(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: MARCH/APRIL 2006)
I am a professional plate spinner. Well, I’m a mom who also works outside the home. Same diff.
Like most women these days, I try to have it all. Work that is my own. Happy kids whose mom is there when they need her. A warm, fun marriage.
That’s a lot of plates to spin, and life gets pretty frenzied sometimes. People tell me I’ll look back on these days with fondness, but I can hardly remember what I did yesterday.
Which is probably why it’s wise to take time to assess my world and relax the way I used to when my life was, well, mine. As with most women my age, I find that time all too rare. It’s not just me. It’s in the numbers. The American Time Use Survey shows that adults today are tight on down time. We’re devoting only 15 paltry minutes a day on average for "thinking and relaxing. "
I don’t know about you, but 15 minutes isn’t enough time to figure out how to even start unwinding, much less truly decompress. For me, relaxation means travel—time away refreshes the soul. The Clearing in Door County, Wisconsin, is a thoughtful break to restore parts of my spirit that have taken on a little tarnish since motherhood and career took center stage.
The Clearing is a folk school founded in 1935 by landscape architect Jens Jensen on a rocky cliff overlooking Green Bay. Guests stay in spare dormitory quarters in a northern Wisconsin forest and take weeklong classes from a rotating menu of laid-back, ungraded affairs, mostly in nature studies, humanities and art.
"It’s a place to leave your stress at the gate, " says Shirley Hoague of Janesville, Wisconsin, a regular at The Clearing. "There’s always time for a quiet walk on paths that take you into the woods or down by the beach. "
Now, the toddler’s mom’s memory isn’t much, but I vaguely recall that quiet walks by beaches are generally tonic for the soul. For this, I cannot wait.
Pass the food to the left. Never sit in the same spot twice. And don’t be late to the table lest you miss the inspirational reading at the meal’s start.
These are the rules I learn on Sunday night at one of the harvest tables in a main lodge, similar to a simple country church. At The Clearing, the chatty chaos of mealtime has an undercurrent of civility that keeps things pleasant.
An orientation acquaints visitors with this pretty place. We wander toward the classrooms over flagstone paths, past mapleleaf viburnum and thimbleberry bushes, a reclaimed one-room cabin, knotty-pine dorms reminiscent of summer camp, unique stonework and ancient cedar trees.
The 30 of us split into classes. Subjects range widely each session: painting, yoga, quilting, Walt Whitman poetry, folk guitar, the Native American medicine wheel, woodworking.
The weekly schedule that orders The Clearing includes weekday classes with morning and afternoon sessions. Breakfast at 7:30 a.m., with hikes before on some days. Lunch at noon. Dinner at 6 p.m. Thursday picnics, with an afternoon free to follow, and Friday, a big show-and-tell talent show. I hear that can get a little rowdy.
During my visit, most people sign up for digital photography, but I choose a course in local geology, something completely removed from what I normally do.
OK, so some might call the subject boring, and I may have done the same before my visit. But this is the only class this week that takes place mostly in the idyllic Door County outdoors.
Plus, the instructor, geologist Roger Kuhns, looks a little like Patrick Swayze. So geology it is.
Monday’s class begins with a question.
Roger wants to know how this unique, rocky area we’re in, known as the Niagara Escarpment, got here.
Isn’t this his job?
But science is about asking questions, and that’s what my class plans to do all week, studying our surroundings for the answers.
The soft thud of boots on the sawdust path takes our class toward plump, monolithic rocks sloping down to the blue-green bay.
Bill Hanson, a former geology teacher from Marinette, Wisconsin, notes these rocks "aren’t particularly fossiliferous. "
"Right! " yells Roger, scaring us. "No critters! And there’s a very specific reason for that! "
Short version: The levels of land are layers of dolomite formed by an ocean. Where we stand was high ground, far from the water where shells once rested.
Once, Door County looked a lot like the Great Barrier Reef. The sea drained away, and the land moved from near the equator to, um, Wisconsin. Later, glaciers left this graceful, hilly terrain.
These discoveries reveal themselves as we wander grassy meadows, into hidden caves and underground rivers, along the sandy shores of Green Bay and through the quiet, marshy woodlands of Door County, blooming with lady’s slippers, false Solomon’s seal and forget-me-nots.
We study weather: waves, rain, sunny days, to figure out what formed patterns in prehistoric rock. Nature is about cycles. Millions of years of cycles.
It all makes my measly 35 years seem inconsequential, and I really like that. I’m a little dot on a timeline that has absolutely nada to do with preschool projects, sweaty deadlines or macaroni preparation. I fit in somewhere, too.
"These layers of rock are like an index, " says John Ford, a classmate from Geneva, Illinois.
