The Unfolding: A Return to the Wild Mind, Part 3

imgresI have a wound deep inside of me that hasn’t fully healed.  It’s tender, soft, and warm.  It has an electric sensitivity to emotions, mine and others.  When it witnesses beauty in all its many splendid forms, it fills up my soul and almost crushes it at the same time.  It is a special, sacred place tucked away inside the cave of my heart.  I can access it at any time, in a variety of creative ways.  It sometimes reveals itself to me as a fountain of tears falling into a crystalline bright pink lotus flower with green petals surrounding it.  Other times, it appears to me in the form of a small girl child that can only communicate through images and dance-like movements.

In Colorado, I came to know my wound and found some of the lessons it has been trying to teach me all my life.

I was on another one of my solo hikes, searching for a place off trail that was beckoning me to sit and tell my story.  As I climbed up the trail, the creek was to my right, slowly gliding down the foothill of the mountain.  Dappled sunlight streamed through the pines and aspen trees.  A short distance away, I saw a clearing where the light broke through the underbrush.  I approached this space and immediately felt the magical call of faeries, woodland sprites and all the other tiny creatures that once inhabited my childhood imagination.

I stepped off the trail into this spot, and saw a boulder in the center of the stream.  I carefully waded out into the creek bed, choosing stable, large stones that looked like they would support me and my backpack.  Each step became more precarious as a few of the stones rolled slightly left to right.  The boulder was almost within arm’s length and so I became brave and stepped boldly towards it.  I did not gage the depth of the river well enough, and for all the money I spent on waterproof boots they weren’t enough to keep the water from rushing in over my ankles, past my shins, and soaking my socks and shoes.  But, I was committed, so I tossed my pack onto the boulder and dragged my waterlogged feet behind me as I crawled up the flat-faced, sun-baked boulder.

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After a few minutes of ringing out my socks and dumping water out of my boots, I got cozy and realized I was blessed to be in such a quiet, untouched part of the woods with a rushing creek on both sides of me.

Gently and lovingly, I called out the wounded child in me who has been afraid of living, creating, and loving too passionately and too grandly.  Afraid of being seen as weak, or different, or too emotional.  I told her story to the creek and the stones.  I shared with them how she remembers playing a game in kindergarten where everyone was in a circle, holding the edge of a red parachute and moving it up and down while kids were called to run underneath it and escape to the other side before it touched down on them.  Her name was called.  She remembers being underneath the parachute and looking up to see the sunlight diffused in a glow of translucent red, like the inside of a womb or a beating heart.  She stayed under there longer than most children, mesmerized at the beauty of the moment. She had to crawl on the cool green grass to make it to the other side and was teased by another kid for being “too slow” to play this game.

I told the creek and the stones how she remembers her heart breaking as natural light flooded through the windows of the darkened second grade classroom during a “lights out, heads down” moment.  She saw the tiny beans planted in the plastic cup, their stems reaching up to the light.  Tears came to her eyes at the sheer beauty of beanstalks and dirt and sunlight.  She pretended to pay attention when the halogen lights came back on, but her head kept turning towards the sunlight and the beanstalks on the bookshelves instead of towards the chalkboard.

I told the creek and the stones how she would walk her dog down the neighborhood street and stare up at the moon and stars, hoping that if she stared long enough she would be filled with starlight and stardust and float away on the breeze.

Her world as it was then wasn’t ready for her romantic gifts of light, tenderness, beauty and expression.  She would write poetry, but then throw them away because she feared they were not good enough.  She would criticize her mistakes on her drawings or get frustrated when kids didn’t see her vision of how their games could be made more special by adding in song or dance. She would keep ideas, dreams and imagination tucked inside of her, storing it all within the dark recesses of her sacred cave and instead encourage friends to feel like they were the ones more creative and entitled to attention and recognition.  Over the years as she shed some of her fears, her gifts trickled out in forms of tears, of poems, of drawings, or of dance. But they were quickly put away when they became too much to handle, either for her or for others around her.

