Donna and I are blessed to have generous parents, and the recent form of their generosity took the form of a two-week Alaskan cruise. And I’ll just say that it was a remarkably rich experience. I consider myself an Oregon boy and so consider myself well aquainted with beauty, but seriously I’ve experienced nothing like the beauty we experienced nearly everyday. The mountains, the glaciers, the wildlife, the ocean, the clean air. It’s all a little overwhelming in the best way possible.
Coming back has proved to be difficult in some unexpected ways. It would be hard for anyone to re-engage at work after such a soothing, relaxing experience. I’ll stipulate that everyone would feel that way. But the truly difficult thing has been experiencing how incredibly loud our world is.
Donna and I frequently walk together the half mile to downtown Rochester. It’s one of the best things about our life. To get there, we have to walk down Rochester Rd, a busy four lane street and main north-south thoroughfare for our community. The first time we walked together after the cruise, we could not believe how loud it is. We walked to our favorite eating establishment (where I proposed to Donna about six years ago) and were blown away by how loud it seemed. Admittedly, this was largely the result of a table of about ten women who were across the room from us, but even then it seemed unusually loud.
In just two weeks we had become accustomed to a quieter existence. The ship was quiet. Most of the dining rooms were quiet, even when full of people. But it was our shore excursions that really marked the difference. We were in small coastal towns. There was no traffic. And people just did their life at a lower decibel level, living much more aware of their environments than we do.
Eagles were everywhere. And while its great to see eagles, it was remarkable to hear them. We hiked a few times into dense rainforests where all sound was swallowed up by lush green. We enjoyed spectacular weather, it rained on us only one day, so we were spared even the sound of the rain.
The experience of the noisiness of our return home has seemed like a violent intrusion on our lives.
My favorite hike in Oregon is in the Columbia River Gorge. I have probably made the five mile hike from Wahkeena to Multnomah Falls twenty times. Wahkeena is a cascading falls from the ridge of the gorge to the Coumbia River basin. Switchbacks take you up the gorge, the water on your right, and soon the sounds of nearby I-84 have given way to only the sound of water. It’s wonderful. But my favorite part of the hike is once you get to the top and make your way east to Multnomah. The sound of crashing water gives way to no sound at all. You can see the interstate at various place along the way, but you only hear the trees and ferns and your own footfalls until you come upon the stream that feeds the spectacular Multnomah Falls.
While we live now just a block away from Rochester Rd, there is a rise on the dirt road where our house sits that effectively blocks the street noise. Our house backs up to the woods and our backyard is a refuge from the stressful noise of life. We have eaten on our back deck several times since we’ve been home, and the last two days I have sat in the shade in my backyard and read in the afternoons. It’s been amazing to hear the birds so clearly and distinctly and to hear the wind in the trees.
But beyond the relative peacefulness of this little sanctuary, I have been thankful for the ability to hear myself. I’m not distracted by noise. Nothing is demanding my attention. I find that I go deeper into awareness of my life the longer I am there, and I find myself praying for people I otherwise would be to distracted to think about.
Matthew Crawford, in his wonderful book, The World Beyond Your Head, talks about the need for “attentional commons,” by which he means spaces that aren’t constantly demanding your attention. Space where we can be bodily present and more aware of the world around us. A cruise is an expensive way to find such space (more on the spiritually corrosive effects of a cruise later), but my re-entry into our noisy world has made me appreciate the need for this kind of experience more.