Disconnect to Reconnect
Clear your mind, and you’ll see the world in a different way
At the base of a column in front of my neighborhood grocery store, I spotted it. Surely not by chance, the rock had been painted blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. Attached to it was a note inviting the finder to keep the rock or pass it along. Perhaps as intended, it had redirected my thoughts from my grocery list to a sovereign nation under siege.
A day earlier at nearly the same spot, a store manager bagged the possessions of a homeless man in plastic as I walked past in the early morning. Rain was in the forecast, and the store was soon to get busy. Then, too, I was led to reflect upon the circumstances of people far less fortunate than I.
In February, I stumbled across Lars Eighner’s obituary in a Sunday edition of The New York Times. Eighner was a writer and a street philosopher whose celebrated memoir, Travels with Lizbeth, recounts three years that he spent homeless with his dog as his only reliable companion. To avoid firing, Eighner left his job at a state psych hospital in Texas after speaking to the way that conditions there should have been versus the way they were as a matter of policy and inertia.
While he succeeded in selling stories to magazines of a certain niche, he couldn’t pay the rent, could not find other work and was not of a profile that would have qualified him for assistance. He had no children. He was not an addict. He was not a military veteran dealing with PTSD. He was SOL and soon on the streets, and then unable to qualify for food stamps because he was without a home with a kitchen.
Eighner, disturbingly, describes a social services system in his native Texas that did more to perpetuate social workers in employment than it did to help people in genuine need.
Life without a home was at once difficult and uncertain — and freeing. His connection with world events and the deliberations of legislative bodies was severed. Over time, he wrote, his desire to reach for a found “gaudy bauble” was sated.
“I think this is an attitude I share with the very wealthy — we both know there is plenty more where what we have came from,” Eighner wrote. “Between us are the rat-race millions who nightly scavenge the cable channels looking for they know not what.”
We do better than that, of course, most of us in the middle, better than just habitually turning to one another to ask what’s new on Netflix. We are, after all, the folks whose labors and discards make the lifestyles of people at the extremes possible.
To stay mentally healthy, we must connect, yes, and also disconnect — not by turning on and dropping out — but via running, yoga, fishing, fandom, dancing, reading and other helpful activities. In such a way, we can escape expectations, overstimulation, boundaries, political come-ons, advertising messages and countless distractions.
Noah Strycker, one of the world’s top birders, knows what it is to disconnect and simultaneously reconnect. In his book, Birding Without Borders, he writes about visiting the world’s most remote locations.
“Before leaving home (in the U.S.), I’d paid close attention to the global news,” he writes, “but here in a tiny village in central Brazil, the news felt very far away indeed. Now that I was traveling the planet, each day deepening my connection with its great wealth of birds and birders, media stories seemed to apply to some other universe in which I had no part.”
On the walls of lakeside lodges across the country hang lacquered cedar plaques upon which appears a quote from Herbert Hoover: “The Lord does not deduct from the hours of man time spent fishing.” Neither birding, perhaps.
“Birds stitch together even the farthest parts of our globe and teach us that borders are just lines drawn on a map — a lesson we can all take to heart,” Strycker writes.
We all might benefit by adopting a bird’s point of view.