Friday, June 29, 2012

EYES WIDE SHUT – Seeing the Backs of My Eyelids

Our bodies are like microcosms of the earth; on us and in us are natural wonders every bit as incredible as trees, tides or tigers. They appeal to every one of the senses. And they're all there for the asking. In fact, some are so easy to find you can see them with your eyes closed.

Seeing with your eyes closed? Even in total darkness? If you've never done so, try this: when you go to bed tonight—after you’ve turned off the light and closed your eyes—look carefully at whatever it is your optic nerves are sending to your brain, and describe what you see. It’s not a trick question.


It's a field of vibrating points of color—like 
the "snow" one sees on a TV screen that's not 
receiving a program.

I'm not sure this is universal, but for me there’s definitely something there. It's usually a field of vibrating points of color—like the "snow" one sees on a TV screen that's not receiving a program. At other times it appears as a subtle, blotchy glow, ebbing and flowing like the hazy curtains of northern lights, ranging in color from shades of blue or green to reds, yellows and even tans.

So how does the eye—or the brain—perceive color, form and texture in total darkness? The scant research I’ve done points to something called phosphenes, luminous impressions caused by electrical, chemical or pressure stimulation of the retina. I guess I’m glad my phosphene images are as agreeably abstract as they are, because some people report seeing very specific, often eerie, images, including recognizable faces!

I've written here about floaters, those stringy little dark spots sliding oilily around on our fields of vision—most of us get them at some point in our lives. They're the shadows cast on the retina by tiny clumps of cells or of the gel inside the vitreous, the clear jelly-like substance that fills the eye.


They're about the only sight for which the only way to get rid of them is to open your eyes!

What fascinates me about floaters is that they’re visible all the time, whether your eyes are open or shut. They're most prominent when you close your eyes and face a bright light—like the sun. When you open them, though, your vista gets so filled with light and images that you don’t notice the floaters. So, ironically, floaters are about the only sight for which the only way to get rid of them is to open your eyes! 

I can't ponder such conspiracies of brain and eye without thinking of optical illusions, those clever images clever people devise to fool the eye. Some make it look like something's moving which really isn't. Others seem to create impossible spacial relationships (think M.C. Escher). The effects are achieved through shapes, patterns or colors that confuse the eye.

Just the other day I came across this one involving eyes both open and closed. Stare at the red dot on the woman's nose for 30 seconds, then turn away, look at a plain surface and blink your eyes rapidly. Keep blinking; after a few seconds, the image of the woman will appear against the blank field, but with a surprising difference.


Do you see things you shouldn't really be able to see? Does that creep you out, or does it remind you, as it does me, just what wonders the human body and mind are? 

If you've experienced seeing things with eyes wide shut, how do you know you're actually seeing something and not just imagining it? Is there really any difference?

I and my small-but-appreciative following would love to hear 
from you!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Little Tips

TIP #28 

We come from the earth, and there we return. Gardening celebrates this elemental connection in a most wondrous, reciprocal way.

Growth, flowering, fruiting—it’s all shared, not least the nourishment. The potential, you see, lies in the gardener as much as the seed.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

TOO CLOSE TO SEE – As If For the First Time

(This is the fifth post in my series of reflections, As If For the First Time, describing the most mundane of daily activities through a fresh lens, one of innocence and wonder.)

When I was a boy, an up-and-coming comedian—later turned actor, director and producer—named Andy Griffith gained fame for "What It Was, Was Football," his description of an American football game through the eyes of a country bumpkin who'd never seen the game before.
One bunch got (the funny lookin' little pumpkin) and it made the other bunch just as mad as they could be! And Friends, I seen that evenin' the awfulest fight that I ever have seen in all my life! They would run at one another and kick one another and throw one another down and stomp on one another and grind their feet in one another and I don't know what-all, and just as fast as one of 'em would get hurt, they'd tote him off and run another one on!
PHOTO: Ames, Iowa Historical Society

In the decades since, that bit has come to mind a hundred times as I've learned, little by little, to give small wonders their due, to see them, as much as possible, as if for the very first time.

For, you see, I'd noticed—and continue to notice—an awful lot of people acting strangely blase about new discoveries that clearly would have knocked their socks off when they were kids.

