August 2010


“Wow, it’s Thursday already, I feel like it’s constantly Thursday,” Greta exclaimed as we stood waiting for a bus home yesterday. She paused a moment, “and September is going to be so busy, it’s pretty much already over,” she said. I nodded in agreement, my mind wandering to my impending September plans that were packed like a sardine can. Activity whirled through the city streets around us like the chilling breeze we huddled to escape. Coat adorned bodies rushed quickly down San Francisco’s busy sidewalk avenues, Blackberries and Iphones in hand, fingers busily tapping keypads, mouths chatting into receivers. The bike lanes crowded with cyclists donning suits, shiny shoes and earphones. Motorbikes and scooters whined by. A yellow cab honked as a bus pulled in front of it, a Blackberry Mobile ad was plastered to the bus’s back window.

Since moving to the city, I have been amazed and often overwhelmed by the incessant connectivity here. Blackberry Messengers, IPhones and Droids fill the pockets, purses and hands of friends I meet, strangers encountered on the street. I was recently given a Blackberry but refuse to activate it because simply being immersed in this constant hyper-connectivity is draining enough–if I had my own wireless connection 24-7, any efforts to escape would be futile. But it isn’t just in the city that this connectivity and notion of time moving too quickly exist. Even when I lived in the Rockies and was removed from constant city activity, time moved at an apparently accelerating pace; I think the busyness spawned by the digital age is a huge contributor.

A recent New York Times article titled “Your Brain on Computers–Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime” delves into America’s uber connectivity and states, “technology makes the tiniest windows of time entertaining, and potentially productive. But scientists point to an unanticipated side effect [of the constant barage of technology]: when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.” The article goes on to say that downtime is necessary for our brains to process memories from short term into long term. With a constant supply of digital input, humans hop from one distraction to the next without resting to actually absorb the impacts or meaning of their activity. We are like butterflies fluttering from one computer application, cell phone conversation, MP3 file to the next, without actually stopping to let our brains catch up.

Two distinct periods of my life have passed when I escaped the rhythm of accelerated time. Both occurred during multiple month stints of camping when I was surrounded by natural time, not human influenced, technology driven time. In those settings, I stopped wearing a watch, had no cell phone, no readily accessible internet, no virtual connection to the rest of the world. Instead I had tangible connection with the natural world. While camping in the wilderness of Utah, Colorado and villages of Nepal, I lost track of the days, the hours, a calendar, a schedule. I knew the time because of sunrise and set. When my stomach growled, I ate. When I was tired, I slept. I did not have days divided into micro-minutes–quick yoga session, breakfast and article reading before work, writing text messages on the bus en route, one hour lunch break with a friend, listening to a new album on the way home, a drink with a friend after work, dinner, singing practice, meeting with friends later–as I tend to do now. And those times were amazingly free-ing, mentally, spiritually, physically and socially.

While on a flight from Kathmandu to Singapore last fall, I was beside a small Asian woman from Singapore who sat between me and the tiny cabin window. As we watched the jagged Himalaya grow smaller, we struck up conversation. She had just spent five days between Kathmandu and Pokhara and was impressed with the beauty of the country, the gentle nature of the people and, most significantly, how un-wired that the place was. A Singapore resident her entire life, she struggled to explain how her body and brain felt so rested in Nepal, as opposed to Singapore where internet frequencies, cell phone waves, sattelite, etc. are constantly buzzing in the air. In developing Nepal, a fast internet connection is a novel gem and as unreliable as the wavering electricity that often leaves the country and cities in blackouts. How interesting that one of the biggest impressions Nepal had left on this woman was not just the limited access to phone and internet connectivity but the actual feeling of it, and subsequent effect on her mental energy.

As I write this, no less than six tabs are open on my web browser. My mouse flicks from Gmail to Grooveshark, New York Times, Google and the California State Parks website. Every so often I pull up Craigslist to browse job listings. Hop back to Gmail, type a note on GChat. My mind wanders from subject to subject, tab to tab. As soon as I get bored of seeing one screen, I just click to the next. I’m doing about five different activities yet am accomplishing none. This is standard, this is normal and most often, I just drink more coffee to refocus, as opposed to disconnecting myself.

This weekend, I plan to give my brain a rest among the soothing setting of nature. While researching potential parks and natural places to visit, I was referred to Van Damme State Park. The park boasts a creekside fern grove, Pygmy forest where mature trees are as short as six inches tall and access to the coast. What’s the exciting new addition to the park? WiFi connection.

Even in our efforts to escape connectivity we must consciously choose to do so. Welcome to the 21st century.

“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quiestest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” – Pat Conroy

Early morning ski in Aspen

What is that feeling, the one that overtakes you when you remember a time, a place, a moment in your life when things were just so and you wish with all of your might you could return to that place, that state of being? We’ve all experienced this–a smell of food that takes us back to childhood, the tune of a song that stirs memories of a particular place . The feeling sometimes stays, sometimes flees as soon as it arrives. It can be triggered by a smell, sound, sight and is often at least somewhat emotionally connected. Our auditory and olfactory senses are two of the strongest carriers of these memories, which researchers credit to their location near the emotion processing centers of our brain.

Merriam Webster defines ‘nostalgia’ as “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.” In the English language, nostalgia seems to be the word most closely related to these memories. In Portuguese the word saudade does not directly translate but refers to the feeling of longing for something lost that may never return. It has been also said to mean ‘the love that lingers, the love that stays,’ in relation to place, thing or person.

Lately, I have suadade for the Rockies, not just for the mountains themselves, but for the elated, adventurous experience of being in their presence. For being 22 years old and driving into a new life phase. For waking before dawn and hiking into alpine country to watch the sunrise wash the peaks gold. For the experience of being able to do that. Each time I hear a song by the folk group Mariee Sioux, I am rocketed back to an early morning in Aspen when I was just a bit younger than I am now, slightly more carefree and an entire mountainous playground sat at my feet. Despite how strong the memories remain, I will never again be that girl, in that place, at that time.

Travel is one the most influential harbingers of these nostalgic feelings, perhaps because the exact situations experienced during travel are so difficult to recreate. My first hours in Nepal were spent in a fragmented state of underslept shock. I had been in transit for nearly 30 hours and arrived in a tiny, hot airport where I was surrounded by other dazed travelers and stern looking Nepali officials who spoke in a language that meant absolutely nothing to me. Computers were absent; I felt like I’d stepped back to 40 years ago when modern technology was limited to telephones and color TVs. Out in the streets, I was bombarded with loud noises, cars swerving, colorful saris, throat choking exhaust, pulsing foreign humanity in every direction. My head throbbed at the sensory tidal wave and I could barely speak. Looking back, however, I sometimes long for that moment of arrival, and not just the physicality of it but the spirit, the newness, uncertainty, discomfort and the knowing feeling that I had entered a world and part of myself that I could never turn back from and never return to.

The presence of nostalgia and saudade inspire us to keep experiencing new things. We need to fill the ache of longing and so we do this by continuing to travel, to place ourselves in situations that expose those parts of ourselves that we otherwise might not know exist. To create the memories that keep us coming back for more.

Along the Annapurna, Nepal