Happiness is a Camp on the Russian River

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Twenty-nine men around a campfire.  Behind us the Russian River flows gently to its mouth in nearby Jenner.  The river is warm, perfect for swimming.  I swam early Sunday morning, the morning fog still low above the mild water, the surface as smooth and glossy as a pane of glass.  If this isn’t peace I don’t know what is: serenity achieved.

This is the fourth year in a row we’ve camped along this river.  While the weekends aren’t different, the experiences change.  We have grown a year older; our lives have moved on for better or worse; we’re different men than we were the year before.  A core of us has participated since the first camp-out.  A few haven’t been able to make all the retreats.  New guys have joined in.  For the past two years Thomas has raised the meal standards to restaurant level.  This isn’t camping in the wild!

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We sit around the fire each night and share our stories.  We mostly know each other, so listening to the new chapters brings new insights.  Though there’s no knowing what truly stirs inside a man, nothing dire was expressed this year.  We’re holding steady.

My own campfire story was about happiness.  Isn’t that the goal…as we trudge the road of happy destiny?  Another commented that perhaps contentment was a better word.  For me, contentment is happiness, a feeling that all is as right as it’s supposed to be. Happiness is the mean.  There are days that are happier than others, some sadder. Sometimes it’s impossible or inappropriate to be happy. Yet the ability to come back to contented happiness is a worthy process.

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We choose to be happy, or not, every day.  Choosing happiness is a decision that gives us the possibility of creating real happiness in our lives. It’s declarative.  We don’t need to live a past-derived future, colored by those times in our lives when happiness eluded us.  We know those times.  They’re an old story—our old stories.

In my case, I can chart the day when I chose to be happy, without needing happiness for fulfillment, but wanting it for myself as a way to live my life without fear.  The day was December 25th, 2012, and my sons gave it to me.

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The dictionary defines fellowship as “the companionship of individuals in a congenial atmosphere and on equal terms.” We sit here around our fire, companions on equal terms, in a congenial atmosphere. It’s our fellowship, the collective force that binds us in common pursuit.  Together, we’re stronger than any one of us individually.  It’s the way I define a power greater than myself.

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During the day some of us set out on marathon bike rides; others run.  We’re an athletic group. I joined a group to hike in the Armstrong Redwood Forest, where virgin redwoods grow more than 300 feet tall and are as thick as an elephant.  Some have been growing here since Leif Erickson made landfall in the New World five hundred years before Columbus “discovered” it.

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Later, five of us drove to Jenner and watched three sea lions dance together in the water beneath the cliffs, while dozens of seals basked on the nearby sun-warmed sand.  Pelicans flew in strict formation before diving straight down upon an unsuspecting meal. Later, we walked on the beach near Goat Rock, our younger contingent playing football. This, too, is happiness.

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Before Cow Hollow, the only similar fellowship I experienced was in college.  My class at Bowdoin was small enough that I knew every classmate by name.  I still do.  Those four years in Maine stand out as the most special years in my life.  The fellowship I enjoyed there was different from that around the fire here on the Russian River.  We were young men setting out in life together, filled with promise, aspirations, dreams.  Some were realized. Others were derailed by the very reasons we now enjoy a different kind of fellowship at Cow Hollow. It’s an odd kind of continuum.

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I’m gratified that our fellowship doesn’t discriminate by age.  I’m old enough to be some of the guys’ father—well maybe only two!  I learn from them as I hope they may learn from me.

On Sunday morning we didn’t hang around, setting off well before checkout time.  Up and out.  This precious time together was over, until repeated again next September. No one knows the course the year will take.  Some of us will be here again; others won’t.  I hope I’ll be on next year’s retreat. If I’m not, it had better be for a damn good reason!

Here’s to happiness.

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