I first heard of a Technology Shabbat a few years ago from its most vocal proponent, Webbies Awards founder Tiffany Shlain. Modeled on the principles of the Jewish observation of the Sabbath, where from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday you do no work, the idea is that you take a mini-break from all of your electronics. This can be for 24 hours, or in my case, most of the weekend – Friday at sundown until Sunday at sundown. The concept was actually a little terrifying to me, so it made sense to get away, to take myself out of the environment where I would be most likely to use my tools of the trade, and all the myriad techie things that make for a 21st-century life. So I chose a place I had heard of but not yet visited, on Florida’s West Coast – the tiny artist community of Matlacha.
Matlacha (Matt-la-SHAY) made sense for several reasons: first, it was just a couple hours’ drive from Miami; second, there is lots to explore on foot, so we wouldn’t have to drive once we arrived (which was part of the plan for the Technology Shabbat); third and most important, we could rent one of the Matlacha Cottages complete with a kitchen and stunning water views, as our weekend retreat.
From Miami, we reached Matlacha across the Everglades highway known as “Alligator Alley;” by the time we got there, after driving miles with nothing but swampland and grass on either side of us, we felt like we were pretty far away from any real civilization. Located next to the larger Pine Island, Matlacha is a narrow strip of road wide enough for a house and a bit of land on either side of two lanes, so in some spots you can see the water on both the left and right, especially on the wonderful drawbridge at the center of the little town. As we pulled into the town, I sent my parents a final text: “Shutting down all electronics for the weekend. It’s okay. Don’t call in the Marines.” Then I did something I never ever do: I turned my phone OFF. Not just airplane mode, powered down. It felt… momentous and meaningless simultaneously.
We were welcomed by our hosts, Marta and Michael, New York transplants who were drawn to this sleepy community over 30 years ago and have since relocated to Matlacha. The property had everything we needed, including waterfront rustic charm, and even some things we didn’t this special weekend, like a TV and Wi-Fi. When you walk in, you have the sudden impression it’s your family’s place, one you’ve been coming to for generations. As sweet and homey as the cottage was inside, we were thrilled to see the view from the back deck, where Egrets, Ibis, and the local nesting Osprey vied for our attention as they flew back and forth, their great wings floating on the warm breeze. Early morning or late in the evening, we also saw dolphin swimming in the narrow deep channel just offshore. We spent several peaceful hours, sitting in the wooden loveseat facing the water and simply enjoying nature drift by. The clouds lazed overhead and we followed suit underneath. I could feel myself unwinding from weeks and months of just “going,” always with something to do, never with enough time. Here I could feel time passing like the clouds and my body lapsing into the same slow rhythm of ahhhhh…
Our hosts were a wealth of information, and through them we arranged a rental from Carmen’s Kayaks, just down the street. When we arrived, the kayak was already waiting, and the burly Cap’n Wade there to make sure we were able to put it in at the sandy edge where land and liquid met. I was grateful we were on the water that day, the only time it felt like the breeze wasn’t enough by itself to cool me down. We spent a part of that hot afternoon paddling around, exploring one neighborhood of Matlacha from a dockside POV. The area was founded by the Calusa Indians, who gave quarter to Ponce de Leon for years when he wandered into Florida. (According to the legend I heard in Matlacha, the Calusas, after being decimated by smallpox and overrun by Spaniards who heard about the Fountain of Youth, finally poisoned the explorer by darting him in the leg with frog poison.)
Once I got the hang of the kayak and my girlfriend and I became comfortable working in tandem, it was a very relaxing experience. At Cap’n Wade’s suggestion, we turned the kayak into the bush at a couple places he pointed out, and each time found ourselves in the heart of the sound, with brush growing up tangled and unruly from the water and Egrets soaring in and out over our heads. I could almost imagine myself a Calusa Indian, paddling not a fiberglass kayak but one I had hewn myself from a local mangrove.
After kayaking, we ate at the authentic Pizza Bella – the owners, a husband and wife team who came from Abruzzo, were another example of folks who arrived in this place and never left. Now, thirty years later, the widowed Lilia carries on making pizzas and lasagna own her own. I heard similar stories all over town – of people who stopped into Matlacha and fell in love with its easy pace, the colorful residents and houses, and the soft energy it gives off, perhaps a side affect of living with the sound for a backyard.
Then we walked back to our cottage. Its sweet simplicity welcomed us, and I marveled at how readily I had embraced my lack of a phone, music, or a TV. However, by this time, I realized I had overlooked my need for a camera – what’s an article in this modern age, even one about a Technology Shabbat, without pictures? After around 20 hours’ cold turkey, I chose to take photographs using my phone, a decision not made lightly, and, I realized, made with some regret. When we opt for the role of archivist or memory maker, we create an arm’s length experience instead of a full-on one. Yes, the pictures are important, but so is the activity and participation, and both change inevitably when we observe the moment instead of living it. While normally I would happily be snapping selfies and scenic photos, this time when I picked up my phone I was aware that I was removing myself from the deepest part of the experience; even a single day without my constant tech companion had taught me that. At least in this one way, I was able to be more present while in the act of taking myself out of the present moment, the irony of which was not lost on me.
