The Problem of Presence

I wish there was a better word for 'presence.'

The New Age movement has done some serious damage to concepts like presence, mindfulness, peace, and meditation. Some people are automatically turned off by the mention of these words, because the concepts are preached non-stop (with a complete lack of substance) through social media. On the other hand, at the mention of these concepts, followers of the New Age movement dive into rehearsed mantras about their 'true selves' that they are likely parroting verbatim from their yoga teacher. 

I find myself standing somewhere in the balance of these two extremes--I practice yoga at home, and believe that there is a tremendous amount of value in being in the present moment. But I also balk at the overuse, and the surface-level social-media-slathering approach to the idea of just 'being.'

There has to be a sensible middle-ground approach in there somewhere, right?

This tension has snuck up on me a lot recently. Two recent occurrences happened at the Botanical Gardens...a magnificent place to just 'be'! But on both occasions, Andrew and I were there for special events, and I was grieved by the example of our culture's growing inability to just sit back and enjoy a moment.

The first occasion was during the Japanese Festival, a fun annual event at MOBOT featuring performances, cultural demonstrations, traditional Japanese food and goods, and much more. It's a great event, but increasingly busy each year. 

One of the most meaningful traditions that is demonstrated annually at the Japanese Festival is the tōrō nagashi, a lantern ceremony that is meant to assist departed souls in finding their way to the spirit world. People collect and light lanterns in honor of their lost loved ones, and these lanterns are set adrift on the lake in the Japanese Garden in the evening after the sun has set. 

We tried to attend this ceremony at the festival, but the solemnity of the experience was completely ruined by the thousands and thousands of flashing cell phone cameras blinding us at random. 

This was a ceremony meant to honor and guide the dead, and the vast majority of people in attendance were obsessively trying to capture the perfect cell-phone shot. Can you imagine seeing someone doing that at, say, a funeral?

We found ourselves back at the Botanical Gardens a few weeks ago to enjoy the annual Garden Glow. A holiday event, the gardens are lit with a spectacular amount of Christmas lights designed in themed sections along a walking path. I've attended the glow several times now, and this year was by far the worst experience.

Crowds aside (seriously though, they are letting way too many people in at a time in the name of profit!), we didn't even elect to walk through my favorite part of the glow, the tunnel of lights.

A few years ago, I went to the glow with some friends on a super cold night. There were so few people there that we were able to literally lie down in the tunnel, and just stare up at the lights all around us for several minutes. It was magical, and one of my favorite St. Louis memories!

This year, the line leading into the tunnel was so extensive that we didn't even bother. Part of the reason for that line was immediately obvious--from a distance, we could see people inside the tunnel holding their cell phones up and adjusting their settings to capture the perfect photo. And it wasn't a quick process.

We moved on, and vowed to return to the glow next year only on the coldest, most unappealing night of the year, maybe an hour before closing. We'll bundle up and deal with it, and we'll probably have a better time as a result.

Or maybe we'll just walk through Candy Cane Lane instead, and simply enjoy being together during the holidays, sans selfies.

***

A few weeks ago, I was again confronted with this idea of presence when I was creating my professional schedule and goals for 2018. I went into my Goodreads account to look something up, and there it was, smacking me right in the face:

"Goodreads Reading Challenge 2018! Push yourself--how many books will you read this year?"

For those of you who don't use Goodreads, it's a social media site for readers that also has some great tools for tracking books you've read, and books you want to read. Each year, they add this little tool to the side of your homepage that allows you to track what you're currently reading, and also to keep track of how many books you've read for the year. At the beginning of each year, they encourage you to set a nice, ambitious number of books to read, and display that publicly for your friends to see.

In general, I love Goodreads. It's helpful as I collect books for my reading list, and for reminding me of books I haven't read in years. The reviews are also pretty good, and helpful in determining whether or not I want to read something new.

But why must we measure success so quantitatively, especially for an activity as personal as reading? Why not celebrate any opportunity to sit down, read, and savor a story, as quickly or as slowly as we want? Reading has intrinsic value, and that value isn't compromised by a certain pace. What's the rush?

A while back, I stopped measuring both my writing and my reading goals by words or books -- instead, I measure time. Am I spending time reading and writing, no matter how much I 'achieve' in that window? Reading, writing, or just sitting and thinking about what I'm going to write can be considered independently productive, with no qualifiers or caveats. 

As a result of this perspective shift, I've seen a dramatic improvement in how much I enjoy time spent reading and writing. Maybe because I'm not dealing with the tick-box at the back of my mind, or the bar that I have to meet.

Maybe I can just enjoy what I'm doing, and learn from it...on some days, at least!

***

Not too long ago, my parents had some of our home movies digitized. I offered to help get the files stored in the cloud while they stored them on an external hard drive, so I spent a good amount of time going through those home movies, and making sure they were labeled accurately.

