You Don’t Really Need To ‘Get Away’

Ever fantasized about being a fire lookout, or living in a cabin high in the mountains, or deep in the wilderness somewhere? It’s romantic, calming. Our world feels hectic—which is our own fault—and we think of a place like that, out in “the middle of nowhere,” as a place to escape, to get away from traffic, lines at the grocery store, e-mail, loud TV commercials, whatever. If we could just get out there, we could finally think, without distraction. For once. Chop some firewood, write a book, drink cowboy coffee and paint watercolors as snow piles up outside our tiny calm spot in the universe out there in the woods.

One of the publications I write for, Adventure Journal, has an entire series based on this idea: Weekend Cabin. It’s simple—just a few photos of a quiet house in the woods or on a lake—and people love it. I can’t explain exactly why that is. Hell, I love it, and I don’t know why. I think because just looking at that image of a house in a quiet photo fills some hole in our soul, a non-food, non-sleep, non-love need, somehow. Why do we all want to go there?

Russell Simmons wrote a book in 2011 called Super Rich: A Guide to Having It All, and a friend who’s more or less earning a master’s degree in behavioral psychology Good Will Hunting-style ($1.50 and late charges at the public library) gave me a copy last January. One chapter made the light bulb go off in my head. Simmons, the self-starter hip hop mogul who brought us Run DMC and grew into a vegan yogi serial entrepreneur, manages to link Einstein, Biggie Smalls and Gandhi—and explains stillness.

We all know the literal definition of the word, which is the lack of movement. But when I refer to “stillness,” I’m actually referring to a quiet, peaceful mental state that allows you to be completely present in life. … Most of the great ideas we have in life are born out of fleeting moments of stillness.

I don’t meditate. I do yoga maybe a dozen times a year. But I am increasingly understanding how to find stillness in other ways. Running. Walking miles and miles down a trail. Bouldering by myself. Driving long stretches on highways. Riding my bicycle at night. A few weeks ago, I walked out of the Port Authority bus terminal in Times Square, plugged in my headphones and started walking up 8th Avenue. In the eight blocks between 44th and 52nd streets, I furiously typed away on my phone’s notepad, careful to dodge everyone else on the sidewalk, and in those minutes, I put together the ending of an essay. In probably one of the least still places in America.

I talked to a friend about this idea the other night, and she put it best when she said, “Quiet does not equal stillness, and stillness does not equal quiet.”

Over three months last year, I wrote a book-length manuscript, and none of it while sitting in a cabin in the woods, or a fire lookout somewhere. I wrote it on scraps of paper I found in my car, scribbling notes on my steering wheel, then expanded those notes into essays while sitting in dozens of different (preferably noisy) coffee shops all over the western U.S. That experience taught me a lot about finding a mental place to connect all the dots.

Musician and author Josh Ritter also wrote about finding a place in a piece for the Irish Times, at first thinking he had to acquire the proper desk on which to write a book—but then he wrote the book everywhere else but a fancy desk:

Knowing no other way to be a writer than the writer I already was, I wrote Bright’s Passage in the very same places I had written songs.  I wrote on airplanes, sandwiched between enormous Texans, in airport bars, early in the morning on tour buses, after shows, before shows.  I wrote the first draft in a month and a half writing one thousand words a day.  I edited the thing for another year.  I used a laptop with food stuck between the keys.  I wore headphones and listened to Radiohead and Aphex Twin the whole time.

So, that rustic cabin, or the tiny house on the mountaintop, or that desk: Is that just a symbol of a state of mind? A quiet place we think we can only get to by physically getting away from all our self-made distractions? Or do we just fantasize about a place where we think we can be a person we’ve always wanted to be, but are “too busy” to become?


14 replies on “You Don’t Really Need To ‘Get Away’

  • Tod

    I agree, good essay. Finding that inside stillness and mindfulness is a worthwhile pursuit.

    Be careful though. “Riding my bicycle at night” may get you more stillness than you want.

  • Steve W Weiss

    The only time I push for “stillness” is when I want to get away from people. I know that makes me sound like an anti-socialite, but I’m not, I love going out with friends getting beers/climbing/snowboard/whatever. But sometimes I just need me & my thoughts. Bouldering by myself helps me get that.

