Searching for paradise

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When I was a kid, my favorite Dr. Seuss book was I Had Trouble Getting to Solla Sollew. The young narrator is fed up with the minor nuisances in his life, which consist primarily of biting and stinging pests. He hears about a place called Solla Sollew, “where they never have troubles—at least, very few.” So he sets out for Solla Sollew, encountering many trials and tribulations along the way. When he reaches his destination, he finds that it’s almost perfect: it has one annoying pest. But a character he meets there tells him that he’s heard of a place called Boola Boo Ball, which has absolutely no problems, none at all. The narrator considers going there with him, but instead decides to go home and, armed with a baseball bat, face the pests that plagued him. As a kid, I loved the vast scope of the story, something that would carry over to my love of epic movies and books such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Wind and the Lion, Lord Jim, and James Michener’s Hawaii (which I read at age 15, never previously having read anything other than science-fiction).

What didn’t occur to me at age seven was that part of the appeal of the Dr. Seuss story was the idea that paradise exists somewhere and can be reached. From my earliest memories, I was a shy, sensitive boy who couldn’t even stand to kill bugs, because they were living creatures, like me. When I reached adolescence, I didn’t understand the aggression that most males go through. I was bullied, and I didn’t know why. I had nothing against other boys of my age. Why couldn’t they just leave me alone? Having become fascinated with Hawaii in particular and the South Pacific in general when I was 11, I began to romanticize the tropics as a paradise where everyone got along, and nobody bullied anyone else. I longed for the day when I’d grow up and could escape to some tropical island paradise, after which my life would be devoid of problems. It didn’t occur to me to get myself a metaphorical baseball bat and deal with the pests that plagued me.

The idea of paradise, of course, is universal—an archetype that includes the Garden of Eden, Heaven, Nirvana, Valhalla, the Happy Hunting Grounds, Xibalba, Shangri-La, Bali Hai, and Brigadoon. After an earthly existence of trials and tribulations, if we’ve been good, we’ll be rewarded with eternal paradise. I don’t pretend to know whether that’s true, so I’m not going to speculate.

But what about paradise on earth? Is it attainable? Is it a place, or is it a state of mind? I’ve come to believe that it’s a combination of both. As the saying goes, “No matter where you go, there you are.” If you’re miserable because you’re battling inner personal demons (and who doesn’t have at least a few of those?), then you’ll bring them with you if move to whatever far side of the hill you perceive as having greener grass, and you’ll probably be miserable there, too.

The key word is “probably.” Sometimes a change of scenery turns out to be just the psychological medicine a person needs. Most of us have places and cultures toward which we instinctively gravitate, and others that hold little or no appeal for us. Aside from the South Pacific, I’ve always been intrigued by the American Southwest, Latin America, the Mediterranean, Egypt, Kenya, Australia, and Southeast Asia. These are places that strike me as exotic and that have warm climates and spectacular natural beauty. I’ve never been drawn to places with severe winters or nondescript scenery.

As I’ve related elsewhere on this blog, I spent 25 years in Atlanta, and I never felt that it was where I was meant to be. When I finally summoned the courage to move to Seattle in 1997, I soon became disenchanted with that city, which had too many of Atlanta’s big-city drawbacks. The following year, I moved south to smaller and sleepier Portland. After an abnormally rainy winter, even by Pacific Northwest standards, I considered moving farther south still, to California. Would I soon sour on California, though? Might the problem lie within myself, rather than with the places I’d lived?

Slowly, I began to figure out why I’d been frustrated with so much of my life until that point. In a nutshell, I’d allowed my fears to hold me back from pursuing the things I’d wanted to do and the person I’d wanted to become. As my self-awareness grew and my perspective changed, Portland became a version of paradise for me. With the exception of a tropical climate, it had everything I loved: great ethnic restaurants, enough cultural amenities to keep me happy, the biggest bookstore in the world (Powell’s City of Books), historic buildings, affordable real estate, a lively arts and music scene, a walkable downtown, and proximity to some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. Pam felt the same way, and, even as we periodically dreamed of moving to Hawaii, we knew we’d miss many aspects of Portland if we did move. Since 1998, Portland has gone from being perceived as “Seattle’s boring little cousin” to one of the hottest destinations in the country. It’s many people’s idea of paradise.

I no longer equate “paradise” with “perfection,” because perfection doesn’t exist in our world. Paradise is relative—perhaps best defined as “the best place one can hope for in this miraculous but flawed existence.” Finding paradise requires finding inner happiness, but I believe that each of us has places that are more conducive to finding inner happiness than are others.

What about you? What is your idea of paradise? Is it a place, a state of mind, a combination of both, or something else entirely? If it’s a place, are you living there now, or do you hope to move there in the future? In any case, I hope you find your paradise.

Featured image at top: Beach cabana in Destin, Florida (1996)

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