Most of our home movies are videos of special events, like birthdays, Christmas gatherings, soccer games, and piano recitals. I was watching the video labeled "Hannah's 2nd Birthday" when the scene changed, and I saw tiny little two-year-old me running around in the yard with my dad. It took me a few minutes to realize it wasn't a birthday video or anything I was used to seeing previously--this was just a video of me playing with my parents on a normal, not-so-special day.

I'm pretty sure I'd never seen the video before, either.

I watched, mesmerized as I asked to climb into the back of a pick-up truck I have absolutely no memories of. Dad sat with me in the back of the truck and sang "If You're Happy and You Know It" with me -- I enthusiastically rubbed my eyes and cried "Boo Hoo!" when the sad verse came around each time. It's an ironic, innocent, hilarious catch.

Dad defends me from a spider that has appeared in the back of the truck, and we watch airplanes flying overhead.

At some point, the camera changes, and my mom is holding me on her hip, singing a song with me--that I again have no memory of--called "We're Going to the Zoo." Google tells me that this is a Raffi song, which makes more sense; we listened and sang along with a whole lot of Raffi growing up, but I must have preferred some of his other hits like "Banana Phone" and "Baby Beluga" that I can still recall today. 

Dad is filming while we sing verses with a repeating chorus:

Going to the zoo, zoo, zoo! 
How about you, you, you?
You can come too, too, too!

We're going to the zoo, zoo, zoo!

When we say "you," we point, because kid songs. In the middle of a chorus, I realize mid-phrase that I'm pointing at dad holding the video camera, and stop to say "Daddy come to the zoo too?"

Mom laughs and reassures me that yes, Daddy can also come to the zoo in this fictional scenario where we're singing about going to the zoo, but not actually going to the zoo.

We can all be together, and there is nothing in the world to worry about at all.

The scene cuts again to a different part of the yard on the same day. I'm sitting on the front porch with dad admiring our pumpkins. Mom is holding the camera, and asks what I'm going to be for Halloween--with a little help, I eventually remember and state that I'm going to be a ninja turtle for Halloween. My parents were awesome Halloween influences, obviously.

I'm in tears by the time the video cuts to my 3rd birthday party, another special, present-filled day with cake all over my face, and family and friends gathered in the living room.

Suddenly, I realize that my own kids will never have this experience. It will never again be this precious for them to see video of themselves, or to be emotionally overwhelmed watching the magic of their parents loving them on a normal, just-because day. They will have mountains of video of themselves, and will be used to being posed and prodded just so for the ideal, Instagram-worthy photo. 

What will that do to them, I wonder?

I don't know. But as I watch this precious video of my parents playing with me in the yard, I vow not to constantly put my phone in my kids' faces, when that day comes. 

No matter how stinking cute they are, I vow to be with them.

***

Our culture is constantly screaming at us and pushing us to do more, participate according to the rules, tick off the boxes, and blend in.

Everyone is taking pictures and photos constantly, so take pictures constantly.  
Everyone is setting an ambitious reading goal, so read more books and keep up.
Everyone is binge-watching TV and movies on Netflix, so definitely do that and stay "in-the-know" on the latest hit shows.

The problem is that while everyone is taking pictures and video, sharing all the juicy details on social media, reading ferociously fast, and binge-watching TV, their friends and loved ones sitting right next to them are watching.

We manage to see each other, somehow, as we ignore each other.
We see the passing moments, and the missed opportunities to really connect.

In today's world, that is the problem of presence. Though the word itself--and perhaps even the concept--is trendy and "in," the practice of sitting back and enjoying moments together is definitely not. 

I'm no exception. I fight the temptation to go with the flow and not really see my husband, or spend intentional, sweet time with him. I fail to see every moment with family or loved ones as the gift that it is. But that doesn't mean that those moments are any less precious, or that I shouldn't try to be present in those moments with the people I love. 

I don't know where you stand on this subject. Maybe you are a social media advocate and think I'm a behind-the-times traditionalist with no vision. Maybe you think it's super important to set ambitious quantitative reading goals, and you swear by your decision to binge-watch TV regularly. That's fine! You do you. 

But no matter where you fall on the spectrum of response regarding the concept of presence, I invite you to be with your loved ones. It was my grandma's dying advice to us when I saw her last, and I happen to think she might have been wiser than me: 

Spend as much time with your family and loved ones as you can. 

Now, Mamaw didn't add "And stay off your phone," because she didn't need to. Mamaw and Papaw were never distracted when we visited--they were always 100% with us, and the memories are sweeter as a result. 

But since 2018 is what it is, and none of us are as awesome or as wise as my Mamaw, I'll put the pieces together and bring her advice fully into our modern culture:

Spend time with your families and loved ones, and maybe sometimes be with them 100%.
Put the phone away.
And most of all, don't worry about losing the photo opp--worry about losing the memory, and a sweet, once-in-a-lifetime moment to connect with the people you love most.