By starting my days with a deliberate decision to focus on the person in front of me and not a screen, I set a new standard for what deserved my attention.
Conferences can get expensive fast. There’s the cost of the conference registration itself, fees for any pre-conference activities, fees if you need to join the organization or renew a past membership, lodgings, food and incidentals, and travel, not to mention extra money set aside for shopping and catching up with friends in the area. This year, I quickly maxed out my budget for the annual international education conference that I always attend. Looking for alternative housing options seemed like the best idea.
I remembered a website that I used to secure a mountaintop cabin last winter and started digging around for options in Philadelphia. After multiple searches, I kept coming back to a brownstone in Society Hill. A German woman was renting out her third story, which included a private patio overlooking the city.
I made a reservation…but with some reservations. When I travel on business, the hotel room is my sanctuary to unwind in after a day of sensory overload. Hours of end of intense listening, furious note-taking, walking (OK, running) to the next session, and networking pave the way to social exhaustion, and I always look forward to some quiet time in the hotel to recharge my batteries. I wondered how it would feel to stay with a stranger for a week while they were home, and if I would have enough privacy and serenity.
On the first day of the conference, Isolde met me at the front door with a warm smile and showed me around. She was an aggressively handsome woman with spiked grey hair and round glasses, and taller than I had imagined. A trail of narrow stairs and unexpectedly quaint accents (patchwork monsters from Where The Wild Things Are were a sweet touch) led to the secluded top floor where I would set up camp. The bedroom was French country; the patio featured a wrought iron dining set flanked by decorative antiqued gardening tools. “In the mornings,” she said as I surveyed my new surroundings, “I can make you breakfast.”
“Oh, that’s so nice but not necessary!” I started. “There are things to eat at the conference, and coffee too—”
She narrowed her eyes. “You really want conference coffee?”
I am the furthest thing from a morning person. I dread getting up at 5 or 6am the way people dread public speaking or going to the dentist. But Isolde’s earnestness motivated me to set my alarm even earlier than I had planned for my early morning sessions and workshops. I descended the stairs to the dining room and saw a spread that could have easily fed six. Local breads wrapped up in a warm cloth inside a basket, homemade jams labeled with tiny flags, yogurts, fresh juices, a sugar bowl topped with little brown sugar stars from Germany. “Put the stars in your coffee,” she urged. “No one ever takes the stars!”
I took the stars. I sipped Isolde’s fresh coffee and spread her kumquat jam on a piece of toast while we talked. During the first morning, I learned that Isolde worked as a hairdresser before she retired but now loves to cook, spend time with her family and friends, and open her home to guests. She asked about my conference and career, my home and hobbies. As I got up to leave, she made no immediate move to clean up but instead walked me to the door. “Thank you for letting me fix you breakfast,” she said. “It’s so nice to just talk. I see people out all the time at restaurants and everyone has their phones out, or has at least set them on the table. It makes me sad; that they are not enjoying what is there.” As I closed the door behind me, I breathed a sigh of relief that my phone had been tucked away in my purse during our conversation.
An interesting thing happened that week. My daily breakfasts with Isolde – a space set aside for two strangers to get to know each other – recalibrated my interaction with the world around me. I began to pay attention to Philadelphia. Really pay attention.
I hadn’t bought a smart phone until 2012, and was probably the last among my friends to own one. I never used it much beyond talking, texting, and Googling random actors in the middle of the night until I started working in D.C., Land of Eternal Connectedness. Commutes are long and tedious, and less eye contact and small talk on the train means more time buried in your own lap. Even when we’re not on public transportation, the hectic pace of the nation’s capital means that we check our phones more often for fear of missing the latest breaking news. This culture has had a drastic impact on my relationship with my phone, and even though I used to leave it in another room for hours on end and not care, I now catch myself mindlessly refreshing apps instead of concentrating on the movie I’m watching or the book I’m reading.
By starting my days with a deliberate decision to focus on the person in front of me and not a screen, I set a new standard for what deserved my attention. I shared material on social media from the conference, of course, and messaged my partner, but generally noticed that my phone usage was limited to those specific actions: having conversations with those close to me, taking photos of a new place and new experiences, and sharing those photos online. I noticed a reduction in the amount of time I spent aimlessly scrolling or refreshing – and how refreshing that was!
As my screen time dwindled, I also became much more motivated to explore my physical surroundings. I walked everywhere, sometimes close to 10 miles a day. I understood my way around the city and was able to abandon my reliance on my GPS more quickly. One night, I spent almost three hours at a local bar talking with a couple about music and movies, sharing our favorite songs with one another on the jukebox. The only time I touched my phone was to save their number.
But most of all, the less I was immersed in a screen, the happier I was. Numerous studies over the past few years have linked excessive screen time to depression. Social media apps in particular promise a virtual playground where you can hang out with all 700 of your friends, but the addictive properties of these apps, the social isolation they foster, and the constant comparing of our lives to others’ have significant negative impacts on our mental health. If I’ve been able to live most of my life without a screen constantly in front of my face, I reasoned in Philadelphia, I could do it now.
So thank you, Isolde, for making me pause, for encouraging me to ditch the pocket computer for conversation with someone new. In the interest of not missing out on the world around me, here’s hoping it sticks.
Chelsea Cristene is an international student adviser, English professor, and graduate student based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, The Establishment, and MamaMia, and has appeared on HuffPost Live. Find her on Twitter.