A River Revival
I spent a long weekend recently in a yurt in Grass Valley, California. It was somewhere between glamping and roughin’ it. There was a hot shower, but it was 50 yards away through a field of grass burrs. And there was a pretty garland of white Christmas lights inside the tent, along with an electric burner for hot water, but the bathroom facilities were… well, the bathroom facilities were a bucket with sawdust. So it wasn’t the most hardcore backpacker situation, but still a far cry from my city life in Oakland. And it was glorious.
No sounds of freeways or my neighbor’s tv. No streetlights at night requiring blackout curtains. No smells of exhaust or pavement or other people. It was instead filled with sounds of nature — trees rustling, birds in the distance; at night a black sky filled with stars; the smells of forest floor and wood and strong coffee. I turned off my phone (service is shoddy, anyway) and sunk into a state of bliss.
I would have enjoyed 5 days hanging around the campsite, so needed was a respite from my daily grind. But the real draw of this place is a 45-minute drive northeast to a magical river. It’s one of my most favorite places. Glacial runoff spills down granite boulders, smooth from centuries of directing the roaring flow. There are pools of turquoise water, cliffs where daring souls take leaps. There are rocks shaped like elephants and dragons and beasts. It’s ripe for an active imagination.
My routine in my annual trip with a good friend is to hike in as far from the road as possible. Then descend the dusty paths to reach the chosen spot along the water. I stuff my pack in the shade somewhere, lather up with sunscreen and wait for my rock to beckon. Sometimes it will shift, and I’ll hop between a few inviting perches. And sometimes it will be just me and a single rock for the entire day, with regular dips to cool in the turquoise waters. Maybe there’s a book, or some writing. Maybe a futile attempt to capture the beauty with a camera. But mostly it’s just laying on a rock listening to the eternal rushing of the river, feeling absolute wonder for this world we live in.
It was good to get offline for a bit. I was halfway through Deep Work by Cal Newport, and I took it down to the river to finish. If there was ever a place to read Deep Work, off the grid at the river is it. By the time I finished, I was ready for a new monastic lifestyle. I wrote my post-river to do list: quit social media, cancel my home internet, ruthlessly cull all things shallow from my personal and professional life. I think being in nature while reading it drove an essential point even deeper within. I had a keen awareness of how unnecessary our distracted way of life is. For the first time in weeks, I could focus. I could breath. It seemed so obvious that our attention is the most precious resource. We flitter it away. What works of art will we never see because of social media and internet addictions? How many hours scrolling instead of producing, designing, contemplating?
Learning to disconnect from the chatter and go deep is a skill, and a difficult one. Not checking work emails was a habit I had to consciously take a break from, thanks in part to a lack of cell service. But the insights and presence I experienced were incredibly satisfying and worth pursuing in non-vacation life. I’m happy to report that my professional world was just fine without me for a few days, indicating that much of the anxiety around immediate responses is my own creation. And I got the chance to give my mind a rest and come back to problems refreshed.
In Deep Work, Cal Newport describes how our lives can so mercilessly pass us by if we aren’t intentional with where we apply our attention. Incredible work can be done — books written, legacies built, masterpieces created, inventions conceived — if we are able to direct our attention toward work that matters. Distractions are never-ending, and culturally reinforced, with notifications constantly on our phones which are constantly in our hands. He reminds us to look at the wonder of technology as a tool, just like a pen or a paintbrush. There’s a use for it, but it is not the work itself.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that for most of us, our meaning achievements don’t come about from a collection of emails, being up on the news, scrolling through an Instagram feed. It’s the hours working out a tough passage of a book, practicing our craft, improving our skill at photography or teaching, listening, learning, and refining our beliefs and systems. Think of the things that have most moved you in your life. Songs, books, art, architecture. I’m willing to wager they are all the outcome of deep work.
Thus revived, I am channeling the river. Intense and powerful and breathtaking. I don’t want to be known as a person who just returns emails promptly, or be known even as ‘likable’ or ‘nice’. I want to be known as a person who thinks deeply, who uses my unique affinities and abilities to create value, innovation, meaningful work. I want to stretch my mental and physical capacities to their limit. I want to feel the full miracle that is being alive in this world.
I already miss the wild spray of stars and the swirling eddies of the Yuba, but I got a lot from my visit this year. Learning to shift our attention from the endless distractions toward the work of our souls is an important, essential effort. We owe it to humanity, present and future, to try to make work that matters. We owe it to ourselves. Our thoughts and insights are needed, our creative spirit is longing for release.
Don’t let another day drag you along the surface. Cull the shallow, take a deep breath and dive.