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When I was young, my brothers and I had a place we loved to go that was up in the hills above where we lived on one side of a beautiful valley in northern California. It had a name, Clayburgh's, although the spelling may be wrong, since I never saw it written anywhere. It may not have been an official name at all, just what the locals had given it a long time before we claimed it. And claim it we did, in the way that children do when they find someplace special to them. Every child wants a secret garden.
We got to our place by hiking up an old, unnavigable dirt road that narrowed to more of a path at the top. Someone must have lived there once because there was the crumbling foundation of a big house and a man made pond surrounded by a big meadow, but it was so far in the past that no one remembered or cared. The meadow was wide and uncut, covered with grass and wildflowers that grew beyond our knees in the early summer. It was surrounded by a line of lovely trees that made it impossible to see until you were in it and it was high enough that you could look out and see the hills on the other side of the valley. In my 8 year old imagination it was Mt. Olympus and being there was like being in the laps of the gods.
It has been many years, a lifetime in fact, since I stepped from the trees into that meadow, but I have the most fresh and vivid memory of one particular day there, and although the events of the entire day are lost to me, I know that it was one of many days we spent there, a happy day in the company of my brothers. What I recall so powerfully is a single moment in that day, a small moment of extraordinary experience.
I was lying on my back in the tall grass with my youngest brother, who was only 3 or 4 at the time. No matter what we did are how far we wandered, we took him with us, my older brother and I taking turns carrying him piggy-back when his short little legs faltered or tired, because leaving him behind was unthinkable and never contemplated. I remember that he told me he was tired so we lay in the grass, his head on my shoulder, to rest. It was a perfect day, the sky was azure blue and spotted with chubby white clouds that looked too lazy to move, and the temperature was comfortable and moderate. My other brothers had wandered off somewhere to explore or climb one of the big oak trees and as their voices faded into the distance the world became very still and silent. If I close my eyes I can clearly recall the feeling of the cushion of grass beneath me, the smell of the earth and the things that grew upon it, see the blue sky and a yellow butterfly resting on a blue flower growing at my feet. I can feel the warm beloved weight of my little brother's head on my shoulder and the comfort of his chubby, still baby arm around my waist as he snuggled against me and see the sun reflected on his golden hair. All this is as real as if it happened yesterday, and I can remember feeling a sense of absolute serenity, a powerful connection to the natural world and the rightness of my place within it. In my child's mind I was overcome with my love of that place, my love for my little brother, and knew how fortunate I was to have them both to love. I remember telling myself that I had to burn that moment into my memory forever because despite being very young, I somehow instinctively understood how special it was and that there might not be another like it again in my life. I don't know how I knew, I just did.
Many years have passed since then and they tell me that Clayburgh's is gone, covered now with the overpriced houses of people with too much money, but it will exist forever in my mind, as beautiful and real as it was on that day, etched forever into my memory with that moment in time. It came to the forefront of my mind again last weekend when I lay on a slab of smooth granite next to a clear stream in beautiful Baxter State Park, my youngest son, Chuck, beside me. It was a perfect day, the sky blue with long tendrils of white clouds, the temperature moderate, the stream dancing and singing over the granite ledges, the scent of the earth and the things that grow upon it, and my beloved boy beside me. The feeling of that moment long ago returned to me, and even though I am no longer young and understand more fully what these moments mean, the essence of it was unchanged. I knew what it was, a moment that might have been experienced by a young shepherd on the rocky slopes of ancient Greece, a sailor lying on the deck of a ship at sea under the night sky, Edmund Hillary at the peak of Mt. Everest, or The Buddha under the Banyon Tree so long ago. It is serenity. It is a moment when you connect perfectly with the natural world like tumblers in a lock that open a hidden door. It is a kind of enlightenment. It is peace. And as I lay on the bones of the earth in the warming sun I understood, with digital clarity, that while achieving moments of such perfect serenity is possible, it's holding on to that feeling everyday after they are gone that is the hard thing. Learning to do that, I suppose, must be Nirvana.
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