On nearly a daily basis, I have moments when I ask myself a series of questions: “Why am I here in Western North Carolina? Why did I leave my old life behind? Is this the right thing to do? How will I know when I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing if I don’t even know what that is just yet?”
A series of serendipities this weekend delivered me a piece of the mysterious puzzle I have been trying to solve.
On Saturday, at the suggestion of my new neighbor, I went to the literary festival in Burnsville, NC. The drive to Burnsville was thirty minutes of glorious scenery of undulating two lane highways towards a soft, rolling, layered backdrop of gentle mountains. The trees are beginning to yellow and already there is some type of brush that has turned a fiery orange and yellow.
I walked up to the old brick building of Yancey County Public Library at 8:45 a.m. and watched the last of the fog peel away from the distant mountains and reveal a glowing sunlight on the tops of the trees. I was there to attend a writing workshop hosted by local writer and teacher, Jennifer McGaha. She is a lovely woman with a sense of humor and really challenging and interesting writing prompts. By the time the nearly three hour session was over, I was fighting back tears of tenderness I had unlocked in my writing, most of which I didn’t share with a single soul but my composition notebook.
Across the room at another table facing me was a beautiful woman who had snow white hair, a sweet face, and the cutest red shoes that I coveted all morning long. She shared a piece of writing with the group that was so descriptive and emotionally moving that I knew I had to talk to her afterwards. I felt so drawn to her (and I wanted to know where she got her shoes). She invited me to lunch with her and Jennifer.
Through their kind words, listening ears, and probing questions, they validated me as a writer and as a teacher of writing. I soaked up everything they said and internally I was fighting back tears. Not of sadness but of sheer gratitude. Here before me were two women gently mentoring me and holding me accountable to my dreams.
Later that evening, I attended the ending lecture of the three day festival. The speaker was David George Haskell, biologist and writer who is nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his beautiful book The Forest Unseen. I had only read two pages of his book the day before when I purchased it and my ticket. Something inside of me told me to forgo my cheapness and spend the money to listen to him talk about the natural world. He spent one entire year observing a square meter of forest in Tennessee. What he learned and what he shared resonated so deeply within me that I cannot even begin to articulate it. Just imagine Charles Darwin meets Charles Dickens meets Mary Oliver. This man has the mind of a scientist, the master craftsmanship of a novelist, and the heart and soul of a poet. He reminded us that the beings in the natural world are relational not to just one another but to us as well (they’re our “blood kin” literally if we believe in evolution). His message was that we must pay attention to the particular so as to be able to see our part in the universal. Through this practice, he learned: 1.) that there is an opening for everyone to experience the unspeakable beauty in this world; 2.) that there is a sense of the fathomless brokenness in things – from a sense of feeling so lonely to trying to understand the universe and humans inability to communicate with their natural kin; 3.) that the pain in just one square meter of forest is extraordinary and we must learn to live and appreciate the duality of the beauty and the suffering and not try to create a resolution between the two. (See? My words are incapable to do his justice. I mean, we gave the man two standing ovations, for God’s sake.)
At the end of the lecture, I noticed no one was clamoring around him to bend his ear or have him sign their book (I realized later I missed the pre-lecture book signing). My knees shook and my heart fluttered. I knew I must go over to him and thank him for being my teacher this evening. When I spoke, tears alighted to my eyes. My heart was overflowing with so much gratitude and incomprehensible desire to know more about myself through the natural world and his understanding of it. Why did I uproot myself and plant myself hundreds of miles away from the rippling cornfields and blue skies of my Midwestern world? Why am I in these mountains, sometimes alone and lonely, overstimulated and confused, or peaceful and laid back? Why was I almost crying in front of a stranger who spoke his truth and his beauty not more than 10 minutes earlier?
I collected myself and he was so moved by my tenderness that I saw him put his hand over his heart. He pursed his lips into a smile and he lowered his shoulders and became very humble when I asked him to sign my book. Another impulse came over me and I told him about my time last year spent in Colorado where I “attuned to the particular to see myself in the unversal.” He became very excited and he noted down the name of the psychologist (Bill Plotkin) and his foundation (Animas Valley Institute). He assured me his work was now on his radar. We both discussed how it is important to start re-wilding ourselves as a society and learn again how to talk to nature and let nature talk to us.
Which leads me to today. My two new yoga friends suggested I go to Warren Wilson college so I could spend some time in nature and write and attune to the particulars of my chosen world and path.
I spread my blanket in the shade of the glorious meadow that was covered on all sides by these divine, feminine, graceful mountains. I began to write, hoping to capture some sense of beauty and inspiration. What happened instead was that I became agitated and annoyed. Out of nowhere, tiny insects began biting me and buzzing my head. A big black ant came marching towards my thighs. A tiny green spider crawled over my foot. My dog strayed too far away from our sitting area and I had to stop writing and call her over. I held on to her leash and she pulled and strained and walked around me as I tried to balance my composition notebook on my lap. She spilled her drinking water and frustration welled up inside of me. Birds started to pick up on my frustration and they became noisy. I was ready to call it quits, when I heard myself ask, “Why must you always try to orchestrate everything with your mind? What if you just sat here and tuned in to what is happening in and on your body, in your surroundings?”
I put my pen and notebook down. I closed my eyes. I took a breath. Then another. And then another.
A gentle breeze picked up and evaporated the sweat off of my upper lip, my armpits, and behind my knees. The breeze acted like a balm and suddenly all of my itching went away.
I focused my attention on the particular area of my heart. The breeze picked up and blew steadily against me.
I said a prayer of gratitude for all of the goodness that has been happening to me. And without warning, I began to cry. And more than cry, I started to sob. My mind wanted to start to rationalize why I was sobbing, but my body stopped it and asked it to be silent and just let this wave of sadness pour over me.
That’s when I felt a lot of compassion, more than I have ever felt in all my life. Compassion for my dog who was hot and tired. Compassion for the ant that I had chased away. Compassion for the birds that were searching for food. Compassion for my friends and family who have their own fears and obstacles to overcome. Compassion for the constant struggle we all have to just stay alive and thrive. Compassion for these mountains that are ancient and weary but ready to nurture and give more life to their space on this planet.
In that moment, the wind enveloped me. The birds began to sing even louder. And right before I pushed through the other side of some type of release, I remembered to include myself in this chain of compassion too.
I do not need to know the answers as to why I am here. If I only came here for this pure moment of utter gratitude and compassion that cracked open my heart and allowed my tenderness to pour out with no shame or embarrassment attached to it and no need to withhold it, then that was enough. A piece of the mystery was revealed in that moment when I chose to give my tenderness and practice a second of compassion here in this world where I am a tiny leaf on this great tree of life.