Containers & Possibilities - Questions about connectivity, productivity and technology

On the Boat

On the boat in Berkeley we don't have very good internet.

The only internet connection we get to our computers is with a cell phone tether (a hot spot) from one of our phones. That one phone is the only cell service we have while we're in the US. At the boat, the cell service isn't the greatest and the internet connection is even worse. It's enough to check your email and do slow web searches, but it's not enough for any significant effort involving the internet.

As a family we're used to high speed internet 24/7 on demand. We download, upload and otherwise use the internet as a lifeline for many of our activities. And indeed the internet is a lifeline for us, Damien produces work for the internet, on the internet. The internet puts food on the table.

While we've been on the boat Damien has been working other places. There's a rhythm to the day. We get up without an alarm, Damien sometimes goes for a run with Brienne and Laurent, they come back and have breakfast and then Damien and Celine (and maybe the other two) head off to work for the morning, returning midday to the boat for lunch. After lunch they leave the boat again to work. We all gather again at suppertime and for the evening.

It's a usual routine for many, leaving the abode for work, but it's unusual for us. Damien likes the change (his normal Montreal routine also involves leaving the house to work at cafes on a regular basis) and he likes the exercise required to get from point A to B in our days. One mile to our friend's other boat, in a different part of the marina, that does have wifi. A couple miles to the nearest coffee shop. A few more miles to to our friend's house, up the hill and to the north in Albany. Walking for wifi.

My own boat routine is a little different due to the nature and needs of my work. I stay put for the early morning to write. After my breakfast I tidy my corner of the boat, and by mid-morning I'm ready to have an adventure with the kids or tend to the work of owning a house in another state (there has been so much of that work this summer), managing our finances, corresponding with our housesitters in Montreal.

When I write the work in a sentence it sounds trivial and easy. In the actual doing it's hours and hours of effort. There are also weekly trips to the laundromat and daily visits to the grocery store since the boat doesn't have a lot of food storage space.

There are work days and vacation days, and if not whole vacation days, there are vacation afternoons. I'll take what I can get. On the weekends, we put aside the work demands that we all feel (the kids have goals and projects also), to have adventures and go exploring together.

One of the interesting things about being on the boat and not having great internet essentially "at home", is the necessity to plan and schedule my day around internet availability. I can do some computer work at the boat, anything that doesn't require decent internet, spreadsheets for example, but it's an unproductive use of my time to attempt most computer-based activities at the boat, because of how dependent I am on the internet to access most of the software and systems I use. So I have to leave to do most of my work.

At first I wasn't happy about this. I don't like having to leave my nest to get work done. I'm a homebody. But this forced leaving is teaching me a few things about my work patterns and habits. Even when the leaving is simply taking a one mile walk, around a beautiful marina, to another dock, to another boat. When I arrive at that boat, I'm there to work, to get the stuff done that can only be done in that time and space.

Kind of like old-fashioned office hours.

Before we left for our trip, my life at home was starting to feel increasingly out-of-control and unmanageable. Busy, busy, busy.

I think a certain amount of this is normal in raising teens (or any kids for that matter, but for us the craziness increased when we moved to Montreal and had three teens under our roof). It could also be how my personality type responds to stress and change, it feels out of control to me.

Maybe this is just Life. Whether it's my life, or Life, that was causing of these feelings, I desperately wanted summer to be different.

The trip has been wholly successful in this regard, it's been different. And yes, less busy. Not in some idyllic hanging in a hammock kind of way, but in a "the days have this kind of structure" way.

Our time in Berkeley, staying on a boat with bad internet has been an impetus to re-evaluate my use of this fundamental infrastructure in my life, to ask questions about how I work and rest and to think about productivity, connectivity, and technology and how those ideas are lived out in my life.

My conclusions from these thoughts are still ill-defined and without solid form but I'm clear on one thing, I was not happy where things were at prior to our trip. It's not a state I want to return to and I'm wondering how to forge in a different direction and if it's even possible.

Increasingly, over the past few months before our trip I was feeling a strong need to establish firmer boundaries, yet again, around connectivity, social media, email.

All of these tools are necessary for maintaining relationships and meeting obligations and responsibilities in my life, not to mention, partaking in fun stuff, like Netflix. (This spring I started watching Grace & Frankie, what a hoot!) But these tools also seem to suck you into more work, more "opportunities", more obligations, more responsibilities.

