I found the playlist I wanted on Spotify as I pulled into the pharmacy parking lot and was loathe to go through the process of unplugging and queuing it back up again. Instead I grabbed my keys, wallet, and popped out of the car, electing to leave my phone behind. Walking through the sliding doors, an errant thought flashed through my mind: What if there’s a robbery inside and I’m the idiot who didn’t have her phone? I shook my head, telling myself I was being absurd, and determinedly went in without it.
It wasn’t the first time I’ve had that exact thought. A few minutes out in public without the comforting weight of my phone in my pocket inevitably begets the fear of an emergency, be it my own or someone else’s.
A few weeks prior, I found the shoe on the other foot as I faced a dog health emergency. Coming in from the yard, my pup had somehow managed to puncture her side and the wound was so strangely shaped I couldn’t tell if it needed stitches. So like any responsible adult, I frantically called my mother for her expertise. I called, and called, and called to no avail because she never has her phone on her, despite losing her mind whenever her kids or husband don’t carry ours. When I finally got hold of her, I was furious. Here was an actual medical emergency and she’d left the phone in the car to go to the garden center. For 20 whole minutes she was out of pocket, and it seemed like the end of the world.
As an older millennial born in the mid-80s, I’m not a cell phone native. My father who travels for a living, spent the first half of my childhood calling from pay phones to check in at home. It was a big deal when he got a pager in the mid-90s because it meant Mom could finally reach him when he was thousands of miles away to at least let him know he needed to get in touch as soon as he could. “Your daughter needs surgery,” “My dad has cancer,” and “The house was struck by lightning” was all conveyed with a buzz on his hip and the home number flashing. For a mother with two kids and a houseful of animals, it was a difficult way to live.
I didn’t get my first cell phone until I was nearly 15, and even then it only went with me when I traveled alone. I had a friend in California, but I sure as hell never called him on it, nor would he ever think to ring me because the charges were still astronomical. Only my wealthier friends used their phones with any regularity when texting slowly popped up in late high school. More often than not, my phone would be sitting in a drawer for months at a time. When I drove from Northern Virginia to Michigan by myself my freshman year of college, I had written directions and hardwired car phone to get me there safely. And at the time, that was more than enough.
Toward the end of college I went abroad for the better part of half a year, and while they gave me an ancient Siemens brick to top up for local and international calls, I was largely out of reach for most of that semester, talking to my family once a week or so. I don’t think I regularly carried a phone until I got an LG flip phone in shiny powder blue after college graduation, but even still I didn’t think much about leaving it behind to run to the store, and I certainly didn’t pay much or any attention to it at work.
Or rather I didn’t, until I got an iPhone. The iPhone accomplished what Columbine, 9/11, the DC Sniper, the Virginia Tech shootings, and drive-bys into my college dorm could not: it made me constantly stay in touch. I put it in my pocket to walk the dog, I grab it when I’m going from room to room, and if it’s not in my purse when I leave the house, I turn back. I complained as I escalated my career that work dings me 24/7 requiring people to always be connected as an excuse for it always being nearby. As Apple synced texting between devices, I lost that claim as I’d park my phone after work next to my bed, and unless I was leaving the house, refused to be anywhere near it and its work alerts. But my iPad was never far from reach, enabling everyone else, be it by text or social, to be able to find me. Or perhaps more accurately, for me to never be far from instant notification of anything from a terrorist attack abroad to a cute dog video, or a faceless person to reach out to at a moment’s whim. Somehow along the way my phone became my security blanket of information and access, seemingly protecting me from ever being out of touch.
And like so many others that constant connection beget a deep and abiding anxiety about it being broken. What if for five minutes I’m out of reach? What if there’s a shooting, a stabbing, a robbery, an explosion and I can’t even call for help? Alternatively, what if someone needs me and can’t get hold of me? What if without that tether to family, friends, and the world around me I’m set adrift, an island unto myself? These days the world seems a bit more lonely when my pocket’s empty.
Orson Scott Card in his Ender’s Game series wrote about a philotic web connecting all entities in the universe. Half string theory, half metaphysics, he projected that all beings contained philotes that could twine with one another, allowing for faster-than-light communication across the universe for one thing, but the more connected you were to another person, the more emotional or even physical disturbances were caused when the twines were severed. It’s not hard to think of our smart phones as philotes, stringing us together and making it so any thought we have can be sent out into the universe, connecting with millions of others within moments. Even in the darkest of hours, a stranger will be there to read your tweet, like your Instagram, and comment back. Untethering from my iPhone felt like leaving the world behind. No wonder it begets paranoias like fretting about being gunned down in a suburban pharmacy with no one in my pocket to aid me.
A few days later I went out to my grandparent’s farm in rural Virginia with my family. It had been a while since we’d seen them – my grandfather’s dementia was just a bit worse, my grandmother a bit more exhausted. News of the extended family begot a number of illnesses and struggles. The damage of being out of touch seemed all too apparent. But as we sat around catching up, the changes and difficulties fell away, despite the time and distance that had been between us with a few glasses of ice tea. We were already connected – and always had been – even if we didn’t communicate constantly.
After a while, I determinedly left my phone in my purse and headed out to walk the pastures with the pup. I was halfway down the lane before I turned back and hollered at everyone, “I don’t have my phone with me.” My octogenarian grandmother pointed to the the huge foundry bell whose chime echoes across the 20 acres and yelled, “Don’t worry, we’ll ring it if we need you.”
I mosied off alone, the dog running and barkly madly at having a chance to be off their leashes, out of touch, but certainly not untethered. Just as my mother had faith that my dad would always call, no matter how hard it was to get in touch, I realized my loved ones would never be disconnected from me. It doesn’t matter if my phone’s in my pocket or if God forbid I find myself in an dangerous situation with no way to reach out. My loved ones are always with me, will always find me, and I with them – be it by ringing an old iron bell or a text chime.
We’re not alone, no matter what we do or don’t have in our pocket.