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Here in the middle of the creek bed I let her be seen by the butterflies, the chipmunks, the creek, and the stones.  I asked her what she wanted to do with all of these gifts she had stored away or doled out in small doses over the years.  I audibly heard myself tell my pent up dreams to the creek, the same dreams of the small, wounded girl who is a steward to the sacred wound in the cave of my heart.  If money, status, career do not really matter on this earth, then my dream is to fall in love and be loved and seen in return.  To be creative and write, draw, dance and express myself in every way that I know how at any given moment when beauty abounds, whether inside or outside of me.

I told the creek that I would pledge my stewardship to my creative talents that come out in various forms that can only be expressed by me.  Creative nonfiction writing and poetry are part of this plan to express and share my heart with others.  I also know by sharing my writing others they will have moments to access their own emotions more freely and willingly and connect to their own hearts more authentically as well.
I even told the creek and the stones that I knew this meant letting go of my job as a high school English teacher and I would follow the path whenever it appears and to wherever it takes me, no matter how uncertain it may seem at times.  Creative ideas of becoming a freelance writer, a yoga and body-centered instructor, a nature lover/guide, and a creative arts program director all danced in my heart and mind.   New ideas are revealing themselves as the days and weeks go by.

My inner child thanked me for being so honest with myself.  I felt a lightness, a lifting, form around my heart and fill up my body with peace and contentment.  The sunlight danced brighter on the ripples of the creek, and the birds and insect chirps became louder, almost as if they were cheering me on.  Tears of relief flowed down my face.  I let out a sigh and wiped away the remaining droplets that were streaming now down my neck.  I took a long inhale, and as I exhaled any residual worries or fears, an osprey silently glided over me and swooped down near the creek as it continued flying south.  I took this as a sign that the unfolding of my desires, talents, and gifts are beginning to flow more freely from my fountain of tears that were once locked inside the cave of my heart.images

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Into the Woods: A Return to the Wild Mind, Part 1

photo 2The guides take us into a small clearing under pine trees and next to a small, rushing stream.  We plop our backpacks down, our breath heaving a bit as we try to recover from the rocky, uphill walk to the trail head.  Some have portable camping chairs while others of us brush away the pine needles, tiny pine cones, spiders and ants before sitting.

“I can’t believe I’m finally here,” I think to myself as the group settles in and the guides begin explaining the first exercise of the 5 day retreat.

For the past few months, I’ve felt the urge to somehow mark my 40th birthday in a big way.  I feel, for whatever reason, that this is a year of transition and manifestation.  A year for me to finally take root and fill out the shape of who I am as a woman.  Since the time I was 5, a tenderness and artistic sensitivity were present in my heart and mind.  When I was 8, 9, and 10, I would walk to the edge of the woods behind my house, breathe in the scent of the earthy ground mixed with the sweet decaying smell of oak leaves, and get excited because inside those woods mystery abounded.  I would take the longer, darker path and wait to hear some whispering of imagination or my spirit speak to me or reveal something important or meaningful to me.   In those woods, I felt large, alive, and magical, like a woodland spirit or sprite, or when I was feeling particularly powerful and imaginative, like Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and the moon.  In my room, I would write poetry, draw my ideas, and dream of the wild things that lived not too far from my backyard.