I've never quite trusted anyone, including myself, who insulated himself so from curiosity and wonder.

So what happens to people to suppress that young, fresh, impressionability we're all born with? Part if it, I'm sure, is just a natural tendency to take for granted things our minds no longer have to expend any energy processing. That blase, been-there, done-that attitude also seems to be a hallmark of the young and/or insecure—people trying just a little too hard to prove their wisdom and maturity.

Whatever the reason, I've never quite trusted anyone, including myself, who insulated himself so from curiosity and wonder. If being a bit childish and having more questions than answers is the price, then I'm reaching for my wallet every time!

I'm fortunate enough to have travelled to a few places around the world, places with different landscapes, climates and cultures. It's been easy for me to experience the wonders of life in such places as if I were seeing them for the first time… because, in most cases, I was.

Things like the glow-in-the-dark trails of dolphins rocketing through bioluminescent plankton in the Sea of Cortez. Like the exquisite smell of jasmine on a warm August evening in Seville. Like the humble plant (mimosa podica) I saw in Costa Rica, which recoils and curls up to the touch. Like the thundering, guttural cries of howler monkeys or the flamboyant splendor of the illusive quetzal bird.

It's one thing to be awestruck when things are new and exotic; it's another thing altogether when you want to experience the same amazement with things you see all the time. And that's what my musings here are intended to be all about: finding wonder even in the simplest, most familiar things.

You can't change who you are or where you live, but you can change the way you see.

How does one do that? I try to imagine myself always the visitor, just as I'm the visitor when I travel. I try to remember that, as familiar as a robin might seem to me, to a stranger it might be stunningly exotic. I imagine eavesdropping on that visitor's email or call home: …and we saw this one bird that seemed just a dull, grayish brown all over, but suddenly it turned and flew away and I could see its whole breast was bright orange and it had these elegant little white dots on its wing tips!

Don't let yourself get complacent about all the amazing wonders that surround you every day. You can't change who you are or where you live, but you can change the way you see.

See freshly, creatively and, as I like to say, generously. Give even the most familiar of wonders the benefit of that generosity. And remember that all of these everyday things, though you may have seen them a hundred times, were indeed brand new to you when you were a child. Now and then, put aside your schedules, your preoccupations and, yes, your indifference, and be that child.

Don't concede wonder to anyone or any place.

To those who still feel wonder lives anywhere but at home, here's what I say: Show off your constant tropical climate, and I'll strut the abiding rhythms, the stirring beauty of my changing seasons. Your ocean and palm trees are nice, but behold my landscape blanketed in pure, dazzling white snow.

Mention your swaying palms and I'll give you rolling hills ablaze in orange, red and gold. Boast of your jasmine or bougainvillea and I'll tout my block-long thicket of luxuriant lavender flower clusters, all breathing the heavenly scent of lilac. Offer me your quetzal and howler monkeys and I'll return the favor with an indigo bunting and a moose.

Get my drift? Just because you may live, as I do, in what some have described as a pretty flat landscape and a harsh climate—or let's say you live in the desert, where lush is a word reserved for someone with a drinking problem—don't concede wonder to anyone or any place.

Remember, no matter where you live, no matter how commonplace your surroundings may have become for you, they are, indeed, wonders. The difference between seeing them with a yawn or with jaw dropped in awe is your openness, your humility, your expectation of wonder.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

THE SENSE OF SOLITUDE - Healing In the Wilderness

After my second divorce, I was adrift. I’d failed at marriage—again. The fancy suburban home I never wanted in the first place was gone. Bill, one of several friends who were between marriages themselves, was putting me up in a spare bedroom. I wasn’t on very solid footing in my business either, foundering in one of the inevitable downs in the yo-yo fortunes of the freelancer.

On the surface, I was handling all of this pretty well, but I realized I’d never really be able to put such a tough transition behind me without some work. I needed to turn back the layers of anger, shame and grief I’d accumulated and look inside for the little miracles of grace I knew resided in there somewhere. I needed to put myself in a place where I could start that process of self-discovery, feel more competent and seize control of my storm-tossed life.


