Five months ago, I embarked on a pilgrimage to Bretagne, following strange, haunting dreams I’d had for months before, seeking something I wasn’t certain I’d find. I did find them, and more–I found the physical realities of those visions, saw things I’d glimpsed in ritual space, and had even more haunting dreams while there which I’m still trying to unravel. And it was all beautiful, and I wish I could show you what I saw, but…I lost my camera.
During the middle of a 10-hour hike along the chemins leading between the village where I camped and another, it just–disappeared.
From my travel journals of the time:
It was getting quite close to sunset, I knew this was a lost hope, but I took another detour to check one last time.
I wonder, though. Did some higher part of myself leave it on the rocks on purpose? Or did I leave it at the chapel? Its loss has actually been a very good thing for me. Here’s why: I’d see something profound, beautiful, breathtaking, Otherworldly, and immediately fumble for my camera, snap a couple of photos, check to see if I’d caught the image right, and then put it away and walk on.
That is, I stopped seeing things, except to see them for others. I realised this just as the sun was setting, just as I knew I had no hope of getting back before dark. I sat on a rock, frustrated, tired (my feet are mangled, by the way), and found myself seeing something unimaginable in its beauty.
The sun set over the bay, brilliant and dark hues of purples, violets, blues mixing with crimson reflecting off the water of the bay (the tide had come in fully now). Greens of seaweed floated like islands upon the water, and silver danced in the waves where the last whites of the sun hit. The stones of the shore are black, but also dun, as was the sand though giving off a yellow-gold that seemed like trapped sunlight from the warm day.
I cried, but not from sadness.
What Can Help May Also Harm
Just as it’s no secret I’m an incorrigible leftist, it’s also probably apparent I’m not so big on technology, either. My phone is “dumb,” I just bought my first new computer ever (I’m almost 37, and all my other computers were cobbled together with duct tape from pieces found in back alleys). I’m gay and single but don’t use those dating apps many gays use to meet others. I haven’t owned a television since I was 13, I dropped an ex-partner’s mp3 player in a mug of tea a day after it was given to him, and I don’t drive.
[I used to say that “I’m no Luddite, but I dislike technology.” But having recently heard there’s some fascinating possible connections between the god Lugh and the Luddites, I don’t think I can say that any longer.]
Any tool is just a tool, yeah? A hammer can build and a hammer can crush a skull, a knife can carve and it can stab. But these are tools we’ve used as humans for millennia, so they are not quite good analogies for this very-recent thing we might call digital technology (or “expensive things I can’t afford and will probably spill tea on anyway”).
We know very well the power of a circular saw. The first time I watched a partner use one, I stood in awe, recognizing this machine could rip off a hand. It’s power to harm is obvious. But with a phone or a computer, it’s less clear. Laptops aren’t commonly used to bludgeon people to death, and if cell phones cause physical harm, we likely won’t know for another few decades. And while there are studies on psychological problems (social networking increasing depression, video games becoming addictive), we appear to lack the language to describe how these things which connect us might somehow be also harmful.
When I lost my camera on my pilgrimage, I found myself really, really upset. While I like photographs, I can honestly say I’d been taking them more for others than for myself. I wanted to show those I loved and those I’d left behind what it was I was seeing. I wanted my druid friends to see the light fade over the menhirs on the Morbihund coast, I wanted my urban friends to see the street-life of Breton cities. I wanted to show a former lover who’d traveled with me previously how nothing had changed, I wanted to show my aging grandmother a land she’d never see.
I wanted to convey to them the sense of the places I traveled through. But as I said, I stopped seeing those things myself. I’d see an ancient dolmen surrounded by gorse and wild blueberries and elder, but instead of seeing it, I fumbled for this device to “see it for others.”
What Does a Screen Keep Out?
There are multiple meanings of the word “screen.” The first is the one you’re looking at now, the thing upon which these words are displayed. And there’s another: something which “conceals, filters, divides, or protects.”
What, then, if the screens we use to interface with the world, which display images of other lands or people or even just another’s words also conceal, divide, and protect? What does a digital photograph of yourself at your birthday party conceal? What is that sense of alienation we feel after a video-chat with a lover? What am I trying to protect myself from when I chat on-line with a stranger rather than meeting them for coffee or a beer? What is filtered from my world when I see it through a phone?
Besides the distancing in all these examples, each also lacked a sense of place. The noise and heat of others at that birthday party, the physical proximity to that lover missing when he’s not there, the ambiance and humanity of the bar or café, the messy physicality of “the real.”
I, fumbling with that camera in Bretagne found myself missing the very spirit and beauty of the land I had traveled thousands of miles to see. And while what I saw still haunts me to this day, while the visions of gods and spirits were profound and beautiful spiritual experiences, I’m equally grateful for that very simple and powerful lesson I learned when I lost my camera and remembered to see.