Once upon a time, it was easy to fall off the map. You saved your money. You bought a ticket. You told your parents you’d be checking in, gave them a hug, and off you went. A few weeks later, you scribbled a postcard if you remembered. If you were feeling verbose, you bought a tissue-thin aerogram and wrote a letter in your tiniest handwriting. If weeks turned into months, you went to an underlit, Dickensian place full of grimy booths called a telephone center and sat down for a brief, expensive, shouted phone call to the folks back home. But at no point did you feel compelled or obliged to let anyone know where you were all the time, or even most of the time.
I started writing this piece on a cross-country flight a few weeks ago. We are still generally unreachable when in mid-air, although 1) this may change and/or is already changing and 2) your nearest and dearest tend to know where you are when you’re on that plane, even if you can’t text, email or actually call one another.
I wrote a bit more when I was on a Megabus trip from New York City to Syracuse. The wi-fi worked pretty well, with the occasional slow patch as we skirted the Catskills. Most of the other passengers appeared to be college students, heading back upstate after a weekend in the city. Most of them wore ear buds connected to smartphones; tethered even as they slept to music, to friends, to news. That’s not all bad. I get it. I’m happy to knock off some emails and read a few headlines on a five hour bus trip. If I’d remembered my ear buds, I would have listened to music too.
But I think we parents have to own up to the fact that we are the ones who, by encouraging (or even ordering) our kids to check in all the time, are not allowing them to do what we got to do at their age, which was fall off the map. We want to know where they are because we believe that knowing where they are is the same thing as knowing they are safe, which it is not. At all. Sometimes, one could argue, it’s more distressing to know than not to know.
But really this is about more than just the old “ooh-baby it’s a wired world” refrain. Really, it’s about actually encouraging our over-programmed and super-plugged-in young adults to take a break from knowing where they themselves are. It’s about encouraging them to take a leap off the map.
After a whole lifetime of being so thickly scheduled you can’t help but fall into an exhausted doze on the Megabus, it can be frightening to look at the calendar and see blank pages. To not know where you’ll be tomorrow or the next day, week or month. Whether you just graduated from college or you just quit or got laid off from your first job; whether you’ve been saving money to travel and now it’s time to do it, or whether you haven’t saved money and you’re panicking about what the next job might be—these are the moments when fear can become fuel for a leap off the map.
And who knows where such a leap might lead you? What it might feel like to be somewhere in the world you’ve never been, or doing a job you never thought you’d do? You might make some colossal mistakes. But isn’t making new mistakes so much more educational than making the same old ones? Parents, remember this: if you let your grown-up children leap, chances are they will tell you all—OK, not all but some, the best bits—about it. Later.
Calendar Note: On March 16 at 3pm, in celebration of the publication of Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s (edited by Collin Tong), I’ll be reading along with some of the other authors, including poet and memoirist Esther Altshul Helfgott, at Elliott Bay Bookstore.
Writers: Now’s the time to sign up for the non-credit, no stress Memoir Writer’s Workshop at Seattle Central Community College. This is a new class for writers who feel ready to write 5-7 pages a week. Six Monday nights, starting April 7.
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.
Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.