How I use the internet :: feel used by the internet

In reading other people's accounts of internet addiction and overuse I don't identify, to a great degree, with the mindless consumption and distraction of the internet.

When I was a mother with young children, seeking distraction from the tedium of my days and also looking for connection with other likeminded stay-at-home moms and homeschoolers, the internet seemed like a God-send of both inspiration and elevation from the very mundane aspects of living. There were no smartphones, or Instagram, just my desktop computer and a bevy of blogs.

I was prone to being distracted by the internet in those days by getting lost in blogs and tangents thereof. These days, who has the time to sit at a computer and be distracted for half hour blocks at a time, reading a rabbit hole of blog posts about someone's homesteading life in rural Oregon?

This was also the time in my life, as my husband points out, where insecurity from comparison started to strongly exhibit in my life. (That is a whole different conversation and is a dominant theme of my 30's but it is not where I'm at now. I have new dysfunction and problems with the internet.)

It's not the distractive aspect of the internet that is so bothersome to me these days. It's all the ways in which the internet, and technology in general, increases productivity and connectivity. And what this increased productivity and connectivity does is simply make more space in your life for... productivity and connectivity.

I don't want more productivity and connectivity. I want rest and reading. I want nature and writing. I want time for deep thinking. I want time to putter.

Would I feel differently if I was looking for love on the other end of this connectivity? For example, if I was internet dating to find a partner? Why yes, I would feel differently. But this stage of my life is full. Full of family, full of friendships (that I can't maintain very well), full of obligations, full of purpose even. I'm not looking for more of anything, except more quiet, more reflection, more space, more nature.

I don't want to free up time in my life just so it can be filled with more tasks, more obligations, more responsibilities; what often feels like working towards someone else's agenda.

Why, with so many conveniences and time saving devices in our homes and hands are we so stressed, so busy? Why do we "do" so freakin' much? We seem to fill the space those things save us with more obligations, more commitments, and more media. So that there isn't any space at all.

My current problem with the internet, and connectivity in general, is the way it fills every space of my life because it can and because I've let it.

When I look back at my spring I honestly don't know what I could have "cut" to lighten the load. Nothing. It was hold-on-for-the-ride season (as some seasons are) but I have patterns to my behavior, engagement, accessibility and my own expectations for other people's accessibility that influence how much I commit myself to in the first place. Expectations create patterns. Patterns create schedules. And schedules create a life.

And in my life at least, it seems like increased productivity simply invites the opportunity for more productivity.

Where is the reward? Where is the rest?

A concrete example: because I know I can text people to ask last minute instructions, directions, or questions (super convenient), I don't plan as well in advance. However, if I had to plan as well in advance I would do less. I only have so much "planning" bandwidth.

Smartphones have really contributed to this. I have come to depend on being able to communicate quickly and easily with people in order to get all the things accomplished that I want to do. But I also find this form of communication, texting in specific, to be stressful. It increases my anxiety. This type of communication allows me to do more - more activities, more travel - because I can multi-task in many situations.

But this multi-tasking is wearing me thin.

Multi-tasking and the modern life

Maybe the patterns and the tools we employ to live our lives form a container. And it's this container that determines how busy, how full our lives will be. You can't pour into a container what it won't hold.

But this doesn't ring true necessarily, because Life - those things beyond our choices and will - does pour more than we can hold, and our container has to stretch like a balloon sometimes to keep it all together or something else flows out the top to make space for the emergency, the crisis.

But can we not somehow shape that container, to both allow for the emergencies and crises, and give us enough breathing space in everyday life? Is that asking too much?

Rules and schedules, office hours, are a strategy for forming a type of container.

The problem is that these "rules" always fall apart for me under deadlines and pressure. We had a departure date for our trip and I wasn't going to close my computer, stop writing those emails to house sitters at 5pm and jeopardize our trip, just because my schedule said I was off-the-clock. My life doesn't work that way.

Everything was like that in May and June. Working towards a finish, a departure and deadlines. Perhaps it was just a season in my life and not an indicator of some larger societal problem. Maybe it's both.

