The story goes that Ned Ludd, a young textile worker, grew worried about the safety of his job amid the rise of “labor-saving devices” in the 18th century garment factory in which he worked…so he took his apprehension out on a couple of stocking frames in protest. Other workers saw what young Ned was getting at and began to try and thwart the industrialization of their own jobs in the same way. Before long the “Luddites” were a group to be feared – known far and wide as people who hated technological advancement to the point of destruction. I have a lot of sympathy with the farsighted Ned and his companions most days. I don’t fear the loss of my job, but there are plenty of days I fear the loss of my humanity.
I wrote about this back at the end of last year. I was sawing through some deep cords, trying to free us from the entanglement of the ever-present internet. We lived for two months without internet connection at home – going to coffee shops and libraries when we needed to connect and leaving home for books and games and conversation – and we loved it. And then one day, by unspoken yet mutual consent, we turned the internet connection back on. We’d learned some important things: that internet access is a privilege – sit at a library table competing for bandwidth and take a look around you: at the guy with half his teeth and a halo of old tobacco researching veteran’s benefits; at the woman wearing a stretched-out tank top and the remains of breakfast, humming along to Prince; at the couple in the corner trying loudly to fill out a job application in the spaces between when the connection drops and surges again, and feel the frustrated desperation of having to get email read and bills paid and appointments made before your one hour is up – and then realize this whole thing is a choice for you, but these people do this every single week because they have no other choice. We learned that our relative geographical isolation makes digital isolation less desirable and that maybe it would be different if we had neighbors who dropped by or family members in the same town, but we don’t. And we learned that as much as we (okay, me) are drawn to asceticism what truly matters is redeeming the world we live in – among, and with, and in, like everyone else.
I’m learning that the modern age requires of us a lot more concentrated awareness than some times past. We have to learn skills the generations before us never imagined. Things like decluttering and voluntarily simplifying and asking questions about origins and working conditions and saying no thank you to gifts and not getting addicted to “likes” and “followers” and learning when to share and when to be private, and on and on. And this concentrated awareness is required of us at a time when everything is conspiring to keep us unaware, distracted, numb. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” Just keep spinning, churning, consuming, pressing yourself into the one by one dimensions of an instagram photo.
Lately I’ve been wondering how to keep after that initial push to bring myself into awareness, how to trigger the body into claiming its own space, tell the mind it’s had enough flickering and blinking for awhile. On a recent Saturday morning I listened to poet Marie Howe talk about simplicity, about how that connected to reading the Little House books with her daughter and something clicked. Whenever I think of the Ingalls’ family I think of a log room, a fire, candlelight, Pa’s fiddle – an image that feels like all the best parts of home and hope and humanity. All my good dreams, I realize, are accompanied by candlelight, by wood fires, by warmth and hearth. I’m at the age where I’ve learned to give notice to such recurring symbols, to make tangible space for them in my life. Frederick Buechner describes it so:
“You never know what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it…. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.”
You must imagine the kind of long-suffering husband I have, that when I say, “I have an idea…” he does not roll his eyes or sigh loudly but looks me straight on and says, “Tell me about it.”
“After dinner, we dim the lights,” I say. “Candles, soft lamps in the bathroom and kitchen, oil lamps for going room to room. No screens. It will be a signal for us, a hard stop, so we can turn off the outside world and rest.”
“Yes,” he says. (He’s priceless, I tell you.) And so every night since he has gone around and flipped switches, put things in order, lit the lamps one by one. It feels like a holy ritual, an ushering in of magic. We are still a part of the modern world, but for a couple of hours each night, we are also a part of the old world, more subject to season and time and natural limits. These nights when I look around the darkened rooms with their golden corners, watch shadows dance on walls, tilt my silent book so the lamplight will fall across the words, I feel my soul inhale and exhale. We’re not separate from the world, and we’re not Luddites – our fists are not raised against all the changes that have come. We’re just people. People who are finding a way, carving a path through, intent on reminding ourselves that we are not just mind, but also body, soul, earth.