The Secret to Happiness

The small, yellow cabin on the shore of Lake Superior was built by our friend’s father in the 1950s. It faces west, toward the vast lake and a sandy beach that stretches for miles in either direction. To the north, a rocky shoreline rises and curves, creating a long sweeping bay. A monastery is perched on the cliff, hidden entirely by thick tree cover, except for the large metal cross on the peak which occasionally catches afternoon sunlight. The monks who live there have a small store where they sell baked goods and homemade jam from raspberries and thimbleberries they grow on their property. To the south there is only beach, with a small, sandy point miles away, reaching out into the lake, creating the other arm of the bay. Past that, I don’t know…

When my husband and I arrived in the Keweenaw Peninsula I didn’t know how that beach was going to change me. I didn’t know that over the course of five days I would learn the secret to happiness.

The beach is over a hundred feet of soft sand from the edge of the tree line to the water, and it’s the kind of sand that sings when you walk on it–but only the dry sand, the saturated sand near the shore is silent. The sound of the lake is a melodic roar, a series of continuous notes creating a resonance that penetrates everything. It pulls, reaches out and eases tensions with its song. Being near it, I felt the relaxation similar to those few moments before I fall sleep when my body lets go of tension and sinks into comfort. I was ready to sink into that quiet serenity for days.

The first day was a typical June day in the Upper Peninsula, with temperatures wavering around seventy degrees, humidity so low that bright, blue sky could be seen between the branches of the pine trees, and a cool breeze cruising in from Lake Superior. As evening approached, we built a fire in the cabin’s wood-stove to combat the chill. Through the trunks of the tall red and white pines, we watched the sun set over the lake. I sat in a rocking chair by the fire and gazed out the front picture window at the oncoming night, thinking of the days when this was normal life, before the invasion of noise and too much information into every nook and cranny of our existence. The quiet, the dark, the disconnect was a relief. After my husband fell asleep, I spent many more hours sitting, thinking nothing, alone in the dark, with only the amber glow of fire for light. Ore boats passed silently by in the distance, gliding along the horizon.

The second day we walked around the camp searching for the fabled Pink Lady’s Slipper that we‘d heard recently bloomed. Lady’s Slippers are rare orchids which grow only in unique conditions. We found six in one sunken area in the woods, soft and mysterious, all connected by underground rhizomes. Then we found two by the beach, facing the lake as if they were gazing out across the water as I had been the night before. Later in the afternoon, we stumbled across another hiding near the wood shed. That night, inside the cabin, I read the book “The Legend of the Lady’s Slipper” which the owner of the cabin had thoughtfully left out. It tells the tale of an Native American girl who saves her village by traveling out in a terrible blizzard to a neighboring village for medicine. After sinking in the snow and losing her moccasins, she walks home barefoot, barely making it back, leaving bloody tracks in the snow. In the spring her footprints have become Lady’s Slippers.

The woman who owns the cabin has been an artist and art teacher for over 40 years. Her husband built the camp and they spent many summers here with their children. It is a place filled with love and creative energy, decorated with intriguing nature-inspired art: creatures made from driftwood and stones, animal tracks that have been plaster-cast and hung on the wall, jars of agates and other interesting rocks. Everything about the place inspired creativity. The ground around the cabin was a soft bed of pine needles and pine cones, with occasional strips and rings of birch bark. I found a scale of a red pine tree that resembled a child looking up with a curious expression, then found a piece that resembled the face of an old woman. I put the two together on a piece of birchbark with another piece of birchbark as flowing hair. It took a picture, then put them back outside calling it temporary art. I picked up rocks and driftwood on the beach, followed bird tracks in winding circles and studied the wind and water patterns in the sand.

My eyes were continuously drawn toward the water, and my feet led me back repeatedly to the shore. Every morning, every afternoon, every evening, called for walks on the beach.

The second night we wrapped ourselves in blankets and reclined in chairs on the beach.  A deer made a surprising appearance and even a few eagles. The slight, cool wind kept the mosquitos away as we watched the sunset. It took so long for the sky to grow dark! Dozens of shades of blue made their appearance, along with a few reds and pinks.

Then the fireflies appeared. First one, then ten, then hundreds, maybe thousands. All around us, down the beach and in the trees, magical lights flickered and bobbed.

Then came the stars. The Milky Way stretched from behind the lake over our heads into the trees. It was brighter than I had ever seen before! The Big Dipper spread across the sky in front of us, pouring its water directly into the lake. The fireflies made a spectacular showing, dancing all through the night. I couldn’t tell if the stars had come to Earth to dance with us or if the fireflies had made it all the way into the sky.

