two weekends in the woods

(January 3, 2016) I like to imagine myself as a deer in the woods; long-legged and leaping from one place to next. This is how I envision my experience. In reality, in the woods, I follow my love (not to the fields, Wendell Berry – the woods are even better) and am so happy to trot along after him, not deer, more like puppy. I’d follow you wherever you go. Until I seek permission to race ahead like deer, because really I’m too independent for too much following, and run too fast. Unlike deer, I get tuckered out (more like puppy) within a mile. However, out of sheer stubbornness mixed with pure love for the woods, I go round for another 4 mile loop. Four miles in the woods is more like 7 on the roads. I am tired, but when I emerge from the woods with my head hanging and unable to walk in a straight line, he is there waiting for me patiently at the car. His welcoming smile makes everything good. I am deer – I am puppy – I am Christine, full of the woods and all their good things.

(Wendell Berry’s Manifesto: The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front reads, “Go with your love to the fields. / Lie down in the shade. Rest your head / in her lap. Swear allegiance / to what is nighest your thoughts.)
deer running(Image from Google Images / Youtube)

(January 9, 2016) A little rain doesn’t stop the dedicated runners, especially when the setting is serene Eagle Creek Park. My goofy leaping about as we get ready to step on the trail betrays my feelings; not that I was ever one to hide my excitement, anyway. The sky is heavy gray, the tree branches are bare except for the stubborn yellow leaves hanging out on the undergrowth, and the path is clearly marked. As I run beside this man, the pace feeling relaxed and easy, I think back to other days with other people, when I believed their happiness was my responsibility and I was weighed down with guilt over things I couldn’t control. This man, even though he feels “off” on this morning with a weather front coming in, gives me nothing but his smiles when I look at him. There is something within me that is very reassured by this, some deep-seated fear or maybe memory being overlaid by this new experience of someone smiling back at you when you check in with them, someone who really wants you to be here with them. Or maybe part of it is that I’m finally able to believe – to know – that I am wanted here. I’m not sure what exactly it is, but I know that here in these woods, on this rainy January day in Indianapolis, something is being healed.

Kevin in the woods

being held in our pain

Recently, I posted on Facebook that I have been crying a lot this summer and doing a lot of growing and learning. After doing this, I wondered to myself, “Gee, would that make some people worried about me?” Help! There’s water leaking out of my eyes! Call the plumber! Can we talk about crying, about sadness, about tears, without others becoming concerned for us? I sure hope so.

I recognize I’m a bit biased in this: I’m in a counseling program, and I’m currently doing what’s called Clinical Pastoral Education at a local hospital. I serve as a chaplain, but CPE at its core is an intense self-examination, learning to see your own “stuff,” your own “baggage,” so that you can work it out and learn to be more present for your patients and clients (and also just be a healthier human being). Crying is very much allowed in group and is considered to be a normal, healthy thing. But sometimes I am jolted back to the reality of our culture and realize that for many families, in many situations, crying is shamed and holding sadness and grief for extended periods of time is found unacceptable.

I worked in a daycare for a year before coming to seminary, and it was one of those unexpectedly healing times: I truly think of it as a balm for my soul. Something that was particularly healing was the compassionate holding of the emotions of the children, and allowing them to freely express their feelings, to bawl their eyes out until they had nothing left to give. We didn’t tell them “c’mon now, don’t cry,” or “be a big boy now.” We definitely didn’t tease them with, “you’re not going to cry now, are you??” or use the classic, “If you don’t quit crying, I’ll give you something to cry about!” It breaks my heart to hear an adult give a child those lines.

Sometimes, as I held a sobbing child in my arms (regardless of what for: whether they missed mommy or because another kid took their favorite toy; the emotions are real), I would feel a strange sense of wistfulness and longing. Grief, you might say, because we can also grieve the things in our lives that we never had the chance to have. I wish I could have been held like this. I wish when I was little, someone had told me it was okay to cry and had sat with me until I did cry and I would have known that nobody felt weird about it. I don’t know about you, but in my family of origin, we didn’t really cry with each other when we were sad. So when I cry today, in some ways, I’m making up for 20-some odd years of shutting down, of numbing all the feelings that I’d felt.

I’m learning about grief in this summer internship and it strikes me: Grieving, when “properly” done, is really hard to do. Not because somewhere inside, we don’t know what to do or don’t feel things, but because collectively, we as a society don’t allow grieving to happen. It takes a long time. Too long. It’s messy. It’s repetitive. It requires patience and listening ears and steadfast support of loved ones. It requires you to offer yourself grace, of being okay with the sad feelings, even if they happen over and over again, and to not judge yourself for it. Grieving requires us to reach deep down into our wells of compassion, for self and for others.

But it is only through grieving, (“you can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you must go through it!”) that we can healthily get to the other side. Sure, we won’t do it perfectly. We’ll still end up with “baggage” that we’ll need to keep unpacking in the future. But please, I ask of you: when you suffer a loss, any kind of loss, allow yourself to feel it. Big or small-death of a loved one, lost a job, broke up, moved, kid graduated high school, or any number of small losses we encounter in everyday life- these losses are real. Even happy things- I got married, I retired- include losses: losses of singleness and freedom, loss of purpose and structure to your day. It’s okay to miss those things too and to feel sad about them.

Do what you need to do. Journal. Talk to a friend. Take a bubble bath. Run. Cry. Just don’t be afraid of the tears. And in the end, it’s lovely to be “held” by someone, just like I got to hold those crying preschoolers: we cry on people’s shoulders, we make phone calls and pour out our hearts, we make plans to spend time with people who know and understand our pain. But don’t forget that we can “hold” ourselves too. Be gentle with yourself. Be kind to yourself. Accept your pain and don’t try to rush through it. Because you deserve to be treated well and loved… by yourself.