Heaven is framed by fifty-foot birch trees, tossed softly in the breeze at the Lake Michigan shore as snlight dapples the forest floor and cormorants skin the cold blue waters. A white frame cabin with a red room sits in a clearing near the bluff, a cedar bench swing weathered to silver nearby. Flagstones weave a path from the kitchen door past the birches, and down to the ivory and grey stones at water's edge.
The trip to paradise is neither short nor easy. First you must drive to the tip of nowhere. Then the Washington Island ferry carries you away from the mainland, like Charon on the River Styx, across a turbulent channel called "Death's Door." You stand at the front of the boat as it charges across the waves to the island. The sharp, chill wind rakes your hair and snakes down the back of your shirt. Cold spray lashes your cheeks. You know at that moment that you have left the world behind, even as you are still water-borne between earth and beyond. The ferry boat docks, and the cars inch impatiently forward, drivers and families eager to leave behind this hulking metal reminder of their passage and eventual return, to reach their destinations and not look back.
My own journey is still not over. I wind past the tourist shops, straight through the town, as far morth as the road will lead and still connect with another. Past cows, pats signs of artisans, past Icelandic ponies and rooftop goats, past apple trees. Through unending vistas of green I drive, then turn east until I can drive no further. Then, incredibly, north again. When I have run out of land to flee from, I am there.
The cabin is not mine, nor the land that it rests on. It belongs to people I have never met, parents of a friend who has long since left the ritual of island summers behind and the peaceful days we spent here when our children were younger. But it is still a fixture in my memory, of a time when life was so much simpler. When finding a shell on the beach far eclipsed the present excitement of going to another concert at "The Rave." When bedtimes were early, and the Berenstain Bears were still the nightly stories of choice and Mama Bear was the voice of all wisdom. When there was no problem that Mr. Rogers hadn't patiently talked about with his puppets, none of us had cell phones, and the loudest sound in the world was the lapping of waves on the shore.
I came across this short essay when I was cleaning out a closet yesterday. I took me a minute to remember what had prompted it, but then I recalled I had written it at a week-long writer's workshop at The Clearing in Door County, Wisconsin, led by poet and writer Norbert Blei. This was the first time I'd ever been either to The Clearing or to ANY writer's workshop. I've been back to Norb's workshops in Door County three times now, with varying degrees of hewing to the official assignments, but in this early one, Norb had asked us to describe "a peaceful place." And I followed through.
Causes Mary Wagner Supports
Washington County, Wisconsin Human Society
Crohns and Colitis Foundation
Chicago Writers Association