Stop and smell the flowers.
We’re taught to carry some version of this metaphor around with us. It’s meant to remind us of a truth we often forget: the nectar is in the journey, not the destination.
But living the metaphor takes practice, especially amidst the push and pull of adult responsibilities and encroaching distractions. I fail frequently—sometimes miserably.
Sprout was passionately interested in scents during preschool and relished smelling the flowers we found on our walks. Every. Single. One. At least, that’s how it felt sometimes, and that feeling tripped me up for two reasons.
First, my own sense of smell is poor. Scents that my kids notice immediately are often dull or hidden for me. As a result, I’ve rarely taken the time as an adult to smell flowers or anything else. During the kids’ diapering years, I kept up with dirty diapers mostly through regular checking, not by smell: relying on my nose resulted too-often in diaper rash.
Second, dwelling in the moment has long been difficult for me. During graduate school, I stopped wearing a watch out of frustration with how I would constantly check the time between classes and meetings. It dawned on me that I didn’t need a watch: time was inscribed nearly everywhere around me, whether on someone else’s wrist or the clock on a wall or in the tolling of a bell. Before long, however, I had a flip-style cell phone, and I was back in time’s pocket.
I bought my first smart phone while working a fast-paced job at an education non-profit. Now, my work email was always at hand, even at my bedside. Meanwhile, to make steady progress on multiple projects with different timelines, I began keeping a running log of discrete tasks and milestones I needed to complete. I did this mostly by hand, on pieces of paper I’d taped to the top of my desk. At the end of each day, I could track the development of my work by which tasks I’d discharged and which new ones I’d added. I decided to do the same for the rest of my life: I downloaded a task manager app to my cell phone that allowed me to rationalize my growing busy-ness into well-defined, achievable check-boxes.
When I left that job to be a stay-at-home dad, I still had plenty to do, to say the least. And although I was no longer subject to the same institutional responsibility to produce, I was still deep in time’s pocket, and “productive” thoughts tripped me up constantly, aided by regular task and calendar reminders from my phone. I checked email compulsively, and self-imposed benchmarks and deadlines for writing projects always loomed. And as in grad school, I stressed about getting places with Sprout on time, even when I didn’t need to. My muscles tensed at Sprout’s inefficiency in putting on shoes or settling into a car seat, and leaving the house often involved struggle—if not always overtly between us, at least within myself.
Walks home from the park in the late afternoon became a regular focal point for this tension. Sprout would stop before another garden and draw deeply from the flowers, inhaling the moment—but my attention would remain fixed on the dinner-to-be-plated a few blocks away.
“Okay, let’s keep going.”
“Daddy, smell this.”
I’d sniff, perceiving only dimly the source of Sprout’s joy, not paying enough attention for surprise to enter. “Mmm,” I’d hum vaguely, then, “Come on, we need to go,” or, “That’s someone else’s garden, let’s leave it alone,” my voice more brittle than before.
Then Sprout would inhale from another flower, and anxiety would crawl beneath my skin, muscles straining against my lack of forward movement and inability to control and redirect Sprout’s interest in the flowering world. At the same time, a contrary voice would scream in my inner ear: “You’re not listening!”
Some version of this scenario began happening frequently during our walks, and my strain and growing sense of guilt during those moments pointed toward an insight: the quality of my relationship with Sprout and my own inner experience in the present were suffering at the hands of those inexhaustible little check-boxes on my cell phone, each of which marked some future moment when something to-be done would be done. Moreover, there was no administrative “solution” for this inner swirl of anxiety and guilt. I could have budgeted more time for walks, and perhaps I should have. But time-management techniques cannot redress alienation from the moment, whether from flowers, child, or self.
As Henry David Thoreau, an advocate for walking and wildness, wrote, “there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.”He foresaw the coming of neighborhoods wherein “fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road, and walking over the surface of God's earth shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman's grounds,” so that the imaginations of future walkers would be narrowed to inner swirls of business upon the sidewalk.
But Sprout was not yet bound by such business, much less the arbitrary boundaries of the sidewalk. Certainly, if only I would pay attention, I could learn to respond more fully to the wildness of my child’s wonder.
The simple act of walking through our neighborhood became a context for practicing skills I’d recently begun learning through meditation. I’d started meditating because I wanted to understand my anger during stressful (to me) parenting situations and find gentler ways of responding, and my walks with Sprout offered a relatively low-stakes testing ground. If an over-eager thought about getting home to cook dinner called me to leave the playground early or complain in frustration about Sprout’s walking speed, I could begin to notice how that thought stirred in my body: often, with a tensed scalp and brow or a desire to leap from my own skin. Having recognized that feeling in my body, I could note the drive to productivity at work. That drive, once noticed, could not occupy my full being, for I was also the one doing the noticing: the drive was but one (loud) inclination within my body. Therein lay the chance to make a different choice and turn my attention toward Sprout and the real possibilities of the moment. I could remember: cutting Sprout’s fun needlessly short wasn’t fair, and complaining in frustration wasn’t helpful.
