May 7, 2017

A 21st Century Nightmare with an Unexpected Gift.

As I write this, I’m sitting outside a tiny 1950s midcentury cabin in the middle of a state park in Oklahoma.

I can almost, but not quite, see the lake through the trees across the access road. When I arrived in the wee hours of the morning two days ago, a deer stopped on the hillside just steps from my car as if to say, “Well, hey there. Didn’t expect anyone else to be out at this time of night.”

It’s idyllic.

It’s also a nightmare.

You see, there’s no internet here.

Well, that’s not quite true. If I get up and go stand next to the ancient cast-iron grill box or turn in tight circles under the black walnut tree about 50 feet away, I can catch a whiff of 4G service.

Then it’s gone.

When I first realized this, I panicked. You see, this was a not-particularly-planned trip that I couldn’t avoid, and something I had to do for folks important to me. So, I packed my bag, got a last-minute plane ticket, and prayed for a rental car on the other end.

Even though I got into the cabin at 1 a.m., I immediately opened my laptop so that I could get some work done.

No signal.

I called the nice lady at the park lodge who had checked me in. She confirmed: there’s no internet in the cabins, but I could come use the WiFi in the lobby if I wanted. It might be working. Maybe. It usually wasn’t.

Oh boy. Panic it is, then—I have things I need to get done! Deadlines to meet! Emails to send! Articles to write! And and and…

And I gave up, closed my laptop, and got some rest. I’d work extra hours the next day to catch up.

But the next day required me to actually be present for people—something I hadn’t done in a long time. I was always drafting an article in my head, planning out the rest of my agenda for the day, fast-forwarding to what needed to be done next. The current situation demanded my attention and my focus. Plus, there was no internet to “just hop on for a minute to send this…”

Over the course of the day, a realization stole over me. I was actually…here. Thinking. Feeling. Breathing. Paying attention. Giving more than a fraction of myself to the people I was with.

I’d given up on getting the internet for the day, and with that, I’d loosened my grip just a little, giving up a hint of control in exchange for a hint of serenity.

After all, I can’t control the lack of internet here any more than I can control the wind that’s rippling through the sequoias surrounding the cabin, sending a hum through the air that’s put in counterpoint by the warbling song of birds.

I’m actually listening for once.

Being mindful doesn’t come easily to me. Never has. My thoughts are always zipping off without me, and the few times I’ve tried to meditate have left me even more frustrated as I struggle to keep focused on my breathing or my body instead of thinking about what to make for dinner. I’ve gotten used to the insane pace of my life, to the 10-hour work days and the fact that while I’m not good at being mindful, I’m absolutely great at drowning myself in work in order to feel in control and worthwhile.

The thought has crossed my mind that I could get in the rental car and drive an hour into town in search of a McDonald’s or a Starbucks with WiFi. But what would that really accomplish? I wouldn’t be present, wouldn’t be mindful of the reason I’m here in Oklahoma on a rushed trip to be with people who very much wanted to see me.

I’d be giving in to the temptation to be busy all the time, rather than being alive. Busy is comforting; it lets us think that we’re getting things done, making a difference, knocking stuff off the to-do list.

Only the to-do list never stops growing. And how many of the items on it really do make a difference? How many help others achieve their goals, or advance some deeply held goal of our own, rather than just making sure the laundry’s folded and the email’s sent and the memo is updated for the next meeting?

With no internet, I’m not completely unplugged—clearly, since I’m typing this, instead of writing longhand—but over the last day, since the panic started to dissipate, I’ve realized that I’m a little more detached.

And that’s not a bad thing.

I’m less attached to the idea that I have to do everything right now. That the world will end, or everyone will hate me, or my career will collapse if I don’t answer an email five minutes after it appears in my inbox. That it all depends on me, and only me, to keep things rolling.

I can sit here and stop typing for a minute to listen to something that sounds like a duck with a sinus infection call out, and something else that sounds a little like a blue jay, but more melodic, sing back. I can look up and realize that there’s a tiny, delicate nest like a globe-shaped basket made out of woven fibers in the tree above me, swaying in the wind. I can marvel at how blue the sky is, and how green the leaves, and not think for a moment about what task I have to get done now, now, now.

And I can write.

I haven’t written anything for myself in years. My job is to write and edit for other people, and there never seems to be time or energy enough left at the end of the day to create something for myself. But in the past day or so, since discovering that I don’t have any internet and realizing that it’s a really long, dark, cold walk to the lodge lobby late at night to get access, I’ve had a little time and space on my hands when my obligations are met for the day.

Those moments have been filled with writing. Page on page of things that, frankly, aren’t very good—but they’re mine. That matters.

Maybe it’s not necessary to get stuck in a cabin in the woods a thousand miles from home with no internet in order to make a creative breakthrough, or a spiritual one. Maybe it simply takes unplugging from the frantic pace of modern life for a day or two, just long enough to remember that life wasn’t always so rushed, that communication used to take time and effort, that the wind keeps rushing through the trees even if that email can’t be sent just yet.

I like the feeling that comes from being detached from the world, just a little bit. I love that it seems to have given me the space and the freedom to remember that there’s more to life than deadlines. I’m overjoyed that it seems to have fanned my creative embers, which were banked too low.

I’ve realized that at this little cabin, I’m more mindful, more present, even when I’m sitting here typing. It’s taken me a lot longer than usual to write this, simply because I keep stopping to see if I can spot the bird that’s singing this time. I’m breathing in the fresh air, so different from what I smell at home, and feeling the tension trickle out of me—not in a rush, but in a little stream, here and there, loosening a single small muscle at a time.

So I may have lost the internet but I seem to have found something much more important: my mindfulness.

Going to a cabin in the woods isn’t something I can do every day. I’m not Thoreau, after all.

But shutting off the router for a weekend here and there? Maybe even picking up a pen and paper instead of hunching over a keyboard? Finding my mindfulness by losing the internet?

That I can do.

Author: Kate Sullivan
Image: Author’s Own; Jared Eberhardt/Flickr 
Editor: Catherine Monkman

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Kate Sullivan