Commentary: No FaceTime, no Zoom. Why a digital detox is on my Thanksgiving menu

A table festively set for Thanksgiving
The Thanksgiving table, unplugged. Rather than feel obligated to create some happy family togetherness on Zoom, one expert says, it could be fitting — even healing — to mark this year’s holiday with a little solitude.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times )

I close my eyes and picture my mother’s face. The feathery softness of her cheeks, the small nose with a slightly downward point, the wrinkles that trace the trajectory of her emotions through the years, including the deep smile lines on either side of her mouth. Her ivory-white hair, long now from months without a cut, and her eyes — the crystalline blue-gray of a winter sky.

She appears more vividly on my internal canvas than she does on my computer screen, or at least that’s what I’d like to tell myself as I make a difficult choice: This Thanksgiving, even as much of the country resorts to video get-togethers and virtual holiday celebrations, I will forgo connecting with her — and other members of my family — through FaceTime or Zoom.

In this surreal pandemic year — as coronavirus infection rates and deaths soar, and local officials beg us to stay home — the holiday feels quietly somber, rather than celebratory. I am trying to make sense of it in my own way, trying to invent a new ritual suited to this unprecedented moment, so I have chosen to lean fully into the present without opening a digital window into another home, another town, another state.


Instead, I hope to give my full, undivided attention to my husband and my 4-year-old daughter. I am not trying to forget or neglect my faraway loved ones, or belittle the pain of those who have been alone throughout the pandemic. I’m trying to honor them — as well as the collective suffering and sacrifice of our country — by turning this Thanksgiving into a sober day of reflection.

How do you wean yourself from the political drama that has dominated our lives for so long? How do you get your mind back?

For guidance I called grief expert and author Claire Bidwell Smith, who lost both of her parents to cancer by the time she was 25 and has since devoted herself to helping others navigate the enormous chasms riven by loss.

In this pandemic year, Smith stresses, we are all grieving in different ways. The death of a loved one, the loss of the school year, the loss of a job, the loss of savings, the loss of a sense of security and safety — you name it, we are mourning it. We are also alone in different capacities, she says, and how we choose to approach the holidays should be decided on a case-by-case basis.

“I think what you’re planning is beautiful,” she reassures me as I explain that I don’t want to shut the world out, but rather invite it in — if not in body, then in thought — by creating a silent space for contemplation.

In mindfulness I hope to rediscover my ability to appreciate the simple pleasures around me: the gingko tree across the street turning a bright autumnal gold, the wildflowers blooming in the drainage ditch beside the garage, the sound of water trickling through the fountain in my neighbor’s backyard, the sunlight falling dappled through the oak tree leaves over the playhouse.

Osvaldo Golijov’s song cycle “Ayre” has a remarkable, joyous intersection of Jewish, Christian and Muslim culture. Music achieves what politics cannot.

“Grief teaches us to be present and to be grateful for what we do have,” Smith says. “It pares life down to what is meaningful.”

This Thanksgiving, she says, it would be beautiful for us all to light a candle, close our eyes and send a spiritual hug to those who need it.

“I think we have our own internal, energetic Zooms through which we can connect with others,” she says. “Whether they’re deceased, or whether they’re alone in Brooklyn.”

I like the idea of a spiritual Zoom because I am bone tired of the real Zoom. Even the word — Zoom — implies speeding from one place to another. For me, there is no rest in Zoom, only an uneasy sense of digital displacement. In transporting myself to my parents’ table with the tap of a button, I am instantly reminded of how much I am missing.

Technology brings us together, but it often tears us apart, whether it be a hasty tweet, an indecipherable text or a glitchy Wi-Fi connection when we’re trying to talk online, It’s easy to misunderstand intent in pixels. Might we be better off pondering one another in the abstract, in order to feel the singular power of our shared love?

When I want to talk to my parents on Thanksgiving, I will call them the old-fashioned way, on their landline.

Maybe this simple holiday call will be a new ritual.

“Ritual helps us feel connected and cohesive. It gives us meaning,” Smith says. “I think that we have long been reliant on outside sources to find that ritual — churches, synagogues and other spiritual places, but now that we can’t gather in these spaces, we are creating our own family rituals.”

On Thanksgiving, she says, that could mean cooking a beloved family recipe, taking a gratitude walk or inventing a new holiday game.

My device-free answer is not for everyone, and by the time Black Friday hits, I’m certain I will log into my computer so my mother can giggle with my daughter.

But on Thanksgiving I will find a quiet place to sit, and I will picture her face.