“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 .
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.
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.
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.