I had a beautiful, old 13-foot Mansfield canoe I’d bought in New Hampshire back in 1976. It was already old when I got it, but by now its wooden gunwales and decks were rotting, its thin wooden ribs starting to separate from the fiberglass skin. I decided my summer project—and my redemption—would be to repair that canoe and then outfit it and myself for a solo canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

In Bill’s small back yard, I put the canoe up on sawhorses and got to work, keenly aware of the metaphorical significance of what I’d be doing. I removed as much wood rot as I could, stabilized the rest with penetrating resin, and then filled the larger voids with epoxy putty. I removed and replaced the keel, swapping the mixed bag of rusty screws for new ones of shiny brass. I sealed each screw hole and then the entire length of the keel with clear silicone caulk.

        The stakes are high when you're with 
        a group; when you're alone, they could
        be a matter of life and death.

By the middle of July I was done; I had a canoe that, while cosmetically not the prettiest, was solid and functional.

Planning a canoe trip is a demanding exercise. You have to anticipate every need, every situation, every potential hazard. Then you have to balance each of those needs with factors of weight and volume. Both the challenge and the stakes are high when you're with a group; when you're alone, they could be matters of life and death.

Navigation, cooking and eating, shelter, first aid, fending off bugs and bears—it all mattered. What's more, I wanted not just to get from point A to point B; I wanted to move efficiently, quietly, respectfully. I'd make all my portages, with the canoe and everything else on my back, in a single trip. And I'd do it all without leaving a lasting trace of my presence.

I'm not sure I realized it at the time, but, in a way, I was planning the rest of my life. Obviously I had no idea what that grander journey held in store for me, but I sensed I was proving that, whatever it was, I could be ready.

Finally, my departure day arrived and I hit the road early for the five-hour drive north, arriving at my Burntside Lake access point to the BWCAW at about noon.

Setting out on a good-sized body of water at that time of day brought the wind and big waves I’d expected. It would take all the concentration I could muster, as the slightest miscue would put me sideways to a two- or three-foot wave, the perfect recipe for swamping.


I didn’t dare skip even a single stroke, having seen, on earlier trips, the effects hypothermia can have on a person, even in the summer. So, all the way across Burntside’s four-mile width, I had to execute my combination power/steering strokes perfectly. Even harder was not being able to swat the relentless stable flies that drilled my bare ankles.

The idea of getting stuck in this muggy, bug-infested woods was playing with my mind.

My second portage nearly ended my trip. Halfway across, the soggy trail skirted the edge of a bog created by a large, curving beaver dam. Then, as it led back into the thick jack pine and aspen, it gradually just petered out, strangled by thick brush and small trees. The undergrowth had closed in around me to the extent that I could neither move any further ahead nor turn around.

Leaving the canoe propped between two trees, I retraced my steps, looking all around for where I might have missed a turn. The idea of getting stuck in this muggy, bug-infested woods was playing with my mind since by this time I had only a couple hours of daylight left.


After about 20 minutes of scouting and ruling out every promising opening in the trees, I happened to notice a single muddy boot print leading out onto that beaver dam. Venturing, without the canoe, across the slick, wobbly sticks, I could see that this was, indeed, the continuation of my portage.

After a couple more small lakes and two much easier portages, I flipped my canoe into beautiful  Cummings Lake and, fortunately, found one of the campsites I’d counted on unoccupied. So I landed and began the many chores necessary to set up camp.

My fresh steak-and-potatoes dinner that night tasted all the better for the hard work it had cost me. As I savored my cowboy coffee, I thought back on the day with gratitude and pride, realizing I’d already begun uncovering just what I’d set out to find.

The air cooled as the rocks spent the last of their stored warmth. I let the embers die and sat for a while to fully absorb the chill before ducking into my cozy tent. As I nestled into my sleeping bag, my body throbbed with that good kind of pain you feel when you’ve worked hard for a simple goal.

    My fear turned into a prayer, and I knew I was 
    getting reacquainted with my inner strength.

I lay there aware that, for one of the very few times in my life, I was immersed in both total darkness and utter silence. My ears probed, like a sweeping radar scope, for some sound—an insect, a breaking wave, a whisper of air through pine needles, anything. It’s hard to describe if you haven’t experienced it, but the depth of that silence caused my brain to invent a sort of roar.

