As each of my blog posts this week have been cottage-related, reflecting on my time with my family at a beautiful retreat in Quebec, I’ve decided to re-post an article I wrote three years ago following a few days at the same cottage. I can certainly still relate to the things I wrote. I continue to strive for this kind of living, despite how difficult it can be in the midst of “real” life…
Cottage Days and Living Deeply
Can a few days at a cottage give you a better perspective on life? I’m not sure what it is about the quiet, simple hours, immersed in nature, but it brings out the Thoreau in me…
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. — Henry David Thoreau, “Walden”
Thoreau was in a little cabin on the edge of Walden Pond in Massachusetts for two years, two months and two days. I was in a cozy cottage on the banks of Lac Joly in Quebec for about five days. He, quite literally, wrote the book on life in simplicity and nature. I barely rippled the surface of the depths of the kind of living he espoused. And yet because I find myself so willing to succumb to the environment on a cottage holiday like the one I just experienced, I find myself deeply effected by it all. I desperately want the contentment and peace I felt in those few days to stick to me all the year round. Upon return to “real life” I immediately began to feel those things slipping away. It was frustrating. Old habits return, discontentment creeps its way into my day, and I become very un-Walden like in a matter of hours in my so-called life in suburbia.
For five days I felt like I was really living. And I loved it. I find myself echoing Thoreau’s thoughts as I consider embarking on the normalcy of my day-to-day living: I do not want to live what is not life, living is so dear…
So I’m looking to the feelings of a few days at a cottage to guide me for the weeks and months ahead. Can a few days at a cottage give someone genuine and inspiring guidance for the rest of their days? I believe it can. Let me share with you some of the insights that I hope will embed themselves in my spirit and, perhaps, can help guide you, too.
There is no medicine as effective as fresh air
Thoreau wrote that the only “medicine he needs is a draught of morning air.” I couldn’t agree more. We live a climate-controlled life; an air-conditioned, central-heated, hermetically sealed life. Ironically, however, all that control over our climate keeps us merely in a pathetic stasis – like a lifetime in a plastic bubble. Getting out of the controlled place stimulates your senses to life. Humidity makes your skin bead up with sweat, wind blows and cools you, sun warms or heats you up, water soaks your pant legs as you wander through the dewy grass, a buzzing pest gives you a good jab, you feel each root and dip in the ground through the soles of your feet, rain lashes or refreshes, branches and leaves scratch or stroke your arms and face. Out of the bubble of control you discover a place that forces you to really live – in all its beautiful, painful, perspirational glory.
And it makes you feel great! Even if you are hot and tired and have been assaulted by bugs, something deep down in you, something primal, feels so incredibly great! Why? Because you’ve lived! You’ve breathed deeply of the healing air the world has to offer; you’ve released control over your climate and let yourself become just another part of the world. This is freeing and it is healing. No drug, no Cafe Latte, no Booster Juice, no pharmaceutical marvel can compare to the high of taking a big gulp of nature.
For me this means being deliberate about those trips to the natural spa, all year round; planning time to just be and let the created world do its work on me. I took every opportunity at the cottage for those five days to hike, jump in the water, go for a kayak ride, breath deep and look and listen and let it wash over me. And it felt great. Why not take every opportunity that presents itself in my non-cottage days to do the same? There is a healing place waiting outside the bubble.
The biggest happiness is found in the smallest things
I find myself so often overwhelmed by the complexity of life. Big, Busy, and Banal – that seems to sum up so much of what the culture around me reflects, celebrates and pushes on me. But I find so little happiness in complexity, in busy-ness, in the Big Things. In fact, so often those things are the source of discontentment, leading us to believe we need more money, more time, more stuff. From this will arise contentment and happiness, we are told. Yet the opposite is true. We just sink deeper and deeper into a joyless place. And we ourselves are digging that hole.
At the cottage, we could be in rapt attention watching the doings of a pair of hummingbirds. We’d giggle at the almost unbearable cuteness of those tiny birds when they’d actually take a moment to sit still. All activity ceased one early evening, and we were hushed to complete silence, when a pair of deer ventured onto the property. We collectively held our breath and marveled at their sublime beauty and grace. On a kayak ride, the subtle “bloop” of a loon surfacing nearby made my day as I gently floated just feet from that most excellent of fisherman. We eyed each other for awhile and respected each others’ right to be.
Thoreau wrote, “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” I fear that often in our haste to chase the big things we trample the small things underfoot. Yet God speaks so much more clearly through what is “under our feet”. We expect divinity in the “Grand Design” but find it much more so in the details: the elements that escape our notice when we are too wrapped up in the Big, Busy and Banal.
Truth, Beauty, Joy – these are the things that give life a reason and a purpose. We can find them all around us in the smallest of things. But we have to slow down; we have to stop, look, listen; we have to cultivate an awareness. I am blessed to share my life with a woman who is exceptionally good at taking great joy from so many little things. She has helped me appreciate the flower blossom, the gold finch, the spider web, the color of dusk. She has a childlike love of these things that is infectious.
Perhaps it is that childlike sense I need to retain, as well. At the cottage, my sense of joy in exploring and experiencing is heightened. But there is no reason why I can’t maintain that in my non-cottage days, as well. God has provided a vast array of ways to see him in the details and to learn more about what is important from what we so often treat as unimportant. I am without excuse – I can find God, find contentment, revealed in the world around me. But I have to be… intentionally.
I want to make a habit out of the practice of living deeply. Like Thoreau, when I come to die, I do not want to discover that I did not truly live. A few days at the cottage was enough to impress on me the fact that life is precious.
My life is precious. Your life is precious. Live deeply. Live well. Joy will find you and, ultimately, it will define you.