Posted by: Mark Nielsen | June 1, 2011

Closure – Of Cottages and Marriages

The former “Grayhaven”. Saxeville, WI .

As many of you know, I’m in the last stages of a divorce these days. As a result of that, we’ve had to sell our Wisconsin lake cottage, seen above.

It’s honestly one of the things I grieve most within this process. I’m trying hard not to elevate it above the more meaningful spiritual/emotional losses –like the changing needs of my son, as I prepare to move out of the only home he has associated me with in his nine years of life. But the loss of the cottage is real, and the pain of it deserves to be acknowledged. Emerging church teacher and author Tony Jones wrote about his family cabin at his blog, Theoblogy, this week, which is what sparked my thinking about my own.

Among other gifts, the Saxeville/Wild Rose house was my writing retreat, my proving ground for how to grow a food garden, my trial-and-error canvas for construction or creative projects, and my built-in space for practicing hospitality, by giving other loved ones a place to run away to for a few days.

In seven years, I became closer with my part-time neighbors there (Milwaukeeans originally, around my parents’ age), than I’ve ever been with our immediate full-time neighbors in Evanston and Skokie. Meanwhile, I’ve always lived in the Chicago metro area, and never had access to a “sleepaway camp” or other rural/wilderness experiences as a kid. Same goes for true “city life”, though I’ve made up for that by staying within a mile of Chicago proper since I was 18.

So as an overeducated suburban brat, I’ve wrestled with the spiritual role of “wilderness” in my life for years now. Modern people in the developed world have so few frontiers left to us anymore, and every frontier is an opportunity for self-discovery, testing one’s mettle, and building new communities. The “risk” of discomfort or inconvenience, of getting “back to the land”, has many well-established rewards that come along with it. For example, I made five or six summer canoe trips to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters during my thirties.

I always came home feeling like I had enjoyed meeting the “wild man” Mark that comes out when I’m up there, exposed to the elements, with friends gathered around for mutual support and a small dose of fart jokes. Thus, having to give up the cottage (which is habitable in winter, plumbed, etc. …not a rugged, middle-of-nowhere cabin, I’ll be honest) is like being exiled from some part of myself that I only fully discovered seven years ago.

However, I’m also conscious of the economic –possibly even elitist– realities of it: that my “bi-coastal/urban lake+rural lake” existence (not to mention two houses) was a privilege so few have in the world.

So now comes the _disciplined_ season, of either

  1. finding that wild place to go to “in my heart” (or perhaps at a local forest preserve for a few hours, or a weekend camping trip);
  2. pressing friends far afield to practice their hospitality, when I am feeling driven by the Spirit out into the wilderness; and/or
  3. busting my butt to save a little money and maybe in a few years let God restore my dual citizenship.

Coincidentally, I also recently finished a fine John Irving novel called The Fourth Hand, about wounded men (literally and psychically), and second chances.

Cover of "The Fourth Hand"

Cover of The Fourth Hand

It also delves into the role of plainspoken Packer fans (and their ilk… a Brooklyn Italian hairdresser is also prominent) in re-educating an elitist, high-tone Manhattan celebrity, about an authentic life that he never knew could exist for him. Not surprisingly, there’s a lakeside cabin that figures prominently in the book. Also not surprisingly, a good woman is the guide for the man, toward his most hidden and unloved self.

So that’s the journey I’m on, too. Growing up before I grow old, one might say. Not a trip I’m excited about, though.  I feel like I lost one of the oars to my rowboat. On the other hand, let’s not forget: I’m a canoe guy. One paddle is enough. Plus I’m not sure if having a woman along for the ride is the best thing for me right about now. Probably she’d be too tempted to climb in the back of my canoe and steer. But I’ll trust God with the itinerary, and to make the necessary introductions if I end up needing some help. Till then, a little self-reliance training is the plan of study for the next few years.

What was that warning Jesus said to Peter? “When you are older, others will take you… and you will be led where you do not wish to go.”

Got that right, Mr. Christ.


  1. JOHN IRVING IS ONE OF MY FAVORITE AUTHORS. And, “The Fourth Hand” is one of my favorite books. Oh lands.

    Well done.

    • Yeah, John takes the tiger by the tail, doesn’t he?

      I saw your Owen Meany “Like” at Facebook, so I figured you would get what I’m talking about. I’m working on a novel of my own, set in a hunting camp/family camp on Cape Cod in 1959 (or maybe in Wisconsin/Minnesota… it keeps changing). It’s loosely inspired by _Hotel New Hampshire_, and my travels thru WI, MN, MI, MA and up to Maine, and some of the hybridized theology of _Prayer for Owen Meany_, and the strange role of all those “camp meetings” for lots of Protestants in the 19th and early 20th centuries. (and still today, a little bit)

      And… get this: I let WordPress auto-link the post to Google Maps for Skokie, IL. But when I test-clicked thru to the map, it says that Skokie is somewhere near Benton Harbor, MI. !!! I simply cannot deny there’s something “fishy” going on here with you, Diane.

