On Paying Attention

On Paying Attention

This is a guest post from my friend Ann deSaussure.

I started writing this post in a hotel room in Sparks, Nevada that I booked from the car after driving for ten hours straight. That was not the original plan (not by a long shot), but the campsite my boyfriend and I were eyeing was less than ideal and I dissolved into tears the moment I saw where we were supposed to sleep.

We’re in the process of moving from New York City to San Francisco and have been cooped up in the car together for the past seven days. There’s something inherently romantic and quiet about a road trip, and I had big dreams for this one. I saw us writing nightly together by the campfire, grabbing healthy snacks from the cooler I had so thoughtfully packed, and trading books back and forth as we raced through them. Instead, I haven’t written a word (until now), we don’t even own a cooler, and I’m on page 78 of my very first book.

One car, one highway, one boyfriend, one tent. It doesn’t get any simpler or slower than that. But I haven’t been able to slow down in the slightest.

My heart starts to race when we lose service in fear of missing a pressing work email. My hands will absentmindedly open Instagram before I even know what they’re doing. I’ll get lost in thought in the middle of an audio book and suddenly come to three chapters later. My mind is constantly wandering to all the things we have to do when we get to San Francisco: find an apartment, sign a lease, change our address, forward our mail, unpack our entire lives. The only place my mind definitely hasn’t been? That would be in the actual car, or on a turnout in Grand Teton, or even in that hotel room in Nevada with the only hot shower I took in seven days.

Slow living has been on my mind constantly lately, mostly because I fear I’ve been failing miserably at it. I fear I’ve blown my shot at this slow summer. I’ve had to remind myself constantly to put down my phone, to stretch my legs when we stop for gas, and to enjoy this sweet and uninterrupted time together that is so rare in our modern world and at our age. The strangest part is I don’t even know when living slowly became hard for me, or when it became something I lost somewhere along the way. I grew up incredibly slowly, on a dirt road in South Carolina, with siblings who loved to play outside until dinner and parents who didn’t believe in cable. It never occurred to me that I needed to speed things along or that one day there would be something called Instagram that I would check before even getting out of bed in the morning.

But I grew up, as we all eventually have to, and I grew into someone my child self might not recognize. My mind was always elsewhere—onto the next thing, the next step, the next city, the next job. I ended up chasing happiness outside of myself for a really long time. I moved dorms and apartments and zip codes, but I somehow always found myself coming home. I would call my parents from boarding school as often as I could, just to hear their voices and feel that familiar sense of peace. I went to college in my hometown and whenever I found myself stressed or nervous or sad, I would drive the twenty-five minutes to my childhood home, pet our dog, take a deep breath, and drive right back to town feeling like some semblance of my old self. My mom still sends me recordings of the sounds of our backyard at night—the bullfrogs and the whippoorwills and the crickets—which would be beyond stressful and loud to some people but will always beat the sound of a New York City street at night to me.

Anne Lamott once wrote, “There is ecstasy in paying attention.” The first time I read that, I circled it, highlighted it, underlined it, and wrote it over and over again in my journal. I did everything I could to commit that line to memory and put it into practice. It became my mantra when I forgot myself or when I needed to slow down and come back to the present moment. It’s so outrageously simple, but it reminds me daily how much goodness can come from slowing down, paying attention, and breathing deeply.

On Paying Attention

The last night of our trip, we got lost on an unpaved and unmarked road in Tahoe National Forest that definitely wasn’t suitable for cars. I was convinced we would pop a tire, two hours deep into this maze of a forest, with zero service and not a soul (or spare tire) in sight. I cried yet again and tried to quiet the negative thoughts swirling around in my head. We ended up finding pavement, finding the remote campsite, and setting up our tent as the sun was setting. We left the cover off the tent that night and watched the stars come out slowly above us. I calmed down, I slowed down, and I took some time to take in the beauty of the campsite at the end of that very long and bumpy road.

I can’t stop thinking of where to go from here, how to “fix” this problem I have of not being able to slow down or live as intentionally as I did in my childhood. But maybe there’s no fixing. Maybe, like Anne Lamott says, there’s just a little more paying attention. A little more of being exactly where we are, when we’re there.

With that, I’m going to go on a long walk through this new city with my boyfriend. Eat some ramen at the place down the street. Hopefully read more than 78 pages of my book before bed. Open the windows and fall asleep to the sounds of our new neighborhood. And hopefully one day realize a little attention goes a long way towards a simpler, slower, more fulfilled life.

Ann is a writer based in San Francisco. You can connect with her on Instagram @anndesaussure, especially now that she’s learned not to check it ten times an hour.

  • I loved this post. Having recently moved and having started a new job, I feel like my head is constantly swirling keeping everything in check and feeling like I’m failing at everything at the same time. I know that I need to take some time for myself, but I just ‘don’t have the time’. But maybe, all I need is just some paying attention for a couple of secondes every once in a while.

  • Such a beautiful post! I recently moved to a new city/country and feel like I’m constantly being pulled in all directions – I should be doing this, I should be doing that. This post was just the reminder that I needed to give myself a break, take it slow and just enjoy the moments. So, thank you!

  • This is such beautiful writing, and I relate so hard!
    It seems impossible to be present sometimes; I think because we believe we get so much satisfaction from achieving our goals that we can’t wait to get there. The reality is that the joy is shortlived before we’re onto the next one.
    I wish you the best of luck in your journey and new life, and if you find the secret remedy to slowing down and living in the now – please let me know!

  • Love this piece Ann. I feel the exact same way searching for some form of intentional living, whilst in the middle of upcoming big events and life changes. I’m aware of my mind switching from one thing to the next and like you find myself absentmindedly scrolling through Instagram throughout the day. You should also see how many tabs I have open…. ;) I’m trying to be more intentional and focused on whats in front of me right now (not an easy task). But I guess that is the first step – being aware that our minds like t0 jump from one thing to the next. And I think even when we are busy we can still be intentional and be with what is happening in the moment. Just need to be reminded. :) Best of luck with the move.

  • Don’t we all feel like the hamster on the wheel? Sometimes it seems the days slip through my hand like water. Being mindful enough to enjoy five minutes of sunset, the sound of a bird singing, or the quiet in the early morning make each day better. I’ve been working hard on this all year. It sounds like you’re determined to be mindful of the beauty in your life. It takes practice. I’m finding it worthwhile. Good luck to you! Thanks for sharing your story. It’s nice to know we’re not alone!

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