Going through life, minding your own business, you don’t always know why something pulls you, calls to you, why you feel compelled to keep pursuing it. You find it impossible to articulate the whyfor. You just know, deep in your bones, that you feel better, healed even, when you do it, heeding the call.
For me, moving through nature is the “it,” the forest is that “something” pulling.
I’ve loved playing in the woods since earliest memory.
My body has always preferred movement. Childhood games of hide and seek and kick the can morphed into adult athletic activities, especially those I can do outside, in forests, on my own with little fuss: running, hiking, cycling, xc skiing.
True happiness – awe – arrives when I combine nature and movement. Even better if my dogs can share in, and contribute to, the activity and my sense of awe.
I’ve been privileged to move through some jaw-dropping awe-inspiring places: running in the Grand Canyon, around Mt. Rainier, along the Inca Trail; kayaking the Middle Fork of the Salmon River; backcountry skiing in the Cascades and Rockies; rock climbing in Yosemite; hiking in Banff and Yoho; xc skiing in Yellowstone and Glacier; cycling in Jasper.
While being in those magical places, and for a long time after, I felt…good. Happy. Content. Whole.
That sense of contentedness eventually fades, though. So I keep seeking, scratching an ever-present itch. I discovered that a sense of awe is present even when I’m doing what is, for me, routine: running with my dogs along a trail in the forest near my house.
Yes, finding awe in nature heals. I can’t tell you how, but I know it’s true.
Researchers are working to hone in on the why and how awe in nature heals us, but they know there is a definite link. People find awe in many things – a beautiful painting or piece of music, a newborn, the stars on a clear night – but researchers are finding that it’s the special awe inspired by nature that provides healing.
As this year and decade come to a close, reflecting back, I see that those times when I seemed almost obsessed with getting out into the forest every day were times I needed self-care and healing. I would chastise myself for blowing off obligations, procrastinating on projects, avoiding social connections. But my mind and body knew I needed to be awed by nature to regain my equilibrium.
I just didn’t know exactly what caused my wounds, what exactly needed healing.
Now I do. This past year – 2019 – has been especially difficult and emotionally trying. I’ve been grappling with some exceedingly challenging family dynamics, with feelings stuffed down deep for decades that erupted to the surface when my narcissistic mother passed away in May. Suddenly, in the drama she purposefully created surrounding that event, so much made sense. I’ve been an unwilling passenger on an emotional rollercoaster for the past six months – for all of my life, actually – and now, finally sick of it, I’m getting off. I need to stop going in circles, a queasy feeling of guilt and anger in my gut.
With that goal in mind, I began reading, researching, learning and ultimately adjusting my understanding of past events.
I’m not alone, I’m not broken, and most importantly, I am good enough.
Throughout those darkest months I kept going into the forest with my dogs, or for a simple walk down a country lane, daily if possible. I let the dogs love me unconditionally and I let nature wrap me in her healing sense of awe.
Yet I continued trying to stuff my feelings because they’re so uncomfortable. It’s also how I was raised, to never express my feelings. I slept poorly, had haunted dreams. Give it time, I told myself. Time heals all wounds.
Maybe. The universe was sending me other ideas, however.
A dear friend, the one person I’ve shared some of these struggles with, someone who has had her own challenges with loss this year, mentioned a concept called expressive writing that she has found helpful. As a writer I can see the sense and benefit of it.
Early in November – NaNoWriMo month, when I had the less-than-brilliant idea of wrestling with my “mommy issues” in fiction – I watched a video of various authors giving writing advice. I believe it was Anne Rice who said, “Go where the pain is.”
Like a stab in the heart, that got my attention. I instantly knew that was the key to my ability to move on. A fictional account wouldn’t work. I had to be real.
I then dusted off Anne Lamott’s bird by bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life, probably the best book on writing I’ve read and reread. Parts that resonated with me when I first read the book in 2003 practically shout at me now.
In a late chapter titled Finding Your Voice, Lamott ponders writing about difficult things. When people let their monsters out for a little onstage interview, it turns out that we’ve all done or thought the same things, that this is our lot, our condition. We don’t end up with a brand on our forehead. Instead, we compare notes. We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just into any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues. You can’t do this without discovering your own true voice, and you can’t find your true voice and peer behind the door and report honestly and clearly to us if your parents are reading over your shoulder. They are probably the ones who told you not to open that door in the first place. You can tell if they’re there because a small voice will say, “Oh, whoops, don’t say that, that’s a secret,…”
…Write as if your parents are dead. …Truth seems to want expression. Unacknowledged truth saps your energy and keeps you and your characters wired and delusional. But when you open the closet door and let what was inside out, you can get a rush of liberation and even joy.
The final paragraph of that chapter – I underlined all of these bits years ago – drives the point home: But you can’t get to any of these truths by sitting in a field smiling beatifically, avoiding your anger and damage and grief. Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth. We don’t have much truth to express unless we have gone into those rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not to go in to. When we have gone in and looked around for a long while, just breathing and finally taking it in—then we will be able to speak in our own voice and to stay in the present moment. And that moment is home.
Easier said than done, of course. Every day, though, I find a little more courage and strength to write about the “anger and damage and grief” as I’m moving through the forest, awestruck. This post is a baby step.
My new year’s resolution: that 2020 is the year I finally find home.
Feature photo: A fiery September sunset.