Getting back to Nature, Life, Love, and Adventure from this Point in Space
“Come on,” he said, grabbing my hand, “we’re almost there.”
Pulling me gently alongside him, my boyfriend of a few months brought us out of the woody brush, the deep green forest of fir and pine, into the gentle glow of a June sun setting on a wheat field grown knee-high, in view of water rushing over smooth rocks the size of house cats, just below the whir of the highway underpass. “Wow.” The sound escaped my lips as I watched the sky, a water colour blur of a thousand warm shades, cast gold onto the stretch of space before us, as if racing the shadows creeping out of the forest behind.
I followed him through the grasses, softer than I expected, dryer and less marsh-like. We climbed the rocks uphill, until we found ourselves directly beneath the thick cement of the highway, the roar of engines so deafeningly loud that it was as though there was no noise at all, the motorway sounds fading into the background in time with the crickets and june bugs crooning back and forth like foreigners trying to give one another directions in a language neither could speak. “I found this place when I was maybe ten.” He pointed below to the source of the stream, a tunnel marked with faded red and blue spray paint scribblings, stretching further than the light could. “I used to go down to the bottom and skip rocks.” I kept my gaze fixed on the corner of the cave-like opening, picturing a smaller, blonder version of the boy sitting next to me tossing rocks into this makeshift river, clapping when a stone would skip twice, three times, four times, before plunging into the water for good. “With anyone else?” I asked. He shook his head. “No, just me. This was my thinking space; my happy place.”
A place of quiet; a place that we believe belongs to us alone. A place that seems to be untouched by time, by torment, by treachery or travail or tryst. A place we retreat to, or return to. Many of us press comfort into these corporal places, looking for literal escape when the world becomes so apparently enormous that we must take time away from it to remind us that we as individuals are the atoms of the social world, as was surmised by Jeremy Bentham. Though humans are social creatures in need of support and affection, there is considerable value in taking time to be not lonely, but alone. In the same way that colours change when they are placed next to other colours, we see our reflections most clearly without anyone standing next to us. Isolation, when chosen freely, brings clarity and peace to a chaotic mind.
And yet, there is a certain joy in sharing the wonders we have discovered with others, when they see the same value in it that we always have. My appreciative reaction for the calm blur of colour and sound found in my boyfriend’s underpass oasis helps him to validate his nurtured love for the space. If it is human to need support and affection, it is doubly human to crave praise and validation. There is warm pleasure in knowing a secret, but there is a special joy in sharing a secret with a friend in the most clandestine of ways.
Months later, on a particularly rough and moody day, the heavy grey clouds hung low in the air in a haze of pathetic fallacy as my boyfriend and I spoke on the phone. I could hear him clenching and unclenching his jaw as he spit words into the receiver, a tightness in his chest brought on by stress over work and family and a handful of other worries. I slipped a suggestion in between his complaining, proposing he visit the stream by the white wheat field to clear his head, to which he replied, “It’s too far away to make the trip.” I let him move the conversation elsewhere, but his words rang like a coin dropped into a tin can in my ears. What good is a happy place that we cannot reach at the times we need it most?
There are, of course, times when our happy places can no longer be of use to us. We find that we no longer fit comfortably in the spaces we once did. Perhaps we have strayed too far from the people we were, and now our shoes do not sit in the footholds they used to, our legs too long to sink into crawlspaces the same way they did when we were four feet small. Perhaps we come back and the place is not as we remembered it; darker, less hidden, less mysterious or magical. Or perhaps our tree-tops and caverns simply are not big enough to swallow our problems whole anymore. We outgrow our safe spaces the same way we outgrow favourite sweaters; suddenly, as if they were thrown in the dryer for a little too long this time around.
Others still make homes and happy places in the hollows of the people they cherish most, believing that in this age of global connectivity, we no longer have to worry about distance keeping us from those who only need to be breathing softly on the other end of a telephone line to bring us back to ourselves. The running of a thumb along the side of our hand, the slow tangling of their leg wrapping its way around ours, their fingers tucking the loose strands of hair behind our ears; these small human gestures calm us, remind us of who we are. As Adam Smith said, nothing comforts a person like the sympathy of another person. Yet there is nothing quite as fallible as humanity, and so it is terribly dangerous to invest so much of ourselves into another person. One of few certainties in life is death, or endings, or leaving. A human happy place is guaranteed to be there one day and be gone the next.
This, of course, does nothing to stop us from doing so. A seventeen year old boy believes he is in love and tattoos his girlfriend’s name on his skin in permanent ink, swearing he felt no pain because he loves her too much for her to ever hurt him. My grandmother spent weeks on an overcrowded boat crossing the Atlantic ocean to follow her soulmate to Canada, having nothing to go on but a feeling that this was the only path her life could take. We spill and sob and bleed for these people. And we believe that, in return, they comfort and complement and, sometimes, complete us.
A lazy half day spent lounging on my living room couch prompted another casual discussion about happy places, my boyfriend rolling over onto his stomach, looking up at me and asking, “So where’s yours?” After chewing on a hangnail in thought, I nodded my head towards the door, wrangling his sneakers and mine and leading him to the rolling hilltop that sits above my childhood playground, with dips just deep enough to keep two tangled pairs of legs from view of the toddlers reaching desperately for the big kid monkey bars in the sand pits below. “It’s nice,” he acknowledged, taking in the glowing cross of the Catholic church down the street that neither of us belonged to, the trained doves circling overheard belonging to the man who lived alone on the corner. “What makes this your happy place?”
My words felt like melted mercury slipping and sliding in my mouth as I fumbled for an explanation. The most honest thought that came to me was how sweet the idea of us sitting up there to watch the sun set in summer evenings felt. But of course, that was less about the place, and more about the people. My happy place was centered around us. Moreover, it was centered around me.
Having let go of all physical ties, of all other people, we are naturally left with ourselves. And doesn’t it seem the most difficult thing in the world to try and escape the hardships within us by delving deeper into ourselves; but there is no other happy place that grows with us so evenly, that follows our path so closely, that will only leave us when it is our time to leave. There is no person that knows us as completely, that knows to protect us from what hurts us and show us how to grow and move on when we are ready as well as we do. As much as we can learn from others, we can learn from ourselves. Maybe more so.
A place is a point in space, a something. And aren’t we something, we the people roaming this earth in search of a home simply because we know the word, and so we know the feeling. We, my boyfriend and I, determined to forget about any day that isn’t today, any time that isn’t right this second, for fear of losing each other should we look any further. It is so easy to forget that our homes and happy places are inside us all along. And if we can find ourselves this way while holding another’s hand, or while skipping stones in a foot of water, in sunset light or in the dark, then perhaps we will be all the better for it. We must allow ourselves to retreat from this reality for a little while. We will come back when we are ready. When we lose ourselves, it is up to us to ensure we find a way back; not to the person we were, but the person we are.
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