Eleven summers ago, I sat at a picnic table at the Lower Harbor and experienced Zen for the first time in my life. I was seventeen years old and unaccompanied at the Harbor. I spent an hour there, midday, late July, noting my feelings and the world around me on a sheet of loose-leaf paper. The sheet of paper has helped me to remember the concrete details of that day, but my conscious memory has held onto the remarkable feeling of serenity I experienced there, without needing words as a reminder.
A fat man passed by on a bicycle, looking over to smile at me. A group of young teens sat together under the shade of an old tree, chatting and laughing. A mom and dad swung their gleeful toddler daughter between them, hand in hand in hand. A middle-aged couple stopped mid walk to turn to one another, give one another an efficient peck on the lips, then continue on. Eventually, a few young men, college age, approached me timidly to ask if they could use my table for a game of beer pong.
Lake Superior, as it often does, occupied the Harbor like a poised lady, her ample presence extending for miles and miles before the naked eye. Some sailboats stayed moored to the dock, some crossed the water in the distance, and some paused, anchored somewhere along the horizon.
As a child, I spent two weeks each summer visiting extended family in Marquette, as an alternative to summer camp. My uncle, a charismatic Irishman, lived in town and was my proud host. He spoiled me with ice cream, beach visits, cable television, and by offering freedom and respite from my immediate family and life back home.
* * *
After that particular summer, my life got busy and I never made it back for the traditional two-week visit. Life, between then and now, had some big things in store for me. Later that same summer, I fell in love for the first time. I graduated from high school, went on to graduate from college, lived in Europe for two years, did a good amount of flailing in the sea of my own life for six raw years between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four, and at age twenty-five moved back to the Midwest, around which time I also thankfully spotted a lighthouse—a stabilizing worldview—amid the sea of my experiences and influences. Most recently, I have spent three years living in Minneapolis, a big girl in a big city with a big-girl job, finding my stride as an adult.
* * *
I returned to Marquette for a visit this summer, age twenty-eight. The flight from Minneapolis was inexpensive, I needed a break from work, and I wanted to see family. Perhaps more than anything, I craved a visit with Lady Superior.
Things are still a bit hectic with family, now just at an advanced stage in time and development. Weddings have happened; babies born; addictions kept like fickle lovers; mental and emotional illness descended like hungry vultures on vulnerable prey; death’s door opened and closed; hearts broken and left ragged edged; new things seen; dirtier jokes told; new friends made; new words to say.
Hearts kept beating all that time, too, including my own. All that time, the waves of Lake Superior kept lapping up against her shores, and a great reserve filled the Harbor, offering a stable resting place for boats and weary souls—just inside the break wall, just past the lighthouse.
This visit, I took an evening walk down to the Lower Harbor, alone again, and allowed the serenity of time and space to sweep through me once again. This time, though, the calm was not bumped into by accident but rather consciously conjured. Lines from a Wallace Stevens poem breezed through my mind, just as wind glides easily over the surface of placid water. The trees around are for you, / The whole of the wideness of the night is for you, / A self that touches all edges, / You become a self that fills the four corners of the night.
I found a park bench facing the water and sat down. A man passed by with his dog, both grinning. Seagulls flew over water and perched at the apex of the boathouse roof. A photographer captured his young female subject in twilight. A briskly walking woman chatted into her cellphone. The sailboats stood stately in their assigned spots.
The lighthouse lay far out at the end of the break wall, and I gazed for a moment at its consistent blinking light. I held the image steady in my mind’s eye. What I knew in that moment, clearer than ever before, even in the evening light, is that there is a safe harbor in the self, despite the rigors of time and experience, despite the ties of family and social obligation, and despite the sometimes-stormy seas one must cross to arrive at oneself.
I knew then and I know now that I will always be able to find my way home in the world and in myself, eyes tracked to the beaming light; and there is a spot just for me, safe at harbor, to rest for the night.