Today my son’s class had a field trip to a marsh – 10 acres of protected land surrounded by strip malls and city streets. There are trails through the marsh, but being 5-year-olds, this group took more to the brush, weaving in and out of grasses, decaying leaves, pond water. As a microcosm of life, I’d say this marsh did a nice representative job: lots of chaos, few spots suitable for sitting down to rest.
As for my comfort level with the chaos, I am a lot like the girl from Tuesday’s sketch. Literally and metaphorically, I love the idea of dirt between my toes. I love the thought of being one with bugs and grasses and trees. I see a life trajectory for myself of ever more connection with nature.
But simultaneously, I fear it. I fear its foreignness and its power. I fear its seeming indifference to my comfort and well being. I fear – and this one’s hardest to name – what could happen to me were I to open myself more wholly to it. My efforts at constructing a self that I’m proud of and comfortable displaying in public feel, in the face of raw, untended nature, like a row of pansies planted in flimsy, plastic cups on the bank of a raging river known to flood. Laughable, in one respect. Pointless in another. Like they’ll wash away as quick as sand.
And truly, despite my long work on inner things, I’m not sure what would be left after such a washing.
I’m speaking here of fearing literal nature, but too the raw realities of life that pulse and flood and flow beneath all of us, all of the time. All of us are constructing ourselves all of the time – putting clothes on and make-up, wearing our degrees and accomplishments, covering over our fears and longings with every manner of food and practice and work and entertainment and exercise and next-best-things to buy. Even relationships do some covering for us. Children, too.
And if we’re lucky – or so we come to think – we maintain some semblance of order most of the time. We maintain our appearances and come to identify so strongly with the coverings that make them up that the raw stuff beneath those appearances begins to look foreign. Fearsome. Dirt we like the idea of feeling between our toes, but somehow never get around to taking our shoes off to try.
So here’s a marsh-thought from today: what if it’s possible to take small steps into raw nature – literally, or into the wilds of our own selves – and not only survive, but be all the better for it: more alive, more clean in the ways that matter, more real, somehow. And what if those small steps, maybe even in the company of a guide who knows more about those wilds than we, could turn into whole afternoons spent there, getting familiar with the wilds themselves, and also our own limitations in them. (There are times for risk and adventure, for example, and times to head back in to a soft couch and something warm to drink.)
I wonder whether the fear of losing our coverings – the things that on one level make us safe (“normal”, “successful”, “dutiful”, “pious”), or at the very least appear to be so, which is often what matters to us most – I wonder whether this fear could be faced and lived past not by giant strides into fearsome, unknown territory (backpacking for a week on steep terrain! quitting the day job now! commitments to years of therapy! ultimatums to people we love!), but by a walk through a small preserve on a March morning. By finding a guide or volunteer somewhere who can say one or two things about the plants and animals that grow there.
By a series of small steps into the wilds of our earth and the wilds of our own souls, we just might discover ourselves less foreigners in such places…less foreigners in every place…and more strongly, abidingly home.