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.
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!
Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior. It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides. It means that you are willing to stop being such a jerk. When you are aware of all that has been given to you, in your lifetime and the past few days, it is hard not to be humbled, and pleased to give back.~Anne Lamott in Help Thanks Wow
I think about death a lot. That is probably not the way you expected an after-Thanksgiving post to begin. But it’s the truth. Though it’s difficult to recall my mindframe pre-near-death-exeperience, I’m pretty certain I did not think about death as much back then. Perhaps these more frequent thoughts are related to some residual post-traumatic stress. But maybe not. Perhaps it’s because every which way I look there is something reminding me of our mortality as human beings. From recent public conversations about the young woman who opted to end her own life rather than allow her inoperable brain tumor to run its own course of cruelty, to an episode on Grey’s Anatomy, there are reminders of death every single day. Maybe the increase in thoughts is simply a reflection of aging. After all, the older we grow the more loss we are likely to encounter.
About six weeks into my recovery from Briella’s birth, I drove to work for the first time. I was initially surprised by how natural it felt to be heading back to work, driving the vehicle I’ve spent much of my life maneuvering around. Just as I was about to turn onto the off-ramp from the highway, I was assaulted by an imaginary image of the car in front of me being flung into my windshield. My brain registerred the possiblity of another car being struck and sky-rocketing into my direction and apparently thought it was something I needed to be prepared to handle. The imagined and envisioned scenario jolted my heartrate and left me breathless, but it was not the first indication of my post-traumatic stress. Up until that point, I had also been experiencing dreams almost every night where I was unexplainably draining fluid out of every pore of my body. The dreams felt so real that I would wake up and ask Brian to check to see if there was anything dripping down my back. Considering the amount of blood I lost in both surgeries, the retention of nearly 50 pounds of fluid that my body shed over the course of the two weeks following, and the tubes I had coming out of my body to drain urine while both my bladder and my ureters continued to heal, it wasn’t that difficult to discern what my brain was trying to process in the late hours of those restless nights. But this new fear of cars flying through my windshield was not as easy to explain away.
Thoughts of flying cars have morphed into far more horrific scenarios of which my children or husband are the primary victims. It’s as if living through trauma, an experience where I came face to face with my potential finality in this bodily form, caused a breach in the protective armor many of us live encased within throughout much of life. I think the armor is constructed by equal parts of denial and hope. Denial keeps the inevitable reality of our end and the end of those we love the most at a safe enough distance to function relatively unfazed. Sure, we all know that we will dies someday, but knowing by way of an idea is a very different thing from knowing by way of experience. Hope sustains our life as it compels us to travel further and further down a road we trust will lead us to joy even in the midst of potential tragedy and sorrow. Denial and hope, the two are very different things…or so I’ve learned over the past couple of years.
In my case, denial took the greatest blow in the aftermath of my trauma experience. I’m not sure I will ever be able to live in bliss with that psychological defense mechanism again. I now have an intimate knowledge of how quickly and unexpectedly my own life or anyone’s can come to an end. So how do I function in the midst of this new knowing? My capacity to function now directly correlates to my capacity to live in gratitude. It was gratitude for my life that sustained me during the months of painful recovery. It is gratitude that comes upon me like a wave knocking me off my feet when I’m sitting in the theater watching the production of Once next to the love of my life. It is gratitude that welcomes the tears shed after hard conversations with my oldest daughters about life and love and sex and beauty and shame and struggle. This gratitude thing isn’t about just feeling lucky. It’s about feeling like EVERYTHING is a gift. EVERYTHING. Every day. Every moment. Everything. I am not always able to live out of this place of gratitude – hence the days I don’t function as well. But learning how to practice saying thank you to the source of life daily has been my saving grace. Thanksgiving has moved its way up towards the top of my favorite holiday list over the past couple of years because it’s a day that simply invites us into the practice of gratitude. Let’s hope the spirit of Thanksgiving carries us all through the rest of this holiday season.
Check out our pinterest page for gratitude practices.
*Sunday Specials are a weekly round-up of happenings on the web-o-sphere. So enjoy your coffee (or late night beverage) while checking out what’s caught our attention.
Things You Can’t Do When You’re Not a Toddler by Charlie at How To Be A Dad
Shame is a bleach that can seep up the hem of you, peroxide away your brave face, the place in you that holds the courage to change. My dad was a perfectionist and I was never good enough and my grandad once hauled a ladder to my bedroom window to see if the bed behind my locked door was made tight enough to bounce a well-aimed quarter off. It’s taken me more life than I care to admit and even more self-castigating to agree with the pain of the diagnosis: Perfectionism is slow death by self. Perfectionism will kill your skill, your spark, your art, your soul.
