I think that today was marked by extreme feelings of anxiety and shame. I posted yesterday’s post to the Best American Poetry blog in the morning around 8am or 9am today and then linked the post to both my Facebook and Twitter accounts but quickly realized that because of my rules, there was no way to know if anyone liked it, if anyone read it or to check in on “how it was doing.” The anxiety started right after I posted it to social media. I wanted feedback and reassurance and suddenly felt extremely vulnerable. It occurred to me, after all, that one of my Facebook “friends” could say something disparaging about my writing and there would be nothing that I could do about it. Normally, if I was letting myself use Facebook, I would quickly delete a rude comment and maybe go into a short diatribe about trolls.
This fact leads me to yet another aspect of social media, being a woman and social media labor. The amount of extra work that I have to do deleting comments from men who harass me online, blocking trolls, receiving their unwanted messages on multiple platforms is actually a lot of work. It’s not something that we often think about in terms of what goes into maintaining an online presence, but it’s certainly real labor and extra labor for women.
In any case, as I left my house for work in the morning, I was already feeling insecure. I live in Florida but I work in South Georgia, so it takes me a good 45 minutes to get to work. Of course, I left my cell phone behind at home, following my rules. The strange thing is that I really wanted to get to work as quickly as possible and get in front of my computer even though I knew cognitively that all of the old “rewards” for doing so would be absent. No one was going to “like” anything and even if they did, I wouldn’t be able to see it; I wasn’t going to be able to read outrageous news about the Trump administration. Having fired my employers (CNN, Facebook and Twitter, Politico, even DemocracyNow and a million other websites), there was literally no reason to rush to work at all. After all, I had finished my grading yesterday at Panera in no time.
When I got to work, I did something that I ordinarily don’t do: I read every work email that came in. To be honest, I usually ignore a lot of nonstudent work emails that don’t seem important at the moment and then read them later. But, since my rule was only to check my personal email twice a day, I figured might as well read each and every work email right now. To my horror, I opened the work email called “TU Announcements,” and found a link to the Best American Poetry Blog that I had posted just hours before. Normally, I would be getting all of the feedback and support I needed online from my social media networks having posted some of my writing but because I didn’t have this at all, I felt extremely self-conscious, almost like I had been found out at my work environment and I didn’t have the internet to comfort me.
I immediately called the publicity person at my school. “Cindy,” I said, “how on earth did you get the link to that blog post?” “Ohhhhhh,” she replied, “We use something called (sorry I can’t remember the name it had the word ‘crawler’ in it) blah blah blah crawler and any time the university’s name comes up we get a link to the content.” I realized that the name of the university where I teach was in the bio I provided. For the next few hours I walked around campus feeling weirdly ashamed and humiliated. My colleague Lisa said, “I have not read your blog, but you should be proud of your writing!” I think that my cheeks felt flushed for the first time since I was a teenager. Then, the chair of my department yelled from across the hall, “Get in Panera jail!” Of course he was kidding, but I could barely manage a “did you like my post?”
My feelings of shame and vulnerability surprised me and I wasn’t quite sure where they were coming from. My hypothesis was that the lack of immediate feedback was creating a space where self-doubt couldn’t immediately be overrided by new content or performance of the “online Sandra Simonds.” Ordinarily, if I posted something and no one liked it, I would post two or three more things to sort of “erase” what had come before thereby negating feelings of shame or humiliation or, I would just delete the post altogether. But, because I couldn’t do this, I had to sit with feelings of failure. The odd thing was that this sense of failure was not based in any “reality.” I mean, I have no clue how many people liked my post. I wondered what the implications were for linking poetry in social media. Were we linking to the poems that we write that are more “likable” simply to reinforce a positive sense of self and negate feelings of self-doubt and shame? And what implication did this had in terms of the dissemination of poetry since the more things are “liked” or shared, the more people read them?
Anyway, at around 12:30, I went to teach my Composition class. We were reading “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka. I told the class that Kafka asked his editor (or friend or both? I’m not using the internet so I can’t look it up) Max Brod to burn all his manuscripts and that luckily Brod decided not to do that. I asked the class why a writer would want to burn his papers. There was silence. Finally, one student said, “maybe Kafka didn’t want other people to copy his writing.” “Possibly,” I answered. Then someone said, “Maybe he just wanted his privacy.” Maybe. After class, I wondered what it would be like to burn down all traces of my writing. I guess that would mean burning down the internet. Burning down google documents. Burning down gmail. Burning down social media but that all seems so impossible.
It was weird walking around my own campus feeling like people had read my work, that my privacy had been invaded even though this wasn’t true. After all, my writing was meant to be public, so why did I feel so awkward? Maybe because like everything online, we want to individualize everything, including our audiences. Because my writing ended up in a “non-intended” audience, it was deeply embarrassing. I ran into a colleague on my way back to my office after teaching. “I feel so embarrassed that Cindy linked to that blog post,” I said. My colleague said, “Oh don’t be. I mean I haven’t read it yet.” And then I realized that it’s pretty likely that these people have much, much more to do than read my blog post and that they are not reading work email and are probably distracted by their phones and lives too.
