By Kit Carlson
I stopped in a touristy gift shop on my way home from the lake, and spotted a little bumper sticker that warned other drivers “I’m in my Happy Place.” It was meant as an alert … that the driver of the car was blissed out on some internal image of a beach or a mountain, somewhere deep inside where the person had learned to retreat in times of trouble.
Many of us have learned to find an internal “happy place,” as a way to cope with stress and anxiety. But how many of us have learned to find a real-life “happy place” — a three-dimensional, reality-based, imperfect-but-still-nourishing PLACE in which to find rest and refreshment?
Unlike the imaginary “happy place,” a real Place has heft and substance. It becomes a holy ground upon which one can stand, without shoes, if necessary. It has sounds, odors, colors, sensations. It incarnates “happy place,” and like any incarnation, it can exalt us or it can disappoint us.
My Place is the family cottage on the lake, a small cabin my parents built 20 years ago, and which my sister and I inherited after their death. It looks out over an inland lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It is a view of exquisite beauty – early in the morning as the sun is rising along with the mist off the water, at noon under a crisp, blue sunburnt sky that snaps everything into sharp focus, at midnight when a million stars unfold overhead like a lost memory of how the world used to be. To stand at the shoreline in the morning with a hot cup of coffee in hand — watching a bald eagle circling overhead, hearing the loons shrieking back in the swamp, feeling the cold water washing my toes – is, for me, sheer heaven.
But the lake is a real place, and as such, it brings real-life challenges and imperfections into my idealized sense of Place. The mosquitoes were particularly abundant this year, swarming in thick clouds of malice and banging their bodies futilely against the window screens of the house. Sometimes it rains for days on end and everything is grey and sopping wet. Even the house gets moist and clammy so that no fire in the fireplace can dry it out. The cottage is a place for family vacations, with their ever-changing kaleidoscopes of personalities and issues and anxieties. Stuff breaks, needs fixing, needs replacing. There are always more dishes to do. The neighbors have different tastes in music from me, and well, water has a way of carrying the sound.
But it has become over these 18 years or so that we have gone there, my one Place, the place I can go to put myself back together, the place where I feel closest to my late parents, the place that offers me a vista which is familiar, yet ever-new, just as God is familiar, yet ever-new.
I think everyone needs a Place, not just a “happy place,” but a real Place to go and get centered or get disrupted or get closer to God. A coffee shop. A prayer corner in the bedroom. A local park. A bench in the back yard. A library carrel. A monastery. A path through the woods. A window with a view. A real Place, with peace and power and potential and imperfections.
Jesus never withdrew into a “happy place.” He was forever seeking out a real Place – the wilderness or a mountaintop. The last night of his life he found that Place in a garden outside Jerusalem, a place where he could pray, where his friends could sleep, where his enemies could find him.
The Rev. Kit Carlson, is the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, Mich., where she blogs at Saints Alive!