When real life comes crashing in

2013-12-08 06:00

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Right now it’s 3.37am, dark and windy in Cape Town. The predawn hour is quiet but restless, with branches playing percussion on my roof.

Next to me, my phone is lit up like a Christmas tree.

The device is brimming, crammed with, positively teeming with, news of Madiba’s death hours earlier.

Upon waking up, I had reached for the phone out of habit; and for an extent of time lost myself in the void of the internet, suspended in the outpouring of mourning, well wishes, and shared grief; half-asleep and feeling things oddly vicariously, too numb to summons my own thoughts.

In my email inbox waited statements by the agents of Hollywood actors Dennis Haysbert and Morgan Freeman, and Cape Town’s council media spokesperson, Wilfred Schrevian Evan Solomons Johannes.

Social media and connectivity are key to efficiency in my game. These are wonderful tools and toys. And like most wonderful things, they are utterly addictive too.

When last did you switch off your phone? And I don’t mean for a flight or for a movie. I mean for days on end.

Last Monday I emerged from a five-day self-inflicted social and digital hiatus. From last Thursday through until Sunday night, I slept on hard mattresses with a folded towel pillow in sparsely furnished huts along the Garden Route.

An opportunity to do the Otter Trail with a group of (mostly) strangers presented itself fairly recently. I had doubts, but complied. Carrying your life in a backpack for 42km over five days with no cellphone reception, no social media, no music, no contact with the outside world, seemed a challenge I couldn’t quite imagine.

Ascending and descending kilometres of steep hills shrouded in forest and flanked by crashing waves wasn’t the test, actually. The trying thing really was coping with my own brain, thoughts and feelings, given the absence of the information overload and the stimuli bombardment that I’ve grown accustomed to.

We walked aside cliffs and swam in deep pools under trees. Dragonflies hovered in still air that smelled of fynbos and hot, sunscreen-lathered flesh.

I was revisiting an old favourite book: “A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again”, a collection of essays by David Foster Wallace, that genius author who committed suicide after a prolonged and eloquent search for meaning, which he never quite found.

Biénne’s detox reading: David Foster Wallace

After initial discomfort, I grew accustomed to hanging out in my own skull; staring at waves and stars, thinking thoughts and well, just feeling feelings, ya know. By day three my cortex became a cosy place; a choice destination on a weird map of natural spectacle, brief people interaction, words written by Dave Wallace, and solitude.

Hence the culture shock when I switched my phone on again at the end-stop; beautiful Nature’s Valley near Knysna. Real life came pulsing in. The phone beeped and shuddered. Subsequent re-entry into society was swift and uncompromising, but not as bad as I thought it would be.

In his famous 2005 college commencement speech called This Is Water, Wallace tells an anecdote about fish and water: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”

Well, let’s occasionally question the water, shall we?

Do yourself a favour and unplug for a bit, soon.

In the meantime #RIPNelsonMandela.

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