I am on a walk to the Chapel with my yellow lab, Elvis. Our route takes us through the doors of church (enter/exit), down the bike path and around the loop of the pond, then back the way we came, giving us a 40-minute walk, round-trip from the front door, at a good clip. But today I don’t feel up for the whole circuit. I barely want to move at all, but I know a visit to the Chapel is imperative. So that is what we set out to do.
To be clear, my place of worship is not one of bricks and mortar. It is a particular section on a nearby bike path, where the route crosses over a bridge and then becomes fully covered in foliage—a hodgepodge mixture of aspens, cottonwoods, a few oaks, and other unknown gangly, reachy things to fill the gaps. There is a creek that runs through intermittently. It feels like an utter change in landscape from the blatant, volume-up summer sun of Colorado in its driest month, to a teeny slice of the pacific northwest, lush and green and abundant. It is fifteen degrees cooler upon that first step on the bridge, and I can almost hear the wide, thick, trunks do a little stretch and the branches nod a brief welcome. Then the path spits you out again and you carry on. (It would be called the forest-o-nater if Dr. Seuss got his hands on it.)
I remove my earbuds and leave them out until we’ve made it through to the other side, where the thick trunks on the edge of the path switch back to spindly grass and the leaf-curtains abruptly open up again. I breathe deep as I walk through, intentional, as if I’ve been given an oxygen mask. I imagine what author Glennon Doyle refers to as The Knowing—the same energy that sprouts the seeds and guides the roots—filling me through my skin, my eyes, my nostrils. It’s like an elixir to the blood, a super-charge, stroking each cell and organ, up to my mind. My breath is the vehicle.
During the pandemic, this has become a particularly important ritual. I am able to break away for a decent walk with my dog about three times a week. As we leash up and he starts to wiggle with glee, I have my own version of giddy-longing for my trees, my Chapel.
(Twenty years ago, as a young adult still living in Ohio, I would refer to the trees in the nature-forest trails that I frequented as a jury of my peers. I still feel that way.)
Today, I am wiping tears from my eyes with my forearms as we walk, hyper-aware of not touching my face with contaminated fingers and thankful that I don’t also need to carry a shit-filled poop bag (en route to the next trash can). The tears are not forceful—they are as gentle as a soft spill from an overfull birdbath, and screened behind my sunglasses.
Moments earlier, I told Jesse, I feel lost. I don’t know what to do next. I tell him my body hurts and my mind hurts and I can’t think straight. He knows to remind me of the Chapel. I am practically running.
Lately, I’ve felt like my body is protesting. Yesterday, as I was reading the news, I felt nauseous. Lying down was my only option—as if I was playing dead. Then a pain started like a ball in my spine, like I swallowed something in the back part of my body, and it ached and radiated to my neck and skull. A hard pill to swallow, some say. I’ve always been fond of that saying. My head feels disproportionally heavy on a flimsy twig of a neck and my body feel like a collection of sore and mismatched pieces.
The cause of such somatic upheaval is clear. It stems from an acute feeling of powerlessness in the face of Big Picture turmoil and grief. The question is, how to proceed?
I am taking all this to the trees.
I have hopes I will receive some (not necessarily divine, but) confident advice on what is next.
As we approach the shadow that begins a hundred feet from the Chapel bridge, I see a man with a dog. He looks like Newman from Seinfeld, wearing a plaid button-up and Sunday market hat, but no mask. (I can’t help but to immediately judge him for that.) And his dog—a mid-sized mixed breed—looks anxious to meet my dog, who is not good with dogs who want to meet him. I have on a mask and sunglasses—there is zero flesh exposed on the whole of my face—but much is exchanged in our body language. Newman pauses, tentatively, then turns abruptly into the field down a narrow path I didn’t even know was there. Elvis and I carry on, and pause on the bridge, ready to get to some serious quiet and contemplation. But I see him in the corner of my eye, coming up from behind us. I turn the other direction, and now we are heading towards each other, like a bike-path game of chicken, COVID-edition. I pull off to the side, grab a treat out of my bag to bribe Elvis to be cool. Newman walks by, through the Chapel, and vanishes into the distance. I regroup, vowing not to let my sacred moment be tainted by this song and dance of agitated dogs and social distancing.
