PLACES OF RETURN

Years later, a friend relates an incident of telling his wife his intention of spending the day in a favorite place in the mountains, countered by her question of what makes him return there. Even though he’s a photographer, he replies by acknowledging that many of his writer friends have answered the question simply, saying it’s the surprises that draw them back.

Somehow, as one of his writer friends, I find the word “surprise” in this context jarring. For surprises, one would be better served by trips to new locations, rather than returning to an old favorite. Novelty, rather than familiarity. Upheaval or intoxication, rather than purity or sobriety. Even so, as I consider my own places of return, her question becomes increasingly kaleidoscopic.

First, there’s the very demand of naming a favorite place. In this context, he invokes wilderness, where return is a kind of pilgrimage. Here, return may be once or twice a year, if that frequent. I could counter that with an evening stroll, as I used to do along the canal bank at the back of the desert orchard, or sitting at the café downtown in the small New England city where I now dwell — activities that could take place daily. We could add to that an opera house or concert hall, museum gallery, or even places of dedicated labor: a studio, cabinetry shop, garden, kitchen, or laboratory. Even, though rarely for me, shopping destinations: a boutique or farmers’ market, perchance. A fair or festival.

So the question soon turns to a matter of one’s intention. What is one attempting to escape or encounter? What is one leaving behind and what does one face instead?

For him, to speak of mountains means foremost the Cascade Range of Washington state, with many places we once shared. For most of us, entering wilderness means leaving a crowd of people behind, along with the human congestion of traffic and buildings; for me, it’s often meant turning away from the office or endless tasks at home. In its place are rocks and water, wild animals, trees or desert plants and, if we’re attentive, a sharpened sense of ourselves on this planet. This, of course, assumes we’re entering wilderness in pilgrim mode, and not as an invading speeder on an ATM or motorcycle.

In this regard, a favorite place demands a degree of mental or physical preparation. One gets in shape to set out on the trail; one learns the music and story of the opera beforehand, hoping for an ideal cast to manifest its potential; one studies the history of art or learns to identify weeds from the seedlings just planted. One ponders maps or charts. Makes calculations. Checks the weather forecast. The surprises, then, emerge within patterns of expectation. A certain phrase emerges in a Beethoven symphony; it’s been there all along, but this is the first performance to free it, at least for my ears. One fresh tomato tastes different from the variety next to it. The world is rich and varied, indeed. In the wild, one strawberry tastes glorious, while one picked right beside it is bland. Who can predict? We go, open to discovery.

Go far enough into these places, and you’re finally alone. Even at the opera or symphony, the experience is personal and engrossing. Going far enough also means a journey in time — five or ten minutes are insufficient; a stretch of boredom or inattention may be essential to experience what lies ahead. One crosses rough terrain or mud or mundane patches before the interest begins. And then, somewhere in the process, you’re released. A epiphany occurs, or you finally come face to face with yourself. Either way, it’s in this spot. In Biblical days, a stone would be erected to mark the occasion — and this, historically, is an origin of worship.

The table at the café presents its own variation on this theme — a time for observing other humans or delving into a range of pleasurable reading momentarily free of household or workplace distractions or duties. Telling of her days at a Quaker boarding school and mentioning its Collection Room, a young  Friend was interrupted. “Collection? Like taking up an offering?” Or, for that matter, a room filled with exhibit cases? “No, a place to collect yourself. From all of the daily clutter.”

The wife’s question also asks, indirectly, just what makes a favorite place. To be a favorite, of course, means someplace we’ve already been, and thus a destination for return. (To have an imagined favorite place — say, my new wife’s perception of Tuscany, which she’s visited only in descriptions and photographs and dreaming — requires journeys in the imagination; the reality of going in person may actually demolish all that’s been cherished.) I finds himself repeating a phase, “the solace of favorite spaces,” which he soon realize turns on a title by Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces. That is, there is something comforting and healing within a favorite place. This, in turn, perceives this as a place of renewal. At this point, of course, definitions of favorite place diverge sharply. For some, it might be a plush recliner in front of a large plasma-screen plasma HDTV or a seat behind home plate at Fenway Park. This, of course, stands in sharp contrasts to our return to wilderness, a context in which the word “favorite” becomes inadequate. “Seductive” might be closer, or even “engaging,” though neither quite hits the mark, either. Perhaps “transformational” comes closest.

In this sense, my friend speaks of those intensely personal spaces where we have found ourselves in a state of heightened or intensified awareness. Such a place is open, then — cleared of daily debris so that we might observe more clearly something each of us holds precious, within ourselves as well as without. That is, as the old Quaker hymn relates, “It sounds an echo in my soul.” (Well, later research insists it wasn’t originally Quaker. Still!)

