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?