In praise of stillness

Last weekend Kevin and I went up to a friend’s remote cabin up in the Sierra Nevadas. Three hours out of our boring little suburb, and everything looked, smelled, and sounded different. There was still snow on the ground, though the conifers had melted small bare patches around their bases. Leafbuds and early daffodil shoots were just starting to emerge.  

We went there with no plans, and were not sorry for their absence. For two days, we drank sweet, clear well water that had never been chlorinated, woke with the dawn (there were no curtains) and went to bed when it was dark. Nothing but stars broke the darkness that cradled us to sleep. The stillness was punctuated only by the slow drip of melting snow. We ate simply but well; even a sparse meal of roasted root vegetables over polenta was deeply satisfying, eaten with the warmth of a wood fire at our backs. On one afternoon, I started reading, appropriately enough, a book on silence. 

I never noticed how constantly I was surrounded by light, noise, neighbors, cars, technology — until they suddenly weren’t there. In the absence, my senses reached out and found new details and experiences. Watching a hawk wheel in the sky above, I could almost feel the individual feathers catch hard against the wind that lifted them. The water smelled cleaner.

I wonder a lot about the price we pay for technology, and whether what we consider advancement is really no more than change, or exchange. I suspect that one of the steepest prices we’ve paid is our sense of intimacy with the planet we live on and respect for its rhythms and cycles. I don’t wish to idealize the past nor demonize what technology has accomplished (I am at least as much of an internet fan as you are), but I feel far from certain that technological advancement is a way out of our current mess.

On a more personal level, being at the cabin, even for a few short days, brought me a new certainty. While I was there, something inside me said, insistently, “I want this.”  The last time it spoke up, I ended up bringing home a blind, unfriendly cat — currently lolling around begging for a tummy rub. My instincts are generally sound. I’m at a crossroads right now, wondering whether to pursue the responsible, adult career I always thought I’d have, or freelance and live on very little somewhere far away from the burbs. Both paths, I think, will eventually lead me back to a remote cabin in the woods somewhere. Soon, I will need to make decisions about my life and priorities. But for now, I’m standing still, waiting for clarity.


20 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by seitei on 04/08/2011 at 08:30

    I wonder, why do you consider having a “responsible, adult career” a living a simple life in the middle of nowhere being mutually exclusive? I guess I’m not sue what you mean by the former.


    • I guess I don’t see free-lancing as a real career. I know there are plenty of people who would disagree with me; I just haven’t managed to wrap my head around it yet.


  2. Just beautiful, Jennifer. I felt like I was experiencing it with you. I love those mini-epiphany a-ha moments. There’s something about bodies and minds being able to REALLY connect with a moment like that and just be so tuned in to the way they make us feel and think.

    Spend some time with that feeling. The answer will come — maybe in stages, but it will come nonetheless.

    Be well.


    • Thanks, Bill. I like those small epiphanies, too — wish I had them more often! I appreciate your wisdom and encouragement.


  3. Oh, I can go there this weekend??!! Sounds lovely… peaceful, healthy and guiding.


    • It sounds like you need a break! Maybe you can find somewhere near you to rent for just a day or two? Although I think we’d all love longer, even a short time away ended up being very restful for me.


  4. I love your description of the cabin – beautifully written, I saw and felt that hawk, and the sweet smell of the water.
    I too feel drawn to nature and peaceful, quiet environments. I need trees, birds, fresh air…and my Mac 😉
    Listen to your Self, and give yourself time. You’ll hear the calling sooner or later.


    • Thank you, Cristina! I always picture where you live to be like this all the time — I see sand and sea and green hills, mist burning off by mid-day. (This is almost certainly a total idealization of Ireland…)


  5. Those days in the cabin sound wonderful and escaping the digital world is a great thing even if only for a short time. Sometimes I think I would like to experience this for an extended period of time myself.
    Good luck with the decision making. I can’t give you any worthwhile advice on that as I am struggling with the same questions myself.


    • Hi Colleen,
      I’m surprised by how many other people also seem to be in this situation. It’s easy to feel isolated when I don’t talk to many people! I’d love to know what you decide. Please keep me posted.


