I was standing by Deck's grave in the cemetery across the street the other day thinking about how weird it is that he's in the ground now and not in his chair in his living room, where we used to sit and talk.
He's gone, I thought to myself. He's really gone.
And then I thought about the idea of gone and how it's so different now, because we live our lives half in the real world and half in the strange and disconnected world of cyberspace, or whatever you want to call it. And in that world no one is ever really gone.
Almost everyone has some footprints online, so these days we have the ability to keep track of people forever. Once upon a time when a relationship ended the other person was actually gone. Unless you called them on the phone or sent them a card or letter, which of course you didn't. Things ended: people moved and changed jobs; people fell away, for real and you let them go. You had to. It made sense.
Today we have the option to hover in the shadows of other people's lives for as long as we want, and, let's face it, most of us do. We can look up old friends who wandered out of our lives; we can keep track of old lovers. And not just to find out where they are, either. Given the ways people behave online and the number of options people have for sharing information about their daily lives now, there is a good chance we can see what an old girlfriend had for dinner last night. Or the fabulous island vacation the former husband is taking with his new love. We can see the jerk we used to work with and how successful he is today. We can see the barely-recognizable friend from college and wonder if they've been drinking too much. We can track the movements of the ex-wife of the person we're dating.
Do we want to see these things? Of course not. But there is something in our nature that draws us to look at things we know we really don't want to see. We cannot drive past a car wreck without slowing down and hoping to catch a glimpse of the damage.
And because we are not inclined to post photos anywhere of the fight we had last night with our spouse or the sullen teenager who won't help with the chores or the pile of bills that haven't been paid, it seems that everyone is living a truly fabulous life. Far more fabulous than yours.
Everyone is being duped, to some degree. And no one is ever really gone.
Until they die.
Looking at Deck's grave made me wonder if all of us who are living this weird new version of life will have a particularly hard time when someone is actually gone. Dead and gone. Will we be ready to the complete gone-ness that accompanies death?
The online life asks something of us that most of us aren't so good at: it asks that we practice restraint. Moderation. It asks that we monitor our habits so as not to give away or take in too much information. But Facebook, Instagram, and the others too numerous to name — I cannot keep up with what the kids are using these days — have given each of us our own personal gallery exhibition space.
Whereas one once had to do something truly noteworthy to earn the opportunity to display creative work in the world, now all we have to do is get up in the morning and live. Everything, it seems, is fodder for the rest of the world to consume: our thoughts, quotes we find meaningful and photos of everything from the bride's tears as she dances with her dad to the gaping wound that requires twenty-seven stitches. We ask that the world look at us, continually, and, of course, like us.
Some of it is worthy of attention. But most of it is not.
A couple of months ago I was with Coco in a coffee shop we like in northern Vermont. The walls there are always covered with paintings or photos, usually done by someone local. The exhibits change all the time, which makes going there interesting. On this particular day there were photographs, and, truth be told, they weren't very good. They were standard-issue, flowers, bugs, close-ups of the natural world, but nothing that produced a sense of wonder, nothing particularly captivating.
When we got outside I made a snarky comment about the photos, then took it back. "Well, maybe everyone deserves a chance," I said. "Maybe everyone deserves the opportunity to display their work for the public."
"No," said my 12-year-old daughter, "they don't."
And you know what? She was right.
We need to be more ready for gone. Sharing our lives is great; observing others' lives can be interesting, but there is such a thing as too much. The hallmark of a meaningful and memorable exhibit is that it is well-curated. Restraint plays a role. The empty space plays a role. The viewer should leave with questions, curiosities. The exhibit is viewed, then taken down. It may move on to a different location, or it may simply be gone.
I spout this truth quite often: I believe we all need to spend less time looking online to see what other people are doing, less time thinking about what we want to place online and more time in the company of each other. Human to human, eye to eye. Sharing stories that move from my tongue to your ears. I worry all the time about the seeping away of our humanity. I worry that "online" is taking away the very best of who we are, as people and turning us into curiosities, disembodied happenings.
I know Deck because I sat in his living room and talked with him, listened to his stories, in the months before he died. He left a lasting impression on my heart and in my mind. His stories were fantastic. I can still see him gazing out the window, pausing, thinking.
When Deck was young Norman Rockwell used him as a model for some of his paintings. Whenever I see a Rockwell now I think of Deck and the time we spent together before they put his body in the ground across the street.
Deck is gone now but I have his stories; I have the memories of the living room days. And I have the paintings I occasionally encounter. These are the things that endure when gone comes home to roost. Amen.