Going inside…outside


 I’ve never needed much prompting to go to my “peaceful, happy place.”

When I first started going, I wasn’t much more than seven years old. I’d just tumble out of my camp bunk before anyone else and go sit there for hours, at peace with the water lapping against the dock, mesmerized by the mountains mirrored in the calm lake. It was a real location, my peaceful place, one I could occupy by myself with no more than a tiny canvas chair, back when mothers could let their daughters figure out how to keep themselves safe outdoors. I was content to watch the sun dance through the trees and along the green dappled rocks near shore. It was good for me, I’m sure, to just sit there with my hair still bed messy, not worrying or wondering about much. But at that age, there was no context for needing fresh air, for relaxation, for reconnecting with anything. If you’d asked me about healing, I would have shown you a Band Aid on my knee. Was I worried about being balanced? Oh, yeah, I’d admit. If the gym teacher made me try to walk across that scary, skinny little beam, I’d always fall off till she just let me go sit on the bleachers.

Much later, after losing a lot of that innocence and idle time, and losing the parents who used to share my peaceful places, I had to settle more often for returning there in my mind. And sometimes I’d need just a little coaxing from a guided meditation coach or CD to head me in the right direction. “Close your eyes. Breathe deeply, and with each breath, picture yourself in a beautiful, tranquil place where you are totally relaxed, totally at peace….” I’d close my eyes, be a couple breaths in, and poof, I’d be walking down a moss-covered path toward the sound of waves and out to my little canvas chair. I was seven years old again in my special spot. Once there, I felt soothed that life could flow as effortlessly as the lake beneath the dock, that my world could be as secure as the unmoving mountains. For a few precious moments, my mommy could be inside the cabin at the end of the path, cooking breakfast for me and my daddy, who was waiting to take me fishing.

Over the years, I got really skilled at traveling to my peaceful place in my mind. When the physical destination was not possible, I could escape to that oasis in the space of a quiet moment and a couple breaths. This was a very good thing because, while my life hasn’t been what I consider unbearably stressful, or traumatic enough to land me a guest spot on Dr. Phil, I’ve had my share of stuff along the way. And, if I ever get close to running out of stuff, I wouldn’t have to look further than the latest magazines or TV ads to find new reasons to de-stress and detoxify. Who knows, maybe that super stressed out woman in the scented candle commercial has been  sharing the same shoreline with me. She’s kicking off her high heals and transporting herself there, only to run into the “Calgon take me away!” lady who’s been out there since the 1960s trying to drown out her screaming kids and demanding husband. Maybe my metaphysical dock is actually pretty crowded.

I do know that, with more and more people needing to escape society’s pressures every day, teaching my daughters to literally take “out” their feelings with as few props as possible was a parenting priority. I helped them transcend anger, sadness and adolescent frustrations even when a real dock wasn’t available. But, while my intentions came from love, my methods weren’t always yogi-like.

“Go outside now and don’t come back in this house until you’ve figured out how to calm yourself down!” I’d yell if either one had an explosive moment of teenage angst. And they would, even in January, and even when the only sanctuary they could find was beneath a fir tree at the edge of the backyard in Rochester. Becky got so good at it that she stays outside now, as an Outward Bound instructor, teaching others how to center themselves in nature. It probably didn’t fit anywhere on the job application, but she’s told me since that her timeouts in the backyard gave her a solid foundation for promoting the benefits of wilderness therapy.

“Don’t ever haul that old tree away that’s laying down next to the brush pile,” Helen, now 27, told me during a recent visit. The cedar had been a favorite hiding spot for her and Becky to play “wilderness Barbies,” dressing up their dolls in fern and leaf costumes. In between checking the minnow trap, swimming, and building sand castles, they’d go there to dry off in their special thicket, not needing too many other props, and not caring that somewhere else, kids were playing Nintendo.

No, the tree’s not going away and the dock’s staying put too. And, now that our special spot in the woods and by the water is also home base year-round, we all need even less coaxing to surround ourselves in peace and quiet each day. Sitting there, I can still hear my little girls giggling and splashing, or shutting out the rest of the world as they wait for a fish to pull their bobber under. I know when they join me in person, they let the setting bring them back, too. And I know a big reason why we have sought out this space together is because we’ve never really left.

I won’t ever be seven years old again, at least not physically. And I won’t really be able to share my waterfront with my mother or other loved ones passed. But when I breathe deeply and listen to the waves, she is there. My dad is right there, too, being uncharacteristically quiet as he appreciates the morning air. My wonderful step-mom is sipping coffee and smiling, looking down the lake to where the water meets the sky. My mother-in-law, the last to leave, is admiring the new paint job she applied to the 20-year-old bench that now sits proudly facing the best view. If the light is just right, I think I can even make out the “Reserved Seating” sign.

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