Friday, September 19, 2014

Lake Erie Lessons


Trees bow majestically
As I wend my way in,
Leading me to the spot
That my journey should begin.
Whispers of memories
Carried on their limbs,
Remind me to listen to
Their sacred quiet hymns.
Waves lap against the shore,
As crickets chirp their song,
Plaintively chastising me
That I’ve been gone too long.
I hear cicadas buzz
Amidst the stunning calm,
Moth flits and lingers there,
Upon my open palm.
I begin to walk the beach,
And a dawning slowly breaks,
I now know the answers lie
Along this stately lake.
Slow down, appreciate
The sights along the way.
Don’t rush too quickly through,
Or you’ll never last the day.

A Walk on the Beach

As I spent some much-needed and long overdue time on the peninsula today, I had a serious epiphany: Life is like a walk on the beach.

Now, before you groan and tune out on me, let me explain.

My life has seen some drastic and unexpected changes over the past five years that often had me despairing over where I had gone wrong. It seemed that I had lost direction and purpose and was merely drifting aimlessly along, simply existing from one day to the next. I was

But today, it hit me: I have not been lost at all. My life was like this walk on the beach.

So many of us approach life like a marathon down the sand. Eyes on the prize, we concentrate all on energies on crossing that finish line on the distant horizon. We ignore or curse any distractions along the way that might slow down our progress, intent on the “getting there” and forgetting about the journey.

That’s where I was five years ago, focused on the end game. I measured success by the ultimate outcome – promotion, raises, evaluations- and had forgotten about the journey, which is not about the prizes, but rather is about ourselves.

Today, as I made my way down the beach, I had no end goal. That allowed me to stop and experience all that I found along the way. The metaphor really struck me when I began to find and collect shells. Now, many people do this, don’t get me wrong. But the shells that I was seeking out and harvesting were the tiniest, most perfect little turret shells, the ones that most people don’t even see a they crunch their way over the sand in search of the distant rainbow. And now, as I moved slowly down the sand, watching my steps, those dainty prizes literally ANNOUNCED themselves for me to find.

When we stop focusing on the finish line, and take time to examine the details of the journey, we find ourselves steeped in a world of wonder that makes us ask why were in such a hurry in the first place.
In life, the finish line is often out of sight, somewhere down the sand – perhaps miles away or maybe just around the next bend. When we blind ourselves to the journey and just push through to the end, we miss out on the small, miraculous events that could help sustain us for the long haul.

I could be bitter about losing my job, or about being “stuck” in a community where my job prospects are crippled, but instead, as I realized today, it has given me new sight. No longer chained to the process of impressing students and colleagues with my abilities in order to achieve tenure, I am free to investigate and develop the talents and interests I choose. Working from home, on my own schedule, allows me the flexibility and freedom to make the most of my journey, whether that means having lunch with a dear friend, being entertained by our menagerie of pets, baking a special pie for my husband, or taking the morning to rejuvenate at Presque Isle. These are the minute shells that I discover on my walk on the beach.

Though my finish line lies somewhere out of sight down the sand, it matters not how far, for my details will sustain me. It gives me time to appreciate sharing funny videos with my husband, or to chat about dreams with my best friend, or to take the weekend off to spend visiting with my parents.

On the beach, one encounters many possible paths. Some are solid, while others are comprised of shifting sand. Obstacles lie in the way, some large, some miniscule. We see both life and death at the shore’s edge, with the dividing line between them often murky. It is an ecosystem of existence where the elements must interact to be sustained. And sometimes, you must change direction in order to truly see what has been before you all along. It is the metaphor of life.

And by focusing on my journey, on my true self rather than on the goals, I have discovered that the opportunities for success are now presenting themselves to me freely. No longer desperate to get there NOW, my beach walk is revealing exciting new pathways to extend my journey.

A Homecoming

A Homecoming

I knew that I had stayed away from the water for far too long, but I had no idea how palpable the energy would be when I finally returned. As I entered the park, the car suddenly enveloped in the lush green canopy of trees, I immediately felt a rush of calming energy blanket me. My heart rate slowed, my breathing deepened, and I reached over to snap off the radio so that I could hear the songs of the crickets chirping through my open window.

