The Internet and The Problem of Place

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Here, now

Moving to Germany at age 12, and even at age 20, meant writing letters if I wanted any connection to the place I left. It meant waiting– in line to buy stamps, at home for a reply. It usually took about two weeks for an envelope to come back, the airmail stationary so thin it seemed transparent when I held it up to light.

Waiting was hard sometimes; I remember the impatience, the intermittent sadness of missing the people I wrote. But that waiting time served a purpose too: it made me forget. In those weeks between letters, I had no choice but to live exactly where I was. And I did. When I think back on those times, I don’t remember very much pining, except for the moments when letters came or went. I do remember leading my little brother down pine-soaked forest paths until I had them memorized. I remember ordering vegetables for my mother at the market. I remember riding trains through France, Spain, The Czech Republic, leaning my forehead against rattling windows. I remember riding my bicycle to class, flying down the river road. I remember shrieking with laughter the night my floor mates in the dorm taught me how to tend bar. I remember how hard it was, both times, to leave.

My most recent move to Germany was very different. Before we left, I signed up for a Facebook account, telling myself and others that it would be a great way to keep in touch while we were gone. I imagined that Facebook, with its real-time news feed, could somehow make up for the fact that we were no longer going to live within an easy drive of our parents. I rationalized that our son’s frequent visits with his grandparents would be easily replaced by frequent status updates: “Heading downtown to Schlossplatz!” “Eating Brezel at the Biergarten!” Keeping in touch would be so easy, I told myself, it would be like we never left.

But we did leave. And the more I relied on the internet to make it seem like we hadn’t, the more obvious it became. Suddenly, there was no more waiting, no more forced immersion in the physical world. I didn’t need to wait two weeks to establish contact with the people and place I left; all I had to do was sign into my e-mail, log onto Facebook, ring into Skype, and the old world swam into a strange, shimmery kind of e-focus. “So easy!” I told myself. But then why was I so sad?

The internet created a separate world for me, a shadow of the one I’d left that kept me from really living in my new one. Why work hard to establish a strong network of friends when my real ones were “back home”? Why get to know this neighborhood when I can see photos of my old one on anybody’s “wall”? My friends from home, in kindness, still included me on our group e-mails about playdates and snowshoe excursions and teas, and the e-mails popped in often enough that I could pretend they actually applied to me. My son, a toddler when we moved, and his sister, born in Germany, maintained relationships with their grandparents on Skype. I was grateful for the e-mails and the video calls, but knew as I watched my kids lean into the screen, offering bits of food to my parents on the other end, that my original plan had been a farce. I thought the internet would knit up an ocean’s worth of space and make it disappear. Instead, constant electronic exposure to the old “home” only heightened my sense of separation. Staring at home on a screen wasn’t the same as being there, and I knew it.

I wonder sometimes if a little bit more of the waiting that infused my first two trips overseas would have, in the end, made me less homesick. I often felt overwhelmingly grateful for the online tools that kept me in regular touch with people I deeply missed. Yet I also usually logged off of Facebook feeling vaguely depressed and less motivated to engage with my immediate surroundings.

Now that we’ve moved back to the United States, I’m grappling with a new illusion: the idea that simply being on the same continent would be so much easier for our family relationships than living overseas. Realistically, living a 14-hour drive away from Michigan means that our contact with our parents and old friends looks a lot like it did when we lived in Germany. There’s a lot of Skyping, e-mailing, and Facebooking. Sure, it’s a little easier now because we live in the same time zone, and flying here is much less complicated than it was when we lived in Stuttgart. But those differences don’t change the fact that we’re still far away, far removed from daily life in our old community. We have a new community now, and is it hard for me to immerse myself in it? Yes. I miss my old friends and my old town. I worry a lot about what relationships with family will look like, especially as our parents get older. And Facebook remains a fraught tool for me, alternately comforting and maddening.

I don’t think my feelings of displacement are unique; ABC News recently reported on the acronym FOMO (Fear of Missing Out): “Now that you can see your connections’ lives in real time,” writes Sarah Miller, “you are theoretically always missing something…”Joyce Walder’s New York Times article “In Your Face(book): Here’s the party you weren’t invited to” asserts that “now…there are countless opportunities to feel wounded.”

Most often, I work on a daily basis to immerse myself in my new life. I go outdoors, I plan a garden for spring, I take my kids to the library and the swimming pool and the woods, I invite people to my house. But then I slip back. I go online and a photo of my old town pops up; I stare at it longingly, forgetting to look out my own window. I shift between places, stepping gingerly between worlds, delaying immersion in either.

I know it’s possible to strike a balance, to keep in touch without mourning and to love a new place while honoring an old one. We moved pretty recently, and I know that balance takes time. But while I give it a chance to work, I’m making a conscious effort to live where I am.

Sometimes that’s easy. The other day, the kids, dog and I headed into the yard to sled. The sun was thinking about setting, but we had a little light left. I’d been pulling the baby on her sled while my son hurtled down hills on his, but in a moment he handed me his rope, picked up mine, and started pulling his sister across the field. The dog, running ahead, stopped to look back. The moment passed quickly– of course my daughter got cold and started whining, and my son got tired of pulling. But moments like that ground me where I am and help me deepen a sense of place separate from the virtual world. I’m so glad I snapped a picture. I will not, however, be posting it to Facebook.

