"And I was glad I was not great enough to be missed by the busy world I'd left behind."
Maybe, now, it is time to go back to the fold.
There was a recent time that I felt, each moment of my waking hours outside of work and social engagements, a desire to be in nature. If not in nature, planning to be there, reading about it, and learning more about the natural world. Cities, "loud and aggressive" like the "vexations of the spirit" in Max Erhmann's Desiderata, were to be avoided as much as possible.
Why escape to the woods?
For two years, I felt a slow turn away from an interest in humans. Not my humans, those wonderful tribes of friends and family I trust and love. But others. Human motivations. The human brain; its psychology, neuroses, habits, impulses, depravities. The endless cycles of murder, revenge, and exploitation. The divisiveness of politics in my country. The trauma of harassment and assault. Mistrust in my relationships. I framed the world through fear and disgust. I watched only movies I deemed pure of heart and intent, read about nature and those who help preserve it. I learned about moss, trees, soil, fungi, water, conservation, and sustainability. I wanted to shrink as far away from thoughtless materialistic existence as possible. Being someone who is not impulsive or particularly courageous in life decisions, I kept my job and continued living in a city. I did not run away into the woods, join a farm, commune, or eco-resistance group, though I felt the tug for a dramatic escape to each at various points over the years. I met influential people who were precise in their spending on products, careful to only purchase from companies and artisans whose practices were ethical and sustainable. I met people resistant to governments, technology, and modern Western society. I met people who left their jobs in teaching, banking, and insurance to farm. I remember telling one of these people, "I want to unlearn as much as I can." I hiked every weekend. I read a book on moss and it changed how I viewed, well, everything. Natural worlds appeared more in my illustrations. A student pointed me to a documentary on soil. I talked about it, much to the chagrin of friends and family, for weeks. I hiked and camped Laugavegur trail in Iceland for four days, despite never camping out on a trek, nevermind alone. I wasn't mountaineering, climbing, or taking up extreme sports. I had neither time nor money to commit to the lifestyle I both craved and feared for its extremes.
I can't really say that I did much with this frame or viewing life, however. I kept waiting for an instantaneous transformation, for a voice in my head to say Aha! We've got it now! THIS is what we're going to do. It never did. My quality of life improved, and my routines and habits had changed, but I doubt to my fellow humans I appeared different at all. Not sure of how this attraction to nature would change my life, but sure that it was healing and helping it, I tried not to worry about it but focus on the gift the outside world had given me.
I felt such peace. I can't say it better than John Muir, nor show you except to have you watch this short and beautiful ode to that man:
I had nothing to do but look and listen to see and hear how smooth and changeless the world became. How indifferent it was to my presence. In this place, far from other people, I felt a certain calm reach me.
The rest of the world, when I turned to face it, appeared wicked. I couldn't escape the cycle of pain, nor stop my contribution to it without radically altering my life and severing ties with people I loved, it seemed. It wasn't that I felt depressed or upset most of the time. But I felt split. Unable to feel whole either in my day to day life or in nature. I felt confused and luminous and in a half-dream, like a Mary Oliver poem.
How does any of us live in this world?
One thing compensates for another, I suppose.
Sometimes what's wrong does not hurt at all, but rather
shines like the new moon.
Life goes on. These questions became simply a part of my life's tapestry, a normal backdrop to a normal day. I fell in love, I worried less about my plan and opened myself up to the joy and beauty and spontaneity of feeling. Like all things in spring, I grew as nature intended me to, with the sun and the rain and warmth of the earth. Neither the spring nor the love lasted, but I felt forever changed.
I spent the summer as I usually do as a young, unmarried teacher: traveling. This summer was to surpass all others in the risks I took: I was to walk the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage through Spain to the remains of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela. A good friend had done the same trip, the Northern Way, several years before. With her advice, I went, scallop shell on my back, with an open mind. Be open to the fantastic. She wrote me. And, beware of bulls. So I went, armed with determination to be open, but with reserve. This contradiction was not missed by my inner voice, who told me to be less reclusive the more I wanted to travel alone. I desired my peace, in nature. I wanted to prove I could do this. I wanted to deepen my connection with nature and to a foreign place. I wanted to find my mercurial spirituality. But I was wary of others. My emotions raged wildly the first two days I hiked alone. I felt I didn't have the strength and was ashamed. I ran through seemingly every decision I had made in the last five years, picking them apart. I mused on why I was alone, romantically, again. I asked why I hadn't felt happy with my life. I found fault with everything about myself. Still, I marched on. I reminded myself this was natural and I was going to encounter everything about myself I normally tried to escape. In succumbing this month to a long nature walk, I was confronting myself. In the rare moments my mind was quiet, it was because of the sheer beauty of the landscape. It wasn't the breathtaking splendor of Iceland, but the breath of something familiar and eternal.
This self-imposed echo chamber was broken upon meeting several strangers. Walking together and talking, the time passed quickly. I laughed. I remembered what my laughter sounded like. It had only taken two days to forget. We made jokes, told stories, shared pasts. We were marveling at nature, together. We camped out and sung tunes we all knew despite being born on different sides of the earth. Quickly, with no time for roots to grow on self-doubting thoughts, I let myself become part of a family. They became part of the landscape. They became part of my routine. They were an extension of myself. The food I bought was for them as well as me. The aches in my feet were the blisters on her feet. My happy exhaustion at the end of the day, sleeping on the floor of a monastery, was his as well.
And so a month passed. I left and fell into the flurry of being home, the death of a loved one, school beginning, grasping onto the coattails of summer as it slipped past. Life moves on. I read the marvelous book of clinical neurology tales by Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. I read a work of fiction for the first time in two years. The significance of this, though relevant to only me, is not lost on me.
On the walk, what I desired in silence I found in the company of others. Not just any others, but complete strangers. This was unlike meetings on travels past, when a relationship is forged and vanishes quickly as all parties travel in different directions. This was intense time with other people. Their stories became a part of mine, and I felt a compassion for others on the trip when I was with them. I felt like I had forgiven something in the world, and something in myself. It is a subtle thing, forgiveness. It is looking back at someone, something, and holding that view with so much love. You see yourself in your vision, looking through that narrow frame. There is an endless chain of selves, I suppose, all looking back in 20/20 vision with love on your past self, finally able to understand why you were who you were.
I still feel a turn away from humans at times, with fear at the future and disbelief at the behavior of the powerful. I still feel unsure of my path. But a marrying of nature and man has been made within the echo chamber. We can live side by side with the natural world, as long as we are working to protect it. We can forgive other people, if we remember that everything we fear and love in them is everything we fear and love in ourselves. I have faith again in humans, in our stories and our struggles. It is like the first time someone introduced Humans of New York to me all over again. It is the wealth of funny, touching, informative human stories in podcasts, those beautiful pockets of hope on the morning commute. It is The Atlas of Beauty. It is the documentary Human. It is another Mary Oliver poem.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Where is your place in the family of things? The left hand can't clasp without the right, I've found. Like the words of a song I can't stop listening to recently, "if you lose your faith just grow it back".
It will, in time.