Hiking and Healing
I woke reluctantly, the hour’s extra rest falling back gave me felt meager. But a promise to a friend is a promise to a friend.
You have to do the things that are good for you whether you feel like them or not. I repeated my morning depression-fighting mantra several times before groaning and dressing in layers, throwing my hair up into a more-than-messy bun.
It’s so hard during spells of depression, mild or extreme, to do the simplest of things—brush my hair or teeth, shave, smile, wake up. But, ultimately, it is part of my ability to self-heal and self-push that sees me here despite the debilitating fog of depression. And I’m thankful for my ability to talk myself out of wallowing. I know it’s a gift that some don’t possess, so I count it the blessing it is.
I pulled into one of my favorite walking/hiking trails in Port Gamble and weak-smiled at one of my favorite people. She pulled in next to my car. Her smile was as frail as mine, which helped me see another blessing—a friend who will also wake herself up, move with me, even in her own sicknesses.
At first our steps were heavy with the things we shared, as heavy as the problems that weighed on our shoulders—work stress, time we wish we could spend doing things like that we made time for today, worries that the decisions we have to make or made will poorly affect the people we love most, mourning, sickness…
The onslaught is always the same. We have a tradition of spilling our grief, big and small, on the rock-strewn, muddy paths. Not on each other. We just nod and understand and lift up support as the darkness unfurls like Madrona bark from our bodies, leaving us a bit raw and exposed. Together, that is not a bad place to be. Safe, we will not chaff each other.
After a while, the talk always gets broken by the finding, stopping and marveling. She brought her bag and knife for mushrooms, just in case. I brought my polypore eyes just in case. We looked, we cut new paths, we pushed ourselves uphill, shoved the sickness out with our heavy, working breath. Pausing, we saw. Ruffled edges, gills, spores, spots and mottled tops of fungi we could not name, but that rekindled a fascination with nature we lost in our pursuit of all the manmade things that press upon us.
“I often find answers to problems I have when I walk in nature,” she shares, and I smile for real, understanding shining in the irises once too exhausted to be bright. Because I know just what she means. I can start a hike crying, only to end it, breathless, at peace.
We point to various fungi, brightly colored, greasy and drooping, groping like fingers, scalloped to a tree. We stoop to see them more clearly and wonder at their purpose unknown to us. They all have a purpose, of that I’m sure. I think every leaf in creation has a purpose. Some of that purpose has nothing to do with me, but maybe it has a little bit to do with humanity—to feed human and animal bodies, to bring color to their lives, to simply be beautiful to behold. But, probably, that is a selfish way to see it. Maybe their purpose is so much more important than what I can comprehend in relation to me, me, me…
Either way, their beauty does bring us peace and sometimes we stop talking and just walk. Our vents are clearing with every step we take, and we see more, wake more to what’s around us, when suddenly something swoops over that path in front of us.
I reach for my phone, which automatically dies. This creature does not want to be known through the lens of my phone. A bold, big and awe-inspiring Spotted Owl soars from one close perch to another, then waits. He turns his head around, the way the all-seeing do, and fixes his gaze on me as I stared back. Why him? I ask myself. Why do I think you are him?
My cousin once told me that people in her tribe take owls very seriously. Some are frightened, others are just awestruck by them. Because they are the purveyors of departed souls. I did not feel afraid seeing this owl, though I do not tend to be fearful of death. We all must make our final journey. Maybe it was because today was the one-year anniversary of Uncle’s death, but I was sensitive to the fact that the owl was out at a strange hour and was oddly close to us. And the way he looked at me...
Uncle? Is that you? I didn’t want to break the spell by speaking, so I just willed him to hear my silent plea. He didn’t move, just stared, unblinking as we stopped to watch and wait with him.
In that moment, I knew he was asking for me to let him go.
When he was living, he told me that I had to be very careful in my grief not to hold onto the people I lose, after we both lost grandpa. Even in his grief he was teaching me. He told me not to walk at night in my grief or the person might stay with me forever because they would feel my need and want to bind with me. His soul has been waiting, tied here, for those who grieve to let him go.
I didn’t realize that I was part of the reason he could not leave, those tying him to a place he no longer belongs. But my grief over losing him has been great. I walked into a tribe I was not a part of, a tight-knit community that was skeptical of people who looked like me. Rightly so, but that did not make the transition easier. I never realized how important it was to have him and grandpa teaching me, patiently, firmly and steadily how to become part of the family I married into. I never realized what their immediate love and acceptance of me meant. Until they both left me, and I felt untethered to the place they loved and unwanted because they left me alone to navigate it. Not that they didn’t give me the knowledge I needed, but that they weren’t there to help me use it.
I’m sorry. I miss you. All the time. But I don’t want you to stay for me or anyone else. You can go. We’ll be okay. And we’ll see you soon.
The owl didn’t immediately leave. He sat and watched us depart. I wondered was I being silly…
“Do you believe in totems?” My friend seemed to read the meaning of the moment in her question.
It turned out that her totem, her interpretation of the moment was different, but no less meaningful. Her experience is hers to tell, but I think we both needed answers and comfort and understanding. God gave it to us, through the creations we would have never experienced if we hadn’t deliberately made the choice to be with it.
So often our priorities are disengaged from our world, counter to our world. We need, need, need, so we build, tear down and live at odds. No matter how big or how impressive a view we have, we are not living in nature if we are not in the right frame of mind. I pray, always, for the frame of mind that finds comfort in the beauty around me, rather than the desire to cut down the trees to better see the water I could have just walked to, stood in, let wash over my bare feet in the chilled rush of a Pacific tide.
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H.M Jones is the author of B.R.A.G Medallion Honor and NIEA finalist book Monochrome, its prequel Fade to Blue, the Adela Darken Graphic Novellas, Al Ravien's Night, The Immortals series, and several short stories.