The thought of a 48-hour break from technology got into my head and wouldn't leave. Perhaps it was because of the spectacular weather forecast for the weekend. Or maybe it was due to the fact that I'd been engrossed in the final edits on my forthcoming book. Or perhaps it was because my daughters suddenly looked more like tweens than children, and I felt an urgency to spend true quality time with them. Whatever the motivating factors were, I felt certain that an unplugged weekend was exactly what I needed to refocus my priorities, connect with my people and renew my soul.
As the morning sun streamed through the shutters and onto our breakfast table, our family decided it was the perfect Saturday to finally explore the trails at a local state park. Despite good intentions, there had always been a reason why we couldn't manage to get ourselves there in the past.
But not today -- today, time was on our side.
After assembling a picnic lunch, applying sunscreen, and picking up a 9-year-old family friend, we hit the road. From the moment we pulled out of the neighborhood, the blue sky beckoned us to breathe in as much fresh air as we could. Clearly it was a roll-the-windows-down, blast-the-music kind of day, so that's what we did. As the children's off-key singing voices mixed with the fresh spring air, I felt the stress ease from my mind and body.
This is perfect, I thought to myself.
We arrived at the park 20 minutes later to find we weren't the only ones on a mission to enjoy the glorious weather. Parking proved to be tricky and one Porta Potty (with a line, no less) was the only bathroom in sight. Surprisingly, no one in our party complained. There seemed to be an unspoken understanding that we would not allow trivial inconveniences or bad attitudes to taint this beautiful day.
My husband referred to the park map and found a family-friendly three-mile hike. The two older girls scampered ahead, with my husband following closely behind. After walking for about 10 minutes, my younger daughter asked if we could stop and rest.
While looking for a log to sit on, my daughter spotted a spider. Suspended beneath eight delicate legs was his brilliant handiwork: a majestic web of ivory silk.
"Why's he just sitting there?" my daughter asked, obviously disappointed that she couldn't see the spider in action.
"Well, he's built a beautiful web, a lovely life; now he's sitting back to enjoy it," I surmised.
At second glance, we noticed a smaller, yet equally impressive web next to the big one.
"Mama, look!" My daughter pointed to a nearly invisible spider clinging to the small web. "I bet that's the baby spider learning how to make a web from his mama!" Then she eagerly pulled me up to my feet. "Let's see what else we can find in nature!"
As we climbed over fallen logs and descended steep slopes, never once did my child let go of my hand. I noticed her hand was quite sweaty, but it felt comforting. My child, whose independence grows each day, needed this connection -- and I relished it. We had the most marvelous discussion as the birds voiced their own stories high above us in the trees. I found myself admiring my daughter's brightly colored knee-high socks, do-it-yourself ponytail and the way her glasses teetered on the tip of her nose.
This is perfect, I thought to myself.
A few hours later, we returned home with watermelon-juice-stained shirts and mud-caked shoes. As the kids ran off to get out every Barbie doll they own, I took the opportunity to rest on my bed with a book. But after a few pages, my heavy eyelids forced me to surrender. With my head cocooned in the cool pillow and my tired legs extended, three words came to mind again: This is perfect.
That's when I realized I had a mantra for the day. It struck me as odd -- this particular choice of words for a recovering perfectionist. Perfect sure wasn't what it used to be, I thought with a laugh. Five years ago, perfect was about how things looked -- a flawless portrayal, an ideal standard, a "do it all" or do nothing mentality. As I scrambled to achieve that picture-perfect life during those days of distraction and overwhelm, my health, happiness and most sacred relationships were nearly damaged beyond repair.
But not today.
Today, perfect had nothing to do with portraying a certain image or reaching an expected standard. It had nothing to do with an Instagram-worthy picnic spread, coordinated hiking outfits, toned legs or shiny, happy children. The words "this is perfect" came to mind because in those particular moments, everything felt perfect in my own little world.
Today's perfect was not some superficial criterion determined by mainstream opinion or social media; it was my own personal feeling of contentment -- when my children worked together to make jewelry out of clovers... when I indulged in a short nap on my favorite pillow... when the watermelon tasted unusually sweet... when I looked around and saw everyone I love within arm's length.
But there was a critical key to experiencing this freedom and contentment: Being off the web. Had I not been unplugged on this particular Saturday, I guarantee my mantra wouldn't have been "this is perfect."
You see, when I get online, whether it is to peruse social media, check email or read articles, not only do I lose time, but I also lose perspective. Suddenly the glorious moments in my world are harder -- if not impossible -- to feel, because I'm thrust into someone else's world. Whether I like it or not, being online causes me to lay my life next to the life of someone else and compare. And then, like an outfit that looked perfect standing in the coziness of my closet, it suddenly lacks luster when held against the fashions of everyone else at the party.
I thought back to that grand spider my daughter and I spotted during our hike. There he sat on his own private web, basking in the beauty of his world. Clearly he was determined not to let any outsiders sabotage it. What's more was the example he was setting for the little spider nearby.
"You've done quite well building your web," I imagined the big spider telling the little one. "It's a beauty -- but it's fragile, son. You must protect it. But you must also enjoy it. Take time to enjoy it every single day."
With tears of gratitude in my eyes, I was reminded that taking time to unplug from the online world is not only a gift to myself -- it is an even greater gift to my children. Because if I don't show my children the joys found offline in a culture inundated with screens, who will?
The only way my children will learn to embrace their perfectly imperfect life with open hands, open eyes and a willing heart is by watching me do it.
And on this unforgettable Saturday, I experienced one way to do it.
You put away the electronic devices.
You throw on old shoes.
You set foot on a trail.
You hold someone's hand.
You talk to each other.
You stop and rest when you get tired.
And while peering down into the fascinating world of a spider, something quite amazing dawns on you. Your own little world (the one that's far from perfect, by societal standards) suddenly feels pretty darn close to extraordinary. Because in between that sweaty little hand and yours, my friends, is life.
Rachel Macy Stafford is the founder of www.handsfreemama.com, where she provides simple ways to let go of daily distraction and grasp what matters most in life. She is the New York Times bestselling author of HANDS FREE MAMA. Her highly anticipated book, HANDS FREE LIFE, will be out in September.