Truth Arrives in Silence

Note: This post continues my reflections on “truth”, my word for 2016.

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“We can’t rob our gifts of their mystery. We can only rob ourselves of our gifts.”

– Ken Page

The temperature dropped to 19 below that first night. I huddled in my plywood cabin under several blankets, completely surrounded by the silence of the snowy woods. Except for the loud cracks of trees popping in the cold, the silence outdoors was vast. Inside, the sounds of some small animal skittering behind the wall or the heater whooshing to life were intermittent, startling me every time.

With none of the usual noise-makers present (no phone service, no television, no computer) I was thrown upon my own inner resources for mental occupation. Of course, I was staying at a retreat center so that was the point: remove the noise and distractions of daily life and allow your inner self to come out.

The first thing that happened was that I fell asleep, and stayed asleep for almost 10 hours. Considering my recent 4-6 hours per night, often punctuated by periods of wakefulness, that long sleep verged on the miraculous.

The next thing I noticed was that the anxiety that had been my near-constant companion for months, let go of its stranglehold on my throat and lifted itself up off of my chest. I didn’t really care where it had gone, I was just so grateful that it had! I didn’t mind that the day’s temps had never rallied above zero. I bundled up and grabbed a walking stick and headed out to hike in the woods, following trail markings to make my way.

Into my silent mind paraded all the things – you know the ones: the things I hadn’t done, the things I had failed at, the things I never quite managed to get a handle on; the things I should have, ought to have, and meant to do or become. Usually, these things make me feel so awful, so down on myself, that I quickly find something to do to get out of the silence that invites them in. Instead, I kept walking.

The path through the snow and ice covered woods was rough and uneven. I was grateful for the walking stick that allowed me to keep moving, for the boots that kept my toes warm, for the scarf that filtered the freezing air as it entered my body.

Next to arrive in the mental parade: all of the beauty surrounding me, outside of me. I noticed ice crystals on the frozen creek, forming dramatic and intricate patterns; the bare trees reaching in stark loveliness toward the blue sky; the turkey tracks forming their own path in virgin snow just off the walking trail. I felt a surge of positive energy rising from my feet on the ground up through the top of my head. I looked around me in wonder.

Last to arrive, buoyed up by the surge of gladness in my heart and shyly tip-toeing into the silence, came my deepest gifts – the beauty that resides deep inside me. Psychologist Ken Page calls them Core Gifts, saying:

“…They are simply the places where we feel the most deeply, where we most ache to express our authentic self…we spend large parts of our lives fleeing their call… Yet, as safe as we may feel by avoiding our core gifts, there is a grave cost to this avoidance…We create a vacuum where our self should be, and our nature abhors that vacuum.”

Nature abhors that vacuum. So we fill it with noise and busyness and the consuming of stuff. We adventure and we schedule and we work. Anything to avoid the silence. A friend recently told me that she can’t have silence, because if she is surrounded by silence for too long, “…bad things happen. No, I can’t do silence.” But the bad things come first because they’re closest to the surface. We’re aware of them on a daily basis even if we don’t look at them straight-on. Deeper, beneath that layer of mental and emotional filth, the good stuff is hiding. If we never allow silence, we rarely break through to the gifts.

Deep inside, hidden in the silence, is the mystery of my best self. I put it there to keep it safe from the inevitable hurts, shame, embarrassment that it felt when I was a child and others glimpsed it. Vulnerable as it felt in the open, it turns out that a locked box isn’t the optimum place to keep my best self. If I never make room for silence, I never make space for my best self to emerge in daily life. I only leave space for what is always lurking just below the surface; I only allow room for anxiety and fear and loneliness.

I’m not claiming that two days at a retreat center allowed me to retrieve my best self for good. But I am suggesting that real, substantive, silence is a good thing. We feel uncomfortable at first. We immediately access the crappy stuff. But if we stick with it, eventually our inner butterfly emerges from the crysalis we’ve hidden in our hearts. Our best self unfolds its gorgeous wings, and we become aware that, perhaps, the thing we’ve been fearing and avoiding is the core of who we are. And it glistens like a diamond – or like glittery snow on a brightly cold day in the silent north woods.

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Before the Snow

“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.

A Solo Hike

The beginning of the Cedar Crest Trail.

In my entire adult life, until today, I have never managed to go for a long hike in the woods by myself. I have started to, a few times, but always turned around in fear before I managed to go very far. No, I am not afraid of the woods. I admit I am easily startled by even small wild animals, but that isn’t why I have feared such hikes. Some of you know I can be a bit clumsy, and this might be a good reason to avoid heading into the woods solo, however, even the fear of injury hasn’t been the thing that stopped me.

I don’t walk alone in the woods because I am afraid of men. More specifically, I have been afraid of finding myself alone and isolated with a passing stranger who might seize this moment of vulnerability and take advantage of it. Or a couple of passing strangers.

I have had many arguments, with myself and others, about whether this is a realistic fear. I have debated the relative merits of curtailing activities in order to feel more secure (thereby holding myself back from fully experiencing things that might enrich my life) OR of taking a more courageous stance and going full steam ahead in spite of fear. In spite of what I have learned to think about as a woman in this world – that I might be easy prey for someone stronger than me.

I have been working to fear less in my life. And today just seemed like a good day to set forth on my own. I felt trepidation. When I experienced a bout of vertigo upon stepping too close the edge of a rocky cliff, I worried that I might be incompetent to hike alone on a ridge-top trail! Twice (in the same spot, headed out and back in) I encountered a beaver who was as startled to see me as I was to see him.  The only other people I encountered in the woods today were men, also out enjoying nature alone (well, one guy had a baby snuggled to his chest). I tried to cross paths with them confidently and with trust in my heart.

It was beautiful, cool and crisp in the green woods. So quiet I could hear trees creaking in the wind. So still at moments that the shy blue dragonflies hovered all around me, nearly alighting on my toes a couple of times.

Holding still, you can't see his gossamer wings!

A few hours after returning from my hike, I sat chatting in a friend’s living room. She asked if I had told anyone where I was going, when I would be back. She scolded me for not doing so, and shook her head at my impulsive trek. I could only agree with her.

And yet. There was a moment on my solo walk, breathing deeply in the loveliness and solitude, when I felt such happiness that I literally broke into a run. Me. Running. Not in fear, but in joy.

Resting on a trail-side bench.