Sensational Living®

May 2004
© 2004 by Bret S. Beall


Wouldn’t you love to visit a different state, region, country or continent every day of the week? Wouldn’t it be amazing to awaken each day, not knowing for sure what vista would greet you? This happens to me daily, and I don’t even have to leave Chicago! I bet it could happen to you daily, as well, regardless of where you live. Read on to learn how!

We Chicagoans appreciate the “lake effect” for many reasons, but all of them involve “escape.” “Escape” from winter’s coldest temperatures. “Escape” from summer’s hottest fires. “Escape” from the dryness of occasional draughts. “Escape” from love gone awry. “Escape” from work. “Escape” from stress. “Escape” to a better life. Even “escape” from Chicago!

Lake Michigan is one of the greatest resources of the people of greater Chicago! Looking at this body of water can transport you anywhere in the world instantly. There’s a catch, however … you must look at the lake with intention, with mindfulness, with the specific thoughts, “What does this remind me of?” or “Where could this be?” or “What am I seeing?”

I spent my first years in Chicago working like a fiend. As a paleontologist, I had an office that looked north from Field Museum, and I had the most spectacular view of Chicago’s skyline. I knew I had this million-dollar view, but I truly didn’t take as full advantage of it as I should have, for I spent most of my days in the dark recesses of the paleontological collections, or using computers in rooms without the view my office possessed. Still, I was somewhat mindful of the view, though I paid more attention to the architecture than to the adjacent lake (which just seemed to “frame” the picture perfectly). The lake served as a quick lunch getaway, but in hindsight, I realize how I took it for granted!

Then, I moved on to executive healthcare management, and my first office had a view of burlap; it was dehumanizing (as was much of that decade, but this essay isn’t about that!). It was also a wake-up call to mindfulness and gratitude, so when my employing company moved to new headquarters, and I found my office had a fantastic view of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan from the 22nd floor, I did not take this “gift” for granted.

It was during this period that I truly gained an overwhelming appreciation of Lake Michigan. You see, I’ve always been a very water-oriented person, and just being able to look at the lake throughout the day helped to calm me. Trust me, I was in MAJOR need of calming in those days. The volume of work was so super-human that I couldn’t bring myself to appreciate the joys that were present until I was almost at the breaking point. Then, I had no choice but to take a breather, and by accident, I would catch glimpses of the lake!

During those moments, I began to realize that the lake had many different “flavors.” For example, I remember looking out toward the lake on a particularly glorious, sunny day, and thinking, “Wow! The sun is turning Lake Michigan turquoise, just like the water covering the carbonate deposits of the Bahama Banks!” (Remember, I’m a scientist; get over it, please!). But really, Lake Michigan DID look like the Caribbean! It was amazing.

Another time, relatively late in the afternoon of yet another hectic day, I glanced out the window, and saw dark, dank blue-grays and gray-blues where the sky came down to meet the lake, but the actual intersection was all but invisible … instantly, I thought of a stormy afternoon in Stockholm, and the adjacent Baltic Sea! I also found myself thinking of an even worse storm when I was in Edinburgh, and once again facing the Firth of Forth’s waves (that’s what the inlet of the North Atlantic/English Channel is called as it reaches inland to touch Edinburgh). Ah, the memories that returned.

Certain types of sunny days also made me return to the Baltic Sea, which can take on some rich, smoky blues while lying under perfectly blue skies, with only the occasional wispy cloud. And, so as not to be called prejudiced, the Firth of Forth can be a shimmering cerulean when viewed under sunny skies, from the hilltops of Edinburgh.

One day, the mid afternoon sky became black with odd yellow reflections coming from the western horizon. Looking eastward, I could see a huge fog bank forming over the Lake, and I was reminded of a very interesting storm I had viewed from my cabin at LaPush, Washington, on the far northwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula. The very odd combination of pastel yellows mixed with every shade of gray is more than a little disconcerting. Also disconcerting was watching the fog bank that I saw forming over the lake begin to move inland like a liquid wall, so that I could witness a clear demarcation of the fog bank as it passed my office window. Whoa!

Fog and clouds and rain do unusual things with Lake Michigan. Sometimes, when you look out during a light rain shower, you can imagine islands and sea stacks out there. At least, I can imagine them, and I can remember seeing similar sights off the Oregon and northern California coasts. Of course, there is no land out in Lake Michigan, which meant that even though my mind was beginning to trigger memories of evergreen forest, that’s as far as the sensory experience was going to go.

I also won’t be experiencing the many sensations associated with actually visiting the beaches of Cancun, or the lakeshore of Toronto, or the riverside plaza or St. Louis, or the shoreline of San Juan, or anyplace else adjacent to a body of water. But, I have memories of all of those places, and sensations are encoded in engrams as well. I just hope each of the people living in each of those cities realizes they have a nearby aquatic feature that could instantly transport them to Chicago!

Perhaps my biggest wake up came at what was one of the lowest times of my life. In order to get more and more work done, I had to work longer and longer hours. In particular, we had a HUGE event in late February/early March of each year, and the work required in the two months preceding that event was breath-taking (literally … sometimes the stress caused me to lose my ability to breathe!). So, being the martyr that I was in those distant days, I would arise at 4am on the first workday in January, board a bus around 5:30, and be in the office by 6am! Chicago, in January, is bitterly cold and dark, and I really felt sorry for myself … until I saw it! The sunrise! Now, I am NOT a morning person, nor have I ever been, so I had seen very few sunrises in my life … my loss! But as I was arriving at the office, getting everything in order for a long day of harried work, I glanced out the window, and saw the beginning of a magnificent sunrise! What a way to start the day, and something that made my long hours worthwhile. I would awaken each day wondering what sort of sunrise I would experience. I found the heaven in hell, and I am forever grateful for the gift of those myriad sunrises I experienced.

I no longer work downtown, but my appreciation of the lake hasn’t diminished. I’ve spent many hours enjoying a little lakeside café near my home. This is a great escape during the Chicago summer, and takes me back to similar escapes at seaside cafes in San Diego (CA) or Venice (FL), or on a hill overlooking the ocean in Rome, or the river scene from Café du Monde in New Orleans. Sometimes waves crash on the rocks, reminding me of a stroll I took along the breakwater just south of Victoria, British Columbia.

As much as I’ve enjoyed pointing out how Lake Michigan has helped me to relive some joyous times in my life, the ultimate point of this essay is not to emphasize that Lake Michigan looks like something else. Rather, I want to emphasize the unique, glorious beauty that IS Lake Michigan, and how it interacts with the clouds, sun, moon and sky. We must learn to appreciate it for itself, just as we must learn to appreciate ourselves for our own unique qualities. Just as Lake Michigan is not defined by the comparisons I’ve made with other places around the world, we are not defined by comparisons between others and ourselves. Be mindful of what Lake Michigan can offer, and be mindful of what you can offer. Allow the Lake Effect to be one of awakening, rather than one of escape.

Having shared part of my personal Path, I hope that it has been helpful, or at least fun! I’d love to hear of your similar experiences at 773.508.9208 or email me.