That was the theory, anyway. It wasn’t easy, and at the time, I could not have articulated the structure of the practice as clearly as I just did. Often, I was muddling through, unsure of myself and straining for wisdom. Old habits are hard to break, and “productive” thoughts did their damnedest to intrude: my brow might furrow again mere seconds after having been relaxed. And too often, I decided that I was “too busy” to meditate that day, undermining the entire exercise.
But here’s the simple truth, both then and now: when I meditate regularly—when I practice—I feel the difference. Meditation is a rehearsal for living fully in the present. My “productive” thoughts become less central to my sense of identity, and they don’t sweep me away as often. I become better-grounded in the place where I actually stand, sit, or walk. I can respond more readily to the metaphorical flowers about me.
As for me, Sprout, and the literal flowers, I decided that we should go on a “smell walk” together. The idea: I commit in advance to not worrying about timely arrival at a destination. Although we may know where we’ll end up, we’ve no concern about exactly how or when we’ll get there. We just walk, stopping whenever Sprout wants to investigate a flower or an herb. Then comes the invitation—always the invitation—for me to join in.
I got the “smell walk” idea from reading the work of Alexandra Horowitz, who leads the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College and writes fabulously about how dogs experience the world. Her book Being a Dog delves into the smell-world of dogs and encourages her human readers, sight-driven as we are, to reconnect with the many and meaningful scents that populate our lives. Horowitz describes how her own perception of the world was transformed by her research and, especially, by the “smell walks” she takes with her own dogs. Her world “has changed color,” she writes. “It smells. Well, it has always smelled . . . [b]ut I had not bothered to open my mind to the smells.”
It may seem strange to take inspiration from a book on dogs to deepen and dignify human parenting. But the moral point is this: I can learn to participate in Sprout’s olfactory joy, and because I can, I feel that I should, because it matters to Sprout. By doing so, I learn to respond to the moment as my child knows it, and my child learns there is no flower that I will not bend myself to investigate when called.
So, we tried it. We walked wherever Sprout wanted to walk in the neighborhood, and we stopped wherever Sprout felt inspired to stop. I set aside my need to think ahead, toward somewhere else, and wondered instead about Sprout’s perspective in the present. What would I notice if I were at my child’s height, and where would Sprout stop to sniff?
We only needed to walk a few blocks, so many were the possibilities, endlessly available to an open and inquisitive disposition: roses, fruit blossoms, lavender and rosemary, hydrangeas, succulents among stones, and more that I cannot name. I detected some scents only barely or not at all. But some scents did spring to consciousness, stirring the nostrils I’d thought could perceive very little. Then Sprout and I would talk about it.
We didn’t make a habit of the smell walk, but the basic premise stuck with us. Even now, several years later, Sprout calls my attention to a captivating smell, an especially beautiful tree, or a fascinating bark and knows I will respond—and I do respond. The smell walk idea has become, for me, a mindful perspective toward my kid that I can remember and adopt when the situation calls for it. Doing so helps me honor Sprout’s invitation, both for its own sake and as a foundation for future dialogue between us.
That “incessant business” that Thoreau warned about is tricky, however. Several years later, though I’d succeeded in becoming more attentive on walks, that same business had found even more invasive ways to wedge itself between me and my kids.
The signal event took place while Cub was in the bathtub, cleaning up at the end of the day. I was sitting cross-legged on the bathroom floor beside the tub, but I wasn’t present: I was fixated on my smart phone. As had become routine, I was reading the news and posting an article to my social media.
I hadn’t completely lost sight of my moral compass: I knew this behavior wasn’t appropriate for the context. I held my phone low to the floor, well below the edge of the bathtub, in the dubious hope that Cub wouldn’t notice my distraction. This stance also kept my phone’s cameras safely blocked off and away from my bathing kid: I was wary that an accidental swipe might trigger the camera. But these accommodations only underscored how social media and handheld technology had infiltrated and contorted my intimate life.
As I composed a pithy zinger of a comment atop the article, Cub asked for my attention. “Just a second, I need to finish something,” I said. My thumb rushed to complete the post, unleashing a torrent of unhelpful autocorrections to the text. Cub made another bid for my attention, but again I deferred, my voice impatient and frustrated as I tried to wrestle the autocorrections into compliance. Finally, I posted the article.
I put my phone into my pocket and turned toward Cub. “OK, now I can help you, what’s up?” I said, feigning a sunny disposition, as if nothing troubling had just happened. But inside, I was disturbed. This was our bedtime routine: a time for connecting and helping Cub settle into the security of family before sleep. Instead, I’d rebuffed Cub’s bids for attention and fed my compulsion to share some article or another on social media via my phone—an article I no longer remember, shared with people who weren’t in the room, for no good reason.
Somewhere, on a server in a nondescript warehouse, the time I spent ignoring my kid that evening was logged and, eventually, bundled with other positive evidence of “user engagement.” The social media platform had captured my attention, exactly as it was designed to do, to the detriment of my most cherished relationships.
Enough. Time to reclaim my attention, for myself and my family.