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16 thoughts on “The Internet and The Problem of Place

  1. What you say has some truth. We can get too wrapped up in the Internet and trying to leep “in touch” with our family and friends far away that we neglect to make new friends in our new place. There must be a balance between the old and the new. It’s not easy to find that balance. I wish you luck on doing so.

    1. Marie, thanks for your thoughts. I agree that there must be some achievable “balance,” though perhaps it just takes time. When you first move, you trade a situation you knew intimately for one that’s foreign, so that inequality makes it hard to balance old and new. As the new place becomes more familiar, I’m sure it gets easier. We’ll see…

  2. Thanks Sarah! I resonate with your essay as I too look at FB photos of Los Angeles with longing or feel sad about family gatherings that I won’t be able to join. You offer me wise counsel to be present to the Now–thank you.

    Love the image of brother pulling sister on the sled with the light slipping down. Beautiful!

  3. It’s strange — I imagine moving around the world would make all the social media connections seem like looking into a mirror ball. One that only reflects distorted images. But I think your sense of place issues are universal to us all, even if we don’t notice them.

    Connection feels trite sometimes, right? I love that you’ve learned to savor the wait and the reality that comes with it.

    (And I love reading your thoughts!)

    1. That’s a great metaphor, Sarah. Thank you so much for reading. I think you’re right to say that we all must deal with some level of distortion as we occupy our online worlds– even if we don’t physically move around. Social media has created another level of interaction that we simply didn’t use to have– and we have to negotiate how to wisely integrate it into our “real” lives.

  4. Whoa, Sarah, This wonderful article you wrote could not have been better timed for me than this one. First of all, I love your writing—it is if you are talking to me. I want to finish it. Anyway, timing. Every time I return to AZ I am a mess before I leave MI. My friends would describe me as down, depressed,sad, unhappy—AND they would tell you that this exact same thing happens every year. They worry about me. “Don’t you have friends there?” Yes but not ones that I have had for 30-40 years. The ones I do have are couples we have met together and yah know what, none of the women live up to my “standards” of friends. They just don’t compare. Usually once I get here, I adjust and I know I will cry and feel sad when I leave in 4 months but….. My solution for this year has been to write one email a day to one friend telling her if she respond right away she will be on my shit list. ( Kinda funny how hard this is for them. Each one so far has found it necessary to write at least one line before they can control themselves.) But perhaps this is not a good solution. Will it make me sad to hear all of what is going on that I am missing? Would it be better if I just cut myself off from MI and immerse myself here? Do I have the energy to make the effort to make a new friend or should I just immerse myself in another book or the gym? So you can see how your story hit home. I need to take a few leaves out of it for me. Thanks for sending this to us. Please send anything else you do too. Love, Diana

    1. Wow Diana, sounds like we have exactly the same feelings. I really don’t know what the answer is– in some ways I do feel like “cutting myself off” from Michigan would be a wise decision, but then whenever I come across any news from home I feel a lot of heartache, so then I think that probably cutting myself off entirely would just mean I’m in denial and it’s better to acknowledge the feelings as they come. Who knows…I wish you the best in dealing with your feelings of loss and “missing out” because I know them well. If I ever figure out the cure, I’ll let you know!

  5. I read this the other day and really liked your blog post. Your thoughts about social media echo some of my own. Am always so undecided about Facebook and other sites. Even sometimes about blogging… Thanks for articulating this so well and making us think.

    1. Thanks, Kathy. I’m SO glad you blog, because your work is simply gorgeous. Yet I can understand your ambivalence. I think I’m going to give Facebook up for Lent this year and see how I feel! Then, of course, I’ll have to blog about it. 🙂

  6. I loved touching base with you here and hearing where you “are” so to speak. It’s so true that a sense of place is different now . . . this fear of missing out thing is real. I so wonder and worry about our children going through their teenage years (eventually) with that heightened sense of missing out and the potential for wounds, as you said. But they will not have known any other way. Maybe it’s worse for us?

    1. Nina, thanks for stopping by. I also wonder about the effect all this will have on our children. Whereas before we occupied just one clear physical world, we now simultaneously live in two– the physical one and the online one. Even though our kids’ experience is unique because they’ll never have known any different, I also find it almost impossible to imagine going back to life before the internet, even though I can clearly remember it. You’d think that because I lived the majority of my life offline, it wouldn’t be hard to think of returning to that. Yet I can’t. In the different places we’ve lived, my husband and I have prioritized an internet connection over a home phone– that thought would have seemed absurd to me ten years ago, when I didn’t even have a cell phone! The world seems to have changed irrevocably.

  7. I was in the same position as you back in the 80’s – left home, raising a child far from home – but we had no media connection. The isolation I felt and the not living in the now still affected me, even then. I never felt at home until I actually moved back home. Then – twenty years later – I moved overseas. Same scenario different era, same result. I’m not sure that it’s a cyber-world thing – I think some of us just have a deep-rooted sense of “home,” especially when it comes to keeping family connections for our children. I wish you the best in your search for a place. ❤

    1. Stacy, thanks so much for visiting the blog and making this thoughtful comment. It sounds like we’ve had very similar experiences. I think you must be right– that some people just have a more deep-rooted sense of “home” and place than others. I have met people who seem relatively unconcerned by “where” they live, and I’m always somewhat baffled by that because I have such strong and personal reactions to places.

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