As I’ve been insisting, “surprise” doesn’t quite fit the experience. In returning, after all, we expect certain conditions to be familiar. The trailhead is here, the cataract is just ahead, timberline will come at the end of the switchbacks. What defines these places has to do more, I suspect, with depth or richness, a recognition that we are always finding something new here. This is a matter of discovery and perception, or growth and renewal. It’s a confession we don’t have it right, and we’ll never have it right, as far as seeing and hearing and understanding go. I’m missing something that’s right in front of me; I’m always missing something. In the repetition of such a place, however, I arrive at a greater comprehension and completeness within the complexity of existence as it’s defined in this particular context. Out of that may even come an embrace of responsibility. In this sense, the experience is more like a relationship with one’s spouse or family than a one-night stand. (And yet, the temptations to stray also linger. Do we stick to the path where we’re going, or venture off and possibly even get disoriented and lost?)

For a photographer, of course, the perception is essentially visual. Both of us are struck by the ways our work has becoming more streamlined and centered over the years; the more we return, the more we discern and appreciate. One telling detail expresses the unity of many others. You can finally say, “This is the essence” in one deceptively simple composition. Of course, we can listen or smell or taste along the way, as well.

As a mystic and writer, I find the act of revision is also a place of return, though I hesitate to call it a favorite place — too often, it’s simply agonizing or difficult. The surprises, though, come in the original drafting — the twists as the plot or logical argument develops, the words that appear in a character’s dialogue or a narrative description, the structure that evolves to meet the demands of the essay or poem. The compression of two sentences into two words, or a more accurate or more active word in place of another. In the revisions, though, coming back to this place in the pages, the deepening perception arises. As they say, a writer’s talent appears in the draft; his genius, in the revisions.

I would also argue that a favorite place of return unites what is timeless and fleeting. For me, at least, having a good trail available is essential to my mental health. The long walk to and from high school, when I was a teen, or through suburban developments later may have reconnected my body to motion — somewhat along the lines of a yoga session, for that matter — but the dimension of natural surroundings was largely missing: the timeless range of forest or running water or inquisitive wildlife, especially. (How lifeless so much of America becomes within its blocks of neatly trimmed rectangular lots and houses! Perhaps someone inside is watching television, as if trapped by programs confined to their own grid of scheduling and commercials.) In contrast, in the wild, having my feet on a pathway grounds me from the static buzz of the office or shopping mall or highway, roots me within the swirling flood of information of modern life, directs him back on my greater path, keeps me on course again. In my work, as an editor and a writer, I’ve lived so much in a heady world of ideas or thoughts I find it good to get back to substance; turning the compost bin as my part of assisting with my wife’s garden or trekking up the wooded hillside to the observation tower a few blocks from his house both serve this purpose. In contemporary society, it is so easy to be overwhelmed by so much — the noise, unending news, cell phone or pager. Without clearing your head (and your emotions), how do you know just where you stand in all this confusion? Your convictions and faith and underlying structure return.

Such a place has depth, even when it opens out into a vista revealing mountains a hundred miles away. This rock covered with moss or that fox that just flashed into the underbrush are a living contrast to cars parked along a city street or even the foreboding of some night roads in the country. There are clouds, wind, natural change. The creek overflows where last time it was rocky.

A place of return is also a place of expectation. We will encounter some of the conditions we desire, rather than searching futilely. We get there faster than trial-and-error would likely provide. Maybe we were even directed here the first time in confidence by a friend or colleague.

These places of return are also places of particular activity, and letting this happen is balanced by making it happen. In the wilderness, one cannot force a raven or an eagle appear, but one can make the effort of being in place to observe it. The asparagus heads appear when and where they want in the raised bed where  crowns were planted years earlier. Deep snow arrives, and one sets out on cross-country skis through the meadow.

To this list I now add Quaker meetinghouses. Though the act of worshiping in silent waiting is always remarkable, and often done in small “parlor” gatherings in family homes, the unadorned meetinghouses have become favorite places of return for me. What happens in the hour of worship is both timeless and fleeting, deeply personal and yet shared, and always unpredictable, even within the disciplined sitting. The act of stopping all motion — simply doing nothing — can become remarkably difficult. Close your eyes and look inward. Open them, and see how often the lines and proportions of the building are classically right; the clear windows admitting a portion of the surrounding environment. (I’ve come to savor the changing seasons in the leaves and branches outside, joking that my circle has the prettiest stained glass windows in town.) Gaze around the room at the unmasked faces. Here we are, in the stilled moment. Sometimes gathered around a small wood-stove fire. Sometimes listening to squirming children. Sometimes followed by a stroll through the neighboring burial ground, with its own reminders of nature and renewal.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.

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