The poet William Stafford asks the following in his beloved poem, “You Reading This, Be Ready“:
Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?
Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?
When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life –
What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?
This call to action, sounding boldly through his words, begs us to be in and acknowledge the present moments of our lives. I fear that the information and technology overload of our current culture numbs us from being present and fully awake to our days. All around us we see people staring at screens, walking with their heads down while squinting at small devices, scrolling mindlessly, and abandoning the depth and wholeness of face to face conversation by allowing phones to buffer their discourse.
One of the best things about my sabbatical traveling (read more on my sabbatical here) was the complete abandonment of my phone as a communication device. Yes, I still used it for photography, to remember the moments of transcendent beauty surrounding me in Alaska, Ecuador, Sweden, Denmark, Lithuania, and France, but when I rode on a trolley bus in Vilnius, I looked out the window at the people and places previously foreign to me. When I sat around the campfire in Kotzebue, I played backgammon and talked to my friends about what it means to be content. When my friend and I drove through the French Alps, I marveled at the stark beauty of the peaks and valleys and stopped to stare at lambs and cobblestone streets and distant villages.
I want to remember the moments worthy of repeating. I want to savor the experiences of life that leave me thinking, “How can I remember this feeling, this instant forever?” In a conversation with a former co-worker and friend yesterday, while talking at length about the idea of story and its fading prominence in daily life, I expressed grief that we seem to be living less interesting lives. We are happier, perhaps, but not as focused on pushing boundaries, experiencing life in new ways, getting out of our comfort zone, or embracing the bold spirit of adventure. We cling to what is easy and normal and regular. This is all well and good, but is it enough? What will we remember?
While in the French Alps visiting my dear friend and cheesemaker, I joined in a hike up l’alpage du Distroit with two local farmers in pursuit of finding and retrieving their calf-bearing cows. Wooden walking sticks in hand, we drove up the mountain as far as we could then trekked the last part on foot. For those of you who did not grow up in the Alps, beware when anyone tells you, “It’s just an hour. It will be easy.” Easy it was not. I didn’t get the first few hours up the slope on foot to acclimate to the altitude and find my rhythm as I normally would, so the one hour of vertical ascent was hard. After many breaks and many deep breaths, I managed to trail behind the group, significantly, but within visible distance so as not to lose them. Along the way I couldn’t believe the narrative of my life and the series of choices that took me to that day. There I was, climbing a mountain in borrowed hiking boots and a rust-orange raincoat with two strangers and my dear friend in the vast beauty of the Alps as fog swirled in around the deep green of the trees and the golden yellow of the grass and the fresh smells of the Earth, the sounds of far-off cowbells chiming in the distance. This, this moment was a story: this human experience of physical pain and mental struggle and incomprehensible beauty.
At the top of the mountain lived a shepherd, a young man who spent the spring and summer in a small hut tending to the hundred cows that graze in this alpage. We feasted at his table from paper-wrapped parcels of food found in the farmers’ backpacks: homemade cheeses and pig’s head and sausages dusted in flour and pig’s shoulder and truffles and hard-boiled eggs and tins of sardines and fresh baguettes and biscuits and chocolate bars and swigs of an unnamed liquor from a communal flask. They conversed in French as I consumed everything in sight, considering it a celebratory feast for both reaching the top of the mountain and being alive to experience this moment.
The six pregnant cows plus one calf were herded into a pen, the group formed a line, and we proceeded down the mountain path the way we came: four humans, six cows, one calf, lighter backpacks, drizzling rain, more fog. We could barely see the path in front of us, but that didn’t stop the cows from carrying on boldly. I suppose they had climbed up the path during springtime, so they were familiar with its curves, but their obedience and order still struck me as miraculous. One after the other they slowly climbed down, carefully placing their hooves in stable places and avoiding the thousand foot drop-off that was ever present on one side of the path. Over waterfalls and under cliffs and between canyons we walked, all the while a sight to behold, all the while attentive and ready for any small misstep that would most certainly be fatal.
Back at the farmer’s house, over tea and a prune tartlet while the fire crackled and warmed the cozy kitchen, contentment found new meaning for me. This is life, my dear friends. This is how I want to live: ever wide-eyed, always ready, never stuck, constantly seeking, surrounded by wonder. May my days be continually filled with moments worthy of retelling.