  • James

    This speaks volumes as it’s generally a constant issue. I’m an extreme introvert. I love people as much as the next guy but after a couple hours I need my mental recoup time. It used to really bother me but later in life I’ve learned to both embrace and respect it, and most of all not ignore it. Most of the time, this means going home. It’s my comfort zone. Naturally, I liken it to Darth Vader’s meditation chamber; reality, it’s sitting in my kitchen enjoying the 6th cup of coffee for the day. However, there are times when fulfilling this need is impossible: travel, school, family gatherings, etc. These are the moments where I’m forced to find that “cabin in the woods” in the city, in someone else’s living room, at a restaurant, or anywhere. Over the years I’d like to thing I’ve nearly mastered it…

  • Uma Kleppinger

    Excellent piece. You say you don’t “do yoga” often, and I get it—you’re talking about the physical postures, breathing exercises, sticky mats, etc. But just as “stillness isn’t quiet” or vice versa, yoga is much more a matter of perspective. It is a way of being—listening deeply, being present, participating fully—in whatever we’re doing. In other words, yoga can’t be “done”. It can only be experienced. What we call yoga—the exercise and stretchy stuff—is basically just a way to connect us to that cabin in the woods within. And how ironic is it that I say that whilst living in a shelled out Airstream without running water and the comforts of “home” in the middle of Podunk, OR while I work on my next book. Sometimes it *does* help to “get away”!

  • Craig

    Excellent essay, Brendan. We bought the desk to work at home. Bought a bigger home to get more space and “quiet”. The only places I can work or find quiet is in a cramped corner in my basement on an old, crowded table, out on my bike, or out in my yard. The desk does nothing for inspiration, and the house will always be crowded no matter the size.

  • Kim Kircher

    This really hit home, particularly this line: “finding a mental place to connect all the dots.” I rely on moments of creative alignment, when I can put into words the ideas I’d recently been twiddling beneath my thumbs. But this rarely happens when I sit down at my desk. More often, it is when I’m in the shower, or taking a hike or anything else when my body is busy so my mind can poke out from it’s skin.

  • Pete

    True… but I also like my cabin 🙂

    I don’t necessarily “need” one, but I MUCH prefer being here growing veggies and climbing out my back door to how I used to live in the crowded city… maybe I’m being too literal!

  • Kendall

    Stillness is as much in the moment when you’re surrounded by hordes of people and commotion yet you feel relaxed enough to smile for no apparent reason other than simply realizing you’re perfectly calm (or still) AS WELL as coming in those locations like last night when I found myself in a beautiful moonlit aspen forest, quiet enough to hear the leaves gently move during a near windless evening…and you smile from within, just the same.

    Thanks for the writing that inspires contemplation.

  • Big Shorty

    Wow, great read (as they all are). This site is the best thing I have stumbled into in a long time.

    Thanks for letting us into your world and thoughts!

  • Chris K

    “The Weekend Cabin” is nothing compared to 🙂

    As an owner of such a weekend cabin, I can tell you that, over time, even the weekend cabin transforms from a place to get away and find stillness to a list of chores and obligations and resistance. It’s just a different list. Sometimes having it be a different list is a good change, enough – but sometimes it’s just more burden.

    Sometimes I think that the important thing about going to the cabin is that it puts a bump into my normal coping routine. That’s part of the path to finding stillness, to shaking things up and then calming them down, to focus. But it’s not all of it. Because no matter where you go, there you are – you and all of the distractions that are inside you. Managing those is finding the stillness you mention.

    Thanks for another great piece.

  • Miles

    I agree. You do not need a place to find your “stillness” – or as I prefer the Hindi idea, an advanced state of function in which you are the moment, not in the moment.

    Buuuuut, you’re really quite wrong about that place. I’ve served as a fire lookout and you’re kidding yourself if you think it is anything less then a moment. One continuous moment. From May to October. Every cloud change, that subtle shift of seconds – everyday – of when that sun comes up and goes down, that particular floorboard that works its way loose. By far the most pleasant – and prolonged – moment I’ve ever participated in. Think of it as being “in the zone” while rock climbing 24/7 for 6 months straight.

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