Taking a Vacation from Digital

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For a week this summer I took a vacation from digital, and I’ve never been happier. My wife Jan, daughter Marion, and I visited our friends Kevin and Robert in their home outside Quebec City for nine days, and incredibly enough, we managed to stay offline almost the entire time. We wrote, read, explored streams and hiked through the walled city of Quebec. To document how it felt to be truly liberated from technology, I kept a journal scrawled in pen on blank typing paper. What follows are excerpts from my personal journey. This is not my typical blog post commenting on technology, marketing, and entertainment. But I hope it conveys a commentary in its own way about the value of unplugging and focusing on the people who bring joy to your life:

Our trip to Quebec is a time to be liberated from digital technology. As we unwind at Kevin and Robert’s home Friday evening, I am acutely aware of a war raging inside me between the urgent demands of the digital world and the natural beauty of the organic life around me. Too often I have acquiesced to the constant stream of tweeting, blogging, and posting on myriad islands of digital technology. In doing so, I have missed little moments of joy that you can never have back, like your wife’s expression when she watches your daughter accept a good citizenship award at school. I have missed those fleeting experiences because I’m too busy recording my life or staring at my iPhone communicating with people who are not even close enough to me to share the moment.

This vacation represents a level setting of sorts. Jan, Marion, and I have chosen to keep our digital distractions to an absolute minimum. Marion has left her iPad at home in favor of writing a novel, and Jan and I are keeping our mobile phones either shut off or disabled from sending or receiving communications. So far, we have largely succeeded in keeping the immersive temptations of digital at bay thanks in part to our choice of activities such as swimming and exploring streams, which are hostile to devices like iPhones.

Kevin and Robert live in a nondescript white frame house outside Quebec. We arrived on a sunny Friday evening after spending a few hours on a cramped airplane we had boarded at O’Hare. We have been enchanted by their home ever since we arrived. Both Kevin and Robert are artists who dwell in the world of theater, and their home is an expression of their interests and a reflection of their global travels. Jan calls it a house of magic. As you explore its many rooms, exotic details reveal themselves, such as a Buddha sculpture that rests serenely near some steps leading off the side of the house, or striking Kabuki masks that stare at you from a hutch.

The entrance leading to the dining room is actually an intricately carved door from a temple in India. In an upstairs bathroom, a Hindu god, perhaps Shiva, stands languidly in the form of a wall sculpture. Marion insists that I take note of the gambling fairy, a doll-like creature with a puckish smile and dice for ears who dangles from a mirror light across from the Indian god.

Nothing here is ordinary. Our guest beds are not in a spare bedroom but in a small wooden backyard cabin painted with gold flakes and festooned with the sculpture of a golden phoenix on the roof. On our first night here, we eat dinner – steaks grilled by Kevin and Robert – on an enclosed porch overlooking the pool that emits a bluish glow as water shimmers in the night. Ice cream is not bought but is made by Robert and Marion on a Friday evening. Two candles resting on a long wooden table and a Middle Eastern style floor light with starburst patterns inlaid on a tubular shape light the porch. For breakfast one morning, Kevin awaits for us in the dining room, sitting casually with a plastic crocodile mask perched on top of his head.

The simple rectangular swimming pool in the backyard constantly sends a gentle stream of salt water cascading over a small ledge, where the water continues its journey to a hidden pump before returning to bathe anyone enjoying an afternoon or evening swim. In the first few days of our visit, we take turns relaxing in the warm water.

Late Sunday morning Marion and I hike to a quiet stream where Marion writes her novel while perched on a rock and then leads me on an exploration of the water. We find two brightly colored leaves, watch two ducks looking for food, listen to the cry of birds, and feel the sharp rocks, slippery algae, and refreshing, cool water on our feet as we hike from a sandy spit of land to a small dam upstream.

At one point, Marion shows me a fairy circle, which is a small, still little pool of water encircled by rocks. She darts and leaps from one boulder to the next, her lithe frame and low center of gravity giving her an advantage over me. I can keep up with her so long as I am willing to improvise by using my hands and feet in a sort of steady crab walk over the slippery spots while she jumps from rock to rock. Close to the dam, we create a small dam of our own fashioned out of fist-sized grey rocks. Then we crawl and climb to a white rock with a tree limb placed across it, as if the limb were a sword from King Arthur waiting for a worthy owner to claim it. We stand on the rock, which Marion christens Stick Island, and we give each other fist bumps.

I allow myself a few seconds to snap photos of the stream using my iPhone, but this is not a time for getting immersed in Instagram to edit and share photos with the impersonal world. This is a time to focus on Marion and the moment we have created together.

Our weekend is given over to similar moments of living in the moment instead of reporting it. I hold Jan’s hands while watching fireworks one night downtown Quebec instead of taking photos and posting them on Instagram. At a museum devoted to the history of the Huron Indians, I avoid my usual digital distractions such as checking in on Foursquare and instead give my undivided attention to a history being told through a collection of blankets, furs, brightly colored clothing, and other artifacts of Huron life. On Sunday afternoon, Jan, Kevin, Marion, explore a deep river gorge, play a vigorous game of Marco Polo in the pool and then relax with books and journals poolside listening to the gentle gurgle of the water. There is not a laptop in site. Our phones are tucked away now.

We have to create these moments and consciously avoid the distractions of digital.

Exploring digital websites and social media destinations is different from reading a book or writing. Left unchecked, digital can pull your brain in a million different directions all at once, making it difficult to focus your mind adequately. One moment you are reading a New Yorker article online, and all it takes is the click of a hyperlink to take you down a rabbit hole of information, perhaps in the form of a YouTube video or a Facebook posts. Digital enriches our lives in so many ways. But, like fine wine, digital is best enjoyed in moderation and, when consumed to excess, can hurt you. It’s time to take control of digital before it takes control of me. My family, friends, and a quiet home full of Kabuki masks and sculptures is helping me do just that.

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