Thinking Exercises

As adults with bills to pay, errands to run, and inboxes to clear, we’re often seeking out opportunities to empty our thoughts and simply experience the moment. This might happen during a walk home through a block of urban park, or when we find a chance to sit in an empty room next a scraggly houseplant. Such moments are important to recharge and recalibrate our minds and moods before we immerse ourselves in the flow of people and things demanding our attention. But when, exactly, was the first time you were taught to stop and smell the roses?

Sunset over sea cliffs

I don’t quite remember how we all got there; tinny yellow school buses, probably, crammed with fidgety elbows and knees and fists extending from the awkward bodies of expectant schoolchildren who didn’t grasp what an overnight field trip could have in store. There was a cluster of buildings nestled in the bowl created by the gentle slopes of the hills. Around this: tired, knotted fences and metal gates, full of slams and clangs and screeches. And beyond, there was the unknown wilderness, brimming with rustling greens the color of a dry California grassland and echoing with the hiss and thunder of sea waves.

The point of this trip, if I remember, was to learn about nature and the outdoors. I can recall being told that lupins have tongues, little licks of orange that you can see if you crouch down and press the pockets of purple petals just so, the way a bee would to find the food within. We shared a cutting of an ice plant from the sandy beach cliffs, taking turns putting the sheared end on our tongues for a few seconds to experience the dry patch that this incredibly thirsty and invasive plant left behind in our mouths as it sucked up all of the moisture it encountered. We were taught to identify coyote brush, and horsetails, and other shrubs native to the Californian coastal landscape, although admittedly, most of the facts I actually know come from relearning them when I was a little older.

That evening, as we trekked in chaperoned gaggles along the hills cloaked in rustling ribbons of wild grass, we came to a halt at a fork in the road. Between inconsequential snatches of childish conversation and muffled giggles, instructions from our guide floated to my distracted ears. Take the left road. Think about your surroundings. Go alone. In essence: one by one, every minute, each of us would be set free from the immobile gaggle to follow the gravel path and disappear beyond the gentle sloping hill upon which we stood, in order to appreciate the quiet evening in the presence of Mother Nature, free from the distractions of our peers.

As a child who had never spent a single waking (or sleeping) moment alone, always accompanied by a watchful parent or a member of teaching or childcare staff, a room of classmates or a pair of friends, not to mention a twin to whom she was desperately attached, this was a bemusing order. Furthermore, any young elementary school student who doesn’t feel apprehensive about wandering in the unfamiliar hills of an isolated patch of landscape when night is beginning to fall is brave, indeed. I wasn’t one of them. The voice of the guide assured us that if we walked on the path for five minutes, we would find ourselves back at the cluster of buildings that housed our beds for the night, and from where we had emerged only a little while ago. The plan was to meet the adult at the other end, with whom we would wait for the group to reassemble, growing one tiny human at a time at a rate of one per minute. After a few moments of dutifully repeating instructions to ensure that we did, in fact, know where we were going, the brave first volunteer trundled off and around the slope, disappearing from view.

As the minutes ticked by, I hung back until I no longer could; only two of us remained. I pretended to stride forward purposely, arms stiff, trying to project a childish confidence to hide my uncertainty. I spent little time contemplating what was probably a beautifully painted sunset sky, or the way the light played off of the swaying golden grass in shades of amethyst or rosy quartz, or the clear, ringing songs of invisible crickets hanging in the early twilight. What I was more aware of was the startling loudness of the gravel crunching under the soles of my shoes. I anxiously hoped to arrive at the meeting point as rapidly as possible, all the more to shorten my minutes of growing apprehension that I might be going the wrong way.

I didn’t get very far before I made my mistake. The well-maintained path unrolled ahead, parting the sea of grass, but a small trim path veered to the left. I slowed, undecided, then turned around, as if to ask the classmate behind me which way I was supposed to go. There was, of course, no one in sight, as the closest classmate was a minute away. Take the left road, the words echoed back to me. So that way I went.

My strides sped up as I hastened to see if I had chosen the right way. Every few steps, I wondered if any buildings would appear. None did. Would it be better to turn around, or go a few more steps, in case I was only a few more steps from the destination? How far was I supposed to go? Walk faster.

It was then that a figure appeared in the near distance—I had caught up to a classmate. I hurried over, only to find that he looked as undecided as I felt about the whole event. As we spent the next moments debating whether to keep going or scurry back to the perplexing adult who had sent us on this topsy-turvy errand, a third classmate joined from behind. Feeling emboldened by our numbers, we scuttled forward.

‘This was the thing we saw earlier,’ I pointed out breathlessly as we passed a cluster of stones, which resembled ones we had passed by earlier in the evening. ‘This one, too.’ The setting sun cast long shadows, which slipped silently along the path and under our feet.

And all of a sudden, we found ourselves back in front of our exasperated chaperone, who had lingered behind for a few minutes before following the last student down the path. How did you get here? she must have asked. She must have also deduced that we had taken the wrong loop, knowing that it would take us back to where we had departed from, rather than to the gate and the rest of group. Suitably chastened, we followed her down the same path, this time with the comfort of numbers and an all-knowing adult.

“We turned here,” my classmate informed her solemnly as she briskly passed the trim path to the left.

“I said ‘Take the left road at the big fork.’ This isn’t a road!”

Sure enough, a few yards ahead, the big gravel path split into two. We turned left. A few moments later, we were reunited with our group at the gate. And not too soon after that, as we were enticed back to home base with promises of s’mores and campfires, I forgot all about the sunset and the path through the grass and the quiet evening those few minutes could have given me. It would be many years later before I would appreciate the benefits of a moment alone.

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