on hiatus

or how to delete your account

by tavis gray

What if memory is finite? That’s all I could think about. That and carpal tunnel syndrome. It was the middle of summer and it was too much, seeing everything and feeling nothing. I had to remove myself from the mouth of the beast, save my hippocampus and thumb from feeding themselves to each other. I’d send my cage to the cleaners without a return address and in this way I would not be tempted to stray. I would emerge at the end improved, numbness overcome, my method washed up on shore for others to marvel about, to say: wow, someone out there figured it all out. He must be very handsome, too. 

I spent the month of August off social media. I say “off” but I mean “expelled.” I entrusted a friend with my passwords, which were then promptly changed, and that was it. I walked out into the sunshine and wondered where the people of earth got their dopamine these days. I’m not sure what I thought I’d find. I did know what I wished for, which was space. Space to think for myself, to take off the mask, to treat breathing less like lol and more like a function of life. Maybe what I wanted was time. In the choice of how to spend what I have of it, what any of us have of it, I have consistently chosen the infinite scroll. I wake in the morning and reach for my phone. I sit in traffic and reach for my phone. I twirl a fork at dinner, surrounded by people, friends, and reach for my phone. I don’t get anything substantive out of this distraction, either. Instagram has me chasing aesthetic and Twitter has me attending crisis, and neither are paying me to do either of those things. If social media improves my life at all it is in ways I cannot determine—another angle of this late summer experiment, or a fog to cut through, I’m not sure.

The first week felt amazing. The second through fourth felt pretentious. There was shame in the air when I told anyone about this choice. Why did I feel the need to abstain? Why could I not just cut down time, self-police? Was there some righteousness I felt in the task? Did I look down my nose? I felt this tension in solemn nods and subject changes. But I saw the point. In some way I had lost jurisdiction over my own actions, over how I walked through the world—that’s what had lead me to withdraw. I covered my embarrassment in books. 

Lost of my hours-long Instagram bedtime routine, I stayed up with James Baldwin and Lydia Davis. Home from work, I’d collapse onto the couch, turn on every fan in the room, and read three acts of a play before dinner. I created a new routine. At once I worried if I was replacing one tonic with another, less muddied, perhaps, but tonic all the same. Then over weeks I realized that I was learning, thinking actively, going on walks with sentences in my head, not tweets, and I cared less what was tonic and what was not. 

Off Twitter, I got my news slow. Days would pass before someone would inform me of something inevitably noteworthy and awful. I felt like I was living before the steam engine. I tried to get ahead; I read the New York Times between tasks at work. Even then, I only refreshed the Style section. 

The longer I disappeared the farther I got from everyone around me. I didn’t know about new memes. I was clueless about anything going on with celebrities, with critics, with death. I didn’t know about Toni Morrison until NPR ran an old interview days later. To compensate, I sought out everything about her I could find in print: bylines, reviews, captions beneath society photos. I flipped through pictures of her dancing in the dark. I realized this moment, Morrison getting her life, braless, free, was just that—a moment. She wasn’t living to be captured. She wasn’t thinking of a pithy caption as the camera flashed. I know the flaws in this thinking. There is a difference of time, of access. But I worry about agency, and if I’m giving mine up. Morrison never seemed to. 

Cleansing and fasting are different. I knew the whole time I would return, I would eat grease, I would again salt my life with curation. I dreaded the morning I would wake up and reach for my phone. I knew this hiatus would not bring with it a sea change. But I hoped at least for something shallow—that I would now fill moments in line at the grocery store not with breaking news or images of french resorts, but with observation, with eye contact, with thoughts that coat like good olive oil, drift from the pan with substance and scent. I hoped to think less of how my life was represented to others. I wondered then how I may represent my life to myself. I thought of my feet hitting the floor, finding my way from the bathroom to the kitchen where I’d put on a pot of coffee. I’d make toast and look out the window and there would be my first waking view of the world. A bird may fly by. A bird may even coo. 

I asked for my passwords back on August 30th, a day early. We were going into the holiday weekend, friends would be traveling, I was tired of looping myself out. I wanted to deal with the dread and I wanted to get it over with. I downloaded Instagram (Twitter can remain in hell), watched it vibrate into place and felt an eagerness, felt I was doing something prurient or obscene. I went immediately to posts I knew existed—I had gone into the desert with friends two weeks before, and photos had been taken; I’d thought of them in moments of weakness: how I looked, how I would be perceived, if I’d hate my chin or my teeth. 

I pinched my fingers on the screen, zoomed into my face. Pixels obscured my nose, cheeks. My eyes were dark and focused on the lens. My mouth, however, appeared clear, open and curling at the edge. I was about to say something pithy. 

Decalcomania, René Magritte, 1966.

Decalcomania, René Magritte, 1966.

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