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?


Marghanita Hughes said...

A beautiful and reflective post I can truly relate to. I too have come to understand these magical places are for just being, completely and utterly being in the moment. I would have to say my place is the enchanted garden. The Enchanted Gardens and wildness of the surroundings nourish my soul. I always leave inspired and uplifted :

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hi Marghanita -- What I've described as a pretty selfish exercise you manage to share every day with the kids lucky enough to be enrolled in your programs. Lucky kids!
The video you shared is beautiful -- I'd not realized how substantial an effort the Gardens have been for you! YOU are wonderful, my friend!

spldbch said...

A place where you feel free enough to not think. I believe that is the very definition of a "happy place."

Jeffrey Willius said...

Right you are, spldbch! I like the way you put that. There seems to be a great stigma to not thinking, even though many people would be much happier just being sometimes.

John Rocheleau | Zen-Moments said...

Lovely thoughts Jeffery. I've always been amazed and delighted by how the need to be in tune with nature and ourselves, contributes to falling into sync when canoeing. Most areas we have canoed in here in British Columbia are complete wilderness -- complete with all the potential dangers as well as the rewards.

Even the lakes that are placid one moment can whip up into 4 foot standing waves within an hour. The rivers can be treacherous, the terrain demands respect, and you have to be aware of the wildlife. Grizzly and black bears are common in most areas we've canoed in.

When confronted with those facts, most people would choose not to have an adventure of that sort. But it is those very risks that bring a person into a state of natural alignment. You have to be safe and so you allow all the city stifled instincts and awareness to come alive. So paddling through this beauty and power, you become a complete person; strong body, keen mind, and full heart.

I'll take a wild guess that you've read Sigurd Olson's work. His "The Lonely Land" moves me deeply. Anyone who has canoed in the wilderness knows the feelings he conveys so well.

As you say, moving slowly with rhythm opens a world that you cannot see at 30 mph. Once when we were on a more civilized lake where there were some motor boats, we were paddling near shore when we spotted a martin emerge from the water. We stopped the canoe and watched as the adult martin fed a fresh caught fish to the waiting young on shore. We were about 4 feet away. They didn't seem to mind our presence. The power boat zipping by missed it all of course :-)


Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey John -- Thanks so much for the comment.

You obviously really get the slow beauty of canoeing! I'll bet your gorgeous environs there in B.C. make it especially magical.

I can honestly say that I feel more comfortable in my canoe than I do on my feet. I'm sure that's not just the slowing down and seeing more richly, but the rhythm and flow of it that you note so well.

Oh, that I could canoe together one day!

John Rocheleau | Zen-Moments said...

It's really special isn't it jeffery, the way that we can become completely one with a canoe? In a way, the canoe becomes an extended self (all 17 feet of it), feeling the power and movement of the water in a greatly enhanced way.

So cool. If you ever get up to B.C., be sure to check out Murtle lake. It's near Blue River, 40 miles into the mountains off the Yellowhead Hwy (Hwy 5). It is a nature conservancy area, canoe or kayak only, portage in. It has two arms. The west arm is more friendly with sandy beaches and a couple islands. The north arm is where we preferred to be; it is much wilder, less accommodating, and we rarely saw another canoeist in a 10 day trip. That was years ago mind. Now it is more civilized. You have to pay per day to be there, and you don't dig your own latrine these days. They have designated camp spots now, probably with outhouses :-)

But it is gorgeous there. We had a favorite spot that we named Cross Creek. So much adventure to be had there. You can take the hiking route up from Straight lake area into the Wavy Range. Just incredible once beyond the tree line. In the west arm there is also a great route (more of a civilized trail) up Central Mountain. It takes you up into endless alpine meadows (also prime grizzly territory) with small glacial ponds and lakes everywhere. Mind bogglingly beautiful, especially when the flowers are out.

I better stop here before I get totally carried away . Thanks for the trip :-)

Steve!!! said...

So funny...when I think of when I'm in love with what I'm doing, or what's doing me sometimes--that I "lose tracK" of time, of thought, of obligation, even the need to eat or sleep. It seems to "do me" instead of me doing it--whatever that is. Kayaking, gardening, hiking in the wilds---seems to take over. I'm not a gardener, or runner...but so many ways..the running. I'm the earth, not ON it, but OF it. So, too, kayaking. It's not the act of kayaking that I do, but that kayaking IS. I Am the action itself. So really what I lose track of--is not just time, hunger, thought, needs...but I lose track of me--the self. The me that I must insist moves in the world here..that is recognized by "other". But, here, as you say Jeffrey so so SO well, I believe is the Self that truly is as I engage and am engaged and enmeshed with the wild itself. You bless me with your knowing and your ability to articulate it so fluidly. I love this post. I love the comment feed--the vibrant replies of each. It's so good to feel you all in this Time, on the planet, moving

Jeffrey Willius said...

John - The scene you describe sounds so wonderful! Maybe my wife and I will get there some day -- it would definitely be better with you as our guide.
And yes, I share your feelings about canoeing. Maybe it sounds obvious, but you learn so much about water.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hi Steve!!! How nice to see you back here at OMW!
I'm so glad you like my post and the resulting conversation -- we're obviously onto something people really care about. I like your notion of becoming what you're doing. Isn't that, after all, what being in the moment (or you might say of the moment) really is?
Many thanks for your kind, supportive words, my friend!

wondersofnature said...

I love the sessions with my pupils, when we've been outside, enjoying the world around us and they comment at the end of the session that their perception of time has altered.

They are always really amazed, that by being so engrossed in something, the passing of time can feel totally different-that's when I know they will take something with them from our work together.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hi WON - That's a wonderful gift you're giving your students -- a healthy antidote to many of the messages about time they're getting from other influences in their lives.
Thanks for the comment!

Anonymous said...

'If it were wiped from the face of the Earth, I'd still go there' powerful words! What a dedication to sense of place. Places are more than stillframes, they are a relationship with our beings. A Yuin elder (Indigenous Australian, south-east coast NSW) Uncle Max Dulumumun Harrison once said to me in the bush that everything we say or do is imprinted/held by the place we are in. These imprints cannot be wiped from a place no matter what changes or destruction may befall.
I am enjoying reading your blog. I have begun a mindfulness blog here

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hi Simon - I'm honored to have your generous comments! I like your new blog, but always have trouble leaving comments & following WordPress blogs. So I'll say it here: Very Nice! I'll drop in now and then.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Jeffrey. There is an email follow button on the right side bar. To leave a comment you need to click on the title of post you wish to comment on and then it is more obvious. I will also continue to drop by here. It is lovely just to look at your background image! Is it where you live? Or somewhere where you visit?

Jeffrey Willius said...

Thanks, simplersjoy! Thanks for the info and the visit.
Don't know where my bkgnd. image was taken. It's a stock photo. But I agree, it's beautiful. I live in Minnesota, USA. How 'bout you? Australia, if memory serves?

Anonymous said...

Beautiful. Thanks for reposting, Jeff.

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