Updated: May 15
(bring your own rainbow)
Foreword: This tale about a recent, unplanned excursion into a forgotten realm of enchantment, is one of the gifts which my understanding of life occasionally bestows on me. A moment when “a glance lengthens into the gaze.”*
We cannot live in the long-dead past, nor in any future the imagination can conjure. The only place we ever live and experience is the present moment, the now. But through the power of the mind, and the gift of our thinking we often have experiences of the past, the future, and anything else imaginable, which are as ‘real’ and seamless as the screen in front of you.
What these experiences have in common--recalling a long ago hurt that still hurts, salivating about the coconut milk latte waiting for you to finish this story, or the words your mind is presently turning into thoughts and ideas--is that they are all being experienced in the present moment. While this becomes obvious with a moment's reflection, it raises an important question that most of us never consider--where is it all coming from, our experience? And what makes any experience uniquely mine?
For most of my life I have lived under the working assumption that what I am experiencing is like watching a movie. Everything I feel and experience seems to be caused, in part or whole way, by what’s happening on the screen “out there.” To realize a good life, which I will define here as one filled--happiness, connection, belonging, purpose, and fulfillment, we spend our days trying to shape either the contents of the screen, or managing our relationship to the screen itself.
About five years ago, I discovered that model was wrong. In a single moment of insight, I saw that I was the creator of every moment of my life, first breath to last, and that life is lived from the inside out. To see that I am the creative agent of all my experience was a pretty exciting discovery, and it instantly changed my life. I saw that I wasn’t an audience who watched and interacted with the screen, I was the movie projector itself. And without doing anything, I have a choice about what goes up on the screen of my experience! What was even more amazing was realizing that the projector--me--has its own built-in, unlimited power supply of wellbeing, wisdom, and connection. Oh, I almost forgot. Included in my projector is a smart internal guidance system which is tuned perfectly to my life.
Five years later, I’m still exploring the implications, possibilities, and understanding born in that first insight. This story is but one example of how my understanding manifests. Enjoy!
I was descending homeward along a steep fire-road into Pacheco Valley on a brilliant April morning when I noticed two lengths of two-by-four nailed to to the trunk of an ancient live oak that was holding court in a small pocket meadow sprinkled with Irish-green patches of spring grass.
The live oak’s heavy canopy of green revealed only the two makeshift ladder rungs. I ambled down for a closer look, crossing the meadow on a lightly worn path which I didn’t remember being there a week earlier. I wasn’t that surprised; more and more people, seeking escape from the shelter-in-place orders, had been taking to the usually empty hills and trails where I liked to hike.
Kids, I thought, some latter-day Tom and Huck building a ladder so they could explore the tree’s sprawling network of limbs. Stir-crazy kids, escaping their even stir-crazier parents quarantined en-masse for the past six weeks. On closer inspection, each of the blond, foot-long chunks of was secured to the tree with construction nails, several of which were bent over sideways. Kid construction, for sure.
Looking up, I saw that more rungs continued up the trunk. But these were weathered gray and lichen-covered. They had been there for so long that they seemed to be melding into the tree.
I shook my head in amazement. I pictured an empty-nester like myself, returning to a beloved childhood haunt with a future grandson or grand-daughter in tow. Introducing a new generation to the pleasures of playing in trees—above the clutches of anxious parents and their rules. I have loved treehouses and beach-forts since I was child, and for a moment, I was swept up in the sweet perfume of nostalgia, and memory’s still warm embers of the summers of my youth.
I noticed a second live oak perched on the edge of the meadow, where it plunged precipitously into the little valley where I lived. Hanging from a thick, bicep-like limb of the tree on two long lengths of ropes was a swing with an inviting view of the rolling landscape which unfolds to the north of my house.
More memories of my playground days and swings—the rocking, tipping and flexing, the yearning for speed and height. Pumping the seat and gaining both, until that lift-off moment arrived and my feet began to leave the seat. Where, for a few moments, I imagined myself freed of gravity’s grip, lifting into the air like Peter Pan.
The meadow had me fully in its spell, and I recalled long, languid childhood summers on the coast of Maine, free of the confines of the New York City co-op where I wintered, went to school, and prayed for summer’s return.