Flash forward some 30 years later and I found myself quite removed from those childhood fantasies, dreams, and other-worldy connections.  My heart was tucked away for safe keeping, and I became dominated by my mind.  I was a functioning neurotic with an oddball sense of humor, a high sensitivity to other’s words and emotions, and a thirst for knowledge and wisdom.  I was wracked with guilt, fear, shame, loathing, contempt, and anger at myself and my life.  I secretly longed for love, passion, connection, and expression.  I was having an “existential crisis” without labeling it that.  Somewhere along this path, some part of my guard around my heart cracked open and I began to question if 40 would finally mark the time in my life where I stopped fearing not only my impending death but also fearing my existence.  I decided to get brave and took it upon myself to find out.  That’s how I found myself in the forest of the Colorado Rockies with 9 other like-minded individuals and 2 guides willing to lead us not only back into the woods but also back to our true selves.photo 1

I can not recall what the group talked about a few moments ago.  On the break, I pick up a small black pebble near the creek bed and turn it over and over in my hand.  It feels warm to the touch and I press it up to my face and let the sun’s baked-in warmth soak into my cheek.  My head and ears are still muffled from this afternoon’s earlier altitude sickness.  I hear one of the guides calling us back from break and impulsively I dip the small rock into the stream and press it again to my cheek, this time noticing the drastic difference of the cool water that surges and prickles my nerve endings.

I carry this rounded pebble with me, hold it, and use it almost like a worry stone when I hear the instructions for our first solo hike.  “You probably won’t encounter a bear,” they say.  “Or a mountain lion.  But if you do, get really large and yell.  Hold your pack over your head and show no fear.  Do not run.  If you see deer or elk or moose. . .give them plenty of space. . .Carry your whistles and blow really hard if you find yourself in need.  Don’t stop blowing the whistle until someone finds you.”

We are instructed to find a place, preferably off-trail, that calls to us and to walk into that space and sit with that feeling of being welcomed back into the wild world.  As silly as it sounds, our guides tell us that it may be beneficial to even have a conversation with the place and introduce ourselves.  “Silently, right?” someone asks.  One of the guides laughs and gently says, “You can.  But why not speak your heart out loud?  Let yourself be known.  You’re being watched as it is.”

We all walk out of the clearing and like birds searching the ground for food, we begin cocking our heads, turning in circles, looking at the ground, and then looking up and down the trail to find our place.  We slowly break from the flock and go our separate ways.

I begin walking up the trail, wondering when I will know where to go.  I’m mindful that the creek is to my right.  It’s comforting to hear the rushing waters at all times.    I walk, searching for the place.  My mind begins to wander with each step I take.  My old patterns of worry and fear start playing their one-track song inside my head.  I notice that I am no longer in the present and this noticing actually helps bring me back to the moment.  Just then, I look to my left and see the sun streaming softly through the trees.  This place welcomes me and invites me in.

“It’s like being in Sherwood forest or in King Arthur’s Camelot,” I muse to myself.  I creep to the edge of the trail and peer through the underbrush and the overgrowth and see, at the top of the hill, a log, perfect for sitting and contemplating my life. Without any hesitation, I venture into the woods.  Twigs snap under my hiking boots, tiny limbs catch on my sweatshirt, pants, and backpack.  I walk on and gingerly cross over small, rotted pine trees and push aside brambles and weeds.  The birds become quiet and the scramblings of squirrels and other ground animals stop as well.  I have arrived at the log and I look up and see a clearing of sky between an aspen to my left and two beautiful pines to my right.  There, in the blue sky and the muted sunshine is the quarter moon on its slow journey to becoming its full, luminous self.

It’s breathtaking to be able to experience sunshine, the moon, the whispers of pine and the rustle of wild grass in the breeze.

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I sit down on the log and look up at the moon.  The trees in front of me slightly sway, left to right, back and forth.  Nature’s way of saying, “Hello.”  I smile and without even thinking I wave back to the trees.  I take a few deep breaths of the fresh mountain air and settle into myself.  Suddenly, it doesn’t matter that I’m alone, in the forest, with mountain lions, elk, moose, deer and whatever slithered away behind me.  I’m supposed to be here, in this moment, with all the other living, breathing creatures of this planet.  I’m supposed to sway slightly like the trees as the wind from the mountaintop breezes through this space.

