In The Solace of Wide Open Spaces, Gretel Ehrlich writes of hard won comfort after the death of a loved one, and of how her eventual peace is forged from the “absolute indifference” of a stark yet beautiful Wyoming landscape. Paradoxically, given the title, she also writes that true solace is finding none, which is to say, it is everywhere.
Perhaps. But for me, solace is not independent of place. For as long as I can remember, both my equanimity and unbridled joy were most assured beneath the biggest of skies. Psychology – pop and otherwise – likes to tell us that we are happiest when we can simply be ourselves. And it is here that another Ehrlich quote resonates most: Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are. We are often like rivers: careless and forceful, timid and dangerous, lucid and muddied, eddying, gleaming, still.
For the last six months – hell, for the last nearly three years – I have been that river. I have also learned that I flow best and clearest either when crisis is right before me, or when I am amidst the landscapes that have always burnished my rougher edges. And so I ran her favorite trail today, amidst the scents of pine and sage and beneath russet slabs sent aloft nearly 300 million years past. Along this trail, and in the town below, she is everywhere, so it is fitting that she lies right where they merge. As I have done several times since last January, I ran to her. In past visits, I found myself saying a few words, shedding a few tears, mostly just sitting with her.
Today, I talked at length. Talked to her of life and love and of how she lives on in the hearts and minds and actions of so many. Told her stories of things people have done since she passed, friends and family alike, that would fill her with joy and pride. Told her of the recent horrors in the world too, of the hate and fear and violence, of how now more than ever the world needs people who live as she did. Told her of the incredible poise and grace and courage at her service that emanated from her sister, her stepchildren, her close friends. Of how she herself set the tone for that service by asking for the band that was so completely perfect. And of how her daughter, as she has done without fail for the last nearly three years, continues to lead the way for so many of us with the kind of joy, curiosity, resilience and generosity that defined her mother. As I rambled on, I started to ask her the big questions that lie before me. And then I began to feel her answering back.
Wait a minute, you’re now asking, what kind of mumbo jumbo séance BS is this?
Sorry to disappoint, but no paranormal tales to tell. I simply did, in a small way, what flows throughout Ehrlich’s book: put in a bit of physical effort amidst a wide open space, so that the cacophonies of daily life could fade away and the voices I want most to shape me could be heard. And as I talked of my hopes and dreams and sorrows in a new reality I still cannot always grasp, I could hear her once again. Hear her remind me to live boldly, generously, fully. Remind me to pour my energies into what matters most, and to lift myself by lifting others first. Remind me that there is no greater solace and joy than that which comes by being generous, by being endlessly curious, and by never being afraid to fail. Remind me to listen to what’s deep inside, and to take the big chances before me, even if some of them crash and burn. And remind me that all of this is best done with the kind of shit-eating grin she wore better than anyone.
I can’t match the grin. But the rest? It’s a map I can follow.