the president we like to do the humanitarian thing/we trust his motives.  Except if we don’t. Except if he’s the president we don’t like, in which case everything he says is suspect.

It’s too easy to be cynical but let’s not kid ourselves, we’re in collusion. We’ve given so much away in terms of privacy (unless there really is something insidious in the Facebook framework akin to the amount of nicotine that gets smokers hooked). Can’t turn back the clock, and you’d be hard put to go home again; the metaphor of cozy comfort may be ingrained in the word but neighborhoods change, parents move to retirement communities, and what we think of as ‘home’ needs some rethinking.

Facebook is a far cry from home; it negates intimacy even as we share our griefs and joys, and there’s every good reason some of my closest friends won’t go near it. But those of us who see it for what it is at least have the option of what we choose to be swept into on a day-to-day basis.

And when that sea of ships passing in the night starts to overwhelm, it’s a sign to drop anchor. Someplace. Anywhere but Cyberspace.

wall detail copyThese days my curiosity takes me outside. The excavation of my front yard is finally taking a new step – literally, as I watch the front entrance become grander than ever. I’m especially fascinated with the methodical work of the stone masons—combing the property for stones, pounding away at the large ones, chiseling them to fit the puzzle of the beautiful wall they’re building. Pouring concrete for footings. Placing a tier of concrete block for the steps.

Such attention to precision leaves no time for taking a break to check in on Facebook.

Am I missing something?

My daughter e-mails me a link to a site, Better Book Titles, very tongue-in-cheek in its recasting of great works into reductive one liners, and I immediately send out a tweet: ‘Spiders Make Great Publicists,’ by E. B. White. You don’t have to be a writer to lol about this. . .

I’m getting the hang of it, the art of the tweet, the curiosity of the follow(er).  I began blogging over a year ago, nudged along by writer/friends, one in particular who spelled out  her own blog’s evolution in an eloquent post, Questioning the Blog. We often talk about serendipitous moments — you open a book to just the page that fits your thoughts today — and today she just happens to have a pithy post about Solitude.

Writers work in solitude, and they crave community. The question I ask myself on any given day is: how much is too much?  It’s only within the last year that I’ve begun moving into that fathomless online sea of networking: I belong to She Writes, LinkedIn, Goodreads, and most recently, #amwriting, lured by tweets from its founder, Joanna Harness, this oh-too-irresistible one the other day: Get Out There and Do NOT Tweet! I post to Scribd via my affiliation with the Women’s National Book Association. I write regularly for smartly.new york.

All of which brings its own rhythm to my workday.  On the best of days, there are no false starts for me. A mug of French Roast at my fingertips, I  take leave of the world outside, pick up where I left off in that other world, the one under construction, my novel. Until that tweet — is it a bird outside? or that avatar of one, a widget? — beckons with its inimitable call: you could be missing something, a vital breadcrumb, follow the links — a breaking news story, a poem someone wants to share,  inside info in the world of publishing. Do I take a break, answer the call? Well maybe a few minutes. I’m stuck anyway, a roadblock. The only way to cut through is to go around.

So here I am, caught in the chatter, voices coming and going, ships passing in the night.  Until something nudges me back, a gentle wind steering me to a quieter shore.   I admit it, I’m deeply awed, sometimes overwhelmed, by the sheer volume of voices asking to be heard, noticed, maybe even acknowledged, mine just another. And I’m equally gratified by the way in which we find one another, like-minded souls who value what that mix of serendipity and searching brings forth.

The only question now is: Do I make the plunge into Facebook?