I recently gave a sermon focusing on the famous verse from Psalm 23 in which the writer compares God to a shepherd who “… makes me lie down in green pastures…leads me beside still waters…(and) restores my soul.”
The next day, a parishioner sent me this poet by Trinidadian writer, Roger Robinson:
“A Portable Paradise”
“And if I speak of Paradise,
then I’m speaking of my grandmother
who told me to carry it always
on my person, concealed, so
no one else would know but me.
That way they can’t steal it, she’d say.
And if life puts you under pressure,
trace its ridges in your pocket,
smell its piney scent on your handkerchief,
hum its anthem under your breath.
And if your stresses are sustained and daily,
get yourself to an empty room – be it hotel,
hostel or hovel – find a lamp
and empty your paradise onto a desk:
your white sands, green hills and fresh fish.
Shine the lamp on it like the fresh hope
of morning, and keep staring at it till you sleep.”
We seem to have inherited a strong imprint of such places from our hunting and gathering ancestors. If we live in a desert climate, “green pastures” and “still waters” give us a sense of safety and hope; if we live on a Caribbean island, it may be “white sands, green hills and fresh fish.” Such places speak to us of life, rest, and restoration.
This past week, I asked friends where they go when they want to have such an experience. Some say it’s a quiet place in their backyard. Others say it’s a specific beach, park, or trail. Many people will name places in Hawaii or the Sierras.
We can carry such places with us in our imaginations. As the poet says, such a place can become our own “portable paradise.” We can go there in times of anxiety and uncertainty, when we are facing an important decision, or when we simply want to remember who we are.
Hospice counselors I know encourage their clients to identify and carry such “safe places” with them so they can imagine being there when feeling worn down by grief. One bilingual counselor told me that some of her Latino clients have never been to places like Hawaii or the Sierras, nor could they identify a safe place from personal experience. She would encourage them to choose a color that might work, and they often chose blue.
For more than a decade, we’ve spent time every summer in the town of McCloud at the foot of Mt. Shasta. There’s an old 9-hole golf course there at the edge of the pine forest. I’ve played it many times by myself in the late afternoon and early evening when it’s just the course, the creek, the mountain, the deer, and me. During COVID, if I was having a hard time sleeping, I’d play a round in my imagination. I would see myself preparing for and executing each shot, then walking patiently to the next one. I didn’t keep score, and often fell asleep before finishing the round.
Calling such places to mind is like tasting delicious food – we can take our time, savoring each aspect of the image as it speaks to us. Our egos may get impatient, nagging us about the urgent things we need to do. But we can tell our busy minds we’ll be right back after a break. When we take time to let our imagination become a servant to our soul, we can find those “paradise places” within that bring us back to life.
Top image: “Picnic in Paradise,” by Steve Barton; Lower image, “Deer Finding Lost Ball,” McCloud Golf Club