That deafening void, the sense of alone-ness, was so profound, my mind even stumbled into thoughts of possibly not being able to stand it. What would I do with absolutely no one to call on, no one to help me? It took me a few minutes to put these thoughts in their place. My fear turned into a prayer, and I knew I was getting reacquainted with my inner strength.


PHOTO: Wisconsin DNR
I awoke the next morning at first light, not sure what it was that had roused me. As my senses tried to get their bearings, I wondered if the eerie noise I was hearing was another imaginary one. A chill rattled me as I realized it was a pack of wolves, awakening with me and greeting their day on the other side of the bay.

I spent the day exploring the stretch of shoreline on either side of my campsite. I stocked up on some prized “beaver wood,” thoroughly dried on rocky shore by wind and sun. I picked blueberries. I sat on warm rocks. I thought, now and then, about my life and my priorities, but mostly I just did what the rest of the creatures around me were doing—simply sensing, simply being.

      I basked in satisfaction, having compelled 
      the elements to respect the boundaries I’d 
      so cleverly devised.

By late afternoon, blue skies had given way to the unsettled, ten-shades-of-gray clouds so typical of the BWCAW, and soon it felt like rain. I prepared my tent site by trenching around the perimeter, making sure there was a generous outlet at the moat’s down-slope side. I rolled in the edges of my ground cloth so the water running down the tent sides wouldn’t pour in between it and the not-so-waterproof tent floor.

Mercifully, the rain held off long enough for me to down a quick supper. About ten minutes after I crawled into my tent, the rain started and built into a long, heavy downpour. I basked in satisfaction, having compelled the elements to respect the boundaries I’d so cleverly devised.

Still, I couldn’t help but welcome the rain’s company, like, when I was a boy, going to bed with the muffled voices of my parents' well-behaved guests downstairs. I fell deliciously asleep and woke up the next morning dry as a good piece of that beaver wood.

I moved on, made camp on a new lake and spent the rest of my trip feeling as familiar with this new rhythm of life as if I'd been on trail for weeks.

As I sat contemplating the dwindling flames of my last campfire, I was warmed by a deep sense of satisfaction about my little adventure. It was by no means an extreme physical challenge. There had been no single event that radically changed my life—no near-death experience, no epiphany.


    I’d confronted my aloneness and, instead of 
    mourning it as I had for so long, I embraced 
    and celebrated it.

Yet it was exactly what I’d needed it to be, an assertion of my inner strength, a reassurance of my competence and a reaffirmation of what I guess I’ve always known was my deep, spiritual connection with Nature. I’d confronted my aloneness and, instead of mourning it as I had for so long, I embraced and celebrated it.

Necessity has a way of putting things into perspective. It parks the past and future in a compartment that’s unaccustomed for many of us: the “maybe some other time” compartment. And it leaves us, remarkably, with nothing but the present moment.

That, it turned out, was an aspect of my experience I hadn’t expected. It was kind of like breaking an addiction; if I can abstain so happily from my sadness and self-blame for these few days, then maybe they're paddling partners I just don't need.

Friday, June 15, 2012

TO THE SWIFT – Diving Denizen of Summer Skies

I’ll never forget when I first noticed chimney swifts.

It was the early 70’s. I was working for the Brattleboro Reformer in Brattleboro, Vermont. One summer evening, after meeting our 8:00 deadline, my co-worker, Ed, and I walked out the back door of the building toward his car.

The Reformer’s building, like most of those in these river towns, had turned its back on its river, the Connecticut. The stark alley where Ed and I stood chatting was mostly windowless brick walls, incinerators and dumpsters.

What a gorgeous evening, I thought. My eyes were drawn upward to the darkening indigo sky, a few gilded wisps of cloud…and something else. There were scores of squat little birds flitting around overhead, their staccato wing beats nearly in time with their excited chatter. Each bird’s random, sharply veering flight suggested they were probably snatching up flying insects.

I knew nothing about chimney swifts, but, for some reason, I just knew that’s what they were. Ed insisted they were bats, but I pointed out that their bodies had a distinct fat-cigar shape, that their wings looked smooth and slightly curved, and, though seldom, they occasionally coasted, which I didn’t think bats ever did. Also, these birds produced a constant, clicking chatter very different from the less frequent, higher-pitched twits of bats.

