I’m currently in week three of five at a writer/artist residency out in the gorgeous, autumnal woods of New England. It’s been a roller coaster ride of emotions, most of it euphoric, all of it dramatic and illuminating. It occurred to me that I’m going through the stages of culture shock (urban to rural, real life to dream life, connected to disconnected, familiar to unfamiliar, and so forth), and so I’ve tried to take each ensuing reaction and sensation as such. Not only am I adapting to my new environment, settling into new routines and navigating a brand new social world (the similarities between college and adult residency experiences are as many as you might imagine), I am also adjusting to my disconnect from popular culture in all of its many incarnations. So here are the stages of this withdrawal and transition as I’ve experienced them thus far.
BLISS (THE HONEYMOON PHASE): Everything is foreign, gloriously so, at this initial stage. My beautiful studio is as cute as I dreamed. There are creaky hardwood floors, a huge desk near giant windows overlooking fall trees with turning leaves. Lunch is delivered to my doorstep. There is NO INTERNET in my studio. This means no Netflix streaming coma stupors, no stupid Facebook, no aimless clicking around from one random article to another, no checking my email when I should be doing something MORE INTERESTING. This is going to be five weeks of ONLY being MORE INTERESTING. I cannot wait. I will be no less than transformed and enlightened. I’ll miss Spotify, but that’s OK. I love being alone with nothing but my own thoughts, a pile of books to read and conversations to have with interesting people. Five weeks of no urban ennui, no Google bus at my corner, no spending tons of money on fancy cocktails, no pesky obligations of any sort. The measurement of time is irrelevant. I do what I feel like doing whenever I feel like doing it. I’m ready and cannot imagine anything I desire more. It’s magic, I write to everyone who wants to know, and it is.
FRUSTRATION (THE NEGOTIATION PHASE): My cell phone charger is lost. As you might imagine, I respond poorly to this development as I gaze at my dwindling battery life and frantically Google Map (is that a verb phrase?) a store that might sell one in the quaint nearby town. The closest place is about an hour walk and so I head off with 8% battery, dashing past beautiful rivers, sprawling graveyards, fall foliage and a view of Mount Monadnock (you might know it from such places as the writings of Thoreau). The store does not have my charger and so I do what anyone would do. I cry. It turns out that while I enjoy the idea of being mostly disconnected, I do not at all enjoy the idea of being entirely disconnected. Side note: some people here left their phones at home, an asceticism I admire but which never occurred to me. Walking along the road in this God forsaken wilderness, I text my husband with the panic of someone needing to utilize their survival skills on a snowy mountain peak. I Google Map a Verizon store (a nine hour walk). I cry. My husband texts back lovingly that perhaps this is a lesson. A lesson about what?! I respond with the little battery life remaining, but I know exactly what.
So in the days after this meltdown I take walks (less frantic, tearful, goal-oriented ones), instead paying attention to the beautiful things I pass by: the dilapidated stone walls, tangle of red and gold colors, wire archways, hydrangeas, chickens, and famous mountains against the horizon. I walk for hours, breathe the air, find secret pathways and feel connected, in a different sort of way, to the late afternoon I’m walking through. I go out in the evening to amphitheaters, parties, screenings and readings. Without my phone. This is how it feels to move unencumbered through the events of the day and night, through conversations, through a million beautiful and un-photographed things.
DEPRESSION (THE ADJUSTMENT PHASE): After a few days of working hard, marveling at my productivity and having creative breakthroughs, I feel this third and unwelcome stage coming on. Having a quiet, dark cabin all to myself at night is inspiring and magical until it’s lonely, potentially haunted and I’m struggling to conserve my sole bottle of wine. So I do a very guilty, secret, very un-artist residency thing. I download Netflix onto my phone and watch New Girl. I curl up and hold my phone up in the air in front of me. This ridiculous decision is such a powerful antidote to my “adjustment phase” that I’m somewhat disturbed. Why does it make me feel so happy and comforted to watch the antics of Jess and the gang? What the hell is wrong with me? Instead of retreating from this disturbing truth, I proceed to watch not one, but TWO movies, Safe Haven and Abducted.
At our communal dinner the following evening when everyone discusses their day’s accomplishments, I sheepishly confess my crime (well, I admit to Abducted but not Safe Haven, frantically choosing the one I think might have more ironic value as dinnertime conversation confessional). Even just one of those movies is quite a thing to admit to a table of serious artists and writers. My confession is not met with judgement, but rather confusion. They don’t understand what I’ve done or why. I backtrack, make feeble jokes about how the werewolf kid is a terrible actor and it wasn’t bad-good, it was bad-bad, and so forth. The conversation dips politely away from my disclaimers and on to more interesting things.
After this dark 24 hour period in phase three, I re-focus. I decide that NOW of ALL TIMES is the time to develop interesting habits, be more experimental not just with my work but with the seconds of my day. I read some of my weird, wonderful books. I take my notebook out to the empty fields and write. I ride my bike. I go exploring. If I’m at odd ends, I don’t immediately seek distraction and stimulation. One night while I’m waiting to meet up with someone, I just stand and look at the sky. It’s actually quite a novel, beautiful, overwhelming feeling, that of standing still and doing nothing while I wait.
ACCEPTANCE (THE ADAPTATION PHASE): Jenny Holzer once said, Moderation Kills The Spirit. I used to love that line except I actually don’t know if it’s true anymore. Perhaps balance is a better word than moderation, but in this final stage of my culture shock, I feel a profound sense of calm coming over me, in the impressions and sensations of my time and how I spend it. I’m working on my book, but I’m also staying up until 3am drinking wine, debating the meaning of love, walking through moonlit paths at midnight and occasionally winning a ping pong game. I’m deeply focused, but I also go to the library to friend request my new artist friends and refresh my offline Spotify playlists. I relish my quiet solitude, but I also hurry up the path to sit on the porch before dinner and talk to people. One beautiful evening, sitting on the porch as the sun sets, one thing leads to another and someone mentions how much he loves Nashville (I agree! I yell before I can stop myself). Another person admits to being addicted to Scandal (Watched the whole thing in two weeks, I exclaim). Two and a Half Men is even mentioned.
This experience of culture shock is simple in a certain way. Unfamiliar places grow familiar. Strangers become people I’m rather fond of. Habits form and break and evolve as they would in any context. From unmoored to oriented, from distance to affection, culture shock moves me to realize that we often come to love what we spend time with. Our perspective is forever altered just a bit, and as the rules of our familiar world fall back, we’re given a chance to freshly consider, for just a moment, what matters to us and why.