The picture with this post is of the Chinese Garden in Portland, Oregon. It’s a beautiful place, an oasis of tranquility in the midst of a busy city. On tour through the garden, our guide pointed out various Chinese symbols and icons. For example, she told us that the bat stands for good fortune and the fish for abundance. She said that the dragon is a devourer of evil, while the two lion statues at the entrance to the garden are the guardians of its peace. I also learned that the zig-zag bridge, which crosses a water lily pond in the garden, is shaped the way it is to force walkers to slow down and take time to let the beauty of the garden sink in.
Wandering the garden after the tour, I tried to follow the wisdom of the bridge. I became totally absorbed in the Chinese garden’s gentle beauty. I let go of all the questions that were preoccupying my attention and was totally one with the space. Whenever I can get outside of my head this way, let go of my own thoughts and ruminations, I know that I am doing something good for my mental well-being. Later, sipping tea and enjoying almond cookies in the tea room while listening to a traditional Chinese musician, I felt the peace the lions were there to ensure. After a fun but hectic day of travel, the garden was a sanctuary, a safe place to calm down and let the beauty of it all sink in.
It reminded me of how important having safe places are and the role that they play in one’s recovery from mental illness. Maybe our need for safe places goes back to when we were children, and our parents, if we were fortunate to have healthy and loving parents, were the safe place from which we could venture forth into the world. We felt safe to go out, because we knew that, if the world got too much for us, we could hurry home to safety. Over time we developed more confidence in venturing further from home, but we could always go back to our safe place when we needed to.
In recovery, I’ve learned that for many of us, a family is still our safe place. My wife and my adult children are my safest of safe places. I know other people in recovery who’ve made a family of close friends whom they can count on to be trustworthy and understanding. For others, it is a group that will be there for them no matter what happens. Maybe the community at where they worship, perhaps their AA group or some other recovery group, maybe friends with whom they’ve bonded over the years for whatever reason. So many different kinds of groups can be safe places. If we have more than one such family or group in our lives, multiple safe places, then we are blessed.
Given how important connecting with other people is in recovery, it is natural that families and communities become safe places. Yet, I also know how helpful, sometimes essential, a physically safe place can be in recovery. Outside of the worship hour, planned programs, or events, I’ve had people throughout my ministry come and sit in the sanctuary. Sitting there for a while as to be renewed by time in a safe place. Some people turn their rooms into sanctuaries, decorated with objects that are talismans of safety and security. Pictures of loved ones, those with whom we have felt safe in the past, can transform a room into a safe place. A pet can be essential for one’s safe place. After a day out in the world, simply coming home and entering one’s safe place melts the stress away. Tragically for homeless people, the lack of such a safe physical place makes a recovery all that more difficult.
For an afternoon, I found my safe place at the Chinese Garden in Portland. The fish, bats, dragons, and lions were my talismans. A real safe place, it helped to restore my soul. I invite you to reflect on the safe places in your own life, whatever they might be.
Ordained in 1973, Bob Griggs has served UCC churches in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Minnesota. He is an Advisory Council member at Vail Place, a club house for people living with mental illness. He is also the author of A Pelican of the Wilderness: Depression, Psalms, Ministry, and Movies and Recovering from Depression: Forty-Nine Helps.