Saturday, April 18, 2009

What Can Happen in the Woods

I haven’t said too much about myself here in this blog, because I’m not sure how “safe” it is to do so. Or sensible. I mean, if I write about my broken foot, will fetishists read my words for reasons I don’t intend? . . . But then I can’t live my life in a box, and neither can I avoid writing about myself. And anyway, why hide it? It’s no huge secret that I recently lost my job through downsizing, after having held the position since 1995. The experience shook me up.

Before the trauma of job loss, I had a long recovery from a broken right foot. (Google “Jones fracture” if you want an idea of what I went through.) There was no driving or walking for about five months. That experience did a lot more than shake me up; it got me off balance, figuratively and literally.

When you feel like the floor has dropped out from beneath you, when your footing is unsure both metaphorically and literally, you desperately look for things that make you feel grounded again.

And one of the things that has helped me recuperate from the last few years of struggling has been “getting out in nature.” I was reminded of the connection this month when I read Jeanette Winterson’s column, in which she writes,

I think that the really bad time of my depression was when I could not find that happiness in simple things. I devised a ritual to help myself through it, and to re-make the connection with the natural physical world that gets lost in depression.

What I did was to sit outside, quietly, raining or not, and concentrate completely on a leaf or a flower or a stone, feeling it, looking at it, putting it to my face, sometimes in my mouth, until I recognised it again, as both separate from and part of me. At my worst I just lay in the rain, or sometimes even the snow, until I could feel something not in my own head.

I am not sure this would work for everyone, but I know that finding the way out of the dark labyrinth has to happen in connection, in relation, and can’t happen in the head alone—where the monsters are.

Reading this, I was reminded of how I felt the first time I hobbled into the woods after being on crutches so long. It was April 2, 2008, and I had just experienced a peak of frustration in my healing process: Six months after my fracture, I was still wearing an Aircast for most of my so-called walking, the doctor was gradually moving me into a stiff-soled shoe, I was finally driving again, but the X-rays still showed abysmally slow healing of the bone.

Emotionally I had hit the wall; I had lost faith in my body’s ability to recover and the doctors’ ability to heal. I had been helpless and cooped up all winter. It was spring, yet the docs hadn’t been able to see any improvement for months. And if anything, my foot was hurting more and more, the more I used it. I hope you never have to know what this feels like, physically or emotionally.

Anyway, on April 2 a year ago, in the midst of all this, I went AWOL at lunch and drove myself to Gans Creek Wild Area, where I encourage you not to go, because the place is overused and trampled and that breaks my heart. Because it is my favorite place to go hiking myself. And by myself.

Something in me was throwing a tantrum that day. So I decided I would take my “inner brat” for a walk. I worried about my foot: “Is this really okay?” But an inner rebel answered: “Who’s telling me no? Who’s giving me any direction in this process at all? It hurts almost as much to walk in the Aircast as it does to walk in this shoe.”

I struck a deal with my internal voices: “I will go slowly and steadily and carefully. As soon as I get any sign of being tired I’ll turn back. I have plenty of time. No one cares where I am right now. It’s all right. Let’s go walking.”

It was an incredibly sunny day, and I felt like a prisoner on his first day back in freedom. I immediately started feeling better, on that well-loved path, hearing the birds singing, the chorus frogs clicking at a nearby farm pond . . . the smell of the cedars, which all seemed intensely alive and green. Tiny, brave, tender blades of grass poking up like bristles in the middle of the trail, where I was trampling them with my lumbering limp.

I decided I was getting tired of limping, so I stopped for a minute, lined up both my feet, carefully distributing my weight evenly on them both, and then resumed walking, slowly, focusing on trying to move smoothly and without limping. “Naturally,” the way I vaguely remembered being able to do.

It was very hard, but not for the reason I had thought: It was hard because limping had become a habit, born of favoring my hurt foot out of fear.

I only got as far as what is called “Shooting Star Bluff” on the maps (sadly, the shooting stars are almost all eroded from the little glade area by now); and I reclined on a big rock, stared up at the intensely bright blue sky, watched a turkey vulture or two glide around up there, closed my eyes, and began to weep tears of homecoming and relief.

On that day I became my own health advisor. That hour in the woods brought me all kinds of revelations; about the toxicity of being around computers too much; my need to be alone on a regular basis, preferably in the woods; the quality of nature that enables me to hear my internal voices (the wise ones) clearly.

I have realized that—contrary to my constant experiences in home, work, and yard, contrary to my internal struggles, my emotions, doubts, and endless confusions—in nature, there is nothing that needs my attention; everything is exactly where it should be (not counting trash or graffiti or stuff like that). Nothing needs “doing” out there. There is no “to-do list” on the trail.

If sticks and fallen leaves clutter the ground in vast disarray, it’s all perfect just as it is. If the detritus of rotting heartwood spills messily from an opening of a thick, senescent tree, that’s okay; in fact, it’s part of natural perfection. I don’t need to do a damn thing. If pretty ferns grow from the base of this rock but not from that similar rock over there, it’s not inconsistent, it’s just a sweet surprise. The woods remove me from my stressed-out, anxious, overwhelmed, day-to-day reality, and I need it.

. . . I’m really looking forward to hiking tomorrow.


Just me said...

What a wonderful post!!! When we are are at rock bottom and losing faith in our ability to heal from the inside, sometimes it is the simplest of things that helps us regain the balance. I am emerging from just such a state. For me it is walks along the seafront or above the harbour that restores my inner peace. xx

Julie said...

Thank you for the compliment, Reets. I can and want to write a lot more posts on this subject: The ability of the natural world to heal us and to bring us home. It worries me that so many people (especially youth) never get outside. To me, that means they probably never get relaxed or "real," either.