It’s vacation time on Lake Michigan. Most every summer for 37 years I’ve come here, courtesy of the in-laws wisdom in building a “cottage” on the Michigan shores and generosity in hosting the extended family. A beach on the big lake protected by the Nature Conservatory a stone’s throw away, a more intimate back lake (warmer for swimming) a short walk through the woods in the other direction. The folks who have peopled this house span five generations, some long gone, some recently gone and some, like granddaughter Zadie, enjoying her first time here.
I have my vacation routine here, some of which includes a self-styled triathlon. Walk up the big sand dune called the Sugar Bowl in the early morning before the sand gets too hot, bike the ten miles around Upper Herring Lake, swim a thousand strokes (yes, I count them) in Lower Herring. Then the balance of fun—canoing, Cherry Bowl Drive-In Theater, board games at night, —and necessity—e-mail at the Frankfort Library, shopping, cooking. It’s a welcome break to get off of the wheel of accomplishment.
But even leisure can feel like lists to tick off. Just because you stop your usual work and it’s summer doesn’t mean it’s Summer. One is just a season and a pretty backdrop, the other is a transformation. This morning, I started the walk to the Sugarbowl and decided to look for Petoskey stones. This was a ritual in the early days here, long since abandoned and partly because of their diminishing presence on the beach. But finding the stones wasn’t important. It was the way the simple act of looking down at stones short-circuited the dialogue in my head and brought me forth into the world. Ah! Here I am! It’s not San Francisco, it’s not North Carolina, it’s not the airport. It’s here on this beach in this moment. A little frog jumps into the lake. Splash! A large snake slithers through the grass, crossing my path (first one I’ve seen in all these decades). The see the sand imprinted with criss-crossed bird tracks, the shadows of the slender dune grass, the solitary butterfly flitting amongst them. Summer starts leaking through my thick, work-obsessed, protected skin and edges me closer to Zadie’s effortless sense of wonder.
The philosopher Pascal once said something to the effect of “The misery of mankind stems from his inability to sit in a room alone.” I’ve thought of that quote many times in Zen retreats as I learned to calm the jumping monkey mind and be content to just sit. But I think part of that misery comes from sitting in a room. Just an open screen door away is a world full of fragrant breezes, singing birds, crawling bugs and cool inviting waters— get out of the house and partake! Even here in summer paradise, we all can get stuck in our indoor routines and forget to go out and join the world.
Baba Ram Dass’s book “Be Here Now” may seem like an eye-rolling novelty from those crazy hippy times, but the message still holds— one moment of full presence is more difficult than the 12 Labors of Hercules. And modern life conspires against it. Our nervous systems are ramped up to hyperspeed and getting faster every day. The instant and constant documenting of each moment via cell phone camera robs us of a certain quality of attention. Not to mention the addictive texting and talking instead of looking and listening. Very little encourages us to breathe and savor, to be still and silent, to observe the slow crawl of a snail or descent of the sun over the water.
Needless to say, I didn’t find a single Petoskey stone, but stumbled onto something much more valuable— that remembrance of what it means to be. Here. Now.