I continue to gaze at the moon and just breathe.  The slight chirping of birds turn into their full songs.  A little squirrel begins cracking a nut at the other end of the log.  We look at each other and he decides I’m not to be trusted with his bounty, so he scampers away.  I laugh and I hear some creature behind me make a noise that sounds eerily like a grunt.  I speak out loud to him, saying, “I hear you.  I promise you I’m not here to hurt you.  You’re safe. It’s Ok.”  I hear him retreat and let out a sigh of relief and giggle in amusement at my bold 10 year old self talking to the woodland creatures like a loving Artemis or Snow White.

“Why have I come here?” I ask out loud to the trees that are framing the moon.  “What desire lured me out West to sit on a log away from a well-worn path?”  I get no response except for their gentle swaying and the glorious views around me.  Suddenly, I have my answer:  I am here to simply be myself.  All of me.  All of those parts of me that I have hidden away for whatever reason, for whatever necessity, for whatever excuse or fear or desire or need or longing that I have denied.  I am to be like both the sun and the moon.  The light and the shadow.  The wind and the trees.  The scurrying squirrel.  The hidden beast.  The chirping birds.  The clinging vines.  The broken twigs.  The resting log.  And I don’t have to choose; for it all has been chosen for me simply because I am a living, breathing creature of this earth.  And all of me has been waiting for this part of me all along.  I have been welcomed back to my wild, beautiful, natural self.

Glory Days

Welcome to high school!

As a high school teacher, I get to relive many other people’s “glory days” year after year.  The biggest of those days culminate the week of Homecoming.  The entire week is dedicated to creating school spirit and getting the student body excited about the first home game.  On “dress up” day, I look forward to watching kids dress up by class, whether it be freshmen as “hippies,” sophomores as “nerds,” juniors as “rock stars,” or seniors as “senior citizens.”  After reading the announcements to my 2nd hour class, I am supposed to tally up how many students did the dress up that day and then pass out a “tootie fruity” candy to each one.  (Like the candy addict I am, I always save a small handful back and snack on those during breaks.)  Homecoming week is also an excuse for me to dress casually and wear my “spirit gear” (e.g., school t-shirts, jerseys, sweatshirts, etc.) and pair it with jeans or khakis.   The week ends with the Homecoming Assembly where students participate in games on the gym floor. There are dance routines performed by cheerleaders and other clubs, and teachers and assistant principals get a pie in the face as a way to boost student morale and raise money for charity.

Oh, and then there’s “Sliders.”

“Sliders” is a tradition that goes way back.  The concept is for  kids (and teachers) to do a dance routine to popular songs, and at the change of each song, they slide into formation to spell out the school’s name:  WEST.  Ok, I understand the appeal when it gets paired with the homecoming’s theme like this year’s “superheroes,” and the entertainment comes with each participating group’s spin on that theme.  Oh, and it is also exciting to watch the male teachers do their “Sliders” routine because there is something inherently funny in watching grown men dress up in costumes (most of the time one is at least dressed like an ugly woman) and try to perform an organized and cohesive routine.  They always knock it out of the park as far as humor and creativity go.

The female teachers’ sliders team is great as well.  They’re clever, organized, energetic, and well, really good.  I always enjoyed watching the sliders from the sidelines.   It’s fun to listen to the roar and cheer of 2,000+ students cheering on their teachers and peers.  But, as far as participating in the event, I’ve gone “under the radar” for 12 years now. I’ve always lived by the phrase, “I teach high school, I’m not in high school.”  Until this year.

I won’t get into the specifics on why I chose to do the routine this year (peer pressure); but I finally said “yes,” simply because our new administration has given our school and our teachers a much needed boost in morale.  I figured in the end, why not contribute back to this place that has given me so much?  Oh, and did I mention “peer pressure”?  😉

Anyway, at our first morning practice before the beginning of the school day, I decided to go for a good first slide and ended up getting two bad floor burns on my forearms.  I laughed it off when inside I was in some serious pain.  It didn’t help when I took a shower later that evening and felt the sting and burn all over again.  But, I survived and showed up every day at practice with enthusiasm.  I also enjoyed the camaraderie with my fellow science, math, English, German, French, art, and Learning Strategies teachers.  They’re great women, and it was refreshing to get to know them better all for the sake of having fun and wanting to make memories for our students.  The routine was easy too.  I just had to show up and practice my sliding.  Everything else was well-organized and under control by two well-organized, calm, yet energetic women.