The third night we watched it grow dark again, except that night the air was thick and humid and the sky overcast. We walked the beach, hoping we could again watch the darkness overtake the day, but the bugs were too hungry. We ran for cover into the large screened porch filled with buckets of driftwood and decorated with colored globe lights on a string, fishing nets, a buoy that had washed up on shore, and a handmade brick on the table by the front door that had the impression of just one word in it.  Enjoy.

As I sat in the cedar swing, winded from running, smelling of campfire and putting Xs on my bug bites with my fingernail, I looked toward the lake and had a deep epiphany. The moment I thought it, contentment swelled and filled me…or possibly it emptied me…either way, I knew. That’s what it’s all about.

It’s the secret to life.

It’s the meaning of life.

Enjoy.

That’s the plan for us–we are here to enjoy.

It’s so easy! Enjoy!

That was exactly what we’d been doing all weekend. It was why we were able to walk the beach, again and again, without care. It was how we could just stare at the fire for hours or spend an afternoon seeking rare flowers in the forest. We were enjoying. Only that. It was something we desperately needed and were not allowing ourselves to do enough in our daily lives.

It’s incredible how hard it is to enjoy the wonderful things in the world and enjoy our precious lives. We always seem to be working toward some goal, continuously planning or achieving, concerned about our image, our reputation. We very rarely just ‘enjoy.’ The concept was so foreign to me, that I knew when I went back to my life I would actually have to work hard to do it. I laughed at the irony  to cover up the fact that I was a little ashamed. 

My husband looked at me quizzically, and I told him I just discovered the secret to happiness, picking up the brick and showing him. Before either of us had a chance to say a word, an icy breeze blew through the porch and the first lightning flashed over the lake. A moment later lightning flashed again and we began to hear thunder. A storm was coming. A warm front and a cold front were battling above the lake. First we would feel the warm front enveloping us like a hot, humid breath, then a cold blast of arctic air would chill the moisture on our skin. The winds fought for over an hour and we had begun to give up on the storm ever reaching us when we heard the deafening roar of billions of raindrops pounding the sand and water. It was so loud, so deep, rolling up the beach from the south, that I honestly became afraid. The wind picked up and the trees bent and swayed, then it was upon us.

The power went out immediately, which didn’t bother us since we only had the string of colored globes on. I lit a few candles and we sat in the dark, listening to the storm. After a while I realized I needed to feel the rain, so I stepped outside, barefoot, under the pine trees, and closed my eyes, turning my face upwards to feel the cold, refreshing rain. I opened my mouth, wanting the storm to become a part of me, catching raindrops on my tongue. Some of them were pine flavored.

Within moments I was drenched, but it was the most cleansing and revitalizing shower I have ever taken. 

After five days I was renewed. Like the lake, the things that were deep within me were swept from the bottom and pulled to the shore, to be examined like driftwood or tumbled stones. “Ah, here we see evidence of a shipwreck…and over here, a red stone tumbled and beaten upon the rocks until the edges are smooth and worn…and over here a jawbone of a fish…and there, a feather.” At times there was simply water and sand.

The final day we did the same things, walked the beach, picked up driftwood, sat in front of a fire. We enjoyed the silence. I had been afraid of silence, afraid to be alone with my own thoughts, afraid of what demons may arise. But during those beach days no demons arose, no fears, no regrets, only clarity. I realized the secret to happiness–that I have much to be thankful for, and so much that is worthy of enjoyment in my life. All I needed to do was take the time to enjoy it.

Listening when the Lake Sings

What is the song of a lake? What is lake music?

Most noticeable, of course, is the waves. Combine their rhythm with the distant sound of power boat motors, all humming different pitches, like bagpipes. Then add in seagulls, squawking intermittently, and laughter from shady picnic tables where families have gathered to barbecue. Follow it up with the wind shaking and rustling the beach grass and the soft sound of sand moving beneath bare feet. Finally there are the foghorns, those melancholy harbingers of cool lake mist.

Then we know it’s time to go home.

In the winter it is a different song. There are no barbecues or boats, no bare feet walking across the sandy shore, no grasses waving, adding percussion. It is quieter. It is a hibernation song.

Yet, still the lake sings.

In early winter, when night comes, the air cools and a thin layer of ice forms on the surface of the lake. One  morning as I walked along a path near the harbor I heard a tinkling sound, like an uncountable number of small bells ringing. It took me a moment to notice it; it was so soft, so delicate. That thin layer of ice which had formed during the night was being broken up by the gentle wave action of the lake. The symphony I heard was millions of thin slivers of ice moving in rhythm with the waves.

I was being serenaded by the lake, and the ice was dancing to its own high-pitched, ethereal song of nature as it performed.

The ice reflected the rising sun, dazzling me with sparkling lights. The ore dock reflected the chorus back to me. It was a tune filled with such sweetness, such longing, that I felt the lake sensed there was only a short amount of time for it to sing.

And so it did.

Listening to the lake music I realized that I only have a brief window of opportunity to sing as well. And I decided that I would.

