On Being 'In the Moment'

I find that, while on retreats like this, it is difficult for me break from my usual pattern of multitasking, even though I know intuitively that trying to do or think several things at once is not particularly effective— or healthy for that matter. But it is a necessary way of functioning in my normal surroundings, and hard not to carry over into these surroundings, though totally unnecessary here.

Or is it? After all, I brought along the tools for reading, writing, drawing, painting, snacking, skiing, and snowshoeing (the main purpose for being here, really), so in reality, I’ve set myself up with an expectation to do at least some of each, which I have been doing so far. My simple reflection this morning, in the predawn hours, with the wind howling and snow swirling outside my window, is over the mental and spiritual process of reflection itself.How does it mesh with the physical activity that accompanies it?

I read in a magazine on healing that I picked up last weekend, that it is virtually impossible for humans to do anything that is not "in the moment." This was the primary message in an article entitled, "Don’t Believe Everything You Think." We are constantly encouraged to strive to live in the moment, when in reality, according to the author, we really are not capable of doing otherwise. Even when we are being nostalgic, using our memory with particular intensity, we are still in the present, thinking about the past. (Note that "when we are being" is a present-tense phrase.) When we are planning for the future, whether some distant dream we’d like to fulfill, or deciding to take a sip of water soon, no, right now, we are making those plans, dreaming those dreams, now.

When I was out skiing yesterday, I had planned to stop on the way out to Norm’s cabin at the junction of the well-used Trapper’s Trail and the now-abandoned Hakon Lien trail. There, I would remove my skis, put on the snowshoes that I was hauling on my back, and trudge up the trail for a promised view over Bone Lake. This plan was hatched the day before, while sitting at the summit of King Mountain, after a similar trudge up the Mantle Trail, a well-blazed course that can only be done on snowshoes. The overlook there promises an incredibly satisfying panorama of Batchawana Bay on Lake Superior.

There I was, sitting on my pack in the snow, enjoying my ham and cheese sandwich and a breathtaking 30-mile view, planning my next adventure. I will admit that I caught myself in the act of not being "in the moment," but rather than admonishing myself for that, which is a really stupid and negative way to be "in the moment," I recognized that I was just celebrating the present joy I felt by conspiring to search for more of the same tomorrow.

On the Hakon Lien trail the next day, which is now yesterday already, I was dutifully doing my trudge, lost in thought, when I suddenly became acutely aware of the abandoned nature of this trail. I had learned from my breakfast companions that morning, people who have been coming to Stokely Creek for years and actually claim to have blazed the Mantle Trail I was on yesterday, that the Hakon Lien had never been more than a back-country trail anyway, meaning it was not maintained by motorized equipment like most of the other Stokely trails. But during summer and fall, crews would at least cut back the intruding brush and retrench any natural erosion that might surprise a skier when obscured by snow. That hazard is not an issue for a snow-shoer, so I was told it would make for a pleasant trudge (that’s what you do on snowshoes, you trudge, but it’s a pleasant sort of trudge), even though the trail had not been maintained for skiing in several years.

Thus, the sense of an abandoned place, abandoned by people anyway, of which I suddenly became conscious, was due to the curious lay of the snow over the land. The former trail still cuts a recognizable course through the woods, even though underbrush is staking its claim on the pathway. And the terrain still has that unmistakable cut-fill profile indicative of a level road bed carved along the contours of a curving slope. But every 30 to 40 yards or so, the relatively level path is interrupted by a contrasting havoc of curling, sculpted mounds of snow, dipped and domed in and around cave-like hollows and mysterious dark recesses, often with glimpses of trickling, icy water flowing below. These are little mini-canyons, created by natural wash-outs, normally retrenched and releveled when the trail was being maintained. I was told later that the trail is actually trying to become a creek bed, but can only do so in small segments before gravity takes over and pulls the eroding runoff down into Bone Lake. The result is this intermittent series of badlands, forming the skeleton beneath a sensuous, undulating landscape of snowy skin, that interrupted my solitary trudge and put me "in the moment."

Now, the next morning, sitting on the bed in my little room at Stokely Creek Lodge, listening to the first murmurings and knockings about from the breakfast crew in the kitchen below, I am again in the moment, propped against pillows, leaning against the wall so I can look out the window and monitor the slow, persistent brightening of the new day. I try to paint word pictures of the scene from 20 hours ago. I try to recall and describe more than the visual experience. I try to bring back that moment, and express it in this moment.

It is just like the gradual arrival of dawn: awakening to a simple but obscure truth. In the case of yesterday’s epiphany, it was the aha moment of sudden understanding; the breathless instant of recognition that literally stopped me in my tracks. It was a natural and unnatural work of art. Nature had built a hillside, sloping down to a lake. People had built a pathway, cutting into Nature’s hillside. People later gave up on their pathway, so Nature started taking back her hillside. In the ensuing take-back, Nature and people unwittingly (or not) conspired to create a wholly (or holy) unnatural land form, which, when softened by gently falling snow, sculpted by wind, reshaped by sun and more snow, was presented to me as a gift from the Spirit, during my quiet trudge through this abandoned (or not) little corner of God’s Creation.

The day is now bright enough outside my window to reveal the detail on the snow-covered trees that I started to sketch yesterday in preparation for an attempt at a watercolor of the scene today.The scene is ready.The first draft of the sketch is ready, lying on the other bed across from me, precisely where I left it at this exact time yesterday. What should I do now?

I feel myself deciding to take a sip of water soon—no, right now.

Wayne Norlin

Wayne Norlin is a member of Grand Rapids (Mich.) Meeting. He retreats annually to Stokely Creek Lodge just north of Sault St. Marie in Canada.