Ouch! My war wounds!

On the morning of today’s assembly, I started to get “pre-game jitters”.  “What if I mess up?” I thought.  But it was all under control after a half hour practice at 7:45 a.m. and 10 run-throughs of the routine that left us all sweaty, hot, and stinky.  As soon as practice was over, I rushed across the school, ran up 3 flights of stairs while lugging my satchel and other miscellaneous items, and arrived at my locked classroom door at the end of the 2nd bell.  26 students were piled up outside of my classroom asking me where I’ve been.  “Sliders,” I said breathlessly as I tried to balance my large load while fishing my keys out of my pocket as my students stood by in annoyance.  “Ms. H, you’re bleeding,” one girl said.

“What?  Huh?” I mumbled while balancing my bag on one shoulder, my sweatshirt and jacket in one arm, keys in the other hand, and papers in my mouth.  Once we were inside and everyone took their seat (and I had tossed everything haphazardly onto my desk), I looked at my arms and saw blood trickling down.  “Oh, gross,” I thought, and grabbed a Kleenex and wiped myself off right before I handed out the papers for the day.

I played the “sympathy” card the rest of the shortened schedule day and begged my students to cheer me at the assembly.  For whatever reason, maybe because I was going to be up in front of a large crowd of hormonally challenged teenagers later that day, I began reminiscing about my “glory days”.  I was not a popular kid.  I was a middle-of-the-road band geek who had crushes on boys that didn’t know I existed.  I played basketball for the majority of my high school years, but sat most of the time on the bench.  I wore braces for my first 2 years and a retainer for my last two.  (After a late night of “cruising,” I once retrieved my retainer from a McDonald’s trash can after having taken it out to eat my quintessential teenage meal of cheeseburger, fries and a Coke.  But, I digress.)

I went to assemblies and played in the pep band.  I marched at football games and went to dances.  And, though there were happy times interspersed in those 4 years, the majority of the time I worried.  A lot.  I felt like a big microscope was on me, and I feared that everyone would notice every single mistake I would make, and then later judge me for it.  I worried about my looks, my clothes, my grades, my homework, cute boys, and mean girls; and I worried about where I would sit in the cafeteria, and with whom I would be sitting.  I thought I was abnormal because I was having more of these “worry days” than I was “carefree, glory days.”

Now that I’m a high school teacher, I see the reality of high school and teenagers.  Even the popular kids, the bully, the mean girl, the freakishly quiet kid in the corner, the jocks, the band nerd, and the drifter worry about the same things I did.  Back in my day, I was searching for my true identity.  I thought it existed in how I decorated my locker, how I styled my hair, what catchy words and phrases I used, and with whom I decided to spend a majority of my time.   I questioned why I was feeling lonely, melancholy, crucified, mortified, embarrassed, awkward, angry, or confused one minute, and giddy, happy, confident, pretty and smart the next.  And though there were happy moments and fun times in my life as a high school kid, and though I enjoyed a majority of my classes, teachers, and classmates, there was that nagging feeling that I was waiting for my “real life” to start.  I didn’t know that it had already begun.

As I was recounting my “war wounds” to my senior writing students this morning, I saw myself in their faces.  An odd thing happened to me too:  I got “school spirit” and I wanted to let them know that today is a good time in their lives.  Tomorrow or Monday, or three weeks or a year from now might not be, but today is because they have a chance to cheer, to act silly, to dress funny, to laugh, to take pictures, and to enjoy a fleeting moment of a fading childhood.