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Staying Mindful in the City

It is early morning. It is a perfect, silent morning which holds the cool air like two cupped hands. The street in front of the porch is perfectly still. The robins sweep the morning beneath their wings as they huddle on the dewy grass, plucking worms from the dirt. The finches gather in quiet bunches in the bushes, engrossed in a soft chatter.

In just three hours, Pittsburgh will come to life. In just three hours the students will emerge from their crummy apartments and trudge to class along the hectic streets of the urban university campus. The commuters will begin their drone along Fifth Avenue and Forbes Avenue. The air will fill with the whirs of sirens and the heavy hum of medivac helicopters landing on the local hospital rooftops.  

But for these three hours, from 6 am to 9 am, I am at perfect peace. I am alone on the front porch with a ceramic mug filled with hot tea and a heavy black Moleskine notebook. These are my hours. This is my time.

When I lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania the early hours were my meditations. I spent as much time as I could every morning hauling up the words from the depths and tossing them on the page in any way possible. At the time I didn’t know it was a mindfulness practice, but what else would you call the careful and studied observance of your world every single morning?

I am a writer and so I watched and listened and smelled and tasted what every day was like. I wrote it all down. If I could see my breath one morning in September, I wrote that down. If the geese were headed south, honking along in their steady chains, I wrote that down too. If I was stressed or anxious or uncertain about my life, I wrote that down as well. It was a daily mindfulness practice I barely realized I was participating in.

Observe the world, release tension, begin the day.

At the time, I lived with six other people. As soon as the sun broke open over the hills, the commotion began. The day would begin and music was already blasting, friends were laughing, someone was yelling up to the third floor, and this is the way it went each day like so many long and rattled sighs.

The city itself was loud in the way white noise is loud –– always there, humming in the background, barely noticeable until someone turns it off. My mornings writing on the front porch or at my desk by the window were the moments where I could turn the city off. If I listened closely I could hear the blood rushing behind my ears. If I sat long enough, I would notice the sound of the pen scratching over the paper. If I could be disciplined enough to pull myself from my bed before the sun was up and watch the subdued mornings crawl along to hectic afternoons, then I had succeeded.

On days that felt particularly dense and muddled, I would wander off into a nearby park and walk the limestone paths and count my breaths. Five big, slow breaths to descend the stone steps into the park. Four big breaths to get to the little stone bridge. Another couple dozen breaths until the path turned and dropped down into the creek. Several more until the steep hill. A handful of quick breaths ascending and then a deep sigh out upon reaching the top of the trail.

I was breathing and writing and trying so hard to be present, and I barely knew what I was accomplishing. Like so many people, I often felt that I could not be mindful or conscious of my connection to the world if I did not get out of the city and move into the tall mountains and uninhabited forests. I didn’t know yet how wrong I was.

Two years ago I moved to Boulder, Colorado and thought now I can begin my life. But two years in and I’ve learned that no matter how close you are to the mountains and glacial lakes and serene aspen groves, your life begins when you take daily control of it. It doesn’t matter where you are. Those mornings with my cup of tea, in a bustling urban center, on the edge of a massive university, were some of the most present and fulfilling mornings of my life.

Anja Semanco

Writer & Explorer


Anja is a professional freelance writer living in Boulder, Colorado. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and appears in such places as and Zoomorphic magazine. She is passionate about the environment and getting women outdoors. 

Anja Semanco