The Early Divesters

One by one, they vanished from our feeds. Sometimes they announced “I’m taking a break,” but mostly they simply disappeared. We posted birthday wishes they never received, tagged them in photos they never saw. If we noticed, we resolved to make the effort to get back in touch. We got distracted. We’re always getting distracted. They were getting distracted too, they said when we finally contacted them, their manner almost apologetic. They got busy with work, or the kids, they said with a shrug. “I guess I just needed to unplug.”

They downgraded their phones to handsets that couldn’t browse the Web, run apps, or take pictures. They couldn’t bring themselves to leave behind texting, but their phones rarely beeped, buzzed, or alerted, because they set boundaries on what could interrupt them and what could wait. Their phones stayed mostly in their pockets. In the interstitial spaces like bus stops, queues, waiting rooms, and toilets, they had to lift their gazes and occupy themselves with something else. Cultural commentators called them “Early Divesters,” inverting technology’s Early Adopters. But they didn’t learn of the label because they no longer read the sites that published such commentary. They became less broad in their reading, but more selective. Some took to carrying around paperbacks, having rediscovered their impulse-buy pile from the days when there were still bookstores. Each filled the reclaimed time differently, to his or her own habit. Most of those first Early Divesters had entered the workforce during the first tech bubble, found themselves exhausted in the latest bubble, and could remember their offline habits.

They found themselves with more time to think, which was neither good nor bad. They had a jumble of ideas at the beginning, but they restrained themselves from posting them because they began to suspect that most of their thoughts didn’t merit an audience of more than a select few. They got lonely, as we all get lonely, so they reached out. Their voice call annoyed us at first (who DOES that anymore?) but we got together for dinner. It was not without awkwardness. They asked us what’s been going on, which annoyed us again, because we’d already crafted those sentences and illustrated them with photos, and we were tempted to whip out our phones to show them the posts. But we aren’t completely lost to civility, so we cobbled together our stories because we do know that “catching up” is about relating, not exchanging information. Conversation got easier as the evening grew late and the wine flowed. We found ourselves talking more about feelings, which always felt gauche online, but in person felt quietly momentous. When we parted, later than we should have, we said “we should do this more often,” and, at the time, we meant it.

We think about them more than we talk to them. They are on the other side of a rift of choices we find ourselves considering more each passing month. We think about where we get our validation, and wonder if the emptiness we feel is from devoting too much energy chasing micro-affirmations. We turn the idea over in our minds, and it begins to sound like a great subject for a post — and then we stop ourselves, catching the irony. To be alone with our thoughts… Our thumbs begin to itch.

Absence

We grow up commemorating the birthdays of those we love, the number of years they’ve been a presence in the world. At some point, we start counting, deliberately or not, the number of years they’ve been absent from the world and our lives. This absence has a form. It’s discernible around the edges where our loved ones intersected with us, the momentary vertigo of space where you expected a step. Arundhati Roy’s person-shaped holes in the universe. These absences acquire age as well as form, and they live with us for a time. Or maybe the rest of our lives. Dad’s absence is two years old.

My mother and I talk about the last day, about how it could have been different had we known, and concluding, as we have many times before, that it was the best it could have been. Just a few days after his son and daughter-in-law spent a long weekend with him, his granddaughter doing somersaults in front of his chair to keep him entertained, even the dog resting by his side, knowing, in the way that dogs do. And then, sitting beside my mother in a quiet house, he drifted to sleep, and then into something deeper. Free at last from ALS. Spared from submitting to strangers under home hospice care. We had been saying our goodbyes for months. It was okay to let go.

Mom and I, and those who loved him, will continue to celebrate his entry stamp on February 23, and mourn his exit stamp on September 5. And we’ll do our best to cherish the memory of his presence.