Emailing Mother Theresa: On Losing the Art of Gazing

I sent my first email in 1996. My boyfriend at the time had a computer, and the computer had internet. He sent emails all the time. When I was working on a project with PATH (Program for Appropriate Technology in Health) to develop a salivary ferning microscope that was cost-efficient enough to be distributed to impoverished women in India and Africa, I was asked for my email address. My boyfriend said I could use his. 

One afternoon, my colleague at PATH forwarded an email from Mother Theresa. She was giving PATH her approval of the device. Once you get an email from Mother Theresa, there isn't much else to anticipate (Note to the 20000 senders of emails I've received since: you understand). The project got tanked along the way, despite my patchwork re-design that involved a cardboard kaleidescope from a child's birthday party and a 50x magnifying glass. I waited another two years to get my own email address, and another two passed before I started to actually "use" the internet, which I did because I was a teacher and had to teach my students how to use it. Now I always use it.

Nicholas Carr is coming to Asheville to speak about his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains on September 28 at 7 p.m. at AB-Tech. It is part of my job as Program Co-ordinator of the Master of Arts in Writing Program at Lenoir-Rhyne University Center for Graduate Studies of Asheville to promote the event. As often happens in tasks relating to writing, it is now a meditation.

I am reflecting on how the internet has changed my brain. I don't like how my brain feels when it has to look at itself and ask this question. It feels wrong. It feels like the first twenty minutes of a therapy session when I don't think I have anything to talk about but sit in the chair anyway. And then it all comes out.

But after that year of emailing with Mother Theresa (which only happened once), I lived (sans boyfriend) in a small cabin on the shores of Sequim Bay, off the Strait of Juan de Fuca. While I suppose I could have had internet since I did have a telephone, I did not. When someone wanted to talk with me, they called me, on a land line, without caller ID. I spent my time sitting on the rocks gazing out at the water, waiting for a seal to break the surface from below or an eagle to break the surface from above. Those were pretty much my choices. Those and the herons and loons and skoters who held the surface, dipping above and below it at will. I learned to gaze.

Gazing was a practice. The longer I gazed, the more I saw. The hours moved slowly, tremendously so. All of nature was my computer screen.

In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr examines how internet grazing has spoiled our appetite, and threatens altogether our literary digestive tract, for real reading. He also directs our attention toward these other implications of having our very plastic neural circuitry reconfigured through practice of computer gazing. I am reminded that I used to gaze at nature in my free time. This practice has now been replaced by cruising the internet for news and information.  Have I lost my patience with stillness and slowness? Do I really get antsy at the beach? Could I go back to that year I got the email from Mother Theresa and sit still on a rock for hours and not wonder if someone "liked" me?

For more information about Nicholas Carr's visit to Asheville on September 28 at 7 pm at Ferguson Auditorium, a free event, please visit And while this is my job to tell you about the event, I'd love to know if you still gaze?


Unknown said…
I off-Internet gaze.

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