Transformative Moments, Addiction, Recovery, and "Constant Poetry": a Conversation with Win Kurlfink
“I just find it a kind of constant poetry to never let myself forget, as often as I can throughout the day, how beautiful this place is that I am in, no matter how gray the snow is because it's later into the winter and it's all road salt,” Win Kurlfink said. “We get to be here. That's a profoundly beautiful thing.”
Win lives in southeast Michigan, where he moved in 2016 with his wife and two boys. He wasn’t all that excited about living in the area, at first. A group therapist with master’s degrees in clinical psychology, family ecology, and environmental sociology, the move for Win and his family was more about getting closer to his wife’s family.
He grew up in Pittsburgh, but came to the west side of Michigan’s lower peninsula in the summers to spend time at his great aunt’s cabin. So, he always thought he’d end up living close to Lake Michigan. “But there are some things that really captured my heart about where we are.”
He and I talked about how both of us, as well as many of the people who have shared their story with the Great Lakes Spirituality Project, have experienced transformative moments along the waters of the Great Lakes Basin. For Win, such a moment came at Pointe Mouillee, where the Huron River meets Lake Erie at the Lake’s west end.
Great Blue Heron by James Marvin Phelps (Pointe Mouillee St. Game Area, Rockwood, MI)
“You know the opening scene of The Lion King, when it opens up and there are just birds of dinosaur proportions flying through everything? I walked in there one summer day, and it may be as much a sort of imaginative memory as anything, but I walked in there and it felt sort of like that,” Win recounted. “There were so many large wetland water birds, ones that I know and many of which I've never really seen before. But I went in there and was just knocked off my feet.”
“I spent the afternoon just walking and finding a spot and sitting and just utterly… there aren’t words, you know?” Win said. “It’s this kind of thing that John Philip Newell, who's a beautiful author, calls a ‘thin place.’”
A “thin place,” Newell writes, is “where the division between spirit and matter can scarcely be discerned... These places are like sacraments. They disclose to us the thinness that is everywhere present but that we often fail to access. They shine with a beauty that we often live in forgetfulness of.”
Pointe Mouillee hasn’t always been such a place, according to Win. Back in the 1800s it was “just a beautiful stretch of wetlands,” but later, descendants of the European settlers “were the ones in power with all the money. They built all this stuff, and they dumped it all into the rivers and we look at what we have done to ourselves by just decimating what really are the lungs of our region, this vast wetland.”
Then, about twenty years ago, a coalition of state, environmental, and sporting groups worked to clean up the area, and now it’s a thriving wetland again, he said.
From the perspective of dealing with addiction as a group therapist, Kurlfink can easily see the connection between how we treat the environment and how we treat our bodies.
“Look what we have done to ourselves, “ Win said. “We tend to talk about these things like they're different. Well, naturally we do, because it feels that way in our ordinary daily life. That river is not me. I'm not the river. I'm not this place.”
Win draws a parallel between place and person with “precisely the same reverence that I have for my own physical well-being as I do for this particular region... So, my personal recovery in my addictive behaviors is no different.”
“To see how this ties into this experience that I had at Point Mouillee, for example, here's a place that long before I came along was well into its recovery, its restoration. Dredging, for example – which is digging up all the unconscious material from the wetlands and finding all kinds of things that we've dumped in there – that's the restoration dredging that goes on in Pointe Mouillee, no different than the personal psychological work I do.”
“Now, this isn't necessarily the kind of conversation I'm going to have with ordinary folks just trying to quit drinking. We're not in that space. But it's the same work,” Kurlfink said. “The word that addiction folks use is ‘recovery,’ regardless of scale. That's the work we get to do. What a profound honor and privilege.”