  6. Wonderful post; I too find my home very noisy at times; the hum of the ‘fridge, the clicking of the oven off and on, even the sound of my husband’s shaver being recharged seems to scream through the walls at me! I long for the silence too and have to get outside in nature every day. I hope you find the silence and manifest your dream…


    • Hi Mrs. Green! Are you by any chance an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person)? I don’t usually pull out that label, but it helps me wrap my head around why things like buzzing fluorescent lights bother me so much. My reset button seems to be going out to my favorite open space, sitting on an overturned log, and closing my eyes. It’s not silence at all — I can start to pick out individual birds, insects, leaves, water — but having listened to that quiet symphony for a while, start to feel less overwhelmed.


  7. I laughed when I read the line about the “responsible, adult career”, if only because eight months ago, I walked away from a permanent, full-time position with great benefits and a good pension… a job that I did really well and that represented the natural extension of my post-secondary education and previous work experience… to make a 180 turn and switch careers. Was it responsible? Is my new temporary, part-time position with no benefits part of an “adult career”? Not at all! Am I happy? Much more than before. Follow your heart, Jennifer. If I can do it, you can do it.


    • It’s funny that you say this, because in the few days after writing this post, I got an offer for a full time, with benefits, fairly interesting, reasonably well-paid position…and decided to accept it. I already know I don’t like the 9-5 grind, but I’m willing to do it for a while if it gets me enough money and contacts to go back to freelancing, buy a cabin in the woods, and move. It does feel kind of like selling out. But I also wasn’t sure that now was the right time to try to make it as a freelancer, much as I loved it.


      • A friend of mine made the same decision this past month. She was really excited to start her own consulting business, then changed her mind and decided to get more experience first. My suggestion to her (and I guess to you) is to start thinking about when to transition to freelancing. I’ve noticed that as time goes by, it gets harder to stay committed to big goals that involve leaving a “safe” place, so having some sort of deadline is crucial. At least that was my experience!


        • Hi Andrea,
          I didn’t know that about you. Emily over at Living Lightly in a Wavering World made a similar move. I’ll give this responsible adult job thing a try before writing it off and deciding to embark on a path less traveled. I’m thinking 3 years will be enough time for me to figure out a) if I’m happy with this life, and b) if not, what else I can do to keep myself fed and sheltered.


  8. You’re making me long for a cabin and a back woods trail. Five years ago I up and quit my dream job. It was an organization that I had poured many years of blood sweat and tears into, a non-profit roots music organization, one of only a few in the country, and I was standing at the precipice ready to take on the reigns as the Executive Director… everything I’d “ever wanted” in a job.

    But something in me said enough. Enough office politics, enough board meetings, enough fighting to get people to not make stupid decisions, enough being in a constant hurry, enough of trying to be so damned important all the time. So I quit and started a handful of frivolous internet based businesses. I doubled my income the first 2 years and then plunged with the economic downturn, but I still feel it was the best decision I ever made.

    Back woods aren’t in the cards at the moment, but you’d be amazed at the amount of seclusion and peace one can find when you jump ship from the rat race… even in the land of crackerbox houses.


    • Hi EcoCatLady,
      I’m a little sad that your dream job didn’t turn out to be what you wanted after all. My new job sounds interesting, but isn’t what I would describe as a dream job — I accepted it for mainly practical reasons (the cabin in the woods will no doubt have a mortgage associated with it!) and the hopes that it will leave me in a better position to figure out what I do want. We’ll see. I’ll check out the book you mentioned. My interest in (and need for) money, apart from wanting to have a house somewhere far away, has been dropping over the years. I’d like to see how the book will influence me.


  9. p.s. If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend the book “Your Money or your Life” by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. I read it back in the mid ninetys and it’s what has given me the economic freedom to make these sorts of decisions.


  10. Posted by Jamie on 04/04/2012 at 07:17

    What a lovely blog, Jennifer. I understand what you’ve shared about the contrast between stillness and the ‘noise’ that we’ve gotten used to. Quite a few tech-loving people I know have decided to cut back a little bit on their tech use, giving themselves more ‘unplugged time’ to balance out.

    Regarding self-employment, it’s not for everyone. I’ve been self-employed since 1993, through lots of economic/market ups and downs, ‘tests’ and challenges. It takes a lot of commitment, which is a lot easier if you just know it’s for you.

    I’ve known quite a few people during that time that gave self-employment a shot and they just didn’t realize what it entailed, and decided they weren’t cut out for it. So it’s good that you followed your own discernment about what best suited you.

    Wishing you the best with the job and the cabin. 🙂



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