It seems these days there is a commonly held misconception that every person starts with the same basic capacity for imagination—that if we learn the right doctrine and learn to interpret scripture rightly, then we’ll all end up at the same right conclusions. But in truth, our capacity for imagination is as varied and particular as the ways we experience sin, and therefore experience grace. Our imaginations are impacted by our embodied and storied experience of the world—by our bodies, families, culture, etc.—and even more so, by the traumas we experience as a part of being human.
Israel, Gaza, Sanity, and Insanity Part 2 AND Part 3 by Brian McLaren
(T)hose of us outside the region should defect from the predictable, conventional logic and rhetoric that sustain the status quo of violence, hostility, and death and seek another approach … a higher logic of shalom/salaam/peace and justice, which a Palestinian Jewish teacher named Jesus called ‘the reign of God.’ Seek it first, he said, and everything else will fall into place.
It’s a strange thing to be in the midst of a panicked room while feeling an inner stillness. I certainly wonder at times if the inner stillness I experienced in those moments my body profusely poured out it’s lifeblood for the second time in less than 24 hours was a result of a drug-infused semi-conscioussness. Though my thinking brain attempts to dominate the internal dialogue and beckon me to surrender to this probability, there is a stronger more intuitive sense, however, that the inner stillness was reflective of something far more sacred. Perhaps it was the response of my soul as I waded through the waters of a spiritual realm more accessible as my very life hung in the balance.
It was only minutes before the panic struck that I became aware of the likelihood that something wasn’t right. After sensing a warm gush of fluid releasing from the life-giving canal of my body, I instinctually knew that I needed assistance. But how do you ask for help when your body has been drug-forced to cooperate with a ventilator leaving you unable to awaken enough to speak or even open your eyes? I knew my mother was still keeping watch behind me, but imagined she had fallen asleep once she began to believe that her daughter would actually survive the trauma of that 3rd day of January. I distinctively recall thinking to myself, “Well…Shauna, if you can’t communicate with words or movement of some sort, you’re going to have to use your mind to beckon someone to check on you.” And that’s exactly what I began doing. I was trying to “will” someone over to my side. It was only a matter of minutes before a nurse re-entered my room and decided to lift up the blankets covering the crisis my body was experiencing. Perhaps it was coincidence, but what if it wasn’t? What if my spirit really did beckon her to come to my aide? A year and a half later, I still wrestle with this sequence of events and the invitation to put my rational self to rest long enough to embrace the beauty and power of this spiritual possibility.
It was that particular nurse’s discovery of my condition that sounded off multiple alarms. Without being able to process visually what was happening all around me, I focused upon sound to guide my thoughts. The sound of beeping machines, the frenetic shuffling of medical personnel, and the panicked words of my mother filled the space all around me. The sounds emerging from my mother were what confirmed my earlier suspicion that something wasn’t right. After over two decades of working in the medical field, my mother was more often than not the one who remained grounded in crisis. She had learned how to navigate through the typical fight, flight or freeze response with grace in most traumatic situations. But in the late evening hours of that horrific day, I heard my mother come undone. As the doctors and nurses frantically unplugged me from all of the machines that were monitoring my pour beat up body, I heard my mother’s voice cracking as she called to tell Brian he needed to come quickly before they whisked me away for another emergency surgery.
Just before they ushered my hospital bed out of the room, my mother leaned in and tearfully urged me to fight like I’ve never fought before. “Don’t give up. Do not leave us,” were her last words for me. Her directive was the final indication of just how terrified she was at the knowledge of my condition. The awareness of the danger I was facing increased in those moments and I awaited the wave of fear I thought was inevitable. But it never came. Instead, I felt a wave of focused calm and reflection overtake the internal landscape of my mind as I pondered the possibility of my own end. I surveyed the terrain of my life as the faces of those I’ve been blessed with knowing appeared before me. Prior to even formulating a single thought, I simply felt compelled to trust. I somehow knew at the core of my being that all would be well with or without me. At that realization, I opened my eyes as my bed was being rolled beneath the doorway of the ICU room only to spot the image of a crucifix hanging directly above my head. With the same focused calm, I wondered if praying was required in moments such as these.
God, I’m not certain that you are real, but I certainly hope you are. I’m not even sure of what I need in these moments…Should I ask for Jesus to be with me as my body suffers such pain or to plead on behalf of my life? Should I ask for God the Father to protect me or provide care for my family in my absence? Or might it be possible for Mother God to hold me close and comfort my soul in the here and now? I guess I just need all that YOU are to be here right now.
I am here. That is what I knew, heard, felt. Love is here, was here, will always be here. It is enough. And it really was enough – enough to know that I was not alone and that those I loved would never be alone no matter what happened. At that moment of acceptance, Brian showed up just in time. He leaned down and whispered into my ear, “Just know that I love you.” It was more than enough.