I admit it: I have the twitch:
The instinctive urge to reach for the phone every time there’s a pause in life: waiting in line, or before a show or movie starts, or on the bus…or when there’s just a break in conversation. Am I missing something? What are other people doing?
The desire to take a picture and share it, immediately, so that other people know what I’m doing, and what they’re missing.
Is life real if it’s not documented?
The twitch has been particularly painful for the past few weeks, as everything is rather, well, emotional. I thought the weeks leading up to the election were bad; the weeks since have been even worse.
And yet I still click.
All of this has me thinking about how, last year, I broke the habit. When we left for our Camino, we decided to turn off all of our electronic devices. We would offer no live updates from the trail, no Instagram filters, no email, no streaming music. We would skip the Google maps and apps. I carried a camera, but those pictures stayed locked away until I got home. I took them only for myself. (Well, and eventually for you all, but back then I didn’t know that this blog thing would happen.)
It was an easy decision for me, because I was walking the Camino in part to break away from the gadgets.
Here’s how I describe it in the book in progress:
Somehow, life had stopped feeling real.
I didn’t know how to explain this in English, let alone French, but the relentless day-to-day demands of postmodern adult life had burned me to a crisp. It didn’t feel like I was really living anymore, as much as I was trying to keep up with all of the beeping and buzzing machines that demanded my attention.
There was a year when Eric and I had intentionally lived without Wi-Fi, but that time was long past. My life was controlled by my screens. As an editor and writer, my work happens on a laptop. As a self-employed editor and writer, trying to pay half the rent in one of the most expensive cities in the country, that work takes a lot of hours. Plus there were the friends, family, and colleagues scattered all over the country, sharing their photos and news. I had four separate email inboxes to check daily, each one full of people who wanted my attention. My Google calendar was a rainbow of appointments, commitments, deadlines, and tasks, all overlapping.
I checked my smart phone constantly. Some days I couldn’t get from my apartment to my car without checking Facebook. What if I was missing something?
What I was missing was a life that felt real.
The Camino, with its thousand years of history, felt real.
I wanted to be present on the Camino in a way that I knew I couldn’t be if I had a pocket full of distractions. If I was constantly thinking about faraway people, I reasoned, I would lose precious moments with the ones who were with me.
That turned out to be true, and going offline for our three-month Camino was one of the best decisions I made. Not only did it give me the gift of presence, it taught me a few other, sometimes unexpected things.
Sometimes it’s good to ask for help.
Not having a phone wasn’t just a way to focus on the people around us; sometimes it was the impetus to meet the people around us.
Everything I’d read about the Camino before we left said that that we didn’t need to make reservations to stay in pilgrim albergues. In fact, I was reassured that most albergues didn’t even accept reservations. And this turned out to be true…in Spain. But first, we walked across France.
A tip for anyone who walks the Chemin du Puy, from Le Puy to St. Jean Pied-de-Port. The French LOVE reservations. French gites, which are generally smaller and more personal than Spanish albergues, and often include home-cooked dinners, fill quickly, even in the off season.
While you CAN walk without a réserve, you will quickly learn the word complé. And so we learned to fit into the flow of pilgrims, who gather every evening to discuss where to go the next day. There are guide books and maps in multiple languages, and lovely French arguments about how far is too far, and then, eventually, the phones come out, and everyone calls their gite of choice.
Except if you don’t have a phone (or if you suspect that, even if you did make an exception and pull out your phone, no one would understand your mangled French, anyway) it puts you in a place to ask, s’il vous plaît, if someone will call for you.
And someone always did. They would chatter in French and make a reservation for deux Américains. (We rarely had a reservation by name. We were the only Americans on that particular section of the Way, that early in the year, and everyone we met seemed to already know who we were…)
Neither Eric nor I are the type to normally ask for help; we’re usually the ones giving it. So receiving this kindness, day after day, and leaving the critical detail of where we would sleep in the hands of others, was a powerful lesson in itself.
Compromises must be made.
Okay, now I have to confess: our offline Camino wasn’t entirely offline.
Even before we left, we made two accommodations to the “no devices” rule: first, we borrowed a friend’s GPS Spot. When we remembered to turn it on, it automatically sent signals to a website, where anyone who wanted to know where we were/if we were okay could see our little blinking dot moving (slowly) across the map.
And second, we created the “secret email.” We’re long-time T-Mobile customers, and our plan actually includes free international data. So although we both turned off our regular email accounts — and all of the accompanying work messages, mass emails, and distractions — we also set up a brand-new Gmail address that only three people knew about: two friends from home who met us for short portions of the Camino (so that we could coordinate meetings), and my sister, who was our house sitter and designated point person for emergencies. We checked the secret email account every three or four days, just in case.
There were a few other compromises. We used the Kindle apps when we ran out of paper books (about two weeks into a thirteen-week trip). We researched travel details when the Camino ended (yes, it’s possible to take a train from Santiago all the way to eastern France, but it’s a little complicated).
But in three months, there were no emergencies (or if there were, the people at home were able to handle them just fine without us). Not hearing about every dramatic/traumatic world event gave me time to process the events that happened right in front of me.
Which helped me understand…
I’m not indispensable.
Yes, I know. People lived for centuries without immediate access to distant loved ones. Medieval pilgrims left home for years, and no one knew if they were alive or dead. It’s not really that dramatic to slip partially off the grid for three months, in a first world country.
But it’s one thing to know that, and another thing to live that.
I still have the twitch, but it’s easier now to put the phone away, or turn it off for a day or even a whole weekend, and trust that the world will keep turning even if I’m not watching it.
Bottom line: if you want it to be, the Camino is a great time to “beat the twitch.” It’s a personal decision, and I’m not suggesting that everyone should turn off their electronic devices. The first rule of the Camino is to walk your own Camino.
But if you’re feeling the pressure, try it. The arrows will guide you. (And so will these books.)