by ZAN MCQUADE

I can’t remember the last time I was truly alone.

I’ve been in rooms by myself, of course—alone in the physical sense many times—but none of those times was I actually by myself. In my pocket (or more likely my hand) was a bustling group of people chirping away, having an ongoing conversation on a multitude of topics. A steadily flowing stream of Facebookers pontificating on politics or child-rearing. A constantly updated gallery of photos of cityscapes on Instagram. 

Someone is saying something somewhere at all times, and most of the time, I’m listening. I’ll be drinking my coffee in the backyard, whizzing my thumb along a glass screen, listening in as the people chatter away. I scroll and I click and I read, and before too long I’m no longer sitting in my backyard with a cup of coffee in my hand, but sitting in some other room, having a conversation with hundreds of people at once, laughing at all of their jokes, saying my, that’s a nice picture, poking and favoriting and retelling what they said to hundreds of people who may also happen to be listening to me.

I’m in line at the post office in Ohio, but visiting a friend in Seattle and eavesdropping on her neighbors with her. I’m in line at the local sandwich shop, but watching a stranger in Thailand eat lunch with her children in the shade or someone in California meditating on a porch beneath a cluster of blossoming white hydrangeas. I’m in line at the drive-through, but not really there at all: I’m somewhere else entirely. Act locally, live globally.

When we were younger, the concept of virtual reality was a magical promise of visiting other worlds. Those clunky helmets with darkened Oakley-style glasses, once plugged in, catapulted you into a three-dimensional vision of our own choosing, lasers and unicorns, soundtracked by Kraftwerk. 

Now we’re all plugged in all the time, attached at the palm to alternate realities all of our own choosing. Unicorn pictures and laser cats, Spotify soundtracks. Google Glass is an obvious extension of these helmets, but even more pervasive are our own little ways of putting on those helmets and traveling to other worlds. The moment we pick up our smartphones and our iPads—the moment we turn on our television and dial in to whatever we choose to stream—our world, our real world, fades into the background, and we enter our new virtual reality. 

Just now my phone buzzed on my desk. Pavlov’s dog, I picked it up right away: a message from my cousin in New York City. Last night he sent me a picture of a restaurant I’d once recommended to him, asking me to “name that decor.” I knew it right away: Egg’s Nest, New Paltz. There I was in a friend’s moonlit backyard in Kentucky, visiting a restaurant in upstate New York I hadn’t been to in 13 years. In that moment I’d slipped off to the side to grab another beer, I was not in Kentucky at all. I was transported across the country, across the years, to a place once visited after a hayride through an apple orchard, to a meal once tasted. And the beautiful little lights in the tree above me in Kentucky disappeared, and the moon, and the smell of the cedarwood in the fire pit and the citronella candles faded, and I was elsewhere, fallen into a screen, no longer processing what was going on around me. Not real reality: in that moment, virtual reality. 

We remind ourselves over and over that this isn’t healthy. Or we justify it: Some of my best friends are online… How magical to visit these other worlds… But for the sake of reality, we know that we have to step away once in a while. Several people online have written (online, of course) about ways to have a healthy relationship with the Internet, and every list of advice begins the same: Don’t let it be the first thing you do when you get up in the morning. I’ve tried this several times, and it’s disgusting to realize how magical it is to set aside the Internet for a personal visit with the trees, the wind, the sun. We Internet dwellers tend to speak much about our surroundings, noting the weather, the song we just heard, someone who said something hilarious in a cafe. But as we spend all this time documenting the reality of what’s happening around us, the question for me becomes increasingly: What are we to document if we’re spending the whole time documenting, if our focus is redirected solely onto these little screens? What are we actually consuming when our consumption happens more often than not though a machine? 

The healthiest users of the Internet I know are those who spend quality time with life outside the screen. The ones who realize they can have a moment that doesn’t need to be tweeted. The ones who realize that you know you’re having a good time when you don’t once reach for your phone. The ones who will go days without checking Facebook, and when they come back there they have such magical stories to share: This is what I saw, this is what I smelled, this is what I tasted while I was away living my life. My real life. We forget that our lives are lived most interestingly on the outside of this little glowing box, and that when we live full offline lives, we have more to contribute online. Virtual reality used to be the most fascinating thing in the world; now virtual reality is only interesting if our real reality is what comes first. 

Whenever my husband and I pass someone on a riding mower buzzing away the grass at the side of the road, we always say to each other, “That looks like fun.” I’ve started to take it to mean something different. Every shirtless man I see steering his John Deere over the grass, both hands on the steering wheel, is alone with his thoughts in that moment. His reality is real, and his solitude is meaningful. I remember how good it is to be alone with your thoughts, in the moment. Listening to the sound of the mower, feeling the bugs leap up from the meadow, the smell of gasoline and grass and sweat. That looks like fun, I say wistfully, then glance at my phone, remembering when that was reality. 

Zan McQuade is a writer, editor, photographer, translator, and baseball enthusiast living in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her words and images can be found at www.thatcupoftea.com.

Photo via Grant Matthews/Flickr