The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone who thinks and feels with us and who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
This week I returned from a much anticipated, month-long unplugged trip with my 12 year-old son to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western NC, just outside of Asheville. After traveling the world and deciding Austin had become too fast-paced, my 47 year-old brother claimed the this area as his home in 2010, where he now lives with his partner, baby girl and blended family.
It was a powerful four weeks that included a nature immersion, adolescent tornadoes and tender baby moments, musings and sweet times with my close friend and brother Kert and his partner, opportunities to meet amazing salt of the earth people, hours of reading and daily naps and endless nights of intense, colorful dreams. We hiked into deep river gorges, traversed a beautiful section of the Appalachian trail, went to bed listening to a swelling creek outside our open windows, tubed over cold water rapids, followed wet, dark rock paths to hidden waterfalls, picked lush berries, took misty, early-mornings walks and bathed in long stretches of stillness. We picked our dinner from the wild, abundance vegetable garden next to my brother’s farmhouse and enjoyed phenomenal cooking at Asheville’s amazing affordable restaurants, soaked up lots of breathtaking folk art, world-class pottery and glass blowing and experienced a taste of what family life is like in a tight-knit rural community.
Leaving this slower, simpler, more organic way of life and returning to my home in Austin–a city that just hit number ten on the big US cities list and now welcomes 150 new residents a day–has me sitting with many big questions around life, work and play. But at the top of my list is: what did my off-the-grid month teach me about how we relate and connect to one another … and what needs to change?
It’s easy to romanticize what it would be like to live in this area of the country which is home to one of the oldest intentional communities in the US, a temperate rainforest, an abundance of farms and CSAs and a lush, verdant, climate, but things were truly different. I observed:
- people’s profound connection to the natural world–it seemed the long winding river that flowed through this county seemed to feed everyone, in numerous ways
- the veil of formality–that you usually see with many, even friends–seemed absent; people seemed more open, authentic and even vulnerable
- people dropped by one another’s homes unannounced on a regular basis–this seemed completely natural (it made me notice how recently I had slipped into doing this less and less with my neighbors–afraid I’d interrupt their busy schedules)
- everything and everyone was slower; people were getting things done, but there wasn’t a rush to reply to texts, emails or to-do lists like I usually see
- the local restaurants (our favorite was the Knife and Fork) exhibited a level of care that I rarely see anymore–there was a true commitment to cooking as a craft and a sense of pride and enjoyment exhibited by the chefs and the servers
- a feeling that “we’re all in this together,”-whether it’s sharing land clearing tools, opening your home to a friend’s relatives, or supporting a neighbor who is ill; one of my favorite aspects of this was the daily inter-generational interactions, something I’m craving in my life
- people were more spread out geographically, yet more in touch; folks knew their neighbors well, and didn’t hesitate to stop on the way to the mailbox and visit
My close friends have heard me share my longing for more land and more quiet for several years and many fear I’m headed for the distant hills. Enticing yes, but my Boston-born husband is a city mouse and my son has 6 more years at his school before finishing HS. So, for now, Austin–an amazing city in many ways–is home base.
In a country where sociology studies tell us we’re feeling increasingly isolated, lonely and disconnected (to others and to ourselves), my experience this past month in the mountains has me pausing and asking, “How I can bring some of the aspects of a slowed down, more nature-based life to my family’s daily experience and to the city I have called home for almost 25 years?”
There are many great things I love about city life, but I fear this rapid growth, insane traffic, increased consumerism, escalating prices and scramble to get “my piece of the pie,” is encouraging a too-busy lifestyle, a level of and desire for anonymity that is somewhat scary, a way of being with one another that is not truly nourishing (think a candy bar vs. homemade vegetable soup) and a missed opportunity to live in a way that is more supportive and interconnected.
Questions I’m exploring this week are:
How can I ensure my family embraces a life that is slow enough to make time for impromptu conversations in the grocery aisle and on the street?
How can we make choices that support us in continuing to put “people first and things second?”
How can my husband, son and I help build community and attract others to our circle who also hold these values high?
And on a personal note, how can I best use my talents and resources locally to support a community-centric “we’re all in this together” culture in Austin in the midst of this explosive growth (I feel I do this well in my national retreats/events so I’m looking at what I can learn from these)?
Perhaps I’m being unrealistic or just idealistic. I know many who live in big or fast-growing cities are probably asking some of these same questions-including is this still where and how I want to live? But for now, I’m sitting with these questions and taking my time to make sure I lick the bowl clean. I don’t want to let the gift of this past month evaporate and return to business as usual. I want to hang out with these revelations and occupy a wide, swinging hammock together until we come to some kind of consensus. I’ve got a lot of ideas germinating but I want to give them time to marinate and eventually let the very best ones take root so they can bloom into their fullest expression.
Often when I awoke in the middle of the night in the NC mountains, I’d feel a volcano of creative ideas flowing through me, surfacing. Maybe they were inspired or unleashed by the big, plentiful, flowing Toe River outside my bedroom window. Or maybe the river–and the ever-present stillness of the woods around me–just gave me permission to release what has been simmering under the surface for a while.
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Subscribe here to Live Inside Out, a weekly blog written by work-life balance teacher/author and Career Strategists president, Renée Peterson Trudeau. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping and more. Thousands of women in ten countries are becoming RTA-Certified Facilitators and leading/joining self-care groups based on her award-winning curriculum. She is the author of The Mother’s Guide to Self-Renewal and Nurturing the Soul of Your Family: 10 Ways to Reconnect and Find Peace in Everyday Life. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and 12 year-old son. More on her background here.