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PAPERWORK: My journey from tall grass to stacks of books

Tall grass. The kind you can hide in.

Trees. The kind you can easily climb.

Water. The kind that streams and bends and gurgles over rock beds.

And books. Of course, books.

If you’ve just joined me, I am working on a list. It’s kind of a personal challenge.

Tall grass. Trees. Streams. Books. All these are quick responses to a simple question.

Where’s your happy place?

Where do you go for comfort or joy or whatever emotion that needs feeding?

The question is a bit challenging when you start to think about the emotional baggage we carry around.

I do not have a single, clear answer. But I embrace the concept, the heart of the query.

I’ve been thinking about it ever since my wife brought it home.

She’s the public information officer for the Forest Preserve District of Will County.

She helps produce an online newsletter about the district and the people who use it. One of the tasks she enjoys is talking to people about their favorite “happy place” among the many district sites.

Her stories clearly show how we find comfort in nature. They turn out to be perfect testimonies for why forest preserves (and state and federal parks) should exist.

She was most moved by the story from a young woman who was grieving the suicide of her father in 2015.

The woman’s “happy place” became McKinley Woods, close to her home in Channahon. She began hiking and then discovered the joy of photographing nature.

“It really is the only thing that has made me feel normal again,” she said.

“It’s just my happy place. … If it wasn’t for this place, I don’t know. I don’t think I’d be as happy.

“It was a healing thing for me, for sure. And I think anybody that’s going through (something like) that, I would recommend just going out in nature and kind of get lost in it. It’s the best medicine.”

So, the question might seem simple enough, but the answers can be deeply personal.

Which made me wonder: where’s my happy place?

I guess it depends on time and place.

Tall grass. When I was kid I loved crawling through tall grass. I’m talking waist high or more.

I was hiding. Spying. Exploring. Creating tunnels. My space. Even those scary black and yellow banana spiders did not keep me away.

Not a happy place anymore, though. Spiders and ticks can have it.

Trees. Again, when I was young, they were a great place to hide. And spy. And pretend I was somebody else. Hmmm. Seems be a pattern here.

Today, I certainly enjoy the sculpture of trees. I don’t climb anymore, but I do still find myself saying, “That tree would make a good climber.”

Water. Now, the slapping of a rushing stream still makes me happy. Even more than the ocean tides smashing the shore. Yes, sitting on the bank would be a happy place for me.

The sound is soothing. I suppose I’d be there to hide. (Back to that again.) Hide from noise. Things that have to be done. Stuff we call stress.

And books. Definitely books.

I guess that would be my most revealing answer.

Because … well … there it is again. I guess I go to books to get away … to hide.

And to spy. To discover. To explore. Yeah, books are my tall grass.

I had not thought of this pattern before. (Funny how writing helps you discover yourself.)

I guess I have not changed that much since I was a kid crawling on the ground. My happy places have changed but not what drives me there.

Wherever I am, if I am passing a shelf of books my head turns. In a store. Someone’s home. I have to stop and check the titles.

Bookstores and libraries are sanctuaries. I cannot help it.

This is especially true in my own home. My books. My library fills shelves in my basement.

I have many reasons to venture into the basement, but when going down those stairs I start to hear the voices.

No. I am not kidding. I’m serious. It’s weird, but true. My books call to me.

I enjoy standing among them. I scan the titles. It’s like a family reunion.

Without a doubt, this is my happy place.

I certainly enjoy being in many other places, with other people. Family and friends.

But this is not about what makes you happy. Or who makes you happy.

I think it’s about a place you go to connect with yourself.

Perhaps that is why the question is so important.

Where is your happy place?

Perhaps the definition of happy place is simple.

It’s merely a place where you feel good about yourself. Safe. Happy just to be there. Happy.

If so … then we all need to find our happy place. And go there.


LONNY CAIN, of Ottawa, is the former managing editor of The Times, now retired. Please email thoughts, comments or ideas to or mail care of The Times, 110 W. Jefferson St., Ottawa, IL 61350.

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