It’s July of 2016, and I’m housesitting for my brother in Connecticut, lazing on the back porch with a glass of wine in hand. My laptop streams the romantic strains of a French guitar. The light of the sunset is as pink as the rose in my glass. Purple flowers hang from the trellis above. It is a stunning evening — romantic, even.
And then, a tear drops from my eye. I’m miserable.
I’m single, sick with a chronic illness and worried about my struggling writing career. I want to jump on Twitter to distract myself from the suffocating haze that has become my life. Or post the bucolic scene in front of me on Instagram to glam up the memory I’ll take from tonight.
But I can’t. I’m halfway through a self-imposed forty days off of social media and dating apps, started because I just got so very tired of the noise.
You see, I realized I was stuck in the mire of contemporary habits. When happy, I celebrate with a fancy chocolate bar or Sephora splurge (reporting online, of course). When sad, I comfort myself with the same. When I want to improve something about my life, I do whatever it takes: I buy the apps, read the books, try more, work harder and exhaust myself as much as necessary, reporting everything to my cyber community.
But when I turn off the noise, reality sinks in. I am horribly lonely. I’m worried about work, and my subsequently building financial problems. I’m living in a body that cannot (for now) be fully cured. Those things are understandably hard. Taking on more hasn’t fixed them, so I’m trying this: removing something and observing the consequences. It’s like an elimination diet of modern conveniences. If I can’t escape into the online activities of others right now, I’ll witness what’s in front of me:
There’s the now-purple sky and it’s quite dazzling. Fireflies! I feel a warm breeze on my skin. I smell the salt wafting from the Sound. I savor this wine and the darkening light. My coupled and parent friends never get this time alone – what can it teach me?
Slowly, the weight lifts from my chest. The world looks… almost textural? I find myself smiling?
I feel happy! I’m still single, sick and broke. But I am present.
When the forty days are up, I decide to remove other habits in a project I cheekily title “My Year of Abstinence.” For periods of one week to three months, I take out shopping, sugar, exchanging holiday gifts, negative thoughts, television, coffee, packaging waste and scores of short “Challenges” like talking, cleaning up after myself and using electricity. With each, I set realistic time restraints. I take notes, share observations and forgive myself when I accidentally (or intentionally) “cheat.” The word “failure” isn’t involved.
I recognize a pattern across all challenges: I habitually act when I get an urge. Any urge. My brain thinks something or my heart feels something – positive or negative – and instead of facing it and processing it fully, I quickly counteract with a brownie or Kimmy Schmidt binge or Amazon click. With those habits removed, revelations hit in waves, over and over again.
Some are immediate and obvious. During the “No Shopping Challenge,” I finally download a library app onto my iPad and save hundreds of dollars on books as a result. In a month of “No Sugar,” I break my nightly gorge on a frozen mango, peanut butter and chocolate chip parfait and drop almost ten pounds.
Others have huge emotional impact. Studying “Zero Waste,” I tap into a worry that I must be a disposable person, since a relationship hasn’t stuck. I hand wash handkerchiefs and hang them in the sunlight to dry, and ponder my time with them; they were made well, add beauty to the world and last. I ruminate over the value of my own time and the beauty I offer the world. By that challenge’s end, I feel grounded in my worth and durability. And I haven’t bought a box of tissues since.
By late spring, something even bigger clicks. I’m hungry, or angry, or happy, or frustrated. Instead of immediately reacting, I take the time to assess and make a choice as to how I should proceed. I date and find myself comfortable in my skin no matter the outcome, which makes dating more fun. I show myself compassion when not feeling well, but push myself to not lose hope for a more healthful future. I find patience with clients and I take on new projects with glee. I make choices because I have choices to make.
I didn’t expect to be coupled, healthy and affluent by the fall of 2017. I just wanted out of the haze. I wanted more tactile thrill. I wanted to be present.
One summer from the start, I’m on that back porch. I know my country sojourn will not be horribly lonely because something’s different. I don’t need anything. Or anyone.
I sit. I look at the sky. It’s equally beautiful with the hanging flowers and glistening sun. I smile at the birds and fireflies. It’s easy. It takes little thought and no extra effort.
I am happy. I am present.