Like a cloud of smoke in reverse, they all plunged down a large brick chimney.

We watched the engaging performance for a few minutes and then, just as I was about to get into Ed’s car, I glanced up one last time. I noticed a subtle shift in the birds’ flight. At first, it just seemed like they weren’t quite as spread out. Then their random flight paths started falling into a broad, spiraling motion.

It all happened in about 15 or 20 seconds. The spiral wound tighter and tighter, and then, like a cloud of smoke in reverse, they all plunged down a large brick chimney…dare I say it, swiftly!

They’re so common, you might not even 
notice them.

That night, I looked up chimney swifts in my bird book, confirming that this was indeed what we’d seen. It said that, while the birds may roost in the hundreds or even thousands, they prefer nesting just one family to a chimney, air vent or hollow tree. Their numbers are falling, due, it’s thought, to a trend toward metal-lined chimneys. Swifts migrate to South America for the winter.

Chimney swifts are a part of the summer evening ambiance in towns and cities throughout the eastern two thirds of the United States. They’re so common, in fact, that you might just take them for granted, not even noticing them.

Now that you know how interesting they can be, see if you can find some, and then watch for a few minutes (your best chances will be just before dark). With patience, maybe you’ll be lucky enough to witness their amazing, synchronized chimney dives as I did that magical evening in Brattleboro.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Little Tips

TIP #14 
Get polarized sunglasses.


Squint as you will; you'll never crack that hard enamel glare 
that sun bakes onto water. 

Polarized lenses, though, like magic x-ray glasses, dissolve the 
glare, reveal the mysteries of that alien world behind reflection.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

DISTILLED SPIRIT – Finding Your Sacred Center

Many of my posts touch on the need to clear the clutter of our workaday lives—at least temporarily—before we can truly appreciate Nature’s gifts. The same is true if we want to be fully present in our own hearts and spirits.

It makes no difference if you’re Anglican or agnostic, a Zen Buddhist or a Zoroastrian. Your relationship with your inner self is inseparable from how you relate to everything else. So, to know yourself as you might hope to know Nature, to discover some of the beautiful certainties and mysteries that dwell within your soul, the same two steps are essential: separating yourself from the constant demands of your mind, and putting yourself in the right place at the right time.


        There are as many ways of embarking 
        on this journey within as there are self-
        help gurus in California.

Call it prayer, contemplation, meditation or whatever you like. It’s the process of making time, turning off external stimuli, and putting aside your investments in past and future. Free of the confines of time and space, you ride a flow of consciousness and energy that’s both in you and beyond you.

It takes you to a place of humility, reverence and gratitude that can be reached only by surrendering your mind to your spirit. It’s the trip of a lifetime, and the only investment it requires is your attention.

There are as many ways of embarking on this journey within as there are self-help gurus in California. Perhaps the simplest (and far cheaper than the guru) is to find a quiet, comfortable place, sit down and concentrate on your breathing. Use its regular meter, its certainty, as a vehicle to a quiet state of mind.

Listen to the sound of the air going in and out; feel the cool rush through your nose and throat; notice the rise and fall of your chest. Imagine each inhalation filling you with good stuff like energy and light, each exhalation expelling tension, worries, self-limitation and all the other bad stuff. Keep doing this until your body, mind and spirit are at peace.


One of my favorite meditations is to imagine a wave of calming, golden energy starting on top of your head and flowing, like warm honey, slowly down your body. With each inch or two it flows, you let all the muscles in that cross-section of your body relax. You experience the weight of each successive “slice” as you release those muscles from having to support it.

At the same time, you feel your spirit being released from all the weight it has borne, free to take you where it will. Picture the soothing flow pushing any negative energy down and down until it pours out of the soles of your feet and dissipates into the cosmos.

               It’s there, on the other side of thought, 
       that everything that truly matters exists
       —love, peace, beauty, joy and creativity.

Another device for looking deep into yourself is the guided meditation. Here, someone else talks you through a relaxation exercise, and then leads you, through verbal imagery, on an inner journey to a quiet, contemplative place.

The point of any of these techniques is not to deny your thoughts and emotions; it’s to separate yourself from them. Only when you’re able to position yourself as an observer of these mental constructs—not fighting them, but acknowledging and letting them be—can you be free of their power to kidnap you from the present.

