as real as it gets

I’ve been living more off the grid than most for almost seventh months, and thoughts about returning to the daily, familiar grind recede more with each passing day. I find that some of my most stimulating conversation occurs on the chairlift, and such was the case about three weeks ago when I rode the lift with a guy who I’ll call an “old ski buddy.” More than twenty years of age mark the territory between this gentleman and myself, and yet we somehow manage to bridge the gap in our sporadic and disproportionately passionate discussions about history, philosophy, politics, foreign languages, life in general, and, of course, skiing. What I lack in years in wisdom I make up for with my uninhibited verve. We frequently play devil’s advocate for one another, and I often find myself experimenting with new, challenging, and, at times, uncomfortable perspectives in our conversations. I was therefore surprised to find myself completely agitated by a chat, or rather batting of horns, that we had on the lift a few weeks ago.

My perspective: in our day and age and society, it seems increasingly difficult to truly “live in the now” and to embrace the immeasurable opportunities we are granted by life, itself, and by the natural world. Taking time away from academics has given me the rare and unexpected mental/physical space to consider deeply how I would like to live right now and in the immediate future. Easier said than done with the seemingly insurmountable societal pressures to study, to get a job, and subsequently, to help perpetuate the system. While on the trail in western Bhutan in the middle of October, just about as distanced from this system as is possible, I spent numerous rainy nights in my tent reading Claremont psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s famed Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Rather than recap Csikszentmihalyi’s extensive and varied ideas, I’ll share the broad concept that resonated with me as I pored over each page of the book: mode of existence. Mode of existence: to me, not just how we live because we live that way, but because we’ve allowed ourselves the time, respect, and consideration to determine how we wish to live in the interest of “optimal experience.” Optimal experience: to me, the feelings of being in the right place at the right time, of finding joy in the simplest of thoughts of interactions, of feeling as though life is being lived for the “right” reasons. Of course, this is all subjective. I was compelled by Csikszentmihalyi’s proposition in Flow that the meaning of life (!) is the pursuit of meaning, itself. Wow. Take a minute or two…or as many as you need…to digest that one. If that is indeed the case (and I think it is), then life is to be lived and is exactly what you want it to be. Theoretically. Back to the storyline…

His perspective: It’s unrealistic, and perhaps even reckless, to operate under the impression that life can be lived on your own terms–according to your model (rather than that encouraged by the “system”), your desires, and/or your personal rendering of “optimal experience.” Life, for better or for worse, is about practical action: going through the school system, obtaining a university degree, getting a job, perhaps getting married, and you know the rest. “Annie, your head is in the clouds. Sure, you can have this temporary fix, but this isn’t any sort of a long-term solution. You’re being a maverick right now; you’re not being at all pragmatic. When are you returning to school, anyway?” My response, mumbled as simple and undeveloped as they come: “I just don’t know.” “Well, you will figure it out soon enough. But I do predict that you’ll come to understand that life isn’t just about fun and games, about always doing what you want to do, or even about enjoyment. It’s all about practicality and doing what you need to do.”

I interpret “doing what you need to do” in the most liberal and liberalizing sense.

Sure, my head is in the clouds–literally and figuratively–from time to time. I am certainly not operating under the illusion that life is meant solely for fun and games, for cheap moments, or for easily earned moments of joy and ecstasy at every turn. The “do what you love and f*** the rest” approach is even a bit too liberal for my taste. This isn’t about the “easy” way out, about living life without any form of adversity, or about completely ducking the structures that be. The system has, at the very least, some value. But we still can–and should–strive for “optimal experience”: living at the intersection and harmony of physical engagement (through connectedness to the natural world) and a firm (but ever-evolving, of course) set of guiding virtues: hard work, purpose, a moral compass, and the notions that struggle can/should be joyful and fulfilling and pain, often rewarding.

So why my mention of the mountains yet again, other than to sprinkle a little Muir in my post, par for the course? As I mentioned (and have probably mentioned enough times previously), I’ve had the opportunity–pivotal, eye-opening, and perhaps life-changing (dare I venture into the terrain of cliches?)–to spend the past seven months exploring the wilds of Utah, Bhutan, and Nepal (yep, worlds apart) on skis and on foot. I’ve shared some of my reflections from Asia in previous posts, and as promised weeks ago, I will share more in the coming weeks, so I will focus on my experience in my current high-altitude paradise in this attempt at denouement…900 words later. Thanks for sticking with me. I ski a well-trodden traverse almost daily en route to the “goods,” and I frequently find myself sliding to a halt at a particular point where the mountainside gently switches from northwest-facing to west-facing (thanks, Avy 1 course…and I guess common sense). The spot: partially guarded by a dense cluster of spruce trees that cling to the steeply sloping hillside, partially drenched in warm rays of Wasatch sunshine. Only a neutral, “no-man’s land” of this sort could evoke the same response from my mind and body each time I round the bend in the hillside. I perform the knee-jerk adjustments: ski boot buckles, check; glove straps, check; jacket pockets zipped, check; goggles and helmet aligned (the horrors of a beater gap…!), check); and finally, a sigh. I trace my breath as it travels across the indescribable landscape dressed in layers of white: the mountains, they don’t judge.

Note: contrary to the above description, this is NOT the "spot."
Muir was onto something...

4 thoughts on “as real as it gets

  1. Annie – I had very similar thoughts during my year at Alta. do what you need to do. but do come back to school sometime. It misses you.

    And are you sure you didn’t just make up the name Csikszentmihalyi?

    nice work. live it up.

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