In the early afternoon, I drove home and listened to NPR. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t listen to NPR but would be on my phone sort of reading news articles about Trump, texting my friends and driving home at the same time. But, since I couldn’t do this and longing for some form of communication, even if it was only in one direction, NPR was the best I could do. A news report came on about Kurt Cobain and how if he hadn’t killed himself, he would have turned 50 years old today. In the news report, the biographer they were interviewing said that there was a vigil for Kurt after he died and Courtney commanded the audience to shout, “Fuck you, Kurt.” I don’t have any recollection of this happening in 1994. Maybe it’s common knowledge, but I guess I just don’t remember it. I guess Courtney was so upset with Kurt for killing himself, seeing it as a selfish act or whatever, that she wanted the grieving audience to feel the anger and loss that she felt. Maybe I am misunderstanding what happened, but having no internet, there’s no way for me to find out. The weird feelings of shame that I had felt all day sort of culminated in this moment listening to this report on Kurt Cobain driving back to Florida. It seemed wrong to shame someone for killing himself, especially in that public way. I began to have no clue anymore what audiences were for. To shame the dead? To consume art? I felt sort of sad and depressed, and in the back of my mind, I wondered if my fiancé had read my blog post. I noticed some kind of hawk circling high above the trees and it was pretty.
When I got home, around three in the afternoon, I immediately went for my cell phone like a true addict. I had two new voicemails. Awesome, I thought. Maybe one of my friends called me but when I saw the number, it was a South Georgia phone number and I don’t really have friends in South Georgia. I listened to the first voicemail which was a recorded message saying that there was an active shooter on my campus. The second voicemail, sent a few minutes later, was one that said that the campus was clear and that we could all “go back to our normal routine.” I think if I would have gotten these messages at work, I would have probably had a heart attack. But the fact that I got them at least an hour after they were sent, and in such close succession, suggested that there was some sort of mistake. I checked my text messages. There were a number of colleagues who had texted in a group text and, long story short, there was no real emergency and that some gun had backfired in an on campus celebration of President’s Day. How strange it was that the drama of the active shooter “emergency,” I did not experience in real time, but in retrospect, the pieces of which were easily put together. Having not experienced these voicemails and texts as they were unfolding, drained the entire experience of its meaning or potency.
By late afternoon, I saw that my friend Brian texted. Brian is someone I met at Whole Foods when Hurricane Hermine hit Tallahassee in September. He helped me move my things from one duplex where a tree had crashed through my house, to a duplex down the street.
“Hi Sandra,” Brian texted, “I’m turning 41 today and I think I’m going to hide.”
When I saw Brian’s text, I texted back, “So, I’m doing this experiment. If you want to talk to me, you have to call me this week.”
I had about an hour before I needed to pick my kids up from after school care. The thought crossed my mind that I could make Brian cupcakes for his birthday. The old voice in my head, the ghost came back…..well, there’s nothing to do, so might as well. At this point, I was mad at the voice in my head. I mean, this is NOT the way I think. I make nice things for the people I care about. That’s who I am. Except my ex-employers kept calling. There’s something you are missing, Facebook, Twitter, CNN, said. I resisted the voices and made my friend cupcakes.
After I picked up my kids from school, I called Brian and he came over and we all celebrated my 41st birthday. I told him about my experiment. “Be careful, Sandra,” he said. “I gave up Facebook for lent one year and I never went back.” I asked him why he gave it up. “Because I was spending too much time tending my farm in Farmville.” Farmville? I thought. He must have given Facebook up a while ago.
In any case, spending time with Brian did do something unexpected. It alleviated my shame from earlier in the day and put it into perspective. I’m not exactly how this happened or why it did, but talking about politics, riots, race in America with an actual human being instead of fighting with people online about politics, was far more nuanced and, frankly, less aggressive. It seemed more like a conversation and less like a battleground. By the time he left, I really didn’t care if anyone liked my blog post or not. I put my kids to bed and the day was over.
The logic that I didn’t understand, that was the most upsetting for me throughout the day was that fact that I would engage in activities since “there was nothing else to do” as if the other world was so much greater, so much more awesome than the one that I was living in. This, I think is what is so frustrating and disingenuous about “mindfulness” culture and commands to “live in the present.” How was anyone supposed to do that on top of working for all of our corporate overseers? I could barely do it and I had walked away from them for this experiment. My logic was always the same: If I made cupcakes for Brian, deep down, it was because there wasn’t anything else going on. Whatever it was that I did in the “real” world took on this kind of logic too. I kept thinking of the Dickinson line “I live in possibility/ a finer house than prose.” Or whatever she says, again I’m not looking it up.
By late evening, I was beginning to suspect that we are starting to feel most comfortable when we are being exploited by our corporate overseers 24 hours a day nonstop and the addictive quality of the internet had not only changed our behavior but also our cognition—our sense of self, our identity, our total being.
In bed, I kept thinking of that audience at Kurt Cobain’s vigil being commanded to yell “Fuck you, Kurt!” I had anxiety that I was probably misremembering the story and even more anxiety that I couldn’t look up the details to “get it right.” I imagined Twitter, Facebook, CNN, Democracy Now, Politico, Instagram, fake news sites, yelling “Fuck you, Sandra!” and I felt helpless again. I didn’t know who to apologize to, though. I looked at the voicemails on my phone. There were a number of them that somehow I missed. My friend Dan had called and left a message. It was nice to hear a friend’s voice. I listened to the message twice. I think he said that leaving a message, he felt like he was in the 1990s. I wanted to call Dan back right away but I didn’t. What if I am interrupting him at home? I didn’t know what to do. Since I couldn’t text him back, due to the rules of my experiment, I was sort of in a bind. I decided not to call him back and I didn’t text him either. I let it go. I figured as the week unfolded, I would know what to do. Hey Dan, if you read this, call me back!