      • Well, I don’t know where Benton Harbor is, but I can see that would be a bit weird.

        I have a pet tortoise. His name is Owen. He is named after the novel.

      • @Diane, It’s official… we somehow got two halves of the same brain at birth:

        I’ve had two separate pet tortoises, one Chinese box named Carlos in the 80s to early 90s, and after him an ornate box named William the Immigrant (purchased in MA, but likely from Arizona or SW somewhere… ) from maybe ’96 to 2003.
        Pero yo no tengo una tortuga ahora. (William escaped from his swim box out in the backyard a few years ago… might still be in the park next door somewhere, or hopefully a nice kid found him… or her… who knows?) So not something fishy here, but something turtly, apparently. Slow & steady wins the race, & all that.

        Friends have given me lots of turtlephernalia over the years, too: a small pin I wear, stone or ceramic figurines, stuffed animals, etc. I’m an amateur Native American folklorist and storyteller. Turtle, spider, and hawk are who I feel the most “kinship” with… though I think I’ve heard “spirit guide” animals are officially intended for groups, not individuals. (or was that totem poles?…) I don’t go too far w/ it all spiritually, which might cheapen it as a white “pretender”… but it’s a cool lens to see life through occasionally.

        Benton Harbor/St. Joe – about 1.5 hours south of you, I’d guess. I have a friend with a retreat center in central MI, where I’ve been many times, and have occasionally made the drive due west to South Haven. Been thru Holland once, can’t recall the reason, but maybe going to Calvin College for a road trip/concert. I saw somewhere you’ve been to their Faith & Writing Fest… how many times? I keep wanting to go, but then Life happens.

        As for my thoughts on John Irving, and his fiction “godmother” to some extent Flannery O’Connor, check this earlier blog post:

  2. I don’t think it materialistic to acknowledge the physical as well as emotional losses. We are made physical mankind and will be raised as such though in a state beyond our comprehension. It was painful to give up all the work that I had put into our Hillsborough property. It made me feel like I’d never want to own a home again. The last time I mowed the lawn I’d worked so hard to make good my riding lawnmower practically blew up as if to say, you’ll not need me anymore. Years later I was in the area and saw the forty Leyland Cypress trees I’d planted forming a fortress-like forty foot tall wall around the property and once again felt the painful loss. I’m not going back there again.

    • Thanks for the encouragement, David. I had a similar experience to your mower “sign”, in having to cut down a big elm in Skokie last fall.
      On the other hand, if the “letting go” is to do its full work of converting/healing our innermost heart, then some method of reclaiming Hillsborough and all that good hard work is one way for that work to continue bearing fruit in the present. You may not be ready to go back there again, but I’m becoming convinced that the way forward for many people is to loop back around to some hard aspects of the past, see them from a place ABOVE where (and who) you were back when you were there before, and then re-integrate that life experience somehow. Experience makes us better teachers, if we learn from it instead of burying it. Exiling the hurt self is why shrinks make thousands of dollars a year off the likes of us… it takes courage to face into painful experiences and stupid choices in our lives. You’ve been doing it. You know what I mean. So maybe I’m just reminding myself right now.

      • Good thoughts. I actually meant I’m not going to drive by there and look at the property again and nothing broader than that. I see how it would convey a message on more than one level to any thinking person.

        The burying / trying to forget / running away approach has been evident in me and my X-spouse who did not have ample time to heal from her first marriage, thus bringing some seeds of destruction into ours.

    • One more important Saxeville photo, and a little story… just cuz I wanna, before it’s too late!

      Jefferson Davis'  'Rebel Bell' , in Saxeville, WI

      This bell sits at the crossroads of what passes for downtown Saxeville: two unrented storefronts, the post office, and the fire station sit on each corner. Nevertheless, the bell, in front of the firehouse, is pretty great. It was brought back by Union soldiers from one of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’plantations toward the end of the Civil War. It was used to call slaves in from the fields, and it still works (very loud). When it came to Wisconsin, it was used as the main schoolbell for a number of years. Now that’s what I call the RIGHT kind of re-purposing.

  3. Mark,
    This would be a significant loss in and of itself. It is magnified by, and magnifies the other losses you are facing. Writing will almost certainly help in your grieving process. I’m wishing you strength & support.

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