Nature and I have been out of sorts for quite some time. It wasn’t always this way. When I was a young girl I spent most of my time outdoors. We grew up in a community tucked away in a serene valley surrounded by foothills to the Rocky Mountains. There were manicured and less manicured trails, creeks, rock formations perfect for playing masters of the rock and a nearby equestrian center that our neighborhood crew would claim as our playground after dark. I collected craw fish and rain frogs and rode my bike (on accident) over a few rattlesnakes. Nature and wildlife wasn’t something to shy away from, though I think I always had a healthy respect for the power and beauty of non-human creatures. In my late teens I was fond of camping and backpacking, catching, gutting, cooking and eating fish during such excursions. I was an avid skier well into my late adolescence relishing in the intoxicating rush of those Colorado peaks. But as I resigned myself to the many indoor demands of adulting, my relationship with nature began to take a turn.
It is possible that mildly traumatic experiences played a role in the demise of our once thrilling relationship. When I was 18 I was bit by a brown recluse spider which later made way for contracting a nasty case of impetigo, an unrelenting staff infection, that required six months of antibiotics and a whole lot of pain and embarrassment as the primary spider bite puncture rested just below my right butt cheek. It was only a few years later that I was attacked by an angry gang of squirrels that dominated an outdoor eating area in the midst of my college campus. Few people understand how ferocious those little beasts can become when they no longer maintain any respect for the human species.
So perhaps those incidences left my relationship with nature feeling slightly strained, but they’re not significant enough to explain why now as a 36 year old woman, I rarely make the time or have the desire to be outdoors. I’m not exactly sure when or how or why or where my desire went. Every now and then something awakens it and so I attempt to re-engage with the vast world I now feel so disconnected from only to discover I am extremely skittish and easily discouraged. I jump out of my own shoes when I unexpectedly stumble upon a gathering of deer eating their evening meal where I take my dog out to remember he’s still an animal. I freak out when a bug flies in my direction. Once while living in Uganda, I was working from our cottage patio when a praying Mantis flew straight for my unexpecting face. I instinctively screamed loud enough to startle the entire compound and ran for safety just inside the patio doors. I then spent the next 30 minutes tossing shoes at the bold mantis in an effort to annoy it enough that it might abandon my outdoor office so that I might return to my work. Suffice it to say that my efforts were entirely unsuccessful and clearly ridiculous.
I recently heard these words come out of my 14 year old’s mouth: “I HATE being outdoors.” This was the same daughter who would pick up worms and snakes with her bare hands. The daughter who loved rollie pollies and playing in the dirt. And now, a decade later, she screams at the sight of a bug flying toward her face as well. Admittedly, her response could very well be an indication of the influence of my own poor example. But it certainly has me wondering what else could be to blame for our mutual sense of disconnection from and fear of the world beyond the safety we find within those boxes we call homes.
“Enough is enough,” I declared about a month ago as I decided I would find a way to repair the rupture in my relationship with the great outdoors. Each Wednesday since then I have embarked upon an outdoor excursion with the three year old and the most lovable yet annoying chocolate lab in tow. Rain or shine, the three of us are learning how to explore and venture beyond our neighborhood parks every week. Only a month into these Wednesday excursions and I am just beginning to understand why my relationship with nature took a dive over a decade ago.
Today’s adventure led us to a lake only a few miles from where we currently reside. I knew it was going to eventually rain, so we needed to get a jump on our adventure. After parking our stereotypically middle class suburban family minivan, I grabbed our day pack, put the leash on the dog and walked in the direction of the lake with tiny one’s hand held safely in mine. There was a man fishing near the lake so I led the two little noise-makers in an entirely different direction. After nearly 30 minutes of walking I realized that the trail we were treading upon was leading us into areas less tamed by man-made landscaping measures.
My heart began to race a bit more as I saw signs indicating this was a protected wildlife habitat. I felt less in control of my surroundings and that’s when a new understanding was unearthed…or maybe it was actually re-earthed. When I was a child and especially a teen, my life was filled with chaos and traumas of varying degrees. I sought refuge in the natural world all around me not as an escape from the chaos, because there is a kind of chaos in the natural world as well. Somehow the natural chaos was expected, predictable in it’s wildness, held by something grander and larger than each individual component. It felt grounding to be in the midst of the world outdoors. It made me feel alive, like anything was possible. It revealed that beauty could be birthed from the chaos, that learning how to play in the dirt was essential to feeling grounded, and that being human was about being a part of this chaotic beautiful world.
As I moved further into adulthood, I think I began to imagine I could somehow escape the chaos and trauma of life, or at the very least, I believed I could minimize it all. Nature knew I was kidding myself and so I had to retreat from the ways it would whisper my folly. Or so I thought. But life has continued to feel chaotic, wild, and even traumatic in this chapter of adulthood as well. While venturing into the woods surrounding that lake today, I felt my heart race at the unpredictability and I heard the whispers. I remembered that a racing heart isn’t always an indication of harm to come. Sometime it’s the precursor to something breathtaking just beyond the horizon. The natural world is where we belong, despite all the ways we try to pretend like it’s not. All those structures we build and roads we pave – we think they keep us “safer” but perhaps they make us forget that we are not meant to be safe. I’m only now beginning to remember that we are really meant to simply belong to a wild and unpredictable natural world.