Only then do you become aware of the sublime intelligence that lies beyond the grasp of the mind. And you start to recognize that it’s there, on the other side of thought, that everything that truly matters exists – love, peace, beauty, and joy.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

FIGHTING CHANCE – The Ethical Barbs of Fishing

Fishing is a mystical experience. I knew it the moment I caught my first fish at the age of five or six. That little sunfish's bright, exotic colors and patterns captivated me. It was cool and slimy. It smelled funny but good—sort of earthy and spicy. It wanted very much to get away, and used its spiky dorsal fin to make its point. I got it, and it hurt. There was a little drop of blood.

For the impression it made on me, that little bluegill might as well have been a space alien. Ever since that day, I’ve found fishing to be about the most fascinating, beautiful, peaceful thing I do. If ever there were an activity that’s all about discovery, patience and appreciating details, this is it.

When you catch a fish, an interesting psychological game starts to play out. It happens if you’re catching a five-pound large-mouth on ultra-light tackle. And it’s even more fascinating when it’s a fish that might outweigh you, one that, given half a chance, would gladly eat you.

For the fish, of course, it’s all about survival. But they don’t just act out of blind terror; there’s an intelligence there. Over generations of experience passed down who knows how, they seem to have learned a few things.

There’s a distinct moment in which you can sense whether you’ll ultimately prevail.

They can strip every shred of the night crawler from your hook without moving it an inch. They play dead until that one moment when you think you’re about to grab them. They find the only rough spot on the keel of your canoe and manage to grate your monofilament right over that spot. Hell, I’ve even seen them enlist the help of their friends!

For the fisherman, it’s about trying to anticipate these wily ways. It’s also a battle of wills. This is especially true when you’re fighting a hundred-pound-plus game fish—one that has at least an even chance of getting away.

There’s a distinct moment in which you can sense whether you’ll ultimately prevail. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s that first foot or two of line you finally gain after a half-hour stalemate. Maybe it’s just your aching arms getting their second wind.


The conversation doesn’t end when you’ve landed the fish. Most fishermen I know say something kind to the fish, something like “Aren’t you a beauty!” or “There you go, little guy,” as they ease it back into the water.

And then there’s the conversation you have with yourself. Is the fish going to be okay? Could the little bit of blood you saw coming from its gills mean it wouldn’t survive? For me, this self-dialog has gotten especially intense since I’ve been catching the “big game” of the fishing world: the marlin, the sailfish, the tarpon.

I’ve seen large tarpon released . . . only to be 
bitten in half and then devoured by opportunistic hammerhead sharks.

These are the species known to sometimes literally fight to the death. I’ve heard stories of very large marlin—say, 400 pounds or more—dying on the line, an autopsy revealing that their hearts burst from the exertion of their fight.

Even if a big fish can be released alive (always my wish), that doesn’t guarantee it will survive long. I’ve seen large tarpon released, still weak from a 45-minute fight, only to be bitten in half and then devoured by opportunistic hammerhead sharks.


I’m committed to catch-and-releasing fishing. I won’t hire a guide who doesn’t believe in it too. I believe, as it is said Native Americans once did, that each creature has a spirit. They bless us with whatever contact they allow us, whether that be sacrificing their bodies to nourish us, or simply letting us play with them for a while in wonder.

But questions persist. When my playing ends up costing another creature its life, is that a fair transaction? Does the fact that I nearly always fish not for food, but simply for fun strip me of my last shred of justification? Is my commitment to catch-and-release just my way of rationalizing a brutal and ultimately destructive behavior? Can I fish and still remain true to my code of honoring and respecting Nature?

Perhaps the ultimate answer will lie in finding 
a way of interacting with fish on a more equal footing.

We’ll see how deeply those concerns take root. I’ll keep looking for techniques and technology—like the revolutionary circle hook—that are kinder to the fish. But perhaps the ultimate answer will lie in finding a way of interacting with fish on a more equal footing, one where there’s more at risk for me than a few bucks’ worth of tackle and not landing the fish. Some might suggest swimming with sharks.

