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Finding presence when movement isn’t always an option

  • Author: Alli Harvey
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: December 6, 2020
  • Published December 5, 2020

Snow falls on the south fork of Campbell Creek on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020 in Campbell Tract. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

There’s not much by way of vacationing for me this year. I took time off of work for Thanksgiving and will do so again over Christmas and New Year’s, but I’m not going anywhere.

Younger me used to envy people who seemed able to put down deep roots in one place.

Growing up back east in suburbia, I didn’t feel connected to my hometown. Sure, I liked parts of it. And like any mammal that imprints on the first thing that offers love, my deepest childhood memories take place back east. As an adult visiting “home,” whenever I drive a particular stretch of road I am flooded with reminders of who I was and how I got to be who I am.

This doesn’t sound weird at all, until I tell you that the landmarks that evoke this feeling are an AT&T store, a Barnes & Noble, and the particular crest of hill along a concrete highway that looks like most any other big-box lined thoroughfare in the U.S.

I formed many foundational memories there, yet felt no particular desire to stay and build more. Strange, I know. It’s a pretty nice AT&T store, with a Dunkin Donuts just a couple storefronts ahead.

Meanwhile, in my chosen, wilderness-filled home of Alaska, up until this year I’ve still managed to somehow feel busy. Busy is such a nefarious concept. It means and describes nothing except superficial movement. What have I been busy with? Plenty, but it almost doesn’t matter because in many ways busy is a distraction from being present. I’m here ... sort of.

And guess what, folks, 2020 has taken many things from me, but there’s one thing I’ve had plenty of: presence. Funny how this desire to explore “putting down roots and staying still in one place” showed up in a way I never anticipated and certainly never chose.

Presence found me, like it found so many of us, trapped. That fateful Monday back in March when the state shut down and I took my work home was a starting point. Seven months and a decade later, it still feels temporary — surely this will end at any minute; we’re just playing “working from home” — but slowly the reality that even with a vaccine we still have a way to go is sinking in.

Within this collective trauma and my inability to go much of anywhere, I’ve adapted. This is where choice comes in.

Trapped in the house shaking my fist at a pandemic that’s out of my control is no way to live. I visit there (plenty) — I write my letters, make my calls and cry. Like, a lot. I’m not a routine crier, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but like so many changes brought by 2020 this is something new.

My choice has been small, hyper-focused and deep. With no place to go, I’ve decided to take as much time and energy as I can to be fully right here.

I think the cool kids are calling this “mindfulness.” I take an experience and notice absolutely everything I can about it, including my own reactions. There is a detached feeling, like my mind is a camera panning all the way out. I’m able to fully inhabit even a slight, fleeting experience while simultaneously observing it. I am filled and immersed in a feeling, which is grounding, but I am also lighter. It feels like being on a mountain, when my legs have worked so hard to get me where I am but I also have an entirely new, expansive perspective.

The beauty is this is a way of traveling, right here. It’s a way of being that I always wanted to inhabit — putting down the deeper roots, moment by moment and day by day, in my tiny corner of Alaska.

And it’s restorative. At a time when much of my life is dominated by screens, from social life to work, intently focusing myself on and immersing myself in the physical world that surrounds me is a way of taking a brief vacation. It’s a mental reset.

Opportunities to experience this include:

• Watching snow fall. We’ve had several bouts of the big, fat flakes falling rapidly at night. I’ve sat outside under the porch roof, watching, letting my mind wander, noticing where it goes, and feeling my chest expand with the simple but amazing beauty of seemingly endless and perfect white snow in the air.

• Observing cold. Pausing during a hike or bike ride or simply standing outside my door and feeling sharp, cool air on my skin. Breathing in and out and seeing the clouds form in front of me.

• Feeling wind (there’s plenty of that in the Valley, let me tell you). Thinking about where the air has come from and where it’s going; imagining the enormous glaciers up-river with the wind roiling all the way from there to me.

The nice thing about any of this is it doesn’t take any ability or effort, really, to access.

Anyone can look out a window, or feel the sensation on their skin, or listen to the muted sounds of snow falling or wind gusting through trees. Anyone can breathe deeply and remember how lucky we are to live in a place with fresh, clean air.

And, for me, in a world pummeling me with daily reasons to continue my (new) crying habit, or drawing me into this glowing screen or that, accessing presence in these simple ways is my easiest shot at re-setting my brain.

So, no, I’m not going anywhere. But I’m still finding fleeting vacations in being present for what surrounds me, and I feel lucky that place is right here in Alaska.

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.