Where is Paradise? Is it in a beautiful landscape or exquisite cathedral or lovingly decorated home? Why do we trek to the Himalayas or search for a pristine beach in Fiji or take the trouble to find a medieval Italian town in the hills of Tuscany, preferring all of the above to a few days hanging out in the New York subways or roaming the aisles of Walmart? Why do we have this thirst to seek out beautiful places? Simply because where we are matters.
But likewise who is standing at our side while enjoying the wonder before us matters. Knowing how humans affect humans, we’re nervous meeting the group and guides who we’ll spend four days with on the inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Or we carefully choose our own traveling companion knowing that no matter how beautiful a sight we might witness, we can’t wholly enjoy it if the person next to us has been driving us crazy every day with his or her annoying habits, inane conversation or nonstop complaints about the heat, the cold, the food, the hotels, what have you.
And politics matter a great deal. I think of this often, riding my bike through Salzburg with its distant mountaints, roiling river, open fields, intimate woods, exquisitely cared for and manicured parks. Beauty around each turn in the road. And yet how beautiful was it in the grips of the Nazi regime?
All these things matter. But even when everything is lined up perfectly— a beautiful place with lovely people and a life-affirming political system and culture, Paradise’s address is ultimately ME, HERE, NOW. As the sages uniformly agree, no paradise except that which is inside of us.
I’ve been five days now in the summer paradise of Lake Michigan, but it was only yesterday that I finally felt wholly here. Maybe it was the last poof of jet lag, maybe the usual 3 or 4 day acclimation period, maybe it was a touch of sheer grace, but I woke up yesterday feeling a different quality to time, a different sense of self, a different sense of body with a thinner, more porous skin. So often self feels like a rigid wall that sets me apart, but between the temperature, the exercise, the release from lists, I could flow more easily into whatever surrounded me. Instead of looking out at the lake as a mere postcard backdrop to whatever drama I was living, I started to melt into the view, drawn into its greater life.
When I swam the back lake, I dutifully counted my strokes as I do in my “numbers nerd” way to quantify my exercise, but there was another quality present as well. Each stroke felt like a warm embrace from the waters that welcomed me, a return to the comfort of some watery womb that felt wholly (and holy) like home. Next to the numbers was another voice rhythmically chanting, “Happy. Happy. Happy.”
The afternoon included a trip to town to check e-mail and a trip back wondering why I bothered. Nothing but details to attend to for the upcoming courses and things that I suppose must be done, but must they really right now? I left it aside for a pre-birthday dinner out at a restaurant with a stunning view, the pleasure of wholly tasting the refreshing local IPA and the warm ciabatta bread and the Greek salad and chicken with pasta. Perfect.
We got back just in time for the nightly sunset over Lake Michigan. The wind had come up, the lake was rolling with waves, the air a perfect temperature. “Night swim!” I shouted and we ran down to the beach and jumped in the water. The lake was warmer than it has been in 38 years, the sun setting in the West, the moon rising to the South and no reason to get out of the water.
And so we stayed and then I stayed longer yet, feeling the moonlight on water like so much magic fairy dust sparkling on the surface. I started singing “Blue Hawaii” and felt all the protective layers fall away, all the years fall away, all the bitterness of these past few months shatter and disperse like the moonlight on the water. My childhood vision of paradise from my Dennis the Menace Visits Hawaii comic book was back, complete with a sung soundtrack and that delicious feeling of no longer being a stranger in paradise, but a native citizen.
Next time you feel expelled from your Garden of Eden, may I suggest a night swim in Lake Michigan?