Happy Place

“Think of a place that’s really perfect.

Your own happy place.

Go there, and all your anger will just disappear.

Then putt.”        Happy Gilmore, 1996

I don’t know if I have ever heard my radiation therapists say this to a patient, anxious on the treatment table, “Go to your happy place.”  I think I may have imagined that they say this, because I remember thinking it might help, and also remember thinking to myself, at various times in the past, “I don’t have a happy place.”  And I didn’t, until a year ago when I finally took the trip to Africa that I had wanted to take my whole life.

I was a child obsessed with animals—all animals, but especially elephants and lions. I learned in school that elephants were like us–they lived long, they loved, and they mourned their dead.  By the time I was ten I had seen the movie HATARI! (Swahili for “DANGER!”) five times, and the only song I ever learned on the piano that I can still play, besides the ubiquitous Fur Elise stamped in the far recesses of my brain, is the Baby Elephant Walk. Born Free came a few years later, and I wept with joy over the story of Elsa. By the time I got to college, I had read Beryl Markham’s biography, West With The Wind, George Schaller’s The Serengeti Lion and after that came Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, and all of Hemingway.  In 1984 I was swept off my feet by the Robert Redford/Meryl Streep movie version of Dinesen’s book, and in 1993, imagining myself to be a latter day Beryl Markham, I gave myself a flying lesson for my fortieth birthday.  Unfortunately I chose to do this in gusty winds in Aspen Colorado in the middle of the winter—needless to say it was my first and last attempt at becoming an aviatrix.

We all have our romantic notions of where and who and what we want to be when we grow up, but life gets in the way.  In my case, “life” was three kids and a highly specialized career which did not lend itself to the African bush. But just over a year ago, fortune smiled on me and the constellation of circumstances necessary to make a trip to Tanzania suddenly came together—the time off work, the housesitter (my daughter) for my dogs, cat and horses, and the delusion that I could sell my Corvette, purchased by me for my own fiftieth birthday nine years prior, in the middle of a recession to make the trip affordable.  Armed with binoculars, a new camera, sun proof clothing, DEET 30% and malaria pills, off we went.

I think that it is a rare thing in life when one’s expectations are not only met, but exceeded.  This was my experience in Tanzania, from New Year’s Eve spent looking out over the Great Rift Valley, to seeing the famous “tree lions” in Lake Manyara National Park, to the early morning game drives as the sun rose over the Serengeti plain, to the old bull elephant, long tusks still intact and unharmed for over sixty years, lumbering across the floor of the Ngorongoro Crater.  We had a full moon rising over Mt. Kilimanjaro on our last night in Arusha, temporarily blotting out the light from the Southern Cross.  The air was clear and smelled of hibiscus and I knew, unequivocally, that this was my happy place.

I am pretty certain that with my family history, one day I will find myself lying on the treatment table awaiting my radiation, nervous despite my years of experience on the giving and not the receiving end of this specialty.  If my therapist smiles and says, “Relax, go to your happy place—this will be over in just a few minutes”, I will know exactly where to spend the next 15 minutes, among the zebra and the wildebeest kneeling beside the crater lake, the song of a thousand flamingos softly taking wing ringing in my ear. And if that fails me, there is still a shiny red Corvette to drive home.  Happy places, indeed.