Then, as if on cue, two high school girls promptly pull up on their bikes. They come to a synchronized stop maybe twenty feet from me and pull out their phones. One starts texting, one laughs and shows the other something on the smartphone screen. Neither are wearing masks.
Goddamit, I think. Can’t a girl have a few minutes alone in the trees??
I planned on much more time there—on maybe putting my hand on the bark of one of the massive trees and listening for a pulse, or letting the low branch of a young Aspen gently stroke the top of my head like a blessing. Sometimes I let my eyes settle on one branch and let the green, leafy periphery go blurry, so I feel awash in nature, no edges.
But not today. My moment feels expired. And who knows how much longer the girls will be there with their phones and me, with my dog, just standing.
So we begin our slow ascent back out the way we came. As I exit the tree-shadow curtain, I feel unsatisfied. My mind is loose, unkempt. I notice it bouncing from one angry feeling to the next, so I try out a mantra.
On the out-breath, I sweep my attention to: May I be guided by the Knowing. May it show me where to go next. A few cycles of that, and screech— a needle on old vinyl—those words are knocked over like bowling pins and replaced by:
You are already guided.
You are already full.
It’s already happening.
(Otherwise, why the hell would I be right here, right now?)
I gasp. Holy shit, indeed. Walking with that, walking with that…but now what??
A Buddhist story comes to mind. Not sure where I originally heard it, so I can’t find the text, but it goes something like this:
A Buddhist monk moves in to a cave, hoping to achieve enlightenment. After some time sitting with himself, he does. So he races down the mountain, thrilled to share his findings with the village below. But each time he tries to speak, to share his advanced wisdom, he gets interrupted. Life is happening. Kids are loud. People are distracted, unappreciative of his uber-wisdom. Finally he says, ugh, forget it! I’m going back up to my cave, you all can fend for yourselves!
Yep. Got it. Right-o.
That Big World out there can feel terrifying and overwhelming right now because it is terrifying and overwhelming—the pandemic, the rage, climate change, the injustice of the foster care system, a president who has no interest in the truth, the children who are being left behind with this online schooling world, the millions who are were already hanging on by a thread before and are now simply falling, falling, the far-off fires that made it rain ash on our backyard last night as the kids tromped triumphantly on the trampoline—these things are on my personal short list. There is so much hurt. So much suffering. Any positive action feels about as impactful as trying to put out a dozen house fires with Ruthy’s tiny squirt gun.
Hiding in our home-cave right now like the monk is a very tantalizing option. But the results of that approach are the downright opposite of ignorance-is-bliss, especially when you have a body that will openly object.
However, being in our home-caves and cultivating the contents of our tiny biospheres is a very different scenario, and an important distinction—connecting with our family, caring for our space, tending to our minds is not hiding. We have to be real with the era we are living through—this is a fucking pandemic. Our worlds have been upended to some degree and we are all working through some level of trauma or emotional upheaval as a result. We cannot and will not forget the people on the outside who need our help more than ever, but we don’t lose sight of what’s directly in front of us.
Meaningful change starts small, and at home. It deepens and broadens and finds lasting roots in neighborhoods, then communities, then cultures. Suddenly, one tiny squirt of a water gun doesn’t feel so meager when lined up, shoulder-to-shoulder (socially distanced for now) with countless others.
Suddenly, my perceptions of Newman with his squirrelly dog and the high school phone-checkers shift from people who are in my way to people who are on their own respective journeys, feeling their own versions of balancing the cave and the Big World and the how-to-proceed grief. Godspeed, people.
I look down at my dog and he returns the glance as he licks a misplaced piece of grass from his nose and ambles on, step by step by step.
Heather, I always find myself moved and refreshed by your writing. Thank you.
I meant to give this a glance but found I had to follow the walk all the way to the end. I appreciated the open and skillful way your story allowed me to feel I was inhabiting your train of thought. Plus, I needed to make sure the dog came through OK.
Thought of dogs as companions that help us in this pandemic especially. Sorry I gave up on my companions. Really enjoyed your writing.