A lucky colleague of mine is teaching in Florence this semester. A few weeks ago, several of us from campus talked to her on the phone about a project we’re all working on together. From the sounds of things, she and her husband and kids are having a wonderful adventure—as we might all expect. Describing her time there, she said something that has stayed with me ever since. “When you’re here,” she said, “you’re just so here.” This might not be exactly what she she was thinking about, but that for me is the reason I love to travel.
When you’re there, you are just so there. You’re seeing new things, often engaged with at least one person you really care about, and you’re immersed in another culture. It’s hard to be in London, or Taos, or even San Francisco, and still be thinking or worrying about what’s going on in your life at home. When I was in my mid-20s and I first started traveling, it took me a long time to let go of home. It wasn’t until I gave myself permission to build then-expensive phone calls home into my travel budget that I felt like I could let it all go and just be there. The Internet lets me feel even closer to people at home if I want to be. But mostly I’ve learned the true value of just being someplace else when I'm out in the world.
I didn’t ask much more of myself than to just be where I was and to appreciate what was happening then and there.
A few years ago, I traveled to Paris for a week by myself. I communicated with my friends and family regularly, but for all intents and purposes, I spent a week in my own little life. I made my daily routine, I got to know my neighborhood, I watched the world go by at sidewalk cafes, and I had a few adventures. In part because I was alone, it was easy to focus on what was right there in front of me and to stay grounded in what I was doing at that moment. I didn’t ask much more of myself than to just be where I was and to appreciate what was happening then and there.
In my regular day-to-day life at home, I don’t do that very often. Instead, I let my tasks and chores and responsibilities expand well beyond what is usually comfortable. Then I am almost always overloaded with things I need to do, frequently feeling behind and worrying about how to get caught up. My to-do list haunts me and I almost always wish I had more time to read, go for a walk, or just stare into space. I get it that going back to work exacerbates this, and I did it by choice, but the real problem lies more with me than with having a job. I think part of me is challenged by seeing just how much I can do.
I also know that it’s often easier to fill up my head with a million errands and responsibilities than to just be in the moment. It’s crazy to realize that, but it’s true. Being present at this moment requires not drifting off into what I should have said or done, or what I might say or do next. It asks me to just be—as I am, right this second. Being present also requires that I do the work to bring my thoughts back to now as often as I can.
When my friend talked about being present in her semester-long life in Florence, it reminded me how much I want that feeling in my own life, even on the busiest, most stressful days. I want that feeling that I have when I’m traveling, when I notice architecture and murals and the lightness of the air on my skin. More than anything, I want to muster the discipline to be in that mindset, even when I’m stuck in traffic and late for work. I know how hard that is for a busy-brain person like me, but I’m interested in practicing. I have every intention of once again standing on a street in Paris and being immersed in being there, but the true test is being able to do it anywhere.