An avid reader throughout a dark childhood watermarked with fear, I found refuge from the inescapable confines of my home in stories like Peter Pan, the Wizard of Oz, the Phantom Toll Booth, among many. I read and re-read them, wishing I could live in their pages. I remembered poring over the stories, searching in and between the black lines for a hidden page or magic key which would open a secret door.
During a particularly dark period of those years, each night after I put down my book and turned out the light, I wished that I would wake in the morning transported to the magical lands where the stories took place. Morning always brought disappointed but I'm not sure I ever stopped wishing. Building and treehouses and forts on the shores and woods of a small Maine summer colony was as close as I ever got to a magical land.
Standing in that lush spring meadow, I looked around me, the two oaks, the ladders and swing, the footpath from the fire-road which I now saw was heavily worn. There was an almost preternatural quiet in the air as well, which created the experience of standing on an empty stage, waiting for a play to begin.
I was also certain that none of this had been here when I last passed. I no longer cared.
I walked towards the swing and saw another set of freshly cut rungs running up the trunk into a labyrinth of limbs. The one that held the swing extended far enough over the lip of the hill that you couldn’t get onto the seat from the ground. The builders had a solution—a third length of rope hanging from to the seat for pulling the swing back for mounting.
Feeling the tug of youthful dares that I hadn’t felt in a very long time, I reached for the guide rope. I looked down the hill. More magic! This was incredible! A single-track trail now switch-backed down what a week earlier had been unclimbable hill. When had all this building happened? And who built it so quickly? Rope in hand, I scanned the valley to locate the townhome which my wife Kathy I had moved into six months earlier.
My breath caught in my throat.I froze. Everything had changed. The short spur of road where I lived was gone, replaced by a half circle of homes and a side-street leaving the valley.
I live in a development of over eighty townhomes, and they were all gone. Instead, I was gawking into a neighborhood of single-family homes with terra-cotta roofs and tidy lawns. In the center was a small commons with a pergola and a brick path that weaved around it. On which, chasing a small dog, was a small girl in a bright pinafore. It was surreal, a whole new, alien world. I looked up and down the valley for anything that would place me. Nothing.
I clutched the rope like a lifeline. I had no idea where I was or what had happened.At the same time, some part of me knew I was okay. My mind reeled backwards. Everything about my morning hike had been routine. The familiar hour-long loop hike starts with a steep climb up Little Cat to the ridge where my route turns right down Chicken Shack, returning me home forty minutes later. But at the turn this morning, despite a full schedule of business activities I was looking forward to, it suddenly occurred to me to turn left. My deepening understand of my experience had taught me to trust my internal guidance system when it pipes up. I continued climbing for another fifteen minutes.
When I finally turned around, my return should have been as routine as any other day, only a bit longer. But now I remembered: a single track path I had never seen before materializing on the side of the road. Mostly hidden with leaf-litter, it ran a dozen yards before disappearing into a thicket of manzanita and brush. The call of my work day was louder now, but there was something about the path not taken which I couldn’t resist.
Now, veering from a seat of wonder towards the cliffs of panic, I reached for my phone and flicked open a map. No place that I recognized, but if Google could find me, at least I was still on planet Earth. I breathed a small sigh of relief, and a few puzzled moments later I understood that the path I’d taken led to a valley on the other side of the ridge.
I was now an hour’s walk back to my house, and I turned up the steep road home. I started laughing. Halfway up the hill, feeling a mixed glow of gratitude and farewell longing , I stopped to photograph the scene. Just in case they weren’t here when I returned. I thanked the oaks, the meadow, and the swing, and the generations of children who kept the dream alive.
Sixty years after those dark childhood days and nights, my wish had been granted. For a few minutes I got to live in the Elysian fields, where the grass of happiness grows year round, the trees are filled with children's delighted cries, and the good wizard, Milo and his dog, and Christopher Robin all have their homes. Where, not yet bound by the gravity of life, children fly and soar like birds in care-free skies of love.
Afterword: I hope that this little tale rekindles some embers of enchanted moments from your own past. While I told this story for the pleasure of the telling, I hope some of you may glimpse the connection between my story and the inside-out paradigm of human experience which I point to in the foreword.
* A nod to Gordon Lish, editor, author, teacher, who once gave me what I then believed was writing advice, but which I now understand is a much broader wisdom: “Let the glance lengthen into the gaze”.