It was a crisp Fall day, gleaming with golden sunshine radiating from an almost cloudless cerulean blue sky. Though I saw small groups of power walkers and the occasional cyclist as I made my way deeper onto the peninsula, nothing penetrated my growing sense of calm.

I turned off at my favorite spot, one of the Westward beaches near the Ranger station, and shut off the engine. I sat silently contemplating the sensations for a moment before exiting the car and hoisting my backpack of art and writing supplies to my shoulder.

I spied a weathered wooden picnic table perched somewhat precariously on the bank of the beach, providing a perfect panorama of the calm, undulating lake before me. I made my way towards the table and settled onto the warped bench.

The deep palette of blues from the late waters enhanced the creamy, chalky tones of the piles of stone that serve as breakwaters all along this side of the peninsula.

I chucked as an old joke ran through my head. “How do you know God is a Penn State fan?” “Why else would the sky be blue and white?”

As I sat probing the horizon, listening to the gentle lapping of the water against the beach, my calm deepened. I watched a plane as it banked over the water, growing from a tiny speck to loom large over my head as it ascended into the spotless sky on its journey to some unnamed destination. The rumble of the engines was the only man-made sound in my otherwise natural surroundings.

As the plane faded away, the song of the cicadas intensified, almost as if they had seen the plane as an intruder, threatening their territory. Their warning buzzes rose and fell for some moments, telegraphing a territorial message for all to hear.

Occasionally, a vehicle passed slowly on the park road that fronts the beach, but they vanished without disrupting the overall mood of the moment.

New sounds began to emerge from the peninsula: chirping crickets, singing out their song of hope to delay the frost; bird songs – I couldn’t tell from what species – trilled out from trembling tree branches. I heard the rattle and buzz of a beetle as it worked its way down the beach. And a vivid yellow moth approached, attracted by the purple cap on my water bottle. It alit on top of the container, pausing for a moment, almost as if to give me an opportunity to marvel at its beauty and grace.

My art supplies lay strewn about the tabletop, just waiting patiently for me to take them up and transcribe a fraction of the peninsula’s perfection to my pad. I sighed, wanting desperately to dive into drawing, yet so content to bask in the beauty of the moment that I could not open my sketchbook.

A gentle breeze kicked up, just as the rays of the sun were overheating my exposed skin. It was as if Mother Nature noticed that her rays were just a bit too harsh and turned on a fan to cool it down. Between the warmth of the sun and the deliciously cool stirrings of the air, I had no desire to move or act. I simply had to drink it all in.

As I surveyed the beach, my artist’s eye was drawn to several scenes, wondering if I could capture them on paper: the breakwater, rising out of the water in a stately manner, framed by the gentle trunk of a tree on the beach. A small sand dune, dotted with sea grass and twigs. The horizon, with its gentle dividing line that radiated pink and had a streak of puffy white clouds hovering directly overhead. So many options, and yet my sketchbook remained blank.

I closed my eyes and just listened for a moment, hoping to find inspiration. The warmth of the moment settled over me like a cloak, pushing out months of uncertainty and gloom.

Like my recent trip to Lily Dale, this morning’s venture to Presque Isle reaffirmed my need to pay attention to my inner self.

I started as a large spider descended upon me, falling from the tree branch above. This was the third spider – in gradually ascending size! – that had found me in the short time I had been sitting there. I gave a small shout and then laughed as I flicked it away. “Ok, already, Ellen. I know you’re thinking about me! You can stop sending me spiders!” I said to the air.

My friend Ellen and I have a very strong relationship that often manifests itself in unusual ways. Her totem is the spider, and when she is thinking deeply about me and can’t talk to me, I often see real spiders instead. Though I do not particularly care for spiders, I have learned to accept them as messengers from Ellen, and send them on their way.

As it approached lunchtime, more intrusions made their way into my idyll. More frequent, louder traffic traveled the macadam, and I saw more people ambling along the shoreline.

Not yet ready to be dragged back into the everyday world, I opened my sketchbook to see what would emerge.