Before the Snow

7 11 2013

“Fall colors are funny. They’re so bright and intense and beautiful. It’s like nature is trying to fill you up with color, to saturate you so you can stockpile it before winter turns everything muted and dreary.”
— Siobhan Vivian, “Same Difference”

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Before the snow, I headed out to walk along Minnehaha Creek. The weather reports had been unequivocal: “Winter (i.e. snow) is coming!” And even though I knew when I chose to come here that winter would be bigger living in the north, the reports surprisingly filled me with dread.

Lately, when I ‘ve needed air and movement, I have gravitated toward neighborhoods and city blocks where urban life fills me with its bustle and energy. New views of the skyline, new shops to gaze into, new places to order a large Americano and observe my fellow city dwellers. Or I have looped the lakes – spectacular in their poetic beauty, sailboats bobbing on waters silver or blue, glass-smooth or frothy, depending on the mercurial light and wind.

Somehow, I knew I needed a quieter landscape this time.

I had ridden the bike trail along Minnehaha twice, both times with Mike. First, in the high heat of August, on the home stretch of a fifty-mile circuit of the city. Then, its lush green shadows felt like an oasis. The second time, we rode on a cool night in mid-fall, with only our cheap (and not very illuminating) headlights to guide us. That time, the depth of its shadows filled me with terror and the short moonlit spans with wonder.  As I thought where I could go, the adjacent walking path which meanders alongside the bike trail, mostly between it and the creek, came to mind. Trees and shadows and hidden spots would do nicely.

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For most of my adult life, I had very little appreciation of nature – similar to the way I sometimes felt about humanity, I appreciated it in the abstract: individual people, and the actual outdoors, were not always my cup of tea. Now I find that being outdoors is the best way to clear and focus my mind, or, when necessary, to alter my mood. In this pause before the snow, I knew my thinking was jumbled and my emotions were all over the place. I just didn’t have clarity as to why. The moment I set my feet on the path, I felt I had come to the right place.

The afternoon was damp and gray, but the woods were glowing. I’ve always loved the special quality of yellow and gold in autumn woods and fields. On sunless days, these plants radiate light almost as if in the long days of summer they had stored the sun’s actual rays and now – just as we are beginning to keenly feel the sun’s loss to winter – they give it back to us. I walked along the paved path, pausing as I crossed the bridges to watch the creek flow over rocks and into still pools. Though I followed the markers for the walking trail, I came to end of the pavement.

As I stood, indecisively wondering if I should turn around or take the unpaved path that beckoned me forward, a woman and large shaggy dog walked up, nodded, and continued past me onto the unpaved trail. I stopped to take a picture with my phone, then took off after them, thinking I would catch up, but they had disappeared. The woods were beautiful, silent and still – and I was definitely alone.

Suddenly, I found this a little frightening. I was unfamiliar with the area, I didn’t know where the path was going, and I was in the woods alone. And in that moment I realized that the internal disquiet I had come here to parse out was just a new manifestation of familiar life issues: uncertainty and expectations. When I moved here, I thought I came without preconceived ideas of how things would go. I thought I was ready to live with and through the uncertainty of creating something new for my life. I stopped walking and stood quietly as the synapses in my brain fired. What I realized, listening to the soft sounds of the creek and the woods was this: I had un-articulated expectations, with an associated time frame, that weren’t being met.

Before the snow, I had expected to be employed. Perhaps not perfectly so, but enough so that the fear of utter failure and destitution would have been alleviated.

Before the snow, I had expected to be equipped to face the winter – appropriate attire, new snow tires, the ability to winterize my bike so I could keep riding. Without the employment expectation being met, the likelihood of meeting this expectation was diminished.

Before the snow, I had expected my new life to be enriched by new friends and the opportunity to take advantage of some of the non-free things this city has to offer (classes at the Center for the Book or The Literary Loft, for example).

But most importantly, I had apparently expected that, before the snow, I would have traversed the path through uncertainty and come out on the other side with a clarity of purpose and a more firm sense of my life here. Instead, I was lost – both figuratively and literally. Despite my best efforts. And the snow was upon me.

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Once I realized what had led to my disquiet, I found I could think more calmly about my physical location in the woods. I took several deep breaths and looked around. Bright yellow leaves were dropping like confetti from the branches of trees. They covered everything: the ground, fallen branches and boulders in a spectacular, mottled carpet.

