I saw a fellow today walking his dog. The dog was trying desperately to get over to the grass, but the person was staring and punching at some handheld device, cell phone, Ipod, whatever. And I thought about my own ambivalent relationship with some of these devices.
I'll start with this poor stranger whom I know nothing about except that he seems to walk his Boston Terrier very regularly. I see them almost any time I go into town. I mean, this guy must spend hours a week on the end of a leash walking along a rather busy road. Who can blame him for wanting to talk to someone on his phone or to listen to some tunes while his dog does his business? I guess I'm about to.
I really do see this man over and over and over; I see him so often that it seems embarrassing and rude to not wave. I feel like I could have struck up a conversation with him a time or two when we have walked into town; I love Boston Terriers, I'm fascinated by the dog's good manners, my children would like to pet the dog. Oh, and I by the way, I'm one of his neighbors; I would notice if he died. But, his device that allows him to ignore the people immediately in front of him means that we have not met; he cannot know that anyone even cares whether he walks his dog.
So, I'll leave that man in peace and turn to my own questions. I used to run, and when I ran, I almost never listened to music while I ran. I felt isolated, I felt dangerously unaware of my surroundings. That was in Fort Worth in a nice enough neighborhood, but there were no nice nature noises to hear. The frogs, birds, or breeze could not really be heard over the traffic. I wasn't missing out on much when I did listen to music. But still, I felt cut off from the world around me in a way that made me feel vulnerable.
Now, I find myself doing repetitive tasks in the garden and the greenhouse. Listening to music really does help keep me on task and not feel like I'll NEVER finish getting all the grass out of a carrot bed. Yet, I cannot hear the children or whether a car has come up the drive or if the dogs are barking or the cow lowing. I've started just putting one earphone on and hanging the other on my shirt. In the greenhouse, I've set up an Ipod player so I can listen to music without earbuds, and that's pretty nice.
I'm still aware of being cutoff by all this artificial noise. If someone is helping me, I have to turn off the music. I cannot well attend to any conversation if I like the music that's playing. After an hour of music, I begin to be aware of it grating rather than entertaining; I feel relief when a song starts quietly and I get a moment without the racket. So why listen at all? Well, because I will work much longer without a break even if I start and stop the music than I will without any.
When the music is off, I certainly hear frogs and birds and cows and dogs and children and cars and atvs and bike tires. I do notice more about how the air changes throughout the day and the way the light shifts. I can tell which child is approaching through the grass without seeing them, and I can tell whether they're being companionable or coming to tattle or beg for food. I can look up before Jason actually comes into my field of vision so I can greet him and welcome him into this space and home into our day.
And that's what I think we're missing when we stay plugged in to one device or another. That stranger will stay a stranger, and my family will feel less welcome into my space when I'm tuned into something they cannot even hear.