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The Beauty of Device-Free Days

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JANELL BURLEY HOFMANN
Janell Burley Hofmann

Often when celebrating holidays or birthdays in my honor, I outline my special requests on our large family white board: hot coffee, breakfast, handmade notes and drawings singing my praise. I also list my wishes for that particular day's adventure. Last fall, on my birthday, it was a rainy mountain hike and pizza from my favorite childhood spot on the way home. This spring, on Mother's Day, it was a family beach walk through the dunes, followed by an iced latte and a book in the sun. After 15 years of motherhood, I now know that to get exactly what I am craving, I just need to be clear and upfront, so there is no question. It is satisfying -- at least to me -- to have all of the people I love the most check off the bulleted list of easily achievable things to reflect their adoration. And even though I know it already, on special days, they must do it with cheer and leave the grumbling to a mere murmur I can ignore.

But honestly, I try not to wait for holidays to get my way, but rather infuse our daily rounds with a heavy dose of right here, right now. So on this spring day, as we pack our water bottles and apples for the hike, I warmly remind everyone to leave electronic devices behind. They tend to fuss for the fun of it, but concede. None of this is new to them, but our roles play out like we read from a script -- bossy, pleasing, defiant, annoyed, eager, silent and accepting. As much as these days are a ritual designed to connect us, they too are a lesson in mindfulness. A reminder of the present moment, an inventory of what we have, how far we've come and to whom we owe at least a few hours of gratitude. Off we go.

The sun is warmer than we expected, so we move slowly through the rolling, sandy dunes. Some skip ahead to kick a soccer ball along the trail while others lag behind for shoulder rides, shoe troubles and luxurious gulps of water. Inevitably, our pack of seven breaks down by twos and threes. I find myself leading alongside my boy, who's just shy of 12; though so nimble and able his feet barely leave prints in the deep, sandy earth. He is quiet by nature, but so in tune, I often wonder who whispers to him. In our days, it is unlikely that the two of us find each other alone like this, so we hold hands for a while without words.

Then, as if he's been waiting years to speak, he opens. He wants to know what I think about. If I'm truly aware that history has taken place, that those people and places we read about are real. They walked, he tells me, maybe even right here, just like us. What will change, what will stay the same, what feels important to me? I feel the urgency in his voice. One by one, I feed my wonders to him too. He bites and swallows whole everything I offer. Will this coastal trail live under the sea someday soon? Does the earth know better than us? How can we evolve and embrace changing times and still honor human connection and our ancient wisdom? My curiosity meets him. "Yes." He whispers. Then he calls back to his siblings, could this happen for everyone? "Tell me what you think about!" And they do. I can tell this makes him hopeful, less alone in the chaos of family life, relieved that we are deeper than bulleted lists of how to love people.

Just as quickly as it arrives, it is taken. My girl pulls me to wade in the ocean. She is hunting for zebra print rocks and tells me of erosion and waves, rocks to sand. I watch my boy walk off from us alone -- not bothered, but not interested. My girl holds me close, at 9, she still wants all of me without question. But him, he is growing and changing -- asking less of me, more of the world. And this is what we want. This is the way through life -- urging change and rooting wisdom. We just have to walk the path, fully, to know it, to believe it.

I sprinkle our family time with these breaks from technology, from the tired routines, from the force that so constantly drives us. It's a great emptying, a letting go of all that we hold -- likes and shares, lists and tasks, striving and achieving. I do not know the outcome of our days together. I cannot guarantee success or a measurable value from these methods. Does dessert before dinner, snuggled up stories or device free days promise us anything for sure? How could it? I just know how it feels. And even though I still need to list my wishes on a central board or hold firm against my tribe's resistance, that knowing leads me. So, I put my trust in that. And off we go.