But that was not the lesson I took away from this experience…

I’ve thought of that lake song many times since. How is it that one moment can stay with us? One moment where nothing really exciting happened–except we were somewhere and something made us feel a certain way. I didn’t plan for the lake to influence me that day with its music; I was just out walking and enjoying the early morning sunshine. But it did influence me–because I was observant enough to notice the moment.

So often we pass by things that could help us, lost in thought, remembering what we need to do, planning how we’ll do it, or chastising ourselves for what we’ve forgotten. We’re focused on giving ourselves a hard time for not doing something every second of the day and not accomplishing more.

We’re preoccupied with those who’ve hurt us.

What are we missing? Life could be singing for us and we wouldn’t even hear it. Life could be coaxing us to sing our songs and we wouldn’t even know it.

I’m grateful I was an attentive audience for that lake song, because even though those notes are still out there somewhere, ringing forever outward into the vast expanse of space, they are also living on in my memory. For all I know I was the only person to hear the lake sing that morning. I’m sure by the afternoon the thin layer of ice had melted.

I wasn’t there to see it go. I didn’t want to tarnish the memory by hearing the music fade away. I remember it at the height of its beauty, with the sun shining down on a million glittering shards of ice, and a million watery voices singing the morning into being.

The Traveler

In my hand, I hold a traveler.

It is a traveler who has not been exposed to sunlight in thousands of years, who has come a great distance along the bottom of a cold, cold lake. It is a traveler who has been continuously dragged and pushed and beaten upon by waves, sand and stones, finally making its way to the light, rolling upon the shore and showing its color to the world, its uniqueness, its beauty.

All along Lake Superior, as waves caress the beaches, tumbled stones are swept and hurled out of the water and onto shore:

The basalt, perfectly shaped into blue ovals, so zen, so serene, lying in the sand as if they have nowhere else better to be, as if they have arrived at their destination and are now on a long vacation.

The colorful agates, swirling of reds and oranges and yellows, well hidden in plain sight, rare, created in the formation of the land. They are so hard that only diamonds will cut them.

The Kona Dolomite, with its soft pinks and reds, nearly fading into the colors of the sand beneath them.

The milky white quartz, those perfect ovals with hidden shadows and streaks of gray smoke, containing unknown treasures within.

And the granite, easily overlooked, grey flecked, impenetrable, rounded like eggs, fitting perfectly in my palm.

Some have deep cracks. Some are irregular, rolling randomly, zig-zagging across the sand. Some are perfectly round. Some have holes right through them. All of them are unique, and together they create something even more beautiful than the individuals alone.

The stones on the shore have been scraped and shaped by other stones, their corners rounded and their edges softened through the long passage of time. They have been smoothed by the gentle caress of waves and polished by sand over countless years. Their rough edges are gone and they roll easily upon the beach.

Some people are like that. They are easy to spot; they maneuver effortlessly through every situation, even when things don’t go the way they had planned. They roll with it. They have softness in their face, especially around the eyes. They shine with unique and beautiful color. Their mouths curl up a little in a sly smile, as if they know a secret — a secret which even if they confided it to the rest of the world, we wouldn’t understand. When we’re around them, we’re calmer, more content. Their smoothness rubs off on the rest of us, almost as if they were polishing us, smoothing our rough edges, pulling us farther upshore and away from the tumultous waves.

There are some people who crack and chip. They are forceful, too large, too hard, or too strong. They leave a path of destruction in their wake that will take time to wear away. Yet sometimes they can be helpful, crafting the shape of other stones in a way the gentle polish cannot. They can be exactly what was needed.

What kind of a stone am I? Cool colored or warm? Small or large? Am I rounded, flat, oval or irregular? Am I uniform? Am I cracked? Do I have a hole that goes straight through me? Do I have a secret shadow within?

How I long to be smooth! How hard I work at it. How long will it take me to become that way? How many trials, tribulations, storms and tumbles? Rather than chipping or cracking when hitting another stone, I want to be more like those rounded stones at the lake, with each scrape, with each rub, I become smoother, more well-rounded, and help the other stones to do the same. I want to roll easier with the waves. I want to be smooth enough to be kept as a good luck charm in someone’s pocket, or on their desk as a reminder.

But I lose my temper, lash out, smash others, causing chips and cracks which leave marks on them, and on myself as well. I always regret it.

I also allow others to chip away at me, breaking off pieces that are well-worn, having to start over with fresh edges to soften.

Yet I keep on trying. I have to. A single stone on the beach seems so lonely. The chance meetings with other stones craft what it becomes. And so it is with us.

I rub the traveler in my hand, then put it in my pocket. It will not be a worry stone, but a reminder to keep going, to keep trying, to keep learning from nature and that perhaps one day, I, too, will be able to just roll with it.