The Solitude Challenge: Living Deliberately

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” ~Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau famously said that he went into the woods to live “deliberately”. He meant to live carefully, in an unhurried way. His chronicle of his time in the woods, Walden, emphasizes the importance of solitude, contemplation, and closeness to nature in transcending the “desperate” existence that, he argues, is the lot of most people. Considering that Thoreau lived  160 years ago, one can only imagine what he would have thought of the desperate lives we lead today, with little time or inclination for solitude, as we welcome a constant intrusion of beeps and tweets delivered by our technological umbilical cords.

Thoreau’s was the most famous Solitude Challenge of all time – he lived in a 10′ X 15′ cabin on the edge of Walden pond for two years, two months and two days. My Solitude Challenge, the one  I was tasked with for a class I am taking, only involved sitting alone, sans technology or talking, for 30 minutes.

Rather unexpectantly, I find myself in Florence, Italy this week. Which, it turns out, actually is my Walden Pond. For me, visiting Italy is a kind of home-coming. All four of my grandparents hail from here and in some ways, I was raised more culturally Italian than American. I feel very connected to Italy. For me, there couldn’t be a more perfect place to do the Solitude Challenge .

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We took a drive deep into the heart of Tuscany, to Greve in Chianti. On this late fall day, the weather was a comfortable 55 degrees. The sun was shining and the Italian countryside was, as it has been for centuries, beguiling. In my 30 minutes of solitude, I too moved over the hills and fields, these covered with olive trees and vineyards. With the exception of the small Fiat we were traveling in, I too was free from worldly engagements.

I noticed that the pace of my breathing slowed almost immediately. My pulse decelerated and time passed here as I imagine it has always passed: with purpose. Since it was a national holiday (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception), most shops and galleries were closed in the small hill towns. If they weren’t closed for the entire day, they were closed for the afternoon hours of siesta or riposo, a tradition also born out of the human need to retreat, disconnect and regroup.

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Even though I was the only one sworn off technology for a short while, I noticed that the people around me weren’t obsessed with their phones. Men, young and old, were gathered in the town square, drinking wine and telling stories. Women strolled arm and arm into the town church, to light a candle to celebrate the virgin’s feast day. Children played soccer in the piazza. Not a single adult checked their phone for texts, or tweets, or Facebook posts. Instead of the sounds of beeping, buzzing, and text swooshing, I heard birds chirping, balls bouncing, children laughing.  They all seemed so relaxed and so natural. When my 30 minutes of The Solitude Challenge were over, I felt no need to check my phone to see if I had missed any important texts or e-mails. I knew I hadn’t.

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The Accidental Boricua and “friend”, Greve in Chianti.

Perhaps, the old real estate adage – location, location, location – isn’t just about property values. Maybe, as Thoreau discovered at Walden Pond and I discovered in Tuscany, place is as important to our ability to disconnect from our daily interruptions as is our willingness to do so. It shouldn’t take a trip across the pond or a cabin built next to one for us to detach from meaningless distractions, be they technology induced or otherwise. But as both Thoreau and I can attest to, it sure does help.

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I Won’t Dance. Don’t Ask Me.

The Accidental Boricua

One of the biggest adjustments you make in a new culture is in the celebration of the Christmas season. My first Christmas in Puerto Rico took some getting used to. “Jingle Bells” sounded weird at 85 degrees. I worried that local children would be scarred for life, since none of their houses had fireplaces for Santa to come down. And then there were all those parties and all that dancing.

Puerto Rican men love to dance. And they all know how to dance. To this day, many families send their teenage sons for dance lessons to the same lady who taught them, and who had also taught their grandparents. During the holiday season, they are out in full force to take advantage of those lessons by dancing one of the easiest of the latin dances: Merengue.

keep-calm-and-dance-merengue

Merengue, which literally means “frosting” in English, is not a terribly difficult dance to learn…

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I Won’t Dance. Don’t Ask Me.

One of the biggest adjustments you make in a new culture is in the celebration of the Christmas season. My first Christmas in Puerto Rico took some getting used to. “Jingle Bells” sounded weird at 85 degrees. I worried that local children would be scarred for life, since none of their houses had fireplaces for Santa to come down. And then there were all those parties and all that dancing.

Puerto Rican men love to dance. And they all know how to dance. To this day, many families send their teenage sons for dance lessons to the same lady who taught them, and who had also taught their grandparents. During the holiday season, they are out in full force to take advantage of those lessons by dancing one of the easiest of the latin dances: Merengue.

keep-calm-and-dance-merengue

Merengue, which literally means “frosting” in English, is not a terribly difficult dance to learn. As a friend pointed out, “It’s easy. You just limp”. Which isn’t all that far from the truth. There are two widely circulated stories about the origin of the dance: The first, that the dance originated with slaves who were chained together and, out of necessity, were forced to drag one leg as they cut sugar to the beat of drums. The second, that a great hero was wounded in the leg during one of the many revolutions in the Dominican Republic. A party of villagers welcomed him home with a victory celebration and, out of sympathy, everyone dancing felt obliged to limp and drag one foot.Merengue

In my first few years of living in Puerto Rico in the mid-80’s, I worked in marketing for a major multi-national company, where women were badly outnumbered. As soon as the music started at my first company Christmas party (employees only), all of the salesmen immediately started dancing with whichever willing partner they could find. I tried to beg off, stammering that I had no idea what I was doing, but they weren’t having it. I spent the rest of the afternoon being passed around the dance floor like a hot potato, dragging one leg after the other.

Since then, my merengue style hasn’t gotten much better. Every season, I take my obligatory lap around the dance floor, and try to make it through at least one song – they are ridiculously long, after all. But then recently, I discovered that the deficiency in my merengue style has little to do with me, and more to do with my partner.

Turns out, it’s his fault. He was born in Havana, Cuba and as he is so fond of saying, “The fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves”.

I have it from one of the highest authorities in the land that Cubans just can’t dance. Sonia Sotomayer, the 111th Supreme Court Justice, recently gave this advice during an interview with the Washington Post, “Never dance with a Cuban“.

Official Portrait of Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Her reasoning? Cubans are the “worst” at keeping a beat and they take “very tight little steps”.

So let’s just say that one “wise Latina woman” just gave one Accidental Boricua the excuse of her life to stay sitting down when they strike up the band this holiday season.

Feliz Navidad to you, Justice Sotomayor!

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