Why Going Away is Often the Best Way to Get Close

I had a professor in college say, “Sometimes you have to go away to get close.” I don’t even remember the context. He was Welsh, and known for being so engaged in his teaching of British and Russian history that you didn’t want to sit in the front row, because he’d surely spit on you while leaning in with his passionate intensity and highly punctuated words. I also don’t remember whether this quote actually came from someone else (such as his professor, perhaps equally prone to flying spittle). But I do remember the quote, because it meant something to me for a long time, and became one of the mantras I repeated to myself when I got so close to something I couldn’t see it clearly.

One spring day in college, I was so beaten down with writer’s block that I decided to climb a mountain. For some reason, I took my Freud Civilization and Its Discontent book with me. And when I got to the summit, the essay that I struggled to uncover came pouring out of me like the snow melting off that peak. I scribbled my notes on the inside covers as I trailed my friends descending the mountain. When I filled those blank pages, I wrote in the margins.

The other day as I cleaned out my bookshelf, I found this book, now 20 years old. While I thought about tossing it, I kept it as a reminder of this important lesson.

Somehow, on top of that mountain, when I couldn’t see my messy dorm room or overloaded to-do list–when I couldn’t worry about the boyfriend I had or didn’t have, or the job I’d gain or lose someday when I graduated–I could see everything clearly. And I wrote the essay that garnered my highest grade in that class.

A few weeks ago, my daughter’s fifth grade class took a trip to D.C. I had to sign up to be a potential chaperone nearly a year ago, since this is a very popular trip. As a business owner, one might think I’d have the freedom to go on trips like this at a moment’s notice, and that would be true–but only partially. As a business owner, I’m also personally tied to the success of my company, and because it’s a company I love, I tend to work very hard for it. Sometimes, too hard. Sometimes, I forget to notice the things that are right under my vision, and sometimes those images I’m missing are the ones that would garner my highest grade in life.

So last fall, I marked myself as a “maybe.” I told the teacher I’d get back to him when I determined my work travel schedule.

They say that as we age we get more farsighted…or at least, less able to see what’s right in front of our faces. I’d venture to say this concept holds true in more areas of our lives than merely our retina and lenses. But I don’t think it comes from aging as much as from focusing so closely on one thing that we can’t see anything else.

When the time to commit came, my schedule was not exactly open. I had more proposals to write than I could count. I had just as many contracts to fulfill. But that mantra came back up through my bloodstream like an electric eel emerging from the mud, and I decided that this would be the time I’d get away.

I spent the days beforehand packing every delicious snack I could think of for Sascha and myself (health went out the window; Pringles topped our list). I bought us little neck pillows. I thought of everything Sascha would want–not everything my business would need. I even remembered to pack hand sanitizer, something I knew she’d ask about within five minutes of being on a bus with 150 of her germy classmates (and she did, and I got a dose of self-esteem when I was able to answer that I had a bottle for her within reach).

I was prepared for this trip. Or so I thought.

Despite having learned enough life lessons at 40 that I feel like I should be at least 80, I had more to learn…

As I nodded off on my memory foam neck pillow while the bus pulled out at a god-awful 5:30am, her giggles from the seat beside me danced over my mind like the streams that trickled down that mountain 20 years ago. I opened my eyes to see her leaning across the aisle to grab the hand of Abi, her friend with the same haircut and dizzying clarity for how to find the joy in the little things. It turned out, I wasn’t as prepared as I’d thought.

I was not prepared for the way I would see my daughter on this trip.

For the next two days, I saw the paintings of Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, and Picasso–all artists whose paintings I’d seen many times before. I was prepared for them.

But I was unprepared for the passion I saw in Sascha to find one particular da Vinci painting amongst the hundreds of others. I don’t know what drove her, but I knew that I wanted to know more.

I was prepared for seeing the White House, Museum of Natural History, and most of the memorials.

But I was unprepared for her dedication to finding the flag that flew during the War of 1812, which later led to the designation of our national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.” When she saw it all tattered in its dark room, she was riveted. She read every plaque, and kept asking me questions I unfortunately couldn’t answer because it had been too long since I’ve been in fifth grade.

I was unprepared for her unscathed devotion to exploring every leaf, squirrel, tiny skeleton, and other oddity with her friend, Abi. Each item that caught their eyes led to giggles and some creative language that only they understood. Her father and I exclaimed that their lollygagging ways and inattention to their messy hair was more charming than any possible sighting we might get of a political dignitary.

And I venture to say that my time with her was more valuable than the Hope Diamond.

I was unprepared for the realization that until this trip, I didn’t really know my daughter. I mean, I didn’t know her right now, in her class setting, as a 10-year-old with the mind of a 30-year-old and heart of a 90-year-old. Despite editing a book this past month by a global leader in work-life balance, I wasn’t prepared for the ways in which I’d get to know a part of life that I had thought was a huge priority–but which hadn’t fallen in my line of vision in this way for some time.

If you are like me, you might think you need to do a lot of work today. And you might be right. But you also might need to get away. Here are three ways you can get away, without a lot of planning or budget:

1)Be Mindful. Some call it meditating, which is the art of letting your obsessions open  their clasp and release what holds them, so your mind can move freely again. The answer we seek might be just under those thoughts we haven’t let out the window.

2)Be Active. Do something different. If you usually sit at your desk all day, try running around the block. If you move all the time, try sitting at a coffee shop with a cup of tea. Sometimes doing the opposite of what feels routine is exactly what we need to break our stride and find a new step.

3)Be Observant. Find the beauty in a person you typically ignore. I have to admit, some of the things that annoyed me most about Sascha–such as her inability to walk in a straight line without being distracted–became the things I loved about her when granted the space to do so. What (or who) can you appreciate today?

Somehow, being able to step back and watch Sascha run, skip, or lollygag allowed my own vision to soften. When I returned, the work was still there, but it was seen through a filter of life…and of memories of being with a daughter I love and respect.

Thank you, Sascha, for pushing me to “go away” so that I could “get close”–to you, and to the things that matter.


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