How to Reply When the Wind Speaks Your Name

by Tom Springer

The late August breeze has decorated our backyard fire pit with a garland of yellow leaves from a nearby walnut tree. That’s a walnut for you. They’re always the first to call it quits and drop the curtain on summer.

With our fishing poles and kayaks now stowed in the barn, I’ve reluctantly done the same thing. All that remains of summer is a plastic pail of dull stones that someone left on the patio. Could these really be the same red and green jewels that we plucked wet and sparkling from the cold rush of Lake Superior surf?

Eventually, they’ll end up in the flower bed—just like the others did last year. No matter. I’ve already got plenty of Up North tchotchkes to clutter my fire place mantle. Besides, for this year’s souvenir, I’ve brought home something better: a keepsake memory that I’d do well to recall every day for the 45 weeks until my next vacation.

The setting was Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, near Munising in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It was Friday afternoon, the last day of vacation. While I’d enjoyed the week, a part of me had never let go. I’d yet to feel deeply relaxed, that moment of blissful detachment when recreation becomes true re-creation.

It’s much like one of those agonizing dreams when you’re trying to outrun something bad, but can’t make your legs move fast enough to escape. Except that on an over-wrought vacation, the opposite holds true: you can’t stop running long enough to enjoy the good that you long to find.

Yet we keep searching anyway. So while the family swam and combed the beach for agates, I wandered down a hiking trail near the Miner’s River. It led through a dark stand of hemlock, but it wasn’t wilderness. It was too close to the beach and parking lot for that. The river, too, was pleasant but unremarkable; like dozens of other knee-deep, tea-colored streams in the Upper Peninsula.

Then as I veered off the main trail to visit the river, something stopped me in my tracks. It wasn’t really a breeze—it was more of a fragrant exhalation from the woods itself. The air was deliciously hot, dry and sun-cured; sweet with the turpentine aroma of pine sap. Above the water, a circular wisp had swept two yellow butterflies into a thermal updraft. They rose in a delicate spiral, a DNA helix come to life. It was an aerial ballet, I tell you. The butterflies mirrored each other’s moves as if choreographed. It was so startlingly human that it almost seemed creepy.

With that, something finally broke loose within me and fell away like the petals from a long closed bud. There came next a joyous quickening of the senses and spirit. The natural world at hand, the one I’d driven 500 miles to explore and enjoy, at last had my full attention. For the first time that week I noticed how supremely comfortable I was in my summer vestments: baggy shorts, old T-shirt and fishing cap, good walking sandals. How could a person ever stand to wear anything else?

Everything that meant vacation was right there. The lakeshore, the woods, the UP—all the verdant grace of summer had gathered itself into this singular moment and place. Here, in this one-seat shrine edged by the shaggy steeples of white spruce. You could still hear the rumble of cars on the washboard road to the beach. But the sudden quiet I’d found here was of a different sort—more within than without.

It was the stillness I once tried to find through meditation, but never could. It was like the soft, slow rhythm of an athlete’s heart after a good workout. It was like the righteous rest of one who’s spent a good day on the business end of a hammer, chainsaw or shovel. I must’ve sat there 20 minutes, wondering how such mercy could arrive on the wings of a thing so small.

We expect much from our vacations, sometimes impossibly so. We freight them with hopes of touchstone family memories, made in the concrete bustle of great cities or the granite splendor of mountain vistas. We overbook them with plans to feast on the culture, food and iconic sights that our friends and the travel magazines deem worth seeing. Under the assumption that more is better, I even overschedule my “leisure” reading time. Every vacation, I lug along a five-pound bag of books that I think I’ll read but never do.

What if our vacation motto, at least for a few sacred hours of it, was Psalm 46:10? “Be still and know that I am God.”

What if, to the extent possible, we followed the minimalist travel advice that Jesus gave his disciples as they set out to evangelize? “Take nothing for the journey, no staff, nor bread, nor bag, nor money—not even an extra tunic” (Luke 9:3). At the least, this vacation beatitude would certainly cut down on the post-trip laundry and credit card debt.

Like most of us, I’d gone on vacation to do things. To fish and to hike and canoe; to rent a cottage on a lake in the woods; to eat pasties and ride the tourist boats out of Munising Bay. I’d taken a long to-do list Up North, but what I really needed was a to-be list. You know it’s bad when they have to dispatch two little yellow butterflies to tell you that.

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