Friday, June 1, 2012

A SLOUGH OF WONDERS – Celebrating My Happy Place

Where's your happy place? You know, that one favorite spot you escape to when you're in pain, under stress or just bored to death. The place that always takes you in, where you restore your equilibrium, reclaim your truth.

For some people, it might be about home and family—perhaps their mothers' kitchens when they were children. For others, it might involve a favorite activity, like gardening, golfing or fishing. I suppose it could even be an imaginary place, a kind of spiritual outdoors you get to by just walking out on your abrasive thoughts and surroundings for a while.

But what I'm thinking of would be a place in Nature, a real locale, a tangible space delineated by air, water, earth and life. Do you have such a place that's dear to you?

            If it were to be wiped from the 
            face of the earth, I'd still go there.

My happy place is a real place. I go there physically when I can, and in my imagination when I have to. If, for some reason, it were to be wiped from the face of the earth, I'd still go there. That's how much a part of me it's become.

It's a slough, or side channel, of the St. Croix River, the beautiful stream that separates Minnesota from Wisconsin for 125 of its 164-mile length. I discovered it as a boy, when my family would spend summers at our home just across the river. And, even though I've had few lasting connections with the house and land, I've continued going to the slough, in both body and spirit, for more than fifty years.

             These days that's not a bad price 
             to pay for a dose of wilderness.

Today, the trip involves a little more effort than that boyhood walk of about a quarter mile to the river. Now I have to drive north from my home in Minneapolis for about an hour. Then I get my canoe and gear in the water and paddle about half a mile to the inconspicuous gap in the wooded bank that marks the slough's entrance. These days that's not a bad price to pay for a dose of wilderness.

By the time I pull up at the landing, I've already begun my transformation, dropping off my worries  along the way, picking up a few parcels of quiet anticipation. When I step out of my car, the air's clean and fragrant, the sun warm, the clamor of the city left far behind. And, if I'm lucky, the St. Croix looks just right—low enough to leave exposed a few welcome sandbars, but not so low as to require portaging into the slough.


What best exemplifies my metamorphosis, though, is the striking change of vehicles—leaving the one designed for a mile a minute for the one whose progress is measured in yards. I'm also trading a conveyance that both consumes and breathes poison for one with no appetite nor breath but my own.

There's something so perfectly liberating and empowering about the self-reliance of traveling by canoe. Each paddle stroke, each foot I might have to drag or carry my gear across a log or shallow sand bar, rewards me with a modest, well-earned result. It's a celebration, not simply of freedom, not just of connecting with Nature, but of the way my body works and feels.

         Their breath and mine, as well as that 
         of a thousand fellow beings—poplar 
         and pine, deer and otter, cardinal and 
         eagle—mingle in this delicious air.  

The synthesis of physical exertion with my mental and spiritual surrender make me part of this place—one that, very likely, has changed little since the days when the Ojibwe or Dakota plied these waters three centuries ago. Their breath and mine, as well as that of a thousand fellow beings—poplar and pine, deer and otter, cardinal and eagle—mingle in this delicious air.

My time in the slough is like a meditation on two levels at the same time: the syncopated rhythms of paddling and breathing center me deep within, while a lush tapestry of sensations wraps around and, like the sure guidance of trusted friend's arm, draws me out to become one with my surroundings. My mind, free of schedule or expectation, glides, like my canoe, wherever I choose to take it—or just drifts with the wind. Either way, my spirit is nourished completely.

               It's a change I'm afraid too many 
               people find so easy that it's hard.

It's funny: I don't think very much while I'm paddling in the slough. I used to feel I could use the time to do some creative problem solving or to make difficult decisions about my life. But I've come to understand and accept that that's not where my spiritual energy wants to go. It wants to lift me above all those mundane tasks and embrace that one deceptively simple task of simply being. It's a change I'm afraid too many people find so easy that it's hard.

I hope you have a happy place, a place where easy is easy. If not, I hope one will find you.

We should all have at least one real, tangible happy place we can go to, a setting whose highs and lows, whose bends and backwaters, whose headwinds and tailwinds have become parts of who we are. What's extraordinary about this is that, no matter where that might be, even in the years we all know will come when we can no longer go there physically, we'll still be able to go there in our hearts and minds.

Where's your happy place? Is it one of peace and reflection? Do you ever go there virtually?