A Wisconsinite’s obsession with seasons probably seems a bit bizarre to people living in milder climes, where the transition from summer to fall, fall to winter, winter to spring, and spring to summer is not so distinct. Here in the northern midwest, a change in seasons is not just a change in the weather, but also a ritual, a poignant reminder of the irreversible passage of time that you can never get back. Your heady dreams about everything you’d accomplish in the three months of summer take a nosedive back to reality, and you look back nostalgically at events that are still quite recent and regretfully at the things on your to-do list that you never quite got around to. While there is obviously some variance from year-to-year in the weather, Labor Day tends to be the end-of-the-summer ritual marking your gratitude for all the good times that happened and your mourning for the camping trips, festivals, and bonfires that did not.
Like most summer holidays, I spent this past Labor Day at my parents’ cabin in northern Wisconsin. Until I moved into my present house four years ago, I often said that the cabin feels more like home to me than any place else on earth, and it was true. While I passionately love my house – and it felt like home to me from the moment I first stepped foot inside of it – the lake has a sense of continuity for me that nothing else could replace. It’s not just a place that I’ve gone my whole life, but a place that my mother grew up at too, and it’s that sense of connection – through time and place and generations – that makes it my sacred place.
What makes a place sacred? Dictionary.com defines “sacred” as:
- secular profane).
It feels a bit dramatic to refer to a sixty-year-old cabin as sacred – with all of the religious reverence that implies – but it’s absolutely true.
My family discovered our lake when my mom was a girl, and her family started renting a cabin there for one week each summer. I grew up hearing stories about their adventures. The time my mom went blackberry picking when she was five and got lost, so she had to sing “Happy Birthday” at the top of her lungs – in spite of crying – so that they could find her. The time my Uncle David was too chicken to jump in the water, and when he finally did it he forgot to take his glasses off and jumped in the lake with them still on his face. I even have a vague memory of my mom telling me stories about the cabin being so crowded with visitors that people had to find bizarre places to sleep. I’ve been picturing these memories that aren’t even mine since I was a little girl, for so long now that they feel like a part of my story, even though I was nothing but an unknown question for my adolescent mother at the time.
There were some years where our connection with the lake was lost, and then – the summer that my mom discovered she was pregnant with me – my parents found a couple who was looking to rent out their place, and the family tradition continued. I’ve been going to the lake every year of my life since, from babyhood to the present, when I now bring my own babies to my beloved lake. There is no family photo album without the lake in the background. There are the funny skinny dipping baby photos, the fishing victories and the embarrassingly small catches that made us all laugh, the campfire photos of us seated in a big circle while we retell the family stories that we all know but still adore hearing. Because they’re a part of our shared history, a part of what binds us together through thick and thin.
When I was nine, my grandparents bought their own cabin on the lake, and we took a great deal of pride in our claim to a small slice of the lake. Our one-week sojourns became regular weekends that stretched from Memorial Day to early fall. My cousins and I spent hours playing The Little Mermaid in the shallow water and competing to see who could do the best cannon balls off of the raft after dinner. My dad took us out for regular canoeing lessons on Sunday mornings, and we became P.I.T.s – pyromaniacs in training – to learn proper and safe firework lighting techniques. We started playing cards with the rest of the family around age six, and it was part of the initiation that our grandpa wouldn’t hold back on us, either in his playing or his trash talk.
And then, when I was fifteen, my parents bought their own place on the lake, down the road from my grandparents. It was a pretty seamless transition and a natural time for it as my sister was in her third trimester of pregnancy with her first child. I’ll always remember that summer, floating in a giant inner tube with Dawn, her belly swollen as we anticipated the birth of the newest member of our little clan. Emilie, and then her little sister Marie, both grew up swimming, fishing, and relaxing by the lake, just as Dawn and I did.
My parents’ cabin represents so much to me, not just as the site of many precious family memories, but as a symbol of my family’s values. It isn’t – and never will be – the fanciest cabin on our lake, but that was never important to us. I’ve lost count of how many times my dad has said to me while we quietly fish for bass after dinner, “Lindsay, I know our cabin is small, but I can’t think of anyone on this lake who has more fun than we do.” And it’s true. We’ve spent damp holiday weekends in hoodies, huddled around barely burning campfires, but never once did any of us wish for a bigger cabin that would afford more room for spreading out. We just marked it up to our tough and plucky (read: charmingly stubborn) nature as Mikulskys. There have been hot and crowded weekends where we were packed into every square inch of sleeping space, from beds to cots to the old pull-out sofa bed, so that the cabin looked like an obstacle course, but we always just embraced it as part of family bonding and laughed about it the next day. The fun has never been about material luxuries – it’s been about the luxury of having a family that genuinely enjoys spending time together.
I’m both filled with gratitude for the new memories made this past summer – Jonah finally learning to love swimming in the water and my dad and I getting caught out in the canoe in a thunderstorm for the first time in over 30 years of fishing together – and feeling the familiar ache of knowing that our little cabin will soon be closed up for the winter. It’s a place that feeds my soul, that anchors me and makes me feel connected to the world before me – to the people who loved that lake for decades before I ever made my appearance – and after me – to the people who will make memories there long after I am gone. I have a different home that I feel connected to now, the house where I’m raising my children and do my day-to-day living, but the cabin will always be the site of my roots, the continuous and steadfast presence that was always there, through all of the transitions and ups and downs of life.
Staying connected to your sacred places and rituals is, I believe, an important part of self-care. They keep us connected to our core – the unwavering parts of us that remain consistent when nothing else is. They remind us of who we are when we might otherwise forget. They reconnect us to our people when we might otherwise feel alone. Taking time out of a hectic schedule to visit a cabin or a park can feel indulgent, but these places orient us in a rapidly changing world. The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed or uncertain, I urge you to take a time-out and visit the place that speaks to your soul.
Are you comfortable sharing what places are sacred to you? If so, I’d love to hear about it. I invite you to comment below.