The Distinct Relief Of Being (Partially) ‘Off-Line’

I’ve been off blogging for a while, and for good reason: I’d been traveling and did not bother to try to stay online during my travels. Interestingly enough, had I bothered to exert myself ever so slightly in this regard, I could have maintained a minimal presence online here at this blog by posting a quick photo or two–you know, the ones that let you know what you are missing out on, or perhaps even a couple of sentences on my various journeys–which might even have risen above the usual ‘oh my god, my mind is blown’ reactions to spectacular landscapes; network connectivity has improved, and we are ever more accessible even as we venture forth into the ‘outdoors’; after all, doesn’t it seem obligatory for travelers to remote ends of the earth to keep us informed on every weekly, daily, hourly increment in their progress?  (Some five years ago, I’d enforced a similar hiatus on this blog; then, staying offline was easier as my cellphone signal-finding rarely found purchase on my road-trip through the American West.)

But indolence and even more importantly, relief at the cessation of the burden of staying ‘online’ and ‘updated’ and ‘current’ and ‘visible’ kicked in all too soon; and my hand drifted from the wheel, content to let this blog’s count of days without a new post rack up ever so steadily, and for my social media ‘updates’ to become ever more sporadic: I posted no links on Facebook, and only occasionally dispensed some largesse to my ‘friends’ in the form of a ‘like’ or a ‘love,’ my tweeting came to a grinding halt. Like many others who have made note of the experience of going ‘off-line’ in some shape or form, I experienced relief of a very peculiar and particular kind. I continued to check email obsessively; I sent text messages to my family and video chatted with my wife and daughter when we were separated from each other. Nothing quite brought home the simultaneous remoteness and connectedness of my location in northwest Iceland like being able to chat in crystal clear video from a location eight arc-minutes south of the Arctic Circle with my chirpy daughter back in Brooklyn. This connectedness helps keep us safe, of course; while hiking alone in Colorado, I was able to inform my local friends of my arrivals at summits,  my time of commencing return, and then my arrival back at the trailhead; for that measure of anxiety reduction, I’m truly grateful.

Now, I’m back, desk-bound again. Incomplete syllabi await completion; draft book manuscripts call me over to inspect their discombobulated state; unanswered email stacks rise ominously; textbook order reminders frown at me.  It will take some time for me to plow my way out from under this pile; writing on this blog will help reduce the inevitable anxiety that will accompany me on these salvage operations. (Fortunately, I have not returned overweight and out-of-shape; thanks to my choice of activities on my travels, those twin post-journey curses have not been part of my fate this summer.)

On to the rest of the summer and then, the fall.

Writing Away From Home

I am writing today’s post in a coffee shop. This fact would not be so interesting were it not for the fact that I am often tempted to do so, but almost never do. Today, circumstances compel me to write away from home and so, here I am. But writing at venues other than my desk is hard. I have written almost every single one of my blog posts on this blog at the same desk; a mere handful have been written at my desk in my office at Brooklyn College, and another handful in other venues: in Baltimore, for instance. I like writing on my favorite desktop keyboard, attached to my ‘home machine’, and have never become comfortable with a laptop. The physical affordance of the keys and the screen is not the same; I am, as they say, not a traveling writer. I do not know if this amounts to a limitation in my writing capacities; perhaps I’m not sufficiently ‘bohemian’ or ‘free spirited’  to bang out inspired prose on the road, no matter what my physical location of circumstance. I suppose this preference does say something, possibly unflattering, about how my low my tolerance for disruption is when I write. (External distractions, that is. As I never tire of noting here, I am very successful at distracting myself with the ‘Net.)

I have tried on several occasions to write in coffee shops. It doesn’t work; I am too easily distracted, too easily drawn into an inspection of the various discomforts that afflict me there. The chairs aren’t comfortable; the music is more often than not, too loud; people talk, loudly enough to make me want to reprimand them, but of course, no one ever said that the coffee shop was a quiet zone. So I’ll confess mystification: I don’t get it. I don’t understand how people can be so productive in coffee shops, how students, writers, programmers, grant-writers, novelists, all get so much work done there.

In a coffee shop, I do not necessarily find the company of people comforting, or a relief from the loneliness at home, from my solitary occupancy of my home-bound work desk. Somehow, in a coffee shop, the company of other people turns into an  acute reminder of isolation. Somehow, surrounded by people, by music, by the diverse smells and aromas of a coffee shop, writing feels like a curious retreat, an odd act of seclusion in a public space.

If I do need a change from my regular writing venue, I would much rather pick a library, to be surrounded by books, the written word and the evidence of the massive labor of thousands of other writers. The library is not perfect, as I have complained on this blog before, it too can be a noise zone all its own. But somehow, the presence of large reading tables, the stacks of books, the sometimes visible names of authors, has a calming effect, and I can get to work, to trying to achieve a state of mind that brings me one step closer to joining the ranks of those that surround me. More often than not, it doesn’t work, but the sustained illusion is pleasant enough to pursue time and again.

Note: In one of the ‘distraction posts’ linked to above, I note how traveling away from a usual scene of distraction–in this case, my work desk at home–can be conducive to writing. I stand by that claim; I just don’t think the coffee shop has worked for me as an alternative.