Some people envision a better life in the good ol' days of Little House on the Prairie. Not me. I like the relative safety, health, opportunities, and security of modern life in 21st century North America. Overall life expectancy, medical care, human rights - all of these have improved since any "golden" age of times past. I don't want Ma's life, or Laura's life or Mary's life. I want my life.

I love modern conveniences, safety, and sanitation. I love that connectivity allows us to travel like this with our kids, because Damien is both able and willing to work anywhere. It's a good thing that I can manage our Maine house while living in Quebec and traveling North America. It's a good thing I can pay all our bills (or partially pay the bills, depending on the month) using internet-banking. I love that I can publish my writing online. So many conveniences that make our life possible.

But modern life, for all its benefits, has an immediacy and urgency I don't like. Then again, maybe life has always been this way. If an animal is chasing you, that feels urgent. The crop has to be harvested or you don't eat, that kind of thing.

I'm coming to think maybe we just expect too much. We want more than survival (way more than survival); we want fulfillment, meaning, travel, and high speed internet.

working in the car

I find myself imagining the pace of life if we could only communicate via handwritten and hand delivered messages, so yes, Little House on the Prairie. I actually wouldn't want to live that way in an emergency, or in our scatter-shot patterns of modern migration, or as a woman who doesn't particular like to cook. But I long for that level of "remove" from the non-urgent and stressful chatter of modern life, most of it made possible by the internet.

I long to be largely unavailable for periods of time, from everyone but my most intimate circle, periods of long retreat from the world. (But during that retreat my blog readership would continue to grow without all the marketing and hustle the experts say you must do. Of course.)

This dream is completely unrealistic because of the nature of our work and relationships, and our life goals. And is probably just a reflection of a busy season. But perhaps it's also an indicator of the state of my soul. Which is, in a word, internet-fatigued. Maybe just fatigued.

There are a few things in my life that I need to be hyper-responsive to, issues that demand a timely response, like emergencies at our house, or a family crisis. But I am growing weary of the level of responsiveness that constant connectivity seems to encourage and demand for everything else. I want to hang a "not in" sign on my life.

I find myself growing despondent and uncaring about the world-at-large, and even my closer knit communities because of the urgency of all the non-urgent issues. I am stressed and irritable.

I don't want to be like this.

Solutions and More Questions

I am looking for solutions to this problem.

I am considering a more structured Sabbath. It might be a solo Sabbath since my family is in a different "internet" place than I am. I'm considering office hours, but again those have to flex with intense seasons. I'm considering the hard work of assessing my expectations against my inherent nature and needs. All of these are possible changes I can make, with effort and some sacrifice.

I want to re-shape the container of my life a bit. But I wonder if it's even possible at this stage of family life - raising/homeschooling teens, commuting to co-op and living in the city, and self-employment and having adventures. We have come to depend on a certain pace of life and accessibility of resources associated with constant connectivity.

On our trip we are still having to manage and deal with "life" - Damien's been working, we're grocery shopping, cooking, eating, and managing our living space. I'm taking care of our finances and our house. I'm doing stuff with the kids. I'm writing. We're living, not vacationing (except for a few days that are definitely vacation). And yet, the living seems so much... saner.

The pace has been good for me, but not surprisingly the kids don't like it as much. They miss their friends and the social buzz of their life in Montreal. They can handle a lot connectivity, but they don't carry the responsibility that goes with that.

In general, their connectivity increases their social life, which is to say their enjoyment and connection, not their work or obligations. As it goes, their increased connectivity, which increases their social life, increases my work and obligations. Not to mention my non-kid related workload that is dependent on connectivity. And as all this obligation increases (proportional it would seem to connectivity), my overall "life satisfaction" goes down.

Am I just a cranky middle-aged woman, a little battle weary from raising kids, staying married, keeping food on the table? Tired out from managing people and houses?

How is everyone else managing this? How do people function in this world, really?

Sometimes I just don't feel cut out for modern life. Life. Maybe this is just the human condition, to feel inadequate and overwhelmed by whatever time in history you land.

It's not a question I go around asking people, but I wish I could - do you feel up to the task of living?

How can I not be up to the task? I'm a liberated, married (and loved), financially supported, early 21st century Canadian woman, and I feel weak and inadequate in the face of life's demands. What is wrong with me?

I can blame my own overwhelm on modern society and 24/7 connectivity but maybe all people, through all times, have felt this way.

