The art of disappearing

A number of years ago, I stayed in a monastery high atop the mountains of Big Sur. There was no internet, no cell reception, and no talking allowed anywhere on the grounds, except the bookstore that also served as the check-in area. I showed up late one afternoon, exhausted and bedraggled, with nerves as frayed as the bristles of a six-month-old toothbrush, after having driven miles of coastal highway that whipped around the mountains and provided no guard rail to keep me from plummeting into the ocean below. I stepped out of the car and onto the dirt. Lilacs spilled over the roof of the bookstore, and the sound of bees buzzing in and out of them was the loudest thing I heard. I held my breath. The silence vibrated.

After I checked in, I went into the kitchen and discovered that, whatever the communal meal had consisted of that evening, all that remained were thick slices of ham. I ate a bowl of granola, then set out on a walk. I hoofed it as far down the mountain as seemed wise in the coming dark, then climbed back up and wound around the cabins on the property. I moved quickly, absent-mindedly, because that is what I do when I am seconds away from coming undone, as though my body’s speed can outdistance whatever psychological trauma is readying to rip its way into my heart and head. I’m sure I cried that night, back in my room, though I don’t explicitly remember this. What I remember is the next day, and the day after that, feeling as I had never felt before, how profoundly tired I was.

It is no great revelation to say modern life offers a landfill’s worth of distraction. This may be getting worse by the generation, but I’ve read enough literature from different time periods to know every age has its opium. Human beings have long been masters at numbing ourselves to the reality around us. In our lifetime, numbing takes the form of full-on immersion—with technology that makes it nearly impossible to not be distracted—and while we are the most informed generation in mankind’s history, I would still argue our immersion is a form of numbing. Because we are enveloped by something other than what is physically in the space we inhabit.

In Big Sur, I was able to feel—in fact, could not escape from feeling—how utterly exhausted I had become because there was nothing around to deaden me to this reality. Sure, I could walk, but I would tire eventually. I could read or write, but these required brain space, which I did not have, as well as a kind of immersion that is the exact opposite of what technology swallows us in. I couldn’t bounce around on Facebook. I couldn’t text my friends. I couldn’t even strike up a conversation with the stranger next door, though anyone who knows me also knows how unlikely I would’ve been to do this, even if I could have. Yet you’d be surprised what I or anyone might do in that environment. You’d be surprised how fierce true solitude can be.

So what did I do during my stay? Aside from wandering around the grounds, I slept. A lot. I went to bed before the sunset, and while this was during the summer, that’s still saying something. When it was time to check out, I loaded up my car before the fog had lifted and sped down the mountain as quickly as safety precautions allowed me. The implications of how I behaved on that trip wouldn’t settle into me until years later. At the time, I remember thinking I would never go back. Despite how good it had felt to get some much-needed rest, the loneliness was too immense. This surprised me because I had always been an introvert, prone to spending inordinate amounts of time alone. But there is a big difference between being alone and being in solitude, as I had been on that mountain.

Fast-forward four years, when I quit my agency job. One of the first things I did was turn off the sound on all my devices. While many things seemed critical at that particular juncture, regaining my attention span was high up on the list. So was sleep. I had not, in all honesty, felt truly rested since my father had died two years before. For a while, I kept up the habit of waking at a “reasonable” time, spending a full day doing freelance work and looking for other gigs. But soon, these things began to slip away, as though God was gently pulling all the busyness from my hands and saying, You need to rest. While I have always been adamant about health and sleep, I have never been a champ at relaxing. But much as they had been on that day I showed up at the monastery, my nerves were shot to hell. My frantic life had electrocuted my beautiful soul.

So I gave in. I took the inheritance money my mother had given my brother and me after our grandma’s recent death, and I did what few people in this era could fathom doing: I stayed home, and I wrote. Six days a week, for nearly two months, I sat down at my desk, and as of last Thursday, I have a draft of a new book, along with two dozen other essays. I also read. I put a pile of books by my bedside and a pile by my chair, and I told myself I would finish them all by the end of the year. I reconnected with friends in meaningful ways and remembered how much I loved to cook and bake, and I went for runs at lunchtime and, for the first time in years, could go for more than three miles, my body no longer strangled by stress. And I prayed. So much, I prayed, and the more I did, the more I pushed my phone out of reach, the more I asked myself, Is what you’re looking at right now really that important? And nine times out of ten, it was not. So I stopped.

Naomi Shihab Nye has a poem I love called “The Art of Disappearing.” My favorite section goes like this:

It’s not that you don’t love them anymore.
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

What I didn’t realize during my stay at the monastery, and what I have begun to understand now, is this: I am trying to remember something too important to forget. I am trying to silence the cacophonous chatter of the world, not because I don’t want to be informed or involved, but because letting distraction bleed into my soul deadens it to the still, small voice. The voice that, for years, had been trying to tell me something. That I was tired. That I was spent. That I needed to stop. The luxury of being at home all day and writing will soon, out of necessity, come to an end. But I intend to fight to keep this, not new, but remembered awareness. I intend to maintain the space to uncover what my new book will turn out to be. I intend to hold onto the art of disappearing, and if necessary, do as Nye instructs: “When someone recognizes you in a grocery store / nod briefly and become a cabbage.”