In Birdland, it is not yet dawn. I got up when I found I had been trying to go back to sleep for maybe an hour. I almost tripped over Cullen, lying at my bedside. Now, Ursula has commandeered the blue-and-white throw rug next to my desk. The dogs know I don’t like to feed them before the sun rises, so they won’t ask for a while yet.

This morning, I am returning to an idea I ran into a while back: a Technology Shabbat. Have I mentioned it before? Last semester, a student wrote to me asking for help. He described a terrible cycle of playing video games until the wee hours, then oversleeping (our class was at 8 a.m.), falling behind in his homework and generally feeling anxious and exhausted, only to “relax” by playing more video games.

I sent him some articles about the Technology Shabbat, the idea of unplugging from technology for a period of time (for example, sundown Friday to sundown Saturday). The idea is to give our brains a rest.

So much of my professional life is in front of a screen. Even before the pandemic, I graded essays online instead of on paper; I created lesson plans and slide shows for class on my computer. I do my writing (these letters and other work) on a word processor. Since I couldn’t travel back to China, I’ll be holding class online for another semester. I have a Zoom meeting later today. And yet, I “unwind” by playing word games on my phone.

In China last spring, I took most of my meals alone in the canteen. Unless I joined a student or colleague for a little conversation over my lunch, I got in the habit of setting my tray down on the table and pulling out my phone. I would sit and eat while scrolling through social media, “catching up” with my friends, pushing letters around the screen to play word games.

At the time, my phone was my lifeline to home. I would video chat with Michael twice a day and my folks and siblings at least weekly. Technology helped me feel less lonely, although I was alone. Michael was alone at home, and I imagine my husband’s phone was a similar lifeline. But now, we are together again, and what do we do at mealtime? Scroll through our phones.

So yesterday, when we decided it was time for chai, I made a proposal: “I’ll make the chai if we can have a 10-minute date,” I said. “We sit together at the table without our phones and talk.”

Michael made a face, “Talk?”

“Yes, talk,” I said, sternly. “Surely you must remember how we used to have conversations.” But then I had to smile, because we were just joking with each other.

I set two mugs on the table and made the chai, bringing the milky mix to a boil three times as Ellis, our youngest, taught me. When the roiling had settled and the tea and spices seeped for a bit, I poured it into the orange tea pot and set it between us for our date.

What did we talk about? I really don’t remember the topics, but I remember the presence of both of us, smiling and looking into each other’s eyes. I remember our date lasted more than 10 minutes, until our mugs were empty and the teapot had cooled. Ten minutes was a nice beginning, and I think again about making special fancy velveteen or silk Shabbat pouches where we can park our phone if we ever decide to spend a whole Saturday offline.

But for now, I think I’ll just shut my laptop and go out into the world for a bit. Since I began this letter, the sun has risen and snow has fallen. It’s still sifting down in big, fluffy flakes, filling the yard and clinging to the bare branches of the big quince and lilac bushes in the front yard.

Michael must have fed the dogs. From my desk, I can see Ursula on the porch waiting patiently to be let back in with white patches of snow still landing on her glistening black fur. And I vow to be present to the world for at least a few minutes today.

Stop in Beauty; Be Present to Peace; Blessed Be

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. If you’re missing your weekly dose of Birdland Letters in The News-Gazette, you can still read them every week in the Piatt County Journal-Republican. Consider subscribing to support your small-town newspaper. You can read more about the Technology Shabbat or take the pledge to #unplug at sabbathmanifesto.org. Mary can be reached at letterfrombirdland@gmail.com or via snail mail care of the Journal-Republican, 118 E. Washington St., Monticello, IL 61856. She wants to thank her friends for writing and will answer you all soon.

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