The Woods

In some ways, I have been preparing for this disaster all my life.

My first catastrophe was my parents’ divorce.  That wasn’t a happy thing, but it was the first time my entire world changed, and I had no control. What I did was retreat further into books.  Become as self-sufficient as possible.  I was ready to move out.  I was ten.

There were some disadvantages to those strategies.  I missed out on some social understandings.  I became a distracter rather than a feeler.  I stuffed and numbed my sadness and fear.

There were advantages, though.  Books are a healthy escape.  I learned a lot about ancient Egypt, Agatha Christie, science.  So much.

And I am adept at distracting people in times they can’t act.  I know what to do when visiting a sick bed, or waiting at the hospital: play marry/fuck/kill (particularly great with your siblings, FYI).

From the moment my family broke, I became the person who knew suffering, and I felt like I knew how to be there for friends when they were suffering.  Even back then, I read self help books about listening and hugs and all that.

This doesn’t mean I can never be knocked off balance.  I haven’t had a sibling emergency, or a continuing parent crisis, since.

I have a chronic struggle with anxiety.  I have spent the last decade (annoyingly) figuring out how to feel, prevent, process, avoid, or work with anxiety and panic.  Partly that means I am medicating myself right now (you bet I am), but also it means I know some things about myself: when I feel super anxious, it’s okay to go to bed and snuggle up with “Law & Order.”  I know some tricks to get myself to eat when I have no appetite.  At this point in my life, I have a much better understanding of when I need to be strict with myself (GET UP, CALL SOMEONE), and when to give myself room (it’s okay to watch a lot of TV).

As a teacher, I am used to the weird feeling of sudden disconnection from people who were your whole world.  That happens at the end of every year.  It always means I need to take some hermit days, and make plans for fun things, so my moods don’t float away with darkness or anxiety.

Unlike 20-year-old me, I know it is good for me to play dress-up and read stupid celebrity news and do other such frivolous things.  It’s not a distraction from The Important Things.  It’s one of the important things, enjoying your life, having pleasure, not taking anything too seriously.  The last time I lived here, I vowed to not buy any clothes, or magazines (this was when magazines existed), I got all ascetic, and all that did was make me so depressed I went to a therapist for the first time.

Live and learn.  I’m way better off as a Benedictine, who balances work and prayer, the world and the spirit.  Offering hospitality nourishes me.

From my work with children, my first instinct in any crisis is to make plans.  Define the problem, then make a schedule and divvy up responsibilities.  When my niece came over the other day, we listed what we wanted to do, and scheduled the whole evening.  I’m like a kid in that schedules make me feel safe.  I’m more knowledgeable now about how much wiggle room I can allow myself without risking an emotional crash.

I know now that hugs are like food for your skin.  I live alone, but I decided to share time and space with my cousin and her kids, who are also isolated.  It would be better to see no one at all, but my mental health is also important.  The calculated risk of getting hugs from my cousin and her kids is probably worth it to me.

I also have spent an incredible amount of time thinking seriously about how to spend my life, and what’s important.  So though I am anxious now, I maintain a very strong sense that I have done good with my time, with my life, and I’m proud of that.  I don’t feel a great need to reevaluate my life now that I have time to.  Well, I do this periodically, but I don’t feel I’ve left a big pile of emotionally dirty laundry.  And that feels good.

I have connected with a church and spiritual traditions that nourish me.  The monastics I know pray three times a day.  Every day.  Every day.  Yes, every single day.  That is a model I can take up, if I want to.  And the prescribed words work for me.  I love the poetry of The Prayer Book.  I love knowing that whatever happens, we will say the same stuff over and over and over and over again.  I love knowing that our tradition is more than 400 years old, by one count, about 2,000, by another count, and by the most expansive definition, 4,000 years old.  It’s old.  Stuff about it works for human minds and souls.  It works for me the way it worked for my ancestors.

This is just luck, a gift.  I know not everyone has a tradition they connect with.  And if you know me, you know I have zero desire to interfere with your spiritual life, or lack of it, or whatever.

Am I freaking the fuck out?  You bet.

But it seems like a healthy thing to assess what we bring to this moment in time.

I watched “Frozen 2” with my niece.  That is some dark stuff!  Olaf singing about impermanence.  I was like, is this a Zen Buddhist movie?

What resonated with me was that they talk about how going into the enchanted forest will transform them.  We are in the misty, enchanted forest now.  Today I realized what piece of art speaks to this time for me: Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.”

Into the woods,

Who knows what may

Be lurking on the journey?


Hard to see the light now.

Just don’t let it go.

Things will come out right now.

We can make it so. Someone is on your side–

No one is alone.

Though it’s fearful,

Though it’s deep, though it’s dark

And though you may lose the path,

Though you may encounter wolves,

You can’t just act,

You have to listen.

you can’t just act,

You have to think.

Though it’s dark,

There are always wolves,

There are always spells,

There are always beans,

Or a giant dwells there.

Into the woods, but mind the past.

Into the woods, but mind the future.

Into the woods, but not to stray,

Or tempt the wolf, or steal from the giant–

The way is dark,

The light is dim, 

The chances look small,

The choices look grim,

But everything you learn there

Will help when you return there.

The light is getting dimmer..

I think I see a glimmer–

Into the woods–you have to grope,

But that’s the way you learn to cope.

Into the woods to find there’s hope

Of getting through the journey.

Into the woods, each time you go,

There’s more to learn of what you know.

Into the woods

and out of the woods

and home before dark.

Last week, “South Pacific” was the greatest musical, but this week, “Into the Woods” is.  Don’t tell Sondheim. He’s already insufferable.

Image: “An Allee in the Woods,” Sir Edward John Poynter, 1859, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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