Middle age is when you’re sitting at home on a Saturday night and the telephone rings and you hope it isn’t for you.
Okay, I can really relate to that. Not that I’m not up for a good time with friends: dinner in the city, cocktails at a bar, a party. I am. But as the years go by, I find myself craving quiet time more and more. When I was younger, coming home I would check voice mail hoping for messages. Now, I breathe a sigh of relief when there are no messages.
This summer, I’ve discovered the joys of a staycation for one. In full disclosure, I have to say that living in a Massachusetts’s coastal town, this is pretty easy to do, and I get the fact that I am very lucky to live near the ocean. But still, I have discovered the joy of simplicity and of alone time and of reveling in what is in your own back yard.
If I had to offer one word as to what my summer has been about, I would have to say: Benches. When you think about it, so much of travel is about searching for the perfect setting. That little café in a fishing village in the South of France. That beach chair right under the perfect Palm tree in Sanibel. I realized that it’s really about finding that place to sit where you are not thinking about where you are going next, but where you are in this very moment. While going on a vacation and finding that perfect spot can be wonderful, in this time of economic instability, why not find that place where you live?
There is a lighthouse in my hometown, in a park called Chandler Hovey. Whenever friends or family come to visit, I always take them there. Craggy rocks along the Atlantic, the white sails drifting along ocean, the harbor where boats rock gently back and forth. “How am I not inhabiting this place?” I thought to myself when the itch to be somewhere new captured my attention the way a new mosquito bite demands to be focused upon. Why do I think I need there (wherever there is) when here is where I am? The yearning to go on vacation, to get away, has a lot to do with the desire to experience something new, to gain a different perspective, to relax and unwind. I figured that if I could find my own place right in my hometown, then every day could hold the possibility of both getting away, and traveling back to myself.
In the corner of Chandler Hovey is a bench that I have claimed as my “staycation” bench. With a soda, a bag of almonds and a book, I find an hour here and an hour there in my week where I am fully at peace. My bench is better that a 5 star hotel, an all-inclusive, a dream getaway vacation package. When I am sitting on this bench, there is nowhere I want to go, no there, just here.
There are other benches in town, of course. And other people claim them. One of my favorite walks in town is from my house to Fort Sewall, an historic landmark over looking the harbor. Round trip, it takes me about and hour and forty-five minutes. On top of the Fort is an outcrop of land over ocean with benches and there I see people claiming their space with a cup of coffee, a newspaper, a settling in. This is not my place to sit, but the walking part of my staycation. And I savor it as much as my sitting part.
One hot and sunny afternoon, my husband, Steve, and I were sitting on the deck reading and I needed shade. We have lived in our house for about nineteen years, but on this day, we discovered something new. The door to the deck has a short area that is covered, but we have never sat there; it’s just the space that we walk a few steps through to get to the deck. And this is what I mean by seeing things you’ve always seen in new ways and making them your own. He simply moved two deck chairs in this space and the space was transformed. It felt like a new view, a new way of sitting at home and seeing the neighborhood before us. Do you ever have that dream where you realize that you have a whole new room in your house that you never knew about? All this new space that you just discovered? In dream analysis, this is interpreted as a creative dream where you are discovering new aspects of yourself and your potential. Well, Steve and I felt like we discovered a whole new part of our house; one that used to serve merely as a spot to walk through to get somewhere else. But in keeping with what I have been discovering all summer long, each space holds the possibility of claiming you, of inviting you to see that what you long for, you already have; where you think you need to go, you already are.
I realized that this spot needed a bench. Here, we could sit sheltered from the sun, we could watch a rain storm with a cup of coffee and stay dry. A few weeks later we found the perfect bench on sale at Pier One. We set it in place.
A few days later we can home from a late dinner and claimed our bench. Steve put Neil Young on his Ipad and we sang along to Sugar Mountain and Cinnamon girl, and Old Man. We have been married for twenty-seven years, and the last time we sang Neil Young tunes together was on our honeymoon in Bermuda where we sat on the deck of our hotel room one evening with a bottle of wine. Our bench offered us the space to be in harmony with one another (even if off tune a bit musically) and to savor yet again, the beauty of a staycation and a bench.
The other day it rained. I ran outside to sit on my bench and thoroughly enjoyed staying dry and just sitting as the rain poured down and the sweet summer smell of the storm surrounded me. It was heaven, or nirvana; it was pure joy.
And this is something else I learned this summer. To truly inhabit a bench, to really be at peace in a spot close to home, you have to learn to live with joy even in the chaos of your daily life. Part of it, for me, has been about finding the balance between the worry that comes with the inevitable challenges of life, and the comfort that comes from knowing you are doing your very best in being in the trenches when life’s circumstances demand it, and allowing yourself to climb out of those trenches too, to soak up the light once again, to feed your soul. Only in this way, I believe, is it possible to know peace where you are, at anytime. While my bench(s) offers me a concrete place to sit and just be, I have realized that it is my internal process, the understanding that those precious moments don’t always come out of nowhere, but can be created when we realize that our lives are lived in the midst of problems that can’t always be solved, and conditions that can’t always be controlled. I can create those wonderful moments in choosing to be here and finding the peace where I am, instead of thinking if I just go there I will be happy.
And while I savor my alone time, I have also discovered that once I feel grounded in that space, I can share it. Just this past weekend, I invited Steve to my bench at Chandler Hovey. We sat together and took in the view, and we walked around the park together and sat in a new bench overlooking the harbor. When it was time to get up, Steve said, “What a perfect morning,” and I had to agree.