Did you ever read Thoreau’s Walden? In the book, Thoreau lays out his 2 year adventure cutting himself off from society and living in woodland owned by his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. It’s an amazing tale of seclusion, self-sufficiency, introspection and personal growth. It's definitely worth reading. One of my favorite quotes from it is:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
One of the things I noticed last year (2016) was how busy I always was. My mind was always full to the brim of some stressor. Each time I would tell myself that this stress period was a new, isolated and highly unusual case- but the truth was they went on continuously and never ended. I was in denial that this was my new reality, until many months passed and I realized the only constant variable was my own mind. I was indulging in stress in some way, perhaps as a sort of self-flagellation because I believed it was necessary for success.
On one of my weekend ‘escapes’, I took myself solo to a hot springs just outside of Palm Springs. The day before I was supposed to leave, I went on a 6 hour hike and ended up on a distant canyon in a different town. It was so unbearably hot that I thought I was delirious when I caught sight of a mid-century bungalow on the next canyon. The house was such a striking contrast to the barren landscape that I felt an instant connection with the architect for picking such a desolated spot. I remember thinking to myself- daring myself — to go over to the house. Sometimes I wonder how different my life would be if I hadn’t succumbed to my own internal peer pressure, standing on the edge of chaos, a voice in my head telling me to go knock on the door. I had all the correct (?) mental responses- what happens if the resident is a criminal? What am I even going to say? But my feet kept walking towards the house.
I hesitated just before I knocked on the door, offering myself another chance to back out, but somehow I knew I couldn’t and a middle-aged man came to answer the big orange front door. I can’t remember my exact first words, but I remember feeling extremely pathetic, something along the lines of Hi, I was hiking the canyon and I thought your house was very beautiful and thought I would come tell you. To my surprise, the man was extremely pleased to hear these words.
An architect from Iran, he had built the house as his life project in the run up to the 2008 crash, which stripped away ~60% of the value. He invited me in (somehow I felt safe?) and over mint tea he told me his story. As he spoke I kept noticing little details in the house that I loved- a stone fireplace with two chairs, a mirror with no frame, a soulful bare minimalism that he used to fill an entire room. It was the exact opposite of my loft in San Francisco. I appreciated the lines of the house- the way he had utilized the layout to maximize the desert sunshine, which here felt ethereal. He was angry at the world, angry that 2008 had happened, angry that he felt stuck with a property that was not worth selling and hard to rent. I absolutely knew what would happen next, even though it made no sense, even though it was the maximum chaos I could bring into my life. By the end of our tea session, the house was mine.
Renting a house on a canyon at the top of a small town in the Californian desert is a little more chaotic when you can't drive, but I soon developed a schedule that suited me. I would leave San Francisco for the desert for 3–4 week periods whenever I could, always alone, always committed to isolation. I felt lucky that my boyfriend never took it personally. Upon landing in Palm Springs, I would get my Uber to stop at the supermarket on the way to the house and collect enough groceries for however long I planned to stay there. But by the last week, often my diet would be a mix of stale popcorn and frozen vegetables. I never cared. I was too happy to care.
The same process happened every time. For the first few days on arrival in the desert from SF, I would panic. I would call and text friends, I would think about inviting them, I would think about making local friends. My mind struggled to let go of the noise.
Then I would hike. For hours. Sometimes all day. I would put music on and I would walk endless canyons that felt like Mars. Sometimes it was so hot that I thought I would die. Sometimes I thought I would never get back. I climbed rocks and found new vantage points. I found people's graves in remote areas and I would cry for them. I found a giant cross dedicated to a man who hiked the same canyons. Later I found out he was the producer of a health drink I regularly consumed. I would go sit next to his cross on an almost daily basis and watch the sunset. I found stillness in my heart over the barren landscape that I loved. The sunsets were incredible- the sky all tinged with pink and orange. I would wake early and try and catch the sunrise. I never tracked the 'real' time. And by the 4th day, I was blissful.
One day I thought about leaving my mark, my cross in the desert. I went to a sign shop and got two road signs printed, Silicon Death Valley and Sand Hill Road. I carried them like Jesus with his cross to the most remote canyon I could carry them to and I stuck them there, in the middle of nowhere, a tiny bit of surrealism that only I knew about. I wondered if anyone would ever find them, except I didn't care. I didn't even take a photo. I laughed myself to sleep that night.
How to turn quarantine into your Walden moment
- There’s a collection of poems by Bukowski that’s called You Get So Alone Sometimes That It Just Makes Sense. The title gives it away.
- Have nothing in your calendar. If I even had a single call scheduled my whole week would be ruined just thinking about it. Flow state requires an epistemic vacuum.
- Don’t read the news. I tried to avoid social media as much as possible.
- Music. I listened to Kyuss' Sky Valley on repeat because it was recorded a few miles away.
- Indulge in mania. When you’re in flow state, you don’t care that you’re eating popcorn. I would have no idea what day or time it was. I had no clocks in my house and I hid my laptop clock/time. Being aware of time is in itself, a limitation to flow state.
- Introspect on your deepest desires and fears. Ask yourself, why am I thinking this? Why do I want this?
- Do you remember who you were before the world told you who to be? I tried to see where my mind would go without any incentives, just freeform undirected research. I was surprised that it kept coming back to economic history and I ended up applying for a research position at Stanford's Hoover Institution.