The turn of this new year has felt a little strange. It came about during an in-between season of my life. Often the Christmas season ushers forth a sense of conclusion or a wrapping up of sorts to the year. Those few days between exchanging gifts and ringing in the sparkly new year typically provide the perfect opportunity to reflect on the adventures afforded and the heartaches borne. Hope usually rises as I begin to envision a new start and wonder and anticipate what lies ahead. But this year was quite different.
The unexpected move-pocalypse of 2015 has yet to be fully unpacked and understood. We are each still wrestling and sorting out how this shift in location will continue to alter the trajectory of our narratives. And the uncertainty of how or when this new place will ever begin to feel like home is evidence of the in-between nature of our current circumstances. In the past, these kinds of narrative gaps, the vowels between the consonants, the spaces between what was and what will be – these have been difficult spaces for me to find rest. I’ve often tried to hurry through them, assuming that plowing through transition as quickly as possible is what is best for all involved so that a new normal can be established. On other occasions involving transition, I’ve simply busied myself or distracted myself, or self-soothed by employing go-to addictions – all likely an unconscious effort (most of the time) to avoid feeling the stripping away effect transition can have upon one’s sense of identity, or belonging, or purpose.
It became clear just before Christmas that none of those avoidance tactics were going to be adequate in this season of transition. There was no running away or side-stepping the ever-present sense that the losses needed to be felt and that the confusion that has ensued in the aftermath is inviting deeper levels of self-exploration. I’ve wandered into a gap between identities. I am once again living outside of the weekly rhythms of our extended families of origin. These tribes we are born into and formed out of carry so much power in the shaping and fostering of our identities (for good and for harm). We are sister or daughter or granddaughter or wise one or funny one or strong one or smart one or wounded one. Whenever we venture outside or beyond or away from our people we have a new opportunity to explore who we are separate from them. I’ve found this space to be especially terrifying. Who am I outside of the communities that have affirmed my existence, communities that have formed my own micro-world? What remains when those micro-worlds are fading into the distance?
A similar stripping away has unfolded professionally as I’ve nearly entirely walked away from my previously thriving private practice only retaining a handful of clients who wanted to continue the work via online/video sessions. When we transition vocationally we have an opportunity to explore who we are simply as human beings when we are not striving so hard to be human doings. I began working at the age of 12 generating my own income by way of babysitting thus beginning a 20+ year career in offering care to others in a whole host of different ways. This is the only substantial break I have ever been afforded aside from when I pursued my graduate degree (which I struggle to call a break given the intensity of the program I undertook while tending to three kids simultaneously). I know that this vocational pause is a luxury in our culture and in our world, but I am beginning to see why that is such a travesty. My body and brain and heart and health have been begging for some rest in the gaps all along.
So I’m not quite at the start of a new journey like I would have typically hoped for at the turn of a new calendar year. Instead, I’m in the gap lands and I’m coming to realize that I may need to be here for a little while. It’s clear that I’ve moved too quickly through this terrain in previous transitions. At times, I am certain, survival must have required only a quick pause in the gaps. But I must confess there were others that I unapologetically pushed through quicker than the speed of light. So there is lots of unfinished business in this place, lots of rest needed, lots of recovery for this compassion-fatigued soul. Ultimately it is where a patient grief must finally be allowed. Here’s to hoping that this intentional posture of sitting and staying in the gap as long as necessary leads to restoration and an increased capacity to listen well to the voice of a more stripped-down version of myself.
Featurette: A guest piece written by one of our readers. A small narrative vignette inviting us all to see the world from behind their eyes and hearts for just a moment. You can submit your short story for consideration here. Today’s guest piece is written by Jenny Hochmiller.
Being an educator takes a certain type of person, and I question if I am that type of person. After 6 years of experience, how is my level of confidence still shaky? Yes, my level of confidence is unrecognizably stronger from my initial days in the classroom, but I feel inept in my ability to make a strong impact. Am I in transition, or not? These conflicting thoughts bring such a strong wave of emotion, as if I’m a part of an abusive relationship – one I want to leave, but have such an unhealthy attachment to.
Going into education seemed like a natural fit. My teachers were some of my strongest mentors, and being a contributing member of a vibrant school community was something I longed for. Of course, a teenager’s perspective of a career versus the actual realities that exist within that career create a strong collide. I had more discourage me from going into the classroom than tell me it was a good idea, and the retention rates spoke for themselves. Yet, I refused to be a statistic.
So I dove right in, right into the Montbello neighborhood. Boy, was I in for a huge wake up call. My first year greeted me with teaching credit recovery classes on computers for every subject under the sun, an Algebra class full of 40 freshmen, three rooms to travel in between, a board vote to phase out our failing school over the next four years, a building void of a principal halfway through the year, and having to re-interview for my position three times within that year. Thank goodness for a strong bond with so many of my students and colleagues – we held each other up during what I regard as such a dark time. Many days I had to remind myself to breathe.