I want to feel adequate to the task of living and I want to experience joy in the work of it all. Am I asking too much? I am trying to "do" too much in my life? Do I have completely unrealistic expectations? Do I need to meditate more? (Ok, get back to meditating period.)

Is the internet the problem here, or is it something else? Am I the problem? Is my way of being the problem? (Am I fundamentally flawed and unsuited to life? Don't tell me you don't ask yourself that questions sometimes.)

Back to the Boat and Possibilities

Life on the boat is inefficient. Everything takes more time, except for maybe cooking, because we are eating simple meals.

When we need to go to the bathroom, we have to leave the boat and walk to the marina restrooms. Same for showering.

Daily, we refill and lug our potable water to the boat in reused store bought water jugs. I can't do laundry here, Damien can't work. We have to take a walk or get in our car and drive so we can use the internet to upload and download. (And the kids do download! Their phones and iPads full of their favorite Netflix and YouTube channels to watch in the evenings and off hours of the day.)

We can't buy food in large quantities like we do at home, making our biweekly trip to Costco for a lot of our pantry and non-perishable goods. We have to grocery shop almost every day.

The boat is less efficient, and travel, in general, is less efficient. That's the gift of travel.

In our regular life we depend on certain efficiencies and infrastructure that allow us to accomplish more in our days. Perhaps it's this "accomplishing less" that makes life on the boat feel more like vacation, even though we're still working.

These inefficiencies can drive me crazy. I'm used to getting a lot done with the right tools at hand and in hand. The commitments I've made and the goals I've set forth for myself depend on this ability. But it's this ability to get a lot done with tools and technology, and the unrestricted access to the internet, that appears to be getting me into trouble. Blurring the boundaries in my life, causing stress and overwhelm. And probably contributing to my generalized anxiety.

I read a book this week, What Falls from the Sky: How I Disconnected from the Internet and Reconnected With the God Who Made the Clouds by Esther Emery. (The Kindle edition is currently on-sale.)

The book fell into my lap at the perfect time, as I'm considering my own dependence (over-dependence) on the internet and how I might build a better container for my life.

The book is a beautifully written and deeply honest memoir about the author's life, including the breaking that led to a her Year Without the Internet. You can't help but love this young mom and wife, in her vulnerability and earnest attempt to re-know herself and re-claim her life, after infidelity and watching her hard-won career crash and burn. It's compelling.

I couldn't do what she does, remove myself from digital interactions, all digital interactions, for a year. That would seriously negatively affect the quality of my family's life and the things they need from me. And I don't want to.

But I do need to make some adjustments in my life. In my connectivity and use of the internet.

Damien likes to remind me that every life path involves stress, hard work, and difficulty. I tend to think my bad choices lead to stress and difficulty. Not so. Into each life those fall.

Re-evaluating and making any change in your life does not eliminate stress or hardship. When I was a young woman I had false hopes this way and this still tends to be a default false belief that I must pull out like a weed from my heart. Making changes around how I use the internet and structure my days will not eliminate difficulty from my life. Darn. But if I can make small changes pointing myself at a goal, at least the hardship is part of the journey (like the drag or friction against any moving object) in the direction I want to be moving.

The trick then, is to define the direction I want to go. Just what exactly am I trying to achieve? What are my values at this stage? How do I live those?

And so I find myself at this place again. The place where I am looking at my life, from the remove of a distance, from a place of forced inefficiency, and evaluating a few things.

Maybe in my travels I can make more than amazing memories enjoying Colorado Springs, experiencing the Diving in Utah, meeting Kyndale, staying on a boat. Maybe I can find some solutions to take home with me, new ways of interacting, connecting, and working.

Maybe I can establish new patterns of behavior and expectations with technology, tools and connectivity; actions and mindsets that will allow me to work diligently in support of personal, familial, and community goals, while honoring my spiritual and emotional wellbeing. It's possible.

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  • Sarah M

    Sarah M on July 31, 2017, 10:35 p.m.

    I don't know what else to say other than Yes. YES! I ask myself the same questions, feel the same magnetic pull both toward the internet (my highly efficient friend) and the chaos of 'too much'. The irony is not lost on me that we're having this conversation on the internet....

