Lately, because I’m taking this Mindfulness in Place writing workshop, I’ve been thinking a lot about place and its purpose in my everyday life. Last week we returned from ten days in the Pacific Northwest. We mostly traveled the coast, heading north from San Francisco and up the Pacific Coast Highway into Oregon, with a quick jaunt inland to visit Crater Lake. We covered a lot of ground, and the trip, great though it was, reinforced something I already knew about myself:
I like to stay in one place.
This explains why I am a homebody and why my favorite place on earth is my own back patio. But it also explains something about how I like to travel. I prefer to stay put, getting to know the quirks and rhythms of a particular area and its people, recharging and settling in rather than hopping from place to place to place. My favorite parts of this trip were the rare occasions in which we slowed the pace and wandered according to our whims.
One afternoon, while the boys scaled fallen redwood trunks as big as houses, I meandered the lush trail, still-unfurling ferns tickling my palms as I craned my neck to gaze up at the looming giants. After days spent in noisy close quarters, I marveled at the hush, the moist, thick air blanketing the majestic cathedral in palpable quiet.
Two days later I walked the cold sands of Heceta Beach in Oregon, the lighthouse an eerie silhouette on the rocky point, shrouded by the ever-present fog. I hummed a hymn, stooping now and then to pick up a sand dollar shard. I never found a whole one intact, but I couldn’t seem to stop myself from slipping the broken pieces into my jacket pocket anyway. Later, I lined up the sand dollar fragments in the sand as I watched the boys build a garrison against the waves at the water’s edge. Just ahead of me, an older lady perched on a driftwood stump, petting her dog.
As much as I loved our vacation and all the new sights, sounds and experiences it offered – careening in a street car up and down San Francisco’s steep hills; sandboarding Oregon’s smooth sand dunes; kayaking the sea caves in Mendocino – it was these unscheduled moments of stillness and quiet that sustained me, and which, it turns out, offer some insights into my ordinary, daily life.
As travel writer Pico Iyer says, “A trip can give you amazing sights, but it’s only sitting still that allows you to turn those into amazing insights.”
Wise words for sure, but I’d take Iyer’s statement one step further and apply it to our frenzied everyday lives as well. Our days are full to the brim with experiences, interactions, goals and obligations (some of them amazing, some not so much), but we can’t understand their relevance, we can’t understand what these experiences and interactions can teach us, unless we stop long enough to digest and process them, to sit with them in stillness for a while.
We can’t turn the sights of days into insights unless we still ourselves from the harried pace of daily life.
Stillness, I’m learning, is a requirement for healthy, fruitful, wise living – and not just stillness every once in a while, whenever we can snatch it, but a bit of stillness intentionally carved out of every day, if possible.
Doing nothing, I’m realizing, is just as important – perhaps even more important – than doing it all.
Though they were far and few between, my favorite moments of our vacation were what I refer to as the “Type B” moments, those in which we pretty much did nothing at all: wandering rain-soaked trails and wind-whipped beaches; collecting shell shards and digging in the sand; sharing a scone with my son in a local cafe; resting on a stone wall watching swimmers in San Francisco Bay; gazing out at an angry sea. These were the “back patio” moments of my vacation, ordinary moments in which I was content to simply sit, observe, think and rest. These were also the moments that taught me something about myself and how I want my everyday, non-vacation life to be.