Mental health is no longer talked about in hushed whispers. We're allowed to become unstrung and to do something about it without being labeled--at least by most people--as flipped out. That's all to the good. But even better is not getting unstrung in the first place.
I haven't always batted a thousand on this score, but since I was a small boy growing up in a troubled home, I've looked for thinking places--places I could go to sort out the things that were troubling me and return at least mildly refreshed in spirit and soul. I believe in such places, and wherever I've lived, I've staked them out. Their nature has changed over the years, and I have changed, but the need has always been the same. And so has the search.
In the three decades I've lived in Orange County, my places have metamorphosed considerably--mostly because I've discovered that I can be more alone in a crowd than when I am physically isolated. That, of course, is a matter of personal preference. We should seek out whatever works for us. Here are some of the thinking places that work for me in Orange County in 1989.
Anaheim Stadium--I want rather desperately for the Angels to win, but even more, I want them to play. During the six months of the professional baseball season, my premier thinking place is available to me. Football season doesn't count. The ambiance, rhythm of the game and nature of the football crowd tend to stress rather than soothe me. I go to football games to watch football. I go to baseball games to probe my soul.
It doesn't work unless I go alone. I enjoy going with other people, but not when I need to work out something in my head. On most baseball nights, I can find a seat in the upper deck where I don't have immediate neighbors, settle in with a beer--and think. I know what is happening on the field; that's part of the process. But the pace and nature of baseball, and the environs of Anaheim Stadium, give me a greater sense of peace than any other place I know. I've worked my way through a lot of thorny problems there.
Any public library--I know intimately a good many Orange County public libraries. They are marvelous places to get priorities in order and to understand that whatever is troubling you is not unique. It has been experienced--and written about--for hundreds of years, and in a library, you are in the intimate company of all those authors.
Sometimes, I browse in the book stacks aimlessly--and frequently find myself pulling down a book with passages that help me. But mostly, I sit at one of the tables, a book open in front of me, and think. And something about all those books surrounding me puts my problems in better perspective.
I suppose I prefer the UCI library simply because it was so close to me for the many years I taught writing courses at UCI--but also because there are so many places in it to get lost. However, almost any library will do quite nicely, and I always stop when I'm in my car and troubled and pass a library. I've yet to meet one I didn't like.
The beach in the morning and in winter--We are blessed to live on the edge of the Pacific; it is never more than a few minutes away, standing by to open our heads with its breadth and depth and suggestion of infinity. But--unlike the ballpark and the library--people can get in the way of my discourse with the sea. So I go there when I don't have to share it.
The best time for me is early in the morning; even during the tourist season, the beach is deserted then. And in the winter--especially when the weather is cold and the winds brisk--I can usually have the Pacific to myself anytime during the day.
My favorite beach is Corona del Mar. Sometimes I take a lawn chair and sit on the bluff and look out to sea; sometimes I walk the breakwater. But always, I draw on a sense of the certainty and continuity--and occasional peevishness--of nature that is healing to me.
Dinner alone--There is a great difference between aloneness and loneliness. When I need to think through a problem, I seek aloneness--but I'm never lonely. And one of the places that works best for me is a small, quiet, intimate restaurant. Orange County has dozens of them--I have my own list that I add to regularly--and the glow of a drink or two and a leisurely meal in that environment has become growingly therapeutic to me. It's important that I not be hassled or hurried. Loud talking nearby can be difficult, but I've learned to block that out.
I used to speculate about people who were eating alone, wondering why and mentally projecting some small tragedy of a broken relationship. I don't do that anymore. I know that they--like me--may be dining alone by choice, using a quiet, relaxed meal to help sort out confusion.