Off to the mountains last week.
All the pieces were in place: rented house at Big Bear Lake for four days, my wife Marian, our fourteen year old son, and his grandparents. Our son is one of the quietest kids you’ll ever meet, and his grandparents, Marian’s parents, are moving slowly now in their eighties and are very sensitive to noise—even car radios. So imagine a very quiet trip always paced to the slowest common denominator of grandpa’s gait.
There was a shock of deceleration for me, like your head jerking forward when you hit the brakes on the freeway, as I slowed into the rhythms of the trip. I had promised myself to actually practice what I preach about presence and silence on this little vacation, but I didn’t realize for a day or two that every mountain element had conspired to make the trip exactly what I needed.
I had come armed with books and cigars. And even though I would put down my book and join whenever Marian and her parents gathered to talk, I still finished Fahrenheit 541 from scratch and the first six chapters of some of the finest prose in English from The Grapes of Wrath. And two cigars each between my father-in-law and me.
My father-in-law is a cigar smoker I think from birth, but when his wife quite smoking, she made purchase of tobacco a non-starter. It’s ok if I bring it, though…since it would be really rude for him not to smoke with me. It’s a little game we play and a bond between us over the years. As I tried to explain to her, it’s not about the tobacco, it’s about lighting a fuse that will burn for forty-five minutes and require full attention. It’s about having nowhere else to go, nothing else to do but sit and watch the little clouds rise and run off with the wind.
The house had a front deck two and half stories above the ground hemmed on one side by trees so close you could treehouse touch, and a view from the other side all the way to the mountains on the far side of the unseen lake, blued and whitened with distance. I spent as much time out there as I could between day trips to the zoo and historical center and shops, and the walks smelling of pine and rosemary accompanied by chipmunk skittering and coyote in the distance, impossibly high-pitched and echoing off the valley walls.
The whole stay was like a two-in-the-morning experience. You know the one where you wake or stayed awake lying in bed with all the parts of your life, everything it means to be you somewhere out in the dark, unseen and unreal, as if it never existed at all. Who are you at moments like that with everything familiar stripped away? And who are you in the mountains with just a few family members and your books and cigars? With all the parts of your life, the things you’ve built and identified with yourself, the things you do and are paid to manage somewhere unseen beyond the blue peaks?
It was contemplation by circumstance. Or at least circumstantial attrition: the systematic removal of noise and distraction, speed and action into a state of egoless awareness… exactly what I’ve been trying to cultivate and teach for a couple decades now handed to me on a mountain platter. Yes, I had to agree to play, to participate in all the mountain was offering, but I didn’t have to do all the lifting myself either. Like the gel in a petri dish: everything I needed to grow was right there—except the willingness. I had to bring that up with the books and cigars.
Second morning I got up before dawn and with everyone still asleep made a silent cup of coffee and stepped out on my deck just as the sky above the black peaks across the lake was getting its first color. The air was completely still, cool but not cold, and the coffee, hot but not scalding, tasted like the first cup I’d ever had. I leaned against the rail seeing things only as shapes and sizes without comment—that part of my mind that names and numbers everything finally silent as well. Colors brightened, seeping out of grayscale until the first orange light hit the treetops, angling down like the hands of a clock that seem unmoving unless you stare long enough to track.
Everything felt in place. Everything felt right. There was nothing I could do to make things any more right, and anything done would only diminish. The mountains had given themselves to me, everything they had to offer. Mountains always do; they don’t know how to withhold. But in that moment, I had given myself in return, everything I had to offer, and felt a deep sense of meaning even though nothing tangible was exchanged. Nothing was accomplished. Nothing produced. I was profoundly unproductive at that moment, and everything I’d left undone and imperfect at home, all the circumstances that stress and scare me were waiting patiently for my return. And yet there was meaning and purpose right then that I hadn’t sensed in the flurry of life down the hill for some time.
The deck in the mountains was a silent reminder that meaning is not inherent in a moment or achieved through action or production. It arises from the simple awareness of a gift given and received, the exchange of the gift of presence that occurs in any moment we fully give ourselves to whatever or whomever shares the space. Noisy or silent, productive or inactive, moments don’t matter to meaning, but presence makes meaning for the moment.
In that moment, meaning became real, who I am became real, but only in relation to that momentary connection. Even as I try to describe the how of it, I could never express the what—that existed only between me and the mountains and can’t be brought down the hill.
Meaning is momentary. It is felt as absolutely real in the moment of shared presence and is lost again just as absolutely when that presence is withheld. As it always is when our fears overcome our willingness to play.
But the mountains reminded me that I now know where to look.
And if I found it once, I can find it again.