When the world falls apart, I return to the analog.


January 29, 2021 / Eliza Pillsbury


If I wake up in a house fire, I will save my journals first.


When I was 12, I journaled about finding a treasure map or kissing a boy. Now, I write because the pages are a safe space — away from even my best friend or therapist — to confess my confusion about a world that doesn’t live up to the dreams of middle school me. But even if my words are nonsense, there’s still a therapeutic rhythm in dragging the tip of the pen and inking up my left pinky as I write. I run my fingers across the depressions of my handwriting, and the pages crinkle as they turn. The sensory experience is singular.

There’s also a glint of danger in choosing not to preserve my diaries digitally. I can protect them from invasions of privacy, perhaps, but not from natural causes. For now, these volumes stay at home, lined up like dormant sentinels on my bookshelf. I feel like a part of me is moored miles away in Houston.

The analog is my anchor. As our social structures seem to fall apart, I find myself returning to relics of a slower time. From Polaroids to postage stamps, a forcible divorce from the digital reminds me of my mortality, that which cannot be hacked. Ink bleeds, paper wrinkles, film develops — just like humans do.

***

This summer in isolation, I made up for the lack of meaningful interactions by connecting more closely to what makes me human. I started to send snail mail, through pen pal programs or volunteer efforts to reach potential voters. I started some days with “morning pages,” based on a professor’s advice to keep a record of my reactions to decade-defining political events. Despite my best intentions, my screen time also exponentially increased, but imperfections are intrinsic to myself and my newfound medium.

Stuck at home and six feet apart, I felt stymied, but these limitations became an opportunity of sorts. I cut and pasted a few collages that spoke to the moment in some way: discombobulated, disparate, largely useless, strangely beautiful. “If I can make that,” I thought, “maybe I can make my bed and take a shower.” It’s the little things.

I tried using Photoshop or Pinterest to collage, but when I was confronted with the sea of imagery just a search bar away, nothing in particular interested me. I needed to focus on the scraps of paper in front of me, instead of the seemingly infinite ideas for how I should spend my time in quarantine. More than any pressure for self-improvement, I found myself wanting just to sit alone and think, to orient myself in an otherwise profoundly disorienting period. I had unrealistic expectations that I could compensate for my lost social life by organizing group Zoom calls or attending the new wealth of virtual events, but the only thing that truly felt comforting was far away from the online environments that inevitably fell short of the real things.

Through analog, I paid new attention to old and nearly forgotten parts of myself. I was a poet once. I hope to be one again someday. I might be more creative and optimistic and vulnerable when I no longer fear for my health and that of my loved ones. But when I was at a loss for words this summer, at least I could make something beautiful with old issues of “National Geographic” and safety scissors.

***

When nothing “normal” is reliable, the digital loses its appeal to the tangible. Social media emulates the feeling of unexpected connection between disparate sources, but it’s superficial. Freedom of expression depends on the same tangible limitations that technology tries to overcome. Theatre director Anne Bogart writes extensively on the benefit of limits in the creative process, going so far as to introduce them arbitrarily to inspire new perspectives in her work. In fact, I do feel a psychological balm from reclaiming ownership of my attention, even as I lose control of permanence or perfectly straight lines.

That’s the nostalgia of it all. I rediscovered how to create within the constraints of a page, coloring outside the lines, grids, and pixels to communicate more clearly about the same things we stand to lose if we forsake the analog: the confounding beauty of nature; honesty, patience, and compassion. Important relationships take time to develop, and even the imperfect records they leave are meaningful. Call me a Luddite or a loser, but I wish we still wrote love letters.

What will we have to show for this terrible year, this life? At stake is our humanity. ■



Story by: Eliza Pillsbury

Graphics: Nina Su
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