It’s summer, and I’ve been thinking of what poet Billy Collins called those, “forlorn chairs/though at one time it must have seemed/a good place to stop and do nothing for a while.” Even situated, as they usually are, to take in the view, it’s hard for those chairs to compete with the attention-grabbing distractions found on our glowing screens.
If you’re not careful, you can spend hours looking at moving pictures and not reading things on your magical device. You start on a favorite news site, clicking through the headlines. Maybe you even open a story or two and read a couple of paragraphs. Then you leave those open tabs to visit a social media site, which sends you on another long string of click and skim. And these on-screen attractions are merely a distraction from your work and there are also the chores of daily life, and before you know it, the day is done and the chairs have sat empty once again.
If ever there’s a season to occupy those lonely chairs, this is it, and here at our farm, my husband and I (and our near-constant stream of summer visitors) are doing our part. Compared to all the shiny things beckoning from our screens, sitting on our front porch and watching the sun move across the sky might seem a little boring. Sure, we’ve got spectacular views of jagged mountains and deep canyons. But sunsets unfold slowly, and sitting still and paying attention requires a kind of patience that’s rarely called upon in the digital age. Which is why it feels so important to practice the art of just being — savoring the moment, for its ephemeral quality.
A few weeks ago, I went mountain biking with a friend along a high ridge near Aspen. Near the end of the ride, just before we dropped back down into the valley, we paused to take in the view. My friend pointed to some massive houses perched along the hillside below us. “I did landscaping work at some of those mansions one summer,” he told me.
The weird economics of resort towns like Aspen is a topic for another day, but my friend recalled how he’d learned to work. You needed to get the job done, he told me, but it didn’t behoove you to work too fast. The rates were set based on a certain number of yards per day, and if you exceeded the prescribed pace, the hours wouldn’t add up. As a result, the crew was required to take a civilized number of breaks throughout the day, and usually these were enjoyed on the fancy chairs that went most of the time unoccupied at these empty houses. “I’m sure I spent more time on those decks looking at the view than any of the owners did,” he told me.
I’m not generally inclined to feel sorry for the owners of uninhabited trophy homes, but my friend’s story made me feel a twinge of pity for these rich people who were too busy and important to savor the view they’d spent so much money cultivating. While I was in Aspen, speaking at an esteemed institute, I sat down to talk with a VIP. “This place is so amazing,” she told me. “People are so relaxed, just enjoying the scenery.” It occurred to me that this wasn’t normal where she comes from — a big, important city on the coast.
I wanted to tell her to fight back. Forget your next appointment. Turn off your smart phone and take a few minutes to feed your soul. Unplug for a while and let your mind wander a bit. Smell a flower, listen to the birds sing, dance. Go sit in those forlorn chairs and take some time to notice nothing but the sound of your own looking.
Photo by Tambako The Jaguar via Flickr.