I stand in the square in Nijmegen and the hour changes, heralded down by a tune played out in bells. I am stilled. They play a melody, simple and bright and I am truly not in Ireland, and this is not the Angelus, but I stop and look up. Then, I take out my phone and bring it up to the ornate tower in the near-distance, against a blue sky, capturing the singular rings of the bell. It’s cold and I’m in Holland, and I’ve had a weird few weeks, amounting to an even weirder year. My phone is still in my hand but without it, I think, as I steal this moment of video, I would be in real trouble. I have promised myself a migration to a flip-phone, a more straightforward thing, but it’s starting to feel like it’s not just the phone that’s the problem, it’s the way I am living – but to sacrifice that is to sacrifice moments like this one. Alone, in the Netherlands, brought here by books – to talk about books.
There are rare times when I travel where I feel like I can inhale some of a new place. Where I feel away, instead of just at work. When the scream of tinnitus and fear and email just isn’t there, weirdly, and briefly. This moment was one of them, and I’m a bit ashamed of raising Instagram stories in the air to catch the sound and the look of it. As though, sometimes the camera on my phone is a device that captures reality and makes it more real, as though recording life makes it in some way more authentic. This I think is the problem with being compelled to write, too: nothing just happens, everything is a story – and in a way, owning a camera that I can just innocuously use to take pictures of the mundane details of my life, makes everything a story, too.
A playing card found on the ground on Tuesday up by Beggar’s Bush – the nine of hearts corresponds to the Rider-Waite tarot as the nine of cups. That’s the card of very-almost completion. Of satisfaction. Of plenty. Of being mindful when things are good, and sharing the good that you have. A good omen. I took a picture of it with my scruffy Nikes on the wet road, as though the sight of it wasn’t enough. The picture was.
I do not feel like this life is one that was meant for me, but I have somehow stolen it. Taking pictures, tiny videos, helps make all the movement feel more real. This is my last step away of 2019, I think. I think I am home for December, so I am savoring it. I flew in at 6am on Thursday, and am writing this column on a train, my flight departing at 8pm on Friday, shortly after this column goes live. That makes around 40 hours in Holland, a blur, a bright conversation with students, a pint, a night mostly awake in a hotel bed curled, as usual around my laptop. I must have fallen asleep, because I didn’t feel the screen go black and die in some quiet hour. I don’t think too much about it. I probably should have thought more about it.
My phone dies shortly after the bells. I realize sharply that the little charging-brick in my bag is also dead. Dead brick, dead laptop, dead phone. No international travel adapter. A flight to get – my boarding passes loaded into an app on my phone. Notes to transcribe.
Frankly, I am fucked, and upon the realisation of this feel my heart-rate tick up. The tinnitus in my ears rises like a bad song, like the opposite of the holy bells. I need to find a charger and I am trapped, abroad, if I don’t have one.
Similarly to not being able to immediately put down the internet and move on with a normal life, I am not able to operate without my phone if I intend to get home tonight. This is an infuriating thought, how dependent and disorganized and frankly, spoilt I have become because of it. All of these tiny metal crutches making this movement across the world possible. I don’t even have any Dutch, despite my year working with a company in Antwerp and holding all of these corpsed out, useless pieces of technology, I neither have a map to find a place I can buy a charger, or a translation application to help me not be a hideous tourist who insists on speaking their native tongue instead of at least, trying in the local language.
I could feel the change from freedom, to tethered, like a snap.
The navigation towards a charger is mundane, but I got one, and it was fine. An inconvenience at the very most. It’s not the inconvenience itself that is the problem here: it’s the fact that I forgot, for a second, that these objects aren’t just awake because I’m awake. It’s because I relied too heavily on them: and do, always, rely too heavily on them. Camera, note app, internet, boarding pass after boarding pass, company while I sleep alone in foreign countries. I am rising in certainty that dialing back my scroll-time isn’t going to save me from a poisoned life: it’s how I live, facilitated by the ease of access that the internet gives. That maybe the internet isn’t the only problem: it’s the pace.
I have desperately wanted to live a slower life for a long time, but my life has increased in pace instead. It feels so helpless to admit I have no idea how to slow down – it feels worse to admit that there are things to be sacrificed for that slowness, things that may never come back once I walk away from them. Freelance living and the gig economy have instilled a bone-deep fear in me that one ‘no’ could topple everything I have worked for. That moments like that one, in the square, the air full of bells and me full of bells too – will end, if I stop.
I am certain that not only do I need to log off, but I need the rest of my life to slow down. And, obviously, I have no idea where to start. Like having a dead phone and no charger and no idea where to get one while abroad would freak anyone out – but I do not like feeling trapped. Like, I am about to be in a lot of trouble. And every so often I can feel the walls of the cage the internet has placed me in, or, more honestly, that I have walked into and merrily locked the door behind me. That trapped feeling comes no more starkly than when contrasted by a moment so gorgeous as the one I tried to capture in the square.
The video is tiny, and if the listener turns up the volume they can hear the metronomic ring of the bells – but the melody that played before they started is over. That bit was just for me, on my own there, in the cold and bright. It felt incredible – but in writing about it into a screen, it changes again, doesn’t it. There’s no one way through this: just one week at a time.