    But yes, I ask myself those same questions, and when I'm away from the internet for a week, I rarely miss it (well, okay, 20% of me misses it like crazy, the 80% feels great with the break). Time to get OFF now and go read a book during my kids' quiet time! But I do like lingering here and reflecting on things you verbalize in words that my heart-space can't always clarify to my head-space.


  • Catherine Forest

    Catherine Forest on Aug. 3, 2017, 6 p.m.

    This is exactly why I choose to live in a bus... I cannot wait to leave the Yukon after at too busy (for me!) summer. I love how our life ebb and flow in and out of connexion on the road. I am excited to be driving down the Stewart-Cassiar Highway and have no connexion for a few days. I love our routine on the road, working from the bus (we have unlimited data in the States, but limited data in Canada, which makes for only e-mail time for the girls, so we are all looking forward to some Netflix documentaries once we re-enter the States). We all feel full socially and can retreat to more family time now. I like this. I could not handle the regular busyness of having teens in a house with all the activities all year long. I'm glad my girls are not craving it either. They are happy to be back on the road and be back to a slower pace. It might all change in a few years, but for now, this is my perfect balance and it sounds like it is what our family needs.


    • Renee

      Renee on Aug. 3, 2017, 9:39 p.m.

      You are lucky/blessed/fortunate that your whole family is on the same page with the amount of social interaction/connection you all need. We are leaving Berkeley and our limited wifi access in a couple days and all of us, including the most socially connected among us (ok, Brienne) is sad to be leaving. This says something to me that she might not be able to articulate, yet, to herself about the place of connection and social engagement in her life.

      I wish I could find perfect balance, but I don't think I can during this stage. I guess traveling in the summer is our balance. It's our way to find equilibrium in our lives after a busy school year (something I never anticipated needing as homeschoolers!)

      I am gaining more insight into your life with our long summer road trips. Damien and I are committed to Montreal for this season for our kids, but traveling for at least 1/2 the year is in our future I believe. The kids will be welcome to come (they actually all want to be with us, still as 18, 16 & 14 yr olds, we're waiting for the switch but it hasn't happened yet), and we can share a life together on the road, or they can study and live and work in a way that meets their needs. Right now we juggle a few balls so that we can do the best we can to meet everyone's needs, if not fully, at least partially.


      • Catherine Forest

        Catherine Forest on Aug. 8, 2017, 5:46 p.m.

        It's a true blessing that the children still want to spend time with you/us... and yes, we are fortunate that for now, this life on the road still suits their needs and desires. This might very well change in the near future, there is no way to know. There is no perfect balance... I have found that balance happens on the long run for us: busy summers in the Yukon, quiet fall together... or one busy week or biking/hiking/climbing and one more quiet week of working/reading/schooling...


  • Jen P

    Jen P on Aug. 4, 2017, 4:46 p.m.

    I have known for a while now that I need to do something about my own smart phone addiction. I know I need to set limits for myself, but I don't know what that looks like or how to do it. Even just not reaching for my phone first thing in the morning or not carrying it around the house with me feel like big steps. I just heard someone talking about health saying that the hardest, most important step is just making the decision to make a change. That's where I am right now. Next week we're embarking on our own month long road trip out west, and I find myself looking forward to the limited connectivity we'll have. I hope I can use it as a catalyst to make the changes I know I need to make. You are certainly not the only one asking these questions of yourself.


    • Renee

      Renee on Aug. 4, 2017, 6:43 p.m.

      Jen P, thanks for the solidarity and shared experience. Disconnecting has not been without discomfort for me, but I definitely want to take what I've learned back into my "real life" in Montreal. We'll see how it goes :)


  • Misti

    Misti on Aug. 15, 2017, 6:37 p.m.

    I held out until two years ago to get a smart phone and it was a hand-me-down from my dad. It's an iphone4 so apps are starting to be phased out and I can't access some things. I'm realizing this is a good thing. I recently started making some rules for myself which have eased a lot of my internet anxieties---one was stop posting things from my phone. I found an extension that allows me to post to Instagram from my computer and bam! I'm now taking more photos with my camera again. Also, it frees me to post the photos and leave---no endless scrolling.

    When this phone dies I will probably go back to a 'dumb' phone.

    I don't necessarily want to go back to LHOTP days but when I watch pre 2010ish movies I get very nostalgic for non smart phone times. It's pretty stunning how different people are in movies even with just a regular cell phone versus a smart phone.


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