In celebration of the mid-point of summer, we’re re-posting one of our most popular articles. Here’s to summer and slowing down!
I just returned from taking my twin 7-year old girls to experience the lake culture of Minnesota. I wanted them to see the way that I grew up, and I also wanted to see if the magic was still there. I wanted to know if the land still spoke to me the way it did 25 years ago. I wanted to see how much things had changed since I left that quiet way of life for big cities, corporate culture, global travel and life in the fast lane. Most of all, I really needed a digital detox, and I was hoping that this would still be the right environment in which I could unplug.
Of course I had visited since I left for good, I’d gone back for High School reunions, weddings, funerals, etc. But I always returned on my standard 3-day visit limit, squeezing in a million stops and hellos and never really going slow enough to be fully present there.
I was half afraid it would be a disappointing trip. Maybe the weather wouldn’t cooperate and would spoil the fun. Or maybe my trustworthy selective memory was at play, reprising all the good times and filtering out all the reasons why I left there at 22. Maybe smart phones and iPads had taken over there too and I wouldn’t get the digital break I was craving. Maybe my California girls would be freaked out by mosquitos, prefer the ocean over the lake and be bored by so little stimulation, considering they are growing up in the second largest city in the US.
But as I already know, those things we worry about most often do not turn out to be a problem. It’s just our mind/ego creating struggle and taking us out of the present moment. Of course, we did have our travel woes, being away from home for so long. There was weather, timing problems and tons of mosquitos, but it was a perfect trip — because it was just what we needed when we needed it. It may have been as important a moment in my life as that first time I moved to the city, and it’s taken me a couple of weeks to process what I experienced.
In five weeks, I never once heard anyone say “I’m so stressed.” Or “I gotta go, I’m late.” or “I’m so tired.” Some combination of those words has become part of the standard reply to “how are you?” where I live now.
I saw the presence and peace that people have when they are not over scheduling themselves. In the city, there is almost an underlying fear of having a hole in one’s calendar. (What’s everyone else doing? Is there something going on I didn’t know about? What should I do with those two hours, where do I need to go?) We’ve lost the ability to just be and people fill their time to avoid feeling alone, as if it’s some sort of failure. Downtime doesn’t exist.
At the lake, the neighbors at the next cabin would saunter over, not with a phone in their hand, but with a beer instead, and sit down. Not for a superficial five minutes, but long enough to see the sunset and lose track of time. They didn’t seem concerned about missing a call and I didn’t see a sign that they felt the pull of having to check in on the Facebook newsfeed. I realized just how absurd it looks to carry my phone around as if it’s an appendage of my hand.
When the girls were on the dock, the older neighbor boys would come over to help them fish, and hang out for hours. When we went for a walk, people would invite us to jump on the trampoline and then hang out and talk to the point where I’d feel nervous that I was missing something/had to be somewhere. Even though I had nowhere to be.
But what really struck me, was that most places and things (homes, cabins, stores, docks, etc.) were still the same. Most people there seem happy with the way things are and don’t have the addiction to upgrade, improve, and out-Jones each other. I got the chance to visit the couple who bought the cabin my grandparents built near Itasca State Park, where the Mississippi river starts it’s life as small stream in the thick woods, surrounded by Native American land. Perhaps the most poignant part of my trip was driving down that familiar long gravel road , turning the bend and returning to a special place from my past that stood just as I remembered it. The driveway, the cabins, the kitchen, the beds, the table my grandfather built by hand…all still there. Even his collection of old pipe tobacco cans, which he used to store screws, nails and fishing tack, were all still there, although the scent of tobacco was gone.
These things were all still there, not because the couple don’t have money, but because it is all good enough. In fact, today it’s even better than “good enough” because these old cabinets and furniture were actually made to last, unlike most things in our throw away culture, like my Ikea kitchen.
If you think about it, it’s quite shocking to calculate the time investment we make in constantly improving and upgrading everything, in addition to the actual monetary cost and ecological impact. I like to believe that I am well educated and well versed in all of this, but there is probably no piece of furniture or kitchen item in my house that is anywhere near 30 years old.
My grandparents loved the two cabins (the very rustic old one in photo, built from logs in the ’50s, and the newer one they built in the late 60′s.) To this day, my grandmother (Gladys, for whom this site is also named!) will say that she still cries when she thinks about making the decision, more than 20 years ago, to sell the cabins and retire to Arizona.
My best childhood memories are from this place. We spent summers there, working and playing together. We found Native American arrowheads on the land, we had visitors like bears, deer and woodchucks. I perfected my loon call. We swam all day, fished every morning and ate Walleye and Sunfish at night. No TV, no phone, and for some of the time, no indoor plumbing. Friends pulled up in boats to play cards at night. To have experienced this simple way of life was such an incredible blessing, but I wasn’t even sure if it still existed.
But of course places like this do exist, and we can create a slower, more present lifestyle wherever we are, even by escaping the hustle and bustle of the city on weekends or holidays. And I can see now that finding excuses to not create them for my kids are just that – excuses for being busy, having bills to pay, places to go, people to meet. It was a great awakening to see that I may have drifted off the course even more than I’d like to admit- and quite a gift to get to see it and experience it.
This is an addictive cycle we live in today. Just as an alcoholic creates bad days to have a reason to drink, many people today create situations for themselves where they must work more to pay for all the things they consume. And over-working also becomes a way to check out and not be present for life. Over scheduling, being busy, and being the constant search for new things are all behaviors that take us away from the present moment, and allow us to not have to feel, to be numb. Stuff, the process of acquiring stuff, and taking care of stuff distracts us from ourselves. Stuff is a bright shiny object that takes us away from time to be here now.
I’m so grateful to have had this wonderful experience this summer. It wasn’t easy to plan or to allow myself to have a month away from the computer. But it was important to see. Yes, the land still spoke to me. The simple life still exists, if you choose it. I didn’t miss my phone or the computer, we didn’t pay for any activities, we didn’t buy anything besides basic groceries, and we had no schedule. It was a big and wonderful change from our normal routine, and I’m hoping that this will start on a path to some bigger changes in daily life.
As I’ve learned, kids usually sum up things the best, and one night before bed, one of the girls said “Mama, did you have this feeling when you were a kid too? This feeling of being so tired from having such a happy day?” Yes, I did.
If you liked this article, you’ll also love What Happened to Downtime? The Extinction of Deep Thinking and Sacred Space.
Photo: Dreamy Lake, Canoe via Emily on Flickr
Nikki Eisinger Striefler is the Founder and editor of www.Glad.is, created to inspire people to find the mindful life. She lives in Venice Beach, CA with her twin 7-year-old daughters, and her St. Bernard.
Her personal journey included working on Fortune 500 advertising accounts for large ad agencies in New York, Frankfurt, London and San Francisco. She had the honor to work for Al Gore and Kevin Wall as Marketing Director of Live Earth, the single largest cause-related event in history. Her most challenging job was delivering newspapers in Fargo, North Dakota.