I’ve followed Esther Emery’s work for several years, and appreciated her as both a writer and a friend. She has a habit of challenging me to think outside the box and this book, a memoir of a year in her life in which she goes without the internet, is no exception. I caught up with her to talk about What Falls From the Sky, which releases today.
Cara Strickland: Hi Esther, it’s so good to talk to you today. Tell me a little bit about your book.
Esther Emery: It’s called What Falls From the Sky: How I Disconnected from the Internet and Reconnected with the God Who Made the Clouds. I was in a dark hard place, and, for a lot of reasons, among them wanting to just hide from the world, I went for a year without the internet. It sent me on a journey I could never have expected, which had some adventures in it, and a spiritual awakening, and a great deal of healing. So What Falls From the Sky is that whole story.
CS: As I was reading it, I noticed that you experienced almost a physical withdrawal as you began your time away from the internet. I’d love to know some of your thoughts on web addiction.
EE: Well there’s no doubt that there’s some kind of a mechanism of addiction. There is euphoria or endorphins we experience and then we have a relationship that we’re expecting that response. So certainly there is a chemical level addiction, but I’m as concerned, or more concerned, with the idea of who we are as human beings and what we require for survival that maybe isn’t just at the physical level. I think that that kind of desperate feeling of needing your connection or needing to see your phone, that actually affects different people really differently and some are more susceptible than others, but it’s almost universal that we have a sense we couldn’t make it through our daily lives without this technology. So I’m interested in who we would be if we didn’t have access to that technology and how we think of ourselves as fully human and fully capable even if we didn’t have the web.
CS: You go through several big changes and experience a lot of healing during this book. How do you think those things were affected by being without the internet?
EE: Well it was certainly the catalyst. I found a kind of silence and stillness. I should clarify that I wasn’t only without the internet. I also removed myself from the workforce and my family had moved across the country, so I was in a situation where I had very limited access to community or friendship, and also was at home with two small children. It was very different from my prior life of being in the workforce and feeling busy and having my phone bleeping all the time. So with all those factors together, I felt this kind of stillness I hadn’t felt since I was a child, if even then. A kind of open feeling, a silent emptiness that was not a lonely or desperate feeling but it felt small, spiritual, connected. I particularly experience it through the weather, the snow and the rain, and that’s what the title refers to, it refers to what falls from the sky, how these different feelings that I got from the different kinds of weather in New England, which is where I was, I found that there was a kind of healing or wholeness that I found in those moments of silence that I couldn’t possibly have accessed in this kind of breakneck, run along, freeway speed kind of life I had led for my entire twenties. Any healing, or spiritual awakening was rooted in that experience of stillness which is something that’s very hard to come by, I think, in our time and place.
CS: What would you say was the hardest part about your year without the internet?
EE: The hardest part for me was that I didn’t have any validation from any quarter. And again, that’s sort of affected by my personal circumstances. I didn’t have any audience I was able to create for, and I am a creative person. But I had grown accustomed to putting out some image of myself into the world through the internet on a daily basis and you get responses from that, you know, the likes or the comments, or just being seen, it gives you kind of a shape of yourself, it gives you a sense of who you are. And to have that withdrawn, I found a real deep insecurity, kind of deeper than I even wanted to admit, that ‘am I still real?’, ‘am I still here?’, ‘am I still who I think I am if I don’t have any dialogue with which to see myself through other people’s eyes?’ So that was really the biggest challenge, it was the hardest thing but it also turned out to be a good thing because I think there was an inner strength in that experience that I still call upon now when I need to be my strongest self.
CS: What would you say were some of the greatest gifts from that year?
EE: Well, I certainly think that the ability to experience stillness is number one. But also, I achieved stronger relationships with several people who are close to me. I’m not necessarily a very comfortable mother, motherhood didn’t come easily to me, and I had very small children, and that ability to engage in stillness and to stop being kind of pressured to achieve all the time is exactly what’s needed to have strong relationships with small children. I don’t know that I would have cultivated that skill if I hadn’t been forced to, but it allowed me to kind of sit down on the floor and play with my little ones in a way they crave and are nourished by. I also had some great relationships with siblings. And then the relationship that was most nourished is a central relationship of my life, which is with my husband. We had been challenged in our marriage, prior to this, even to the point where we weren’t sure we were going to make it as a couple, and having a kind of a quiet room without distractions allowed me to do some internal processing to find out what I really needed and wanted out of my marriage, and also gave my husband an opportunity to really feel seen by me and to see me. We ended up in just a real dish of grace and a restoration phase in our marriage. That is perhaps the greatest gift of all from our year without the internet.
CS: How would you say that your year without the internet has changed your perspective and the way you live your daily life?
EE: I now live a rather unusual lifestyle. I actually live off the grid, and although I do have access to the internet, it’s through solar power and through our own systems that we have put in place in our off-grid homestead, and that’s directly related to my year without internet. What ended up happening is that I was so engaged and awakened by this experience of letting go of a certain idea of necessity that I wanted to do that more. I wanted to see: what else do I have in my life that feels like necessity but in fact is just an accessory, something that I could do without? It’s given my husband and I, together, an opportunity to really pursue our highest values, to be the people we most want to be, feeling confident to kind of pare off any extras, even ones that to contemporary culture don’t seem extra at all, seem really necessary like power or running water and things like that.
CS: Do you have any advice for those who are seeking to be more unplugged or who are looking for more silence in their own lives?
EE: Absolutely. I would say don’t do what I did. There may be some who feel inspired to take a bold move and cut themselves off, but the gifts I found were not from the drama, they were from the rest. I think there’s a beginning step of giving yourself permission to rest, which is much more important. You don’t need to take away all the things that you like. There’s a practice of giving yourself permission to be not functional, not productive, and also not entertained. So I would say, start with fifteen, twenty minutes a day, a half an hour a day, and just practice what it feels like to be still. I wouldn’t be surprised if you find it just as unfamiliar as I did, because it’s not something most of us have built into our daily lives: a stillness that doesn’t involve distraction. Maybe an easy way to come to it is, like I did, through the weather. If you can find yourself near a window, maybe on a snowy day or a rainy day, that you can have that weather to make you feel like it isn’t nothingness, like you’re not bored, and just take fifteen or twenty minutes at a time and see what wells up from inside of you that is asking for you to reconnect. That’s my best advice for anyone who’s looking for a little more quiet or silence in their lives.