Ditching Facebook for pen and paper


Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2015

On August 1, I deactivated my Facebook account.

I choose not to have Internet at home. After years covering breaking news, I want the separation between my work life and personal life; between my office and home; between the digital world and real world.

This summer, I had 24/7 access to the Internet. I would start checking updates from Facebook friends then slide into reading posted articles and viewing ridiculous videos. I discovered I was spending an excessive amount of time on Facebook. And it didn’t make me feel included or connected.

I could see posts of people’s summer vacations, complete with photos of their kids. I was privy to news about upcoming surgeries, illnesses, deaths and losses. I realized I had a window into these people’s lives and a sense of intimacy that I didn’t have with them in real life. I felt sad.

I followed the plight of the Syrian refugees and the violence in American communities on the news and Facebook all summer.  It was too much.

I sent a note to my Facebook friends and let them know I’d be leaving. I encouraged them to send me an email or snail mail address so we could stay in touch. It’s been nearly two months and I don’t miss the daily trawling through posts.

In 2008, I joined Facebook at the suggestion of a high school student who is a board member for my non-profit, Isis Initiative, Inc. She insisted our organization needed a Facebook page to reach a broader audience in our modern world. In order to have the page, I had to start a personal page.

I’m a private person. I balked. The greater good, I told myself.  I signed up and logged in.

Soon classmates from my years in France and Oregon found me. Colleagues and fellow journalists I’d worked with in Africa and the Middle East “friended” me.

I valued my page as a resource, particularly for the journalism classes I now teach. Many of my professional contacts posted timely articles about news stories or ethical dilemmas or news of jobs and internships. I could send a quick message to colleagues and they would agree to Skype with one of our classes or accept an interview from a student.

I could also keep track of my former colleagues covering stories in Cuba, Liberia and Afghanistan. It kept me connected to my past and my journalism career. It didn’t keep me truly connected though.

I had a phone message from a friend last week. I didn’t even listen to it. I picked up the phone and dialed her cell phone number. I was sure I knew the news. My friend’s sister answered and told me their mother had died.

Vivian had been given less than six months to live three and a half years ago. She weathered the radiation and chemo. When the cancer returned, she endured another round of treatment. Not long ago, she gathered her family around the dining table. At 83, she told her family she would not take on the cancer after it reappeared. The doctors gave her two weeks to two months this time. She lived just two more weeks.

She lived to see her grandson marry in August. She died at home with her family.

My friend took the cell phone. As I listened to her, I could hear the catch in her voice when the sorrow slipped into her sentences. She said they had prepared for her mother’s death. She paused. Exhaled.

“You are never ready,” she said. A long silence followed.

Last weekend I was cleaning and I came across a stack of correspondence. Postcards from Alaska, Cozumel, New Zealand. Birthday cards, holiday letters and thank-you notes. As I looked through the stack, each note brought back a memory, sometimes a smile. On Monday, I discovered a postcard from Dubai from a former student waiting in my mailbox. It had the coolest stamp and a picture of the Burj Khalifa on the front.

Forget the zeros and ones of binary code. The high speed Internet connection hurling status updates through space. I cherish the emotions that vibrate through the direct connection of a voice over a phone line. I revel in the idea of a hand-written note that passes through many hands and countries or states to arrive at my doorstep.

Time is precious. I am touched when people take the time to write or call me.

For most of my life, I’ve been on the move. I developed a practice of writing notes and cards to far-flung family and friends. Since I left Facebook, I’ve recommitted myself to the practice.

I take a moment and a piece of paper. I sit under the stars or in the shade of a tree or at my kitchen counter before dawn breaks. I connect with my heart, my breath, my world. Then I put a pen to paper and connect with a treasured friend or loved one.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.


Do your job

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This is just a quick blog post…it’s for me as much as for those who’ve been following my posts. It’s my promise to keep writing. Soon.

I left Afghanistan a few days ago and I am staying with dear friends in Kuwait. There is plenty of light and love where I’m staying. Laughter and good food. Stories from our shared pasts and conversations about the future. People who know the life I’ve lived, appreciate the work I’ve done. Who understand what it’s cost me, the toll it’s taken. And give me the space to come undone and put myself back together again.

These days I want to write…I have so many more stories to share…and photos. I cannot muster the emotional or physical energy I need to write well, to write from my heart. To write. Period.

While I edit my photographs and regain my strength, I’ll offer you a story I wrote when I left Afghanistan the first time in January (see the link at the end of this post.) It’s a profile of Lt. Col. Brian Payne, battalion commander of the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment. Those of you who have enjoyed my work from Afghanistan, you should know it would not have been possible without the support of Lt. Col. Payne. He invited JR and me to visit his soldiers. He gave us his blessing to do our work and the access we needed to do it. And when time’s got tough and I knew I wasn’t the most popular gal on the block, I knew Lt. Col. Payne and CSM Ernest Bowen had my back.

Lt. Col. Payne said he was proud of his soldiers and he wanted their stories told. He also knew the risks of inviting the press to join them.

When things got tough, I went to CSM Bowen for advice (on the advice of my father.)

“Do your job,” CSM Bowen said, telling me that he pisses people off all the time when he does his job. And doesn’t sweat it one little bit.

Thank you, Lt. Col. Payne. Thank you, CSM Bowen.

And thank you to the soldiers of the 1-5, who let a reporter walk among you…and in front of you and behind you. I am not a soldier and I have not made the journey you have made, though I followed in your footsteps the best I could. I did my best, as a reporter and a human being, to share your stories with others outside the wire.

Here’s the link to the PDF of the profile of Lt. Col. Payne.


Alice in Anchorage

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Alice Anderson poses in front of Cook Inlet. She spent her summer monitoring beluga whales passing through the inlet.

Alice has been in Anchorage since June. When I learned I’d be moving to Fairbanks, I immediately imagined we’d meet in Alaska.

I visited her at College of the Atlantic in Maine two summers ago. I made the drive from Rhode Island and we spent a great three-day weekend together. At that time, she had a fab summer apartment and job she loved. Her living room window looked out on the harbor in Stonington and she spent her days on or near the water, working at the Zone C Lobster Hatchery.

This summer she worked on a research project, scanning the waters of the Cook Inlet for beluga whales. This fall, she took advantage of The Eco League Exchange and attended classes at Alaska Pacific University. As I write this post, she’s preparing for a presentation in her bioacoustics class tomorrow morning.

This weekend visit was as impromptu and fun as my visit to Maine.

I arrived in Fairbanks at the end of August and Alice thought she’d visit with some of her friends who are considering attending University of Alaska Fairbanks. Weeks then months passed and Alice didn’t make it to Fairbanks.

When we spoke last week, I realized this weekend would be her last in Alaska. Alice mentioned the Anchorage Film Festival. OK. I’ll make the trip to Anchorage. After a quick check for air fares, I discovered Alaska Air had a nice deal on flights and I booked my tickets.

Stay tuned for an update on the films we’ve seen, the restaurants we’ve frequented…and perhaps a photo or two.