I had a shock today. I had assigned two readings to my freshmen students at the University of San Francisco on how easily our various gadgets track us, especially cell phones. One essay was informative, an objective reporting on how the tracking happens and what the legal ramifications are. The other took a much more emotional stance, the author wanting to stress the dangers of being constantly surveilled.
When I asked if the topic concerned them at all, most just shrugged their shoulders. They are accustomed to their parents checking where they are at all times, from when they were in grade school until now. I also learned that many of them have phone apps where they can track their friends and vice versa. I blanched, realizing they had lived their lives not knowing what it means to be free from such scrutiny. If it wasn’t the government keeping a close watch on their activities, then it was their family and/or friends.
While there is something comforting about being held in that kind of web (and here I’m not referring to the World Wide Web), a loving network, it also suggests to me what it’s like to be trapped in a spider’s snare. The idea that none of us can have a moment when we aren’t being scrutinized in some way makes me shudder. What has happened to the notion of privacy and freedom? Am I old-fashioned to think they still are virtues?
When I told my students that I grew up in a very different era, they seemed mildly interested. I spoke of living on a farm in my early years, free to roam at will from sun up till sun down. Though fences marked property boundaries, and I had certain restrictions on my movements, I always could find plenty of open space on the vast Canadian prairies where I could wander and wonder for hours. Only at home, sometimes, when Mum asked me what I was doing or thinking, did I occasionally feel intruded on.
Even though we left the farm and moved to Calgary when I was eight, I still had minimal limitations. I could borrow my uncle Jack’s bike and ride across town to the Glenmore Dam where I spent the day exploring. Or I spent hours at an area where tunnels had worn into the hillside’s sandy soil, speeding down the slope on a piece of cardboard, returning to the top over and over for the thrill of the ride.
No one walked me to school. No one tracked me after school on my way home. Phones weren’t all that prevalent then, so parents weren’t constantly calling one another, checking to see what their kids were doing. Nor were they constantly calling their kids or insisting that the children call them to check in. I had opportunities to test myself against the unexpected and to develop survival skills: someone wasn’t always there to rescue me. The apps that could reveal my movements didn’t exist.
I can only imagine what it must feel like to grow up knowing I’m continuously being watched. To have one’s self regularly penetrated by these digital devices must have an impact on one’s sense of self, creating extreme self-consciousness. Wouldn’t we feel on guard at all times, protective of our hidden parts, fearful of being violated, creating a thick protective shield in response? How difficult it must be to then open oneself up to others at any deep level.
As a child, I had a private self that I didn’t fear someone would breach. I knew what it felt like to be free of unnecessary restraints, the inner freedom to emerge as naturally as a flower does from the original seed. I had and still have a reference point between that earlier free state of mind and when I’m sometimes living in less unrestricted circumstances. But today’s youth are caught within the web created by these digital devices. While it may make them feel connected to others 24/7, I fear it’s at the risk of being disconnected from themselves at some deep level. If our lives are mainly lived on a public stage (cell phones, texting, social network sites, etc.), then when or where is there time for a private self to gestate?
It’s an appropriate question to be asking, I think, on this weekend when some are observing Passover as well as the Christian ritual of resurrection and rebirth. Passover reminds us of the ways we can be enslaved to any number of things and the effort it takes to become free. Easter celebrates Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and symbolizes how we can be reborn in our own lives if we want to leave behind the things we’re enslaved to.
I hope by discussing the two previously mentioned articles with my students that a door has opened within them, allowing another perspective to emerge. Language can be a great vehicle for conveying truths (and lies, unfortunately) if we’re ready to hear them. As I’m reminded each time my husband and I host a Seder, it’s those words recapping the Israeli experience that remind us not only of how we can be enslaved but also of how to become free again.
Pen-L Press will be publishing my novel Fling in 2015. A wildly comic romp on mothers, daughters, art, and death, the book should appeal to a broad range of readers. While the main characters are middle-aged and older, their zest for life would draw readers of all ages, male or female, attracting the youthful adventurer in most people. Though women may identify more readily with Feather and Bubbles’ daughter and mother struggles, the heart of the book is how they approach their aging selves and are open to new experiences. Since art and imagination are key to this narrative, artists of all ages would find something to enjoy. And because the book crosses many borders (Scotland, Canada, the U.S., and Mexico), it also can’t be limited to a specific age group, social class, gender, or region.
My first fan letter for Fling came from an 80 year-old woman who lives in the tiny village of Christina Lake, B.C. My son, who also lives there, had given her my manuscript to read. She said, “I just wanted to express to you how very much I enjoyed your writing. I started it and didn’t stop till I had read it all. I very much like your style and your subtle humor. Thank you for a most enjoyable read. I can’t understand why it hasn’t been scooped up by some publisher. But I know that it will be. In my estimation I know that it is excellent literary work. I am a voracious reader and have been since grade 4. I remember my first book was Tom Sawyer and I have never stopped since then. I go through 4 to 5 books a week. We are so fortunate here at the Lake now. The Library staff in Grand Forks come out here every Wednesday. I have become very fond of the young lady who comes out. She provides me with all the award winning books and orders others for me. Again I want to express to you how very much I enjoyed your manuscript. Have patience my dear….it will be published to wide acclaim I am so sure.” —Joan Fornelli.
Here is a synopsis:
Feather, an aging hippie, returns to her Calgary home to help her mother, Bubbles, celebrate her 90th birthday. Bubbles has received mail from the dead letter office in Mexico City, asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, left there seventy years earlier and only now surfacing. Bubbles’ mother, Scottish by birth, had died in Mexico in the late 1920s after taking off with a married man and abandoning her husband and kids.
A woman with a mission, and still vigorous, Bubbles convinces a reluctant Feather to take her to Mexico so she can recover the ashes and give her mother a proper burial. Both women have recently shed husbands and have a secondary agenda: they’d like a little action. And they get it.
Alternating narratives weave together Feather and Bubbles’ odyssey with their colorful Scottish ancestors, creating a family tapestry. The “now” thread presents the two women as they travel south from Canada to San Francisco and then Mexico, covering a span of about six months. “Now” and “then” merge in Mexico when Bubbles’ long-dead mother, grandmother, and grandfather turn up, enlivening the narrative with their antics.
In Mexico, the land where reality and magic co-exist, Feather gets a new sense of her mother. The Indian villagers mistake Bubbles for a well-known rain goddess, praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, eventually realizes what she’s overlooked.
Meanwhile, Bubbles’ quest for her mother’s ashes (and a new man) has increased her zest for life. A shrewd business woman (she’s raised chickens, sold her crafts, taken in bizarre boarders, and has a sure-fire system for winning at bingo and lotteries), she’s certain she’s found the fountain of youth at a mineral springs outside San Miguel de Allende; she’s determined to bottle the water and sell it.
But gambling is her first love, and unlike most women her age, fun-loving Bubbles takes risks, believing she’s immortal. Unlike her daughter, Bubbles doesn’t hold back in any way, eating heartily, lusting after strangers, her youthful spirit and innocence convincing readers that they’ve found the fountain of youth themselves in this character. At ninety, she comes into her own, coming to age, proving it’s never too late to fulfill one’s dreams.
Fling, a meditation on death, mothers and daughters, and art, suggests that the fountain of youth is the imagination, and this is what they all discover in Mexico. It’s what Bubbles wants to bottle, but she doesn’t need to. She embodies it. The whole family does.