Out of the midst of the beautiful Lake Nicaragua spring two magnificent pyramids, clad in the softest and richest green, all flecked with shadow and sunshine, whose summits pierce the billowy clouds. They look so isolated from the world and its turmoil—so tranquil, so dreamy, so steeped in slumber and eternal repose. What a home one might make among their shady forests, their sunny slopes, their breezy dells, after he had grown weary of the toil, anxiety and unrest of the bustling, driving world.
—Mark Twain, describing his first glimpse of Ometepe Island, 1867
Struck by the beauty of the twin volcanoes, Twain immediately imagined them as a refuge from the stress he felt living in the civilized world, circa 1867. A hundred and forty years later, when I first spied them, I felt the same way. But from what were we hoping to seek refuge?
Surely, the pace of daily life in 1867 didn’t compare to that of today. Yet Twain and I both hankered for what those volcanoes suggest, a leisurely life spent in relaxed contemplation. It’s the same lure that attracts readers to Tarzan stories and movies. Somewhere on this planet, we’d like to believe there is a place where people don’t worry about money or status, don’t ever feel hurried, and the natural beauty eclipses anything you could see on the largest screen plasma TV.
As photographers know, such beauty is all around us. It’s just a matter of framing. And as psychologists will tell you, there are people in mental agony everywhere on this planet, even in places that most of us consider idyllic. Finally, most of us realize that infatuation rarely lasts, and someone in love with the mere image of tranquility will soon find himself restless and unsatisfied. He would then do well to become interested in the real work of gardening.
Falling in love with a place is a lot like falling in love with a person. You make a lot of assumptions based on limited information, and then find yourself feeling disillusioned and deceived once those assumptions prove false. But it’s all just a head trip, and only a fool would take it seriously. Like many of us, I’ve been such a fool in the past, but I’d like to think that maturity has taught me something about avoiding those obvious pitfalls.
The bad news is that nothing outside ourselves can really bring us peace of mind, but the good news is that nothing outside ourselves can really hurt us. If the volcano blows while I’m living on it, sayonara, baby! Everybody’s gotta go someday.
The exciting thing about freedom is that, like opportunity, it’s all around us, but habit and anxiety cause us to miss the cues. Feeling trapped is a self-fulfilling prophesy. When we feel unfree, we’re probably really just afraid of taking a risk. When we say we “can’t,” what we really mean is we’re “afraid to.”
Since it’s demoralizing to constantly experience fear, it’s a lot easier to blame our circumstances. Blame feels better than fear, and carries with it moral superiority, which beats the heck out of self-loathing.
It’s all just a head trip, and anytime we feel like stopping giving energy to that game, we can watch the mental anguish vanish right before our eyes. Poof!
So come visit me on the island. As soon as I get the money together, I’ll have my house built. Then I’ll either be overcome with joy or buyer’s remorse. Or maybe nothing will change. At least in all the important aspects, I’ll still be me, and the issues I have to face will not have changed in the least.
So even though it won’t really change anything, I’m still going to build a house on a volcano on an island in a place not many people have ever heard of. Maybe Twain will come visit in my dreams.
You can buy a whole book of Dan Coffey’s essays online: My World & Welcome To It.