There’s a scene in Finding Nemo that I harkened back to this week. Nemo and the fish in the aquarium in P. Sherman’s office are anxiously waiting for Darla to arrive, knowing that when she does it is game over for Nemo. When Darla comes she rushes to the tank and begins tapping on the glass, trying to get the attention of the starfish clinging there. Peach, the starfish, loses her grip a tentacle at a time repeating over and over, “Find a happy place, find a happy place.”
Whenever I am holding on by the barest of threads I think of Peach.
Most of the time I’m focused on mental grounding. I take a deep breath and consider the many things in my life that make me happy: my family, my friendships and my contributions. I recall a handful of my best memories, the ones that I have watched so many times that research would say they aren’t even real anymore, just a revisionist glimpse of history. Sitting in the middle of the crazy I find a way to reboot my brain to thankfulness.
But sometimes, a couple of times a year, I actually go to a happy place. One of the places that are unique in their quiet and lack of expectations. A place where showering is optional, where I can sit without interruption for minutes or hours or a day. Where waking up in the morning is based on the rising of the sun or the lapping of water on the side of the boat, not on an alarm.
I love those places. And as I sit in one of them now, sipping a beverage and reflecting, I find myself wondering if being middle-aged has helped me find it. Is a happy place an idea reserved for people of a certain age? Or, was I just slow to grasp it?
I don’t recall feeling the need for this as a child. In fact I remember that sitting still in one place (especially a familiar place) with no expectations or plans was boring. Really, really boring. That point of view is validated by my own children who have perfected the refrain, “We’re doing that again?” Complete with the nasally whine any parent would recognize.
As a young adult, I sought adventure. I wanted to see the world and understand my place in it. I couldn’t catalog new experiences fast enough, throwing myself into whatever activities I could. Pack up the car, jump on a plane, take any work travel assignment. When I couldn’t study abroad in my MBA program, or when I saw someone else do something cool that I couldn’t do, I felt regret and envy. Like I was missing out on something, some wonderful experience that I would never get to have.
I can’t know yet how I will feel later in life, as I look back on more and look forward to less. I see people who are resigned to aging and sit quietly waiting for the end, unable to enjoy the happiness a life well-lived has earned them. I see people frantic to squeeze in one more adventure, whether or not their physical bodies are able. I see people who isolate themselves and people who surround themselves. I see fewer people in their happy place than one would expect, given all of us are desperately trying to get there.
And maybe that is why I enjoy the quiet of my happy place. Maybe it is because I am aware, in this moment, of the gift I have. I can just sit here on a porch swing in the early morning sun, listening to the sprinkler water my mother-in-laws beautiful garden. I can hear a power saw and a hammer in the distance, two separate projects underway that are not mine. I can watch as a squirrel, cheeky fellow, pops right up on the fence and looks at me, demanding that I interrupt my writing and take his picture.
So, I did.
I’m glad that I’ve found my happy places — this swing, the back of my sailboat and my deck. I appreciate them for what they are: an oasis of energy and recharge in a world of crazy expectations and an always on life. It took me years to understand the need and to name them; it took me even longer to claim their value.
Now that I have, I hope that I don’t forget.