I am not really a mountain woman. I mean, I’ve gone on my fair share of hikes here and there, but when we’re talking about spending time outdoors on a vacation of some sort, I tend to want to leave the valley I live in and head to the coast. To illustrate, let me tell you that despite living the last fourteen years a mere ninety minutes from Yosemite National Park, I have only been there twice. It sounds crazy to me when I say it out loud. So when I checked our family calendar for the month of April and saw we had scheduled two different trips to the mountains, I wasn’t all that excited. All I could see was how much work it was going to be to get our family of six prepared for a trip of fluctuating weather in a remote location.
In total, it was ten days in the wilderness. Ten days with no cell service or wifi. It was such a strange feeling in our age of constant connection to have this sort of break from real life. I wasn’t actually sure how I would handle it. No text messages? No email? No social media? At first, it was disconcerting. Out of habit, I kept pulling my phone out of my pocket and looking at it. Unlock, check notifications, refresh, repeat. Like a toddler with their security blanket, it felt too weird to not at least have it with me…for…a clock? Yes, that’s it, I need to carry it with me so I know the time. Oh, and pictures! I need it to take pictures! That first day, I thought quite a bit about what I was missing. What happened in the White House today? What was the publishing world discussing on Twitter? How many likes did the family selfie I posted on the way here get?
By the second day, I was feeling a bit more grounded. I was actually starting to feel the space created in my brain by the lack of input. Spare minutes were no longer filled with limited-character tweets but by the sounds of real birds talking to each other. I spotted a woodpecker making its way up a tree and noticed that ahead of her on a branch was a squirrel. I wondered what would happen when the woodpecker got there. Who would retreat? The squirrel or the woodpecker? My writer brain kicked in and I thought perhaps I had the makings of a picture book story. So I pulled out my phone, thinking the best thing I could do was video the encounter, and use the footage to write something wonderful! Or maybe, it would be funny and I could show the kids later. Or share it on Facebook to show my friends how much I was enjoying nature. So I swiped to the camera and held it up…oops, not on video, let me fix that…ugh, frozen screen, why isn’t it swiping? Okay, got it, hold camera up and…
The woodpecker and the squirrel were gone. I missed it. And not only did I miss it, I had no idea what had happened. I had spent so much time trying to document the encounter that I didn’t get to experience it. Now, you might be saying, who cares? No one is really wondering which animal did what, and we can all agree that it is not a great storyline anyway. But it hit me like a ton of bricks…I missed out on that experience because I was distracted. I was there in nature, but not fully present. And I couldn’t help but wonder, how many other moments have I missed?
Am I so worried about capturing every moment that I am not fully participating in them? Every song my child sings, every mess they make, every pitch they swing at…is it really necessary to document every moment of our lives? When I spend the three minutes the sun goes down trying to find the perfect angle to snap the perfect Instagram photo to memorialize that perfect sunset, have I really experienced it? Have I lived and breathed the red and gold hues as they gently fade into darkness? Do I really think that having the photo is better than having the memory of living that moment?
This hit me hard, not only as a parent, but as a writer. As a writer, I need to create. And it’s my goal to create stories that are authentic to the human experience. The reality is that in our world of constant connectedness, constant flow of information, constant feedback, we have to work harder to be present. But presence is crucial to authenticity, and our creations are nothing if they aren’t authentic. In the mountains, I was compelled to be present because (by no choice of my own), the tech world was shut out. And let me tell you, after those first two days, I began to relish it. I was in famous naturalist John Muir’s territory, and his eloquent words started to take root in me.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”
-John Muir, Our National Parks, 1901
And for my writer self, those ten days in the mountains were fountains of time, that led to fountains of much needed self-reflection, which then led to fountains of inspiration. I was able to create in a way that I haven’t in a while. That’s the thing about being present; when you turn off the multitude of voices that crowd our minds, shouting their opinions and thoughts on every subject, you actually make room for your own. So my encouragement to you, my fellow writers, is to do the work required to be present…make space, tune out technology, do more experiencing and less documenting, and when you can, heed the words of John Muir:
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
-John Muir, Our National Parks, 1901