But for some strange reason, I wanted to stay. There was such a stark contrast from the environment I grew up in and the education I received, to the job I stepped into. Yet, I couldn’t imagine myself going anywhere else. The way I saw it, education is what defined my family. Education brought them from blue collar to white collar, no high school degree to ivy league degrees within just one generation. How could this community be denied what is considered the great equalizer of our time? From my perspective that equated to staying, because the more who stayed, potentially the less unstable the school would be. This was considering how teachers who had been there for two years were seen as veterans, and gained unprecedented respect from the students because they showed they cared enough to stay.
Flash forward to six years later, and I attribute so much of who I am to what this community has built within me. Perseverance and resilience, from days this non-crier would come home sobbing from brokenness in every aspect of the word. Drive to be the best educator I can be, despite feeling like the measures to meet this goal were impossible. Having so much of me being intertwined with a people who are now my family. And an endless desire for excellence, even if it feels like such a false hope that’s a dangling carrot in front of me.
The question now is, whether the level of self-sacrifice is too strong to continue. To be excellent requires a great deal of time. Time that bleeds into the evenings and weekends, when I’m supposed be enjoying time with family, friends, or simply indulging into necessary self-care. Time that I so freely gave away through the majority of my 20s. And in my experience with school reform, it has been so heart wrenchingly painful. My greatest mentors that I have stood side-by-side with have either voluntarily left, or been involuntarily removed. I look around, and only two remain from that first year I began, and both question their ability to continue.
Will I stay or go? Am I grieving the end of a huge chapter in my life, paralyzed with fear and standing in the neutral zone refusing to move, or starting a new beginning by entertaining the idea of moving in another direction? Getting a thrill out of the unknown has never been me – I am terrified. Terrified to leave, as well as terrified that I’ll never leave. I have no desire to go in any other direction, as well as no desire to stay. I question if know who I am. But a mantra I repeated to myself over and over on my drive to work last year, in an attempt to begin the process of surrendering control, was that my job does not define who I am, and God will continue to love me despite my successes or failures.
Some of you may recall that several weeks ago I had the privilege of speaking (for the first time in a long time – hence, the nervous reading of much of my talk) at The Seattle School’s first ever Alumni Symposia. The talk, titled The Healing Art of Making Meaning was primarily about the use of writing as a means to processing trauma and (of course) it was a shameless plug for this very blog of ours. I’m posting the talk here in the hope that it inspires a few more of you to write (and share) more of your stories too!
My sister came out for a quick visit a couple of weekends ago. She visited us several times during the three years we lived in the vicinity during my graduate school training previously so we didn’t feel the need to do any of the touristy jaunts in the city. Plus she was here for exactly 48 hours and half of that time revolved around a speaking gig I had while she was out here (the focus of why she was here to begin with). During the remaining half of her time we attempted to give her a crash course in what our life and dreams look like now in this new chapter. It wasn’t enough time for that really, but it was just enough time to re-rip out our hearts when we dropped her off at the airport.
The week that followed was pretty brutal. Faith, our 15 year old, cried herself to sleep nearly every night. Her tears held both loss and resistance as she expressed her desire to “go back home” over and over again.
I’ve released a few similarly expressive tears in the months that have passed since we loaded up that giant yellow truck (read: I’ve cried more tears than I’d like to admit). On the surface, the longing presents as a desire to return to a red house that held our story for four years, our lengthiest stay in any dwelling we’ve had together. The girls miss having their own bedrooms. I miss my kitchen and my bathroom. I miss my floors. I knew every inch of that house, the places where the floorboards came unglued from the steps into the front room, where we had to patch up the holes from Briella’s baby gates, where the wall was dented from a water bottle that miraculously flew down the basement stairs. This house held some sacred stories too. Like when I ran down the stairs to greet Brian and the girls holding a positive pregnancy stick as they walked in from the garage. It held our family as we recovered from a couple of bouts with the flu, a broken arm, 3 concussions, countless sprained ankles and knees and of course my six months of recovery after Briella’s birth. Shortly after moving in, we finally answered the girls’ unrelenting requests for a puppy. Jaxson grew into a dog (for better and for worse) in that very house. There were Christmas mornings, family feasts, birthday gatherings, movie nights and family meltdowns.
As I tear up at the sight of any photos taken in our old house, I understand that it was how we filled the space and how we hoped to fill the space that made it what it was and what we hoped it one day would be. But spaces matter too. So the longing is about the house. But it’s also about more. It’s about how we’re not sure what stories this new chapter will hold. We’re not even sure about what kind of dwelling we’ll land in as we’re renting for this first year as we get familiar with the area. So there is no real place to call our own, no defined space to hold our new stories yet. We are each feeling the lack of a physical and stable container and sustainer of our lives. We’re in flux, in transition. And that’s a really hard place to be, so we struggle with a desire to return home often. That’s part of moving. That’s part of leaving and now seeking for a new space to call home. It’s all part of growing through transition.