Glasses of champagne waterside seemed the appropriate next step and luckily, we had come prepared (I suppose opening a bottle counts as work, but I used no technology to do it). As we were finishing our bubbly, Mike and Marta stopped by to see if we needed any advice. At their suggestion, we decided to begin our evening at Bert’s Bar. The owner also opened an art gallery down the street, and if you are in Matlacha on First Friday (we were) you can spend a very pleasant evening drinking wine and strolling through all the colorful art spots. Depending on what time of year you visit, there are lots of local events – a Christmas Boat Parade during the holidays, an annual art show, and don’t forget that most important occasion, Island Pirate Fest, where most of the men in town dress as pirates and the ladies all participate in the Parade of Mermaids. Contests are held, drinks are drunk, and the islanders mingle with the tourists as everyone gets into the festivities.
We strolled over to Bert’s Bar & Grill to see how the locals lived. A favorite watering hole for over 40 years, at first glance, Bert’s looks like a biker bar. The clientele is a little scruffy and the pool tables have seen better days, but they have a great selection of cold beer and a state-of-the-art jukebox. It’s the back patio that changes your impression of the place. Built overlooking the water, the picnic tables are packed with locals, and this is a happening place on a weekend night, so much so that we never got to the other restaurant we planned to visit. Instead, buoyed by the live music, the friendly staff, and a couple games of pool, we grabbed a waterside table. We got the last order of fried oysters, and I was thrilled because otherwise, I would never have been able to rave about their perfectly cooked centers or their delicate crust. The shrimp tacos and fried calamari were no less delicious, washed down with an icy beer. It was no hardship to walk back to the cottage and sink into the comfortable bed. My last thought before falling asleep was that I hadn’t missed texting or phone calls.
I awoke in the middle of the night and did something I never do – I got up and went outside. The stars were so bright and the Milky Way shone in a sweeping arc across the inky sky. I went back in and woke my girlfriend, something else I never do.
“You have to come out here, you can’t miss this,” I explained, shaking her gently and trying not to pull on her arm too hard in my excitement.
Sleepy, she staggered out after me and we sat on the wooden loveseat, overlooking water so dark we could hear it but not see it, and just felt the world continuing its slow turning. With us or without us, the fish would still swim, the birds would still fly, the trees would still grow and the stars would still twinkle. It’s good to be reminded of how insignificant we are once in a while, and how magnificent the planet is. It’s humbling, and it gave me a chance to look up at the sky and be grateful. There’s so much we normally don’t even see, and tonight I was aware of the earth’s very breathing.
The next morning, Marta stopped by, half innkeeper and half big sister by now, to help us plan our big day in town. I wanted to hit every store, and she reminded me that this part of Matlacha, across the drawbridge, was sort of an honorary attachment to the main village. I promised to see both sides of the artist’s colony by crossing the drawbridge on foot, my last gesture towards my Technology Shabbat.
The drawbridge itself was a delight – people fishing, pelicans swooping in, and a classic design that gave the little bridge a friendly feel, as if it were inviting you to traverse. On both sides, rows of shops were interspersed with restaurants and artist studios, each of which was notable in its own way, well above the usual local collections. Renowned artist Leoma Lovegrove’s Gallery & Gardens featured riots of color and a winking backyard ode to the Beatles; just a few doors down, the WildChild Art Gallery co-op showed 120 local artists, almost all of whom live within a 50 mile radius, making it easy for them to drive in and give one of the many metal, silver, wood, painting, weaving, or pottery demonstrations which are offered. The Trader’s Hitching Post is an unassuming storefront that turned out to have one of the premiere collections of Native American jewelry in the country, and Bert’s Gallery turned out to have charming souvenirs, as well as local art.
At each stop, I pulled out my iPhone to use as a camera, reminding myself I wasn’t texting, posting to Facebook, or doing anything else with it. My iPhone had started to feel strange in my hand, as if it were unusual to hold it instead of an extension of myself. I had done fine without a TV, which I only watch when there’s something on I want to see — I’m not one of those folks who likes it on as background noise. I was great without my computer — I long ago learned I am more productive when I take vacations from my work. But my telephone-texting-social-media-internet-camera-radio-communication-with-the-world device had begun to feel heavy, reminding me how important this Technology Shabbat was, how the very awareness of making a conscious decision to use technology was important, because so often it was an unconscious choice.
Lunch was at the Blue Dog Bar & Grill, which offers delicious beer brewed at Fort Myers, just a 30-minute drive up the road, along with an unusual smoked fish dip made from local catch like bluefish and mackerel. We ate at a little table out on the canal, feeding the occasional Ibis and relaxing. As we drove out of town, I looked down and realized I had a dozen new texts. I was halfway through the first response before I remembered my Technology Shabbat. I slipped the phone back into my purse and watched the lazy scenery slipping by, the clouds reminding me to drift back into my previous mode. The peace of nature stole over me once more and I took a deep breath, grateful for these few more moments of quiet awareness.