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first person

Illustration by Jiayin Lu

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Standing at the Montreal train station, ready to board, I experienced a brief moment of absolute panic. Where was my phone? I turned my bags inside out, frantically searching for that little magic square. But I knew in my heart of hearts that, tragically, I’d left it in a different purse, one that was hanging in my bedroom closet. This sure knowledge seeped in. I was about to spend a long weekend in Toronto off the grid. No. Connection. Four. Days.

Even the most insouciant and unplugged would feel a frisson of alarm: no text, no phone, no Google, no camera, no Instagram, no maps, no Uber, no e-mail. And that’s just the beginning. Depending on your apps, this list can be much, much longer. Just you and your thoughts, plus an old-fashioned book if you’re lucky. It’s what we might expect on some exotic, far-flung vacation, but in Toronto? I’d be a foreigner in the midst of a buzzing metropolis whose main currency is data.

As problems go, there are certainly far worse fates. This was but a small dent in my weekend visit with my sister, surely not worth the rising tide of anxiety. Let’s face it: The loss of a wallet remains much more problematic. But just by a hair.

Determined to make the best of my lot, I decided this was an opportunity to record a snapshot of what this unplugged reality looks like in 2019; the highs, the lows, the boredom, the inspiration – and the surprising truth.

Day 1: After my initial paralysis, I get a hold of myself and make my way to the train counter to request a paper ticket. The agent almost gives me a hug, she’s so sympathetic. The ticket she hands me is cardboard and has a funky vintage feel. It’s surprisingly cheery.

I stand in line and give myself a mental pep talk. This could be my chance to organize a few stray projects by putting pen to paper. It’s all going to be okay, I promise myself. Just get yourself there in one piece, then hijack your sister’s phone. Sounds like a solid plan.

On the six-hour train ride, I look out the window, read my book (for which I am ridiculously grateful), and reflect that this void could maybe, just maybe, be a gift. I congratulate myself on rebounding quickly. Things are looking up.

Day 2: This no-phone thing is a breeze! Who needs it anyway? I spent the previous evening gossiping with friends and making plans for the weekend. I’d notified my family that I was unreachable for a few days. The freedom from constantly checking in is pretty fantastic, if I’m perfectly honest.

As I set out to make my way across the city for some shopping, I decide the subway is the best bet to get across town. I’m so confident with the new, cellphone-crutch-free me that I leave my book at home. Big mistake. Absolutely everyone is plugged in. No eye contact, no smiles, no diversion for a solid 40 minutes. It’s longer than you think.

All I can do is survey those around me and wonder what would happen if we all set our devices down for a few moments. Would we perhaps notice the old man who could use a few kind words or the awkward teen who uses his phone like a shield or the Goth whose body language screams the opposite of what she’s trying to project? Would we, just maybe, even make conversation, exchange nods, nurture the sparks of our common humanity? I guess we’ll never know.

Day 3: The first blush of off-grid success is turning a little sour. I’m tired of being left out. It’s all pretty rosy when I’m with others, but a solo morning walk to the coffee shop proves that, once more, I’m literally alone on this analog adventure. I watch all the others scanning their screens and miss my phone with a physical ache. How many days since I’ve checked my Instagram? Do any of my followers even know I’m here? This is killing me.

I ponder what my family is up to. I’m used to checking in with my kids and husband at least daily, and three full days in this is seeming very long. Of course, I know if there’s any real problem I can be reached. But still. Do they miss me? Or is it a relief to be cut loose from our technological tether?

Day 4: On the train ride home, I think about my adventure. Despite my technological pause (or maybe because of it), my weekend has been a smashing success, with trips to a dance production, dinner with friends and lots of quality time with my sister. The ghost limb that was my phone has receded and at moments, I’ve even managed to forget it completely. I’ve missed it, yes, but I realize that its absence is eminently survivable. At times it’s downright enjoyable.

My initial panic seems like a distant memory and although there have been some frustrations with living outside the lines of our modern reality (and not a small amount of self-imposed drama), it’s laughably small potatoes now that it’s almost over.

I sit next to a sweet man who has just celebrated his 80th birthday with his four children and 12 grandchildren. He shows me pictures of the whole production, all twinkling eyes and boyish grin. It startles me to realize that even though I’ve had no internet for days, in reality, there’s been no shortage of human connection.

I read my book. I nap. I look out the window. I think big thoughts. Unencumbered by constant interruptions and pings and notifications, my internal landscape is uncluttered in a way I’d almost forgotten. It occurs to me that maybe I should leave my phone in my other purse a little longer.

Right after I check my e-mail.

Heather Martin lives in Montreal.