"It’s just like reading a book, " Roger tells us. "And it gets really exciting when you start figuring out the story. "
I'm reading a few of my own layers on this trip. Peeling away worries that don’t seem so pressing in the presence of glacial waters and ancient rocks. Funny how a few good nights of sleep in a small cabin clears the mind. It’s nice.
Why We're Here
The reading before one of our meals is from actor Alan Alda:
"Be brave enough to live creatively. The creative is the place where no one else has ever been. You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. You can’t get there by bus, only by hard work, risking and by not quite knowing what you are doing. What you’ll discover will be wonderful; yourself. "
A rare silence fills the main lodge. I look over to my new friend and classmate, Muriel Hanson (Bill’s wife) and ask her if she’s loving The Clearing, loving the freedom, loving the late-spring woods as much as I am.
"The part I’m enjoying most about being here, " she says, "is the fact that I don’t have to cook. "
That’s a pretty good point. We hear the lodge’s dinner bell three times a day, and amazing foods like blue-cheese burgers on homemade focaccia or strawberries with chocolate dipping sauce are magically served to us by the waitstaff on the Blue Willow table service. It’s pretty seductive.
Hermi Krueger from Appleton, Wisconsin, sits near us. Hermi is always smiling. She grew up in an Austrian refugee camp, a place where she says she was never allowed to play. At 60, she’s playing as much as she can. The Clearing is her favorite place to do it.
"When I come here, I feel like I’ve gone to camp, " Hermi says. "But with better food. "
After the meal, we learn that we’re having a summer solstice party. The photography crowd kicks things off with cocktails and bawdy jokes on the main lawn before we all head to the main council ring for a polka dance.
Who doesn’t polka on solstice, right?
We drink champagne, and Roger plucks John Prine songs on his guitar, plus a few tunes of his own creation. A luna moth swoops overhead.
Another term for the cedars surrounding The Clearing is arborvitae, or "tree of life. " The wind shushes through their limbs, and it’s a sound of something fresh and full.
Green Bay laps the shore below. The slow witness of waves on rock seems to reiterate how we’re all just eensy-weensy dots on the continuum of this universe.
When I go home, I’ll still be a plate spinner. Parenthood is that way. But when I’m back at it again, my feet for a while will be planted on a fractured bed of Door County dolomite, with the sound of the wind through arborvitae rushing faintly in my ears.
The Clearing, 12171 Garrett Bay Road, Ellison Bay, Wisconsin. theclearing.org
If you don’t have a week to get away, you can still call a personal time-out. Here are five ways to renew your mind.
• SPEND THE DAY at your local library or favorite bookstore. Browse books or magazines off your usual reading path.
• ENROLL in an adult-education class with your school district. Whether it’s Italian lessons, woodworking, interior decorating or something else, try a subject you’ve been interested in but never made time to pursue.
• PLAY TOURIST. Visit an art museum, a historical society or a zoo. Leave each one knowing something new.
• ATTEND A PLAY. Focus on the characters’ complexities, the dialogue or the plot twists to see the production in a new way.
• START A BOOK GROUP. An evening spent discussing ideas fires the imagination.
Pamper yourself with new exercises, recipes and spa treatments.
• WALK. You’ve heard it a thousand times, but it really will make everything better. Walking salves a stressful workday and soothes a worried mind.
• SCHEDULE A BATH. Lock the door, pop in your own music and hang a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door as the tub fills with warm, bubbly water. Everyone can live without you for an hour, and they’ll like you better when you emerge, smiling.
• TRY A NEW EXERCISE routine. Whether it’s yoga or karate or swimming, shake up your physical regimen.
• HIRE A PERSONAL CHEF for a week. For an extra treat, hire someone who specializes in healthy eating (www.personal chefsearch.com).
• VISIT A DAY SPA and try an unusual service. Hot-stone massage, aromatherapy pedicures or mud wraps offer unique rejuvenation.
These ideas, both high-energy and low-key, will help send your spirit soaring.
• VOLUNTEER FOR A CAUSE you’re passionate about. Whether it’s social, medical or political, it will invigorate your soul.
• BOYCOTT TELEVISION for one week. Brainstorm entertainment alternatives with your family and friends.
• CREATE A SPACE that is yours only. If you can’t spare a whole room at home, check out the local art scene for cheap studio space, or simply spend a night alone in a nearby hotel. There, you can read, create, meditate, gab on the phone or journal.
• TAKE AN AFTERNOON DRIVE. Alone. Bring along an audio book or a stack of your favorite CDs for company.
• DESIGNATE DAILY QUIET TIME. Clear off 15 minutes to an hour of each day to sit quietly and do nothing. Try the same time every day for one week to help ignite a new habit.