I deleted my social media accounts and removed all of the related apps on my cell phone. To some, this might seem too-extreme a response, and I know that other people—particularly those whose livelihoods or causes demand effective social media outreach—might work to strike a more nuanced balance between their online and offline lives. And there are real costs to my doing this: I can’t keep up with the everyday lives of extended family members as easily, and I’ve given up some of the digital means for communicating as a writer. But I knew myself well enough to know: if I left the door cracked open, I’d end up steeped in the same habits. The quality of my intimate life—for that matter, the quality of my standing in line at my neighborhood coffee shop—is more important. If I return to social media in the future, I’ll do so only after careful deliberation about my mission for doing so, with clear principles for action to safeguard my intimate experience and relationships.
Deleting a social media account is a slow process: tech companies need time to delete all of the data, and they offer ample cooling-off periods, so the user can reconsider before an account suspension becomes an outright deletion. No reconsideration here, though: deleting my accounts felt great, like a long-held breath finally exhaled. The desire to share some piece of “content” still arose, but it had no easy path to exploit. As a result, I could ask myself why I felt drawn to share it and what good it would produce, if any. Usually, I recognized quickly that sharing would serve little or no useful cause, and the desire would soon lose its urgency and pass away. In the rare instance that some article or song did seem worth sharing, it was only meaningful to share with a particular person for whom I cared—and I could do that directly, via a text message or an email.
For a time, the act of deleting my social media accounts was sufficient to get me refocused on the quality of my attention with my wife and kids. But so long as my smart phone was connected to me physically, the urge to consume remained strong and pulled me in. I began to notice how little awareness was involved in pulling my phone from my back pocket; how quickly and dumbly my thumbs could open a browser or feed-reader app; how, before I even recognized what I was doing, my eyes could start consuming content from some go-to source or another, or worse, reviewing a list of articles I’d already consumed, in the hope of finding something new.
A tech company would consider these mindless actions evidence of product effectiveness. In fact, they were signs of personal impoverishment. In such moments, my will was not my own, and no such moment ever made me happier or wiser than the moment before. I felt only more restless, more fragmented, and less content. (The double-meaning of “content” is a cruel pun.)
This got me thinking about Cub’s first year. Not yet a toddler, Cub would reach for my cell phone, which was always nearby. Even at that tender age, Cub understood with unflattering precision which objects in our home received the most slavish devotion. Cub understood how the cell phone drew my gaze and my hand; how I would raise the phone ritually between us, so I could send my wife cute photos of what was happening each day at home. These actions, however urgent they felt in the moment, required me to turn away from unmediated connection with Cub in the moment. The device promised enlargement of my perspective, but in truth, it narrowed my freedom in relationship with my loved ones. My wife and I had talked a lot about how to manage screen time responsibly for our children, but I’d completely underestimated the impact of screen time on my own continuing development as a parent.
I decided to separate my cell phone from my body as much as possible, so my thumbs and eyes cannot carry out their unreflective impulses. As with deleting my social media accounts, this action came with costs. I cannot document magical moments or achievements to share with my wife or extended family, I sometimes forget an event on the day’s agenda, and I cannot respond promptly to messages or calls. If I were employed in a high-stress job that demanded constant attention, these costs would be fraught indeed. But as a stay-at-home dad, the benefits far outweigh the costs. On days when I do a good job of keeping my phone separated from my body, I am more attentive, more open to surprise, and less restless.
I’ve also explained to my kids why I want to minimize my connection with my phone. Now, on the days when I get derailed or actually do need to keep my phone on me for some extenuating reason, and my thumbs start to slide dumbly across the screen, my kids call me out. They remind me about my higher cause—and they aren’t at all shy about it.
I’m grateful for their calling me back. Most of my phone-fiddling is inchoate desire searching restlessly for an object. The vast majority of phone calls and messages can be returned at a later time. And the big “a-ha” moments with my kids deserve my undivided attention: I don’t need to document the “firsts” when the seconds or thirds or fourths will do.
As for knowing what time it is, I’ve gone back to wearing an analog watch.
My kids are my greatest allies and teachers in reorienting my attention toward connection. They are inexhaustible sources of wonder, unconcerned with being elsewhere or at any other time, so long as I don’t prompt them relentlessly to be so. They always give me another chance to affirm that dwelling in wonder is necessary and nourishing.
Dwelling thus with my kids, and allowing them to witness their father’s re-awakening to the world, is among the truest expressions of loyalty I can offer them.
An early version of “Learning To Be Present” first appeared in STAND Magazine, online, December 4, 2017, under the title “Learning To Smell the Flowers.”
Henry David Thoreau, “Life Without Principle,” The Atlantic, October 1863. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1863/10/life-without-principle/542217/ [Accessed 07/10/2020.]
Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” The Atlantic, June 1862. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1862/06/walking/304674/ [Accessed 04/19/2020.]
Alexandra Horowitz, Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell, New York: Scribner, 2016, pg. 269.
Interestingly, a similar impulse to understand what she might be missing during her everyday walks prompted Alexandra Horowitz, the dog researcher, to go on walks with a range of experts who could open her eyes (and nose) to greater appreciation of the spaces around her. Horowitz documents what she learned in her book On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (New York, NY: Scribner, 2013).