In this lyric passage, excerpted from the collection Upstream and taped to the glass on our back door, Oliver implores the reader to give children “the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit.”
I taped it to the door in hopes of stoking curiosity in my child, of inviting her to the wheres and wherefores and wherewithals that I don’t yet believe can fit nor come from the ten-by-seven-inch plane of her iPad Air.
I’ve certainly not gotten everything right in motherhood. I have an unpredictable temper. I’m sweet—soft—until I’m not. We eat veggies twice a week, that’s it. And we are certainly not one of those no-screen families. We watch a lot of TV. And I love my Instagram.
But two of my recent finds signal we might be doing alright: a canvas bag I pulled from the wash that was, I didn’t expect, filled with wisteria petals that tie-dyed the tote in a pretty periwinkle, and a new pair of leggings scuffed grass-green at the knees.
The Mary Oliver passage I mention starts with “Teach the children” and ends with “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” I’m teaching my child what I taught myself long ago: Drink the world, build a writing practice, then protect it.
I still haven’t told you why I don’t have Twitter, though I have. Here’s what I actually haven’t told you: I used to strategize digital content, ideating, writing, editing, and configuring copy for optimal search engine results and maximum conversions.
It was my task to know how algorithms worked, how social media content ranked, how every front-facing and back-end element—words, letters, buttons, syntax, hyperlinks, file names—added to or subtracted from the company’s metrics goals. My job was to make us go viral.
When the company’s content tripled in views and doubled in conversions in one quarter, the CEO presented my work and KPIs at the employee retreat. They made me stand and applauded me. I got an iTunes gift card, with which I bought a movie from AppleTV.
I became obsessed. I saw, on December 24, that our content had been hit by the Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (BERT) algorithm. We went from being the top entry on Google to the last on the fourth page. But I fixed it, just in time for Christmas dinner.
I became inseparable from my phone and the computer. My gaze was only ever fixed on screens: multiples, at once. My eye doctor updated my prescription twice in a year, warning me, “Your vision is weakening.”
I lost sight too of what I had always taught my daughter: Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
This was during the two years I abandoned my writing practice to get an office job. It was when, I thought, I was over the literary arts, with how inefficient it was, how much it demanded of writers, how subjective, how slow, how soft. I wanted results, so I went and sought them.
The truth was, I was deflecting my shame and my pain.
I was never going to go viral as an author, and I took that as a kind of failure—this thing, this practice that I had been sustaining since I was seven. I started to believe my writing was futile, but it turned out that what was actually futile was SEO.
The web, my tech friends agree, is designed to exploit our digital, social, and psychic vulnerabilities. Algorithms and systems change all the time, and they do so for one reason: to make it seem like you’ve failed and must do more, get more, be more, be faster. You must run, fight.
I’ve never been a runner; I’m a different kind of fighter. I now fight to, like Mary Oliver, fix my gaze hard on the soft things: my bunny’s tail, the cat’s toe beans, the bee on the clover, the chanterelles growing at the base of our pecan tree, the sweat on my daughter’s nose.
The web, my tech friends agree, is designed to exploit our digital, social, and psychic vulnerabilities.
Writer, if you’re not careful, the engineered doomscroll will lead you to believe that you are not enough. But the daisies? The pale hepatica? They have one message for you: You are good.
I came back to my writing practice and to Mary Oliver and to long walks and to dewdrops on magnolia leaves when I quit my job.
I quit partly because I witnessed in late 2019 how companies and organizations could manipulate language and communication channels to misinform. This realization came soon before the onset of what we would all learn to call a pandemic.
I also quit because I was dying in a toxic work environment that gave me whiplash after whiplash from my long-ago trauma. This is, in fact, another thing Mary Oliver and I share: We both survived childhood abuse.
Long discounted for her poetic celebrations of nature and for being too light, too sweet, too soft, Mary Oliver shared publicly for the first time in a 2011 interview that she was abused as a child. So through bright, blithe poetry she proclaimed: I must no longer suffer.
Me too. Perhaps this was why I often found myself among the birds and the bees, and why I was, as she called it, “a bride married to amazement / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”
When I think of digital spaces, or what it means to go viral or have followers, I think of the man who trolled me after reading my essay on past trauma. He followed my work from platform to platform, to write in the comments, among other things, “Go back to where you came from.”
He went on his Twitter and lambasted me there too. But he couldn’t @ me because I didn’t have Twitter. How mad that likely made him. And there I was, twiddling my thumbs, watching him in his toil.
He was, in one sense, my follower. And I was, in another sense, his. I took heed: I went back to where I came from. And now, I take his words and form, hijacking them, like the hacker I’m not but can be.
Like, <280 characters at a time. I’m sweet until I’m not.
In early 2020, just before lockdown, I stepped out of my leather work shoes and into my Adidas trainers and went outside for the first time in a very long time. Then: A blue jay bathing in a puddle greeted me. Tweet, it said. I laughed, like, It actually just said that.
And because I am who I am, and I am from where I came from, I replied, out loud, “Excuse you, I don’t have Twitter, nice try.”
Tweet! it demanded again. So I talked. I told him about burning out and being in traumatic environments, yet again, and that I hoped to revive my writing practice, whatever that meant. I told him too that I had inklings of another essay, perhaps a book. And I swear, he smiled.
The next time I saw the blue jay, he had a friend, two birds bathing in a puddle in our driveway. Three winters now, they’ve come to see me. I’ve had another book out since we met, and a few hundred more followers on Instagram. And a few acquaintances I’ve met on the park trail.
They ask, and I know they’re genuinely interested, “How’s your writing?” I tell this loyal few, “Slow but steady.” Always supportive, they cheer me on. When we part ways, we go back to where we came from, uninjured by the dog-eat-dog world of the World Wide Web.
And while this park-trail “following” isn’t impressive in publicity standards, I have their—and a few others’—fidelity, and that’s not something I can engineer or strategize or optimize to gain. Like the blue jays who come back every winter, I won’t lose them overnight.
Sensorium, viscera, fidelity: They make a full, sustained writing practice. This is my influence, my impact, the clout that doesn’t extract but gives. I am a creator who no longer laments her creation.
Sensorium, viscera, fidelity: I know where I can find these and I know where I can’t.
Cinelle is a formerly undocumented memoirist, essayist & educator from the Philippines, and is the author of MONSOON MANSION: A MEMOIR and MALAYA: ESSAYS ON FREEDOM, and the editor of the New York Times New & Noteworthy book A MEASURE OF BELONGING: 21 WRITERS OF COLOR ON THE NEW AMERICAN SOUTH. She has an MFA from Converse College. Her writing has appeared or been featured in the NYT, Longreads, Electric Literature, Buzzfeed, Literary Hub, Hyphen & CNN Philippines, among others. Her work is anthologized in A MAP IS ONLY ONE STORY. She’s a contributing editor, instructor & writer at Catapult.