Uncertainty and unexpected detours from the path sometimes take us to magical places almost in spite of ourselves. If I hadn’t felt panic at the impending storm, I wouldn’t have experienced exactly this configuration of light and color. Also, I may not have gained clarity of thinking to know why I was troubled. Most importantly, I might not have been able to put my fear in its proper perspective: uncertainty sucks but I’m moving through it, not standing still. And if I let go of expectations and remember to take one step forward at a time, I will find a path. It may not be easy, it may not lead anywhere I ever thought I’d go. But it will be MY path. And isn’t that what all this was about in the first place?

Postscript:

Mike and I had planned to meet for a late dinner that night at our favorite restaurant (we had a Living Social coupon that was about to expire). We sat at the bar, catching up on our days and sipping wine. I was warm, surrounded by candlelight and interesting people, anticipating a delicious meal. My seat was turned slightly toward Mike, which afforded me a view of the front wall – all windows – and the fat snow flakes falling outside. It was absolutely gorgeous, this first snowfall in my new home. And I felt not a smidge of panic.

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You Cannot See Your Future From Here

26 07 2012

I’ve been thinking about the future a lot this summer. It has alternately filled me with excitement and dread. I have found my heart racing with anticipation and with sheer panic. Beautiful fantasies, check. Hyperventilation, check. One day I found myself asking friends, “Which do you think is most likely – that I’ll develop an ulcer or have a heart attack?” (They immediately voted for the ulcer, their reason being I’m in good cardiovascular shape from working out.)

With all this mental and emotional turmoil, it would make sense to pull back a bit and spend some time in calm reflection. Of course, that’s how I got to this point in the first place – calmly reflecting on what it is I want for my life: who am I, how do I intend to live, what is my heart desiring? (I guess you really can’t start out on a journey to change your life and then be shocked when your life demands that you actually change.) Anyway, I did what many of us do when looking for perspective these days, and sat down at my computer. I googled “quotes about the future”, and found some interesting statements, my favorite of which is:

The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of 60 minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.
C. S. Lewis
 

In other words, the future arrives in its own time, and all the hyperventilating in the world won’t bring it on any more quickly – or delay it, either. At the rate of 60 minutes an hour, there is time to breathe.

I quickly discovered, though, that a clever quotation – even from such an erudite source as C.S. Lewis – can only stave off anxiety or provide mental respite for a short time. I needed something more “meaty” to chew on. And that is when a friend reminded me of a book I read all the way back in high school. Hinds Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard.

This little book is an allegorical tale about poor Much-Afraid, who lives in the Valley of Humiliation, surrounded by her extended family, the Fearings. Much-Afraid is timid and suffers from physical disabilities and deformities which keep her feeling inferior and insecure. However, she has found employment working for the Shepherd, who promises to help her escape the Valley for the high places, The Kingdom of Love. If she will but trust and follow, she will be changed, her imperfections erased, and her feet will become “like hind’s feet”, able to leap gracefully and nimbly along even the steepest of paths.

Obviously, the reader is intended to identify with Much-Afraid. And I did (though not nearly to the degree I did when in high school). It is as she approaches the borders of the Kingdom of Love that the following passage appears:

“It did seem strange that even after safely surmounting so many difficulties and steep places, including the ‘impassable precipice’ just below them, Much-Afraid should remain so like her name. But so it was!”

Then, on the following page, the Shepherd places his hands on her comfortingly and says,

“Much-Afraid, don’t ever allow yourself to begin trying to picture what it will be like. Believe me, when you get to the places which you dread you will find that they are as different as possible from what you have imagined…”
 

And this is how God speaks to us, sometimes. In words or phrases which seem to appear in the moment of our need for them. It seems I read that whole book primarily for these few sentences. The first passage to remind me that everything in my life – my own weight loss, the journey I’ve been on to change so much about myself, the health issues and healings of my loved ones and SO MUCH MORE – should already have created a Fear-Less where a Much-Afraid once stood.

The second passage reminds me that there is no point in borrowing anxiety from the unknown – my creative imagination is not intended as a tool for anticipating, then dwelling on, worst-case scenarios. The reality is that worst cases, when they happen, are never quite what we thought they would be in specifics or scope or duration. Sometimes they are worse than we feared, other times, better or easier. In either case, we have to respond to them in the moment they occur. Having dreaded them in advance is not the tiniest bit useful in that moment.

As I adjust my thinking to encompass these two nuggets of wisdom, I find that my heart rate is slowing. I am not gulping big mouthfuls of air as if there will never be enough oxygen for me. I’ve mostly stopped worrying about an ulcer. Instead, I’m talking myself away from fear and into calm presence in the moment. And in that calm, I am able to identify the location of my next step forward – you know, a step that happens in this particular 60 minute increment of time. And then the next.