The Body as Talisman
Through the years, I lost count of the times my mother told the story of their first year in the house I grew up in. It was the first house built in the neighborhood. I imagined a thick forested area interrupted by two strips of barren land bulldozed into the shape of 24 neatly arranged plots. According to the story they lived in the neighborhood alone for several months surrounded by forest and wildlife. She delighted in recalling the menagerie of animals who made their home in their backyard during hunting season. Four years later, after I was born the neighborhood had filled in and looked like many of the neighborhoods that dotted my hometown and the rest of the mid west, a one story ranch with a long driveway and a garage. The front and backyard combined to form an acre of manicured heaven. But right beyond the yard was the woods. Someone had bought the land behind our street of neatly horizontal plots which ran the length of the entire neighborhood. Apart from their single family home about 1/4 mile away they left the woods as it was, thick, dark and wild.
I had strict instructions to never go into the woods alone and so it retained some mystery as I was growing up. There was somewhat of a small clearing between 3 trees on the edge by our house that I used to sneak out to, working out various scenarios of imaginative play. It was the 60’s and children had a great deal of freedom to roam the neighborhood and beyond. I spent my summers on my bike all day with a daily routine of going uptown, hitting the parks and the pharmacy's penny candy aisle. At least once a week, I checked the appliance store for oversized boxes that my father would pick up on his way home from work so that I could build houses with them. Typically, I was out in the morning, home for lunch and back on my bike until dinner time. Again, it was the 60's.
The day of note started just as any other. I had a full day doing my rounds and was excited about a refrigerator box that had just become available that day. Almost home, I rounded the corner on my street. A group of boys stood blocking the sidewalk about 4 houses down. I assumed they would move and let me pass. I slowed down, but did not stop. They did not let me pass. Instead, one grabbed my handle bars and another pulled me off my bike, dragged me along a side yard between two houses, through the weeds and into the woods. On that day the hot and humid woods became the setting for a sexual assault which haunted me for years, marking the loss of innocence. It was the day the world became a dangerous place.
On that day, my fondness for the woods changed dramatically and by association, all forests became a living metaphor for my anxiety and fear. Over these years I have worked through my complicated relationship with the forest. I have spent many weekends hiking in the Pacific Northwest. I relish the wonder of the woods; the faint musty odor of the dark soil, cascading beds of the greenest ferns, repetitive fungi spread out like a beautiful fan and a single trail breaking the plane between grasses and weeds. Looking up at a kaleidoscope of green and blue above. Although I have made friends with the forest, it was a conditional friendship. I have never been able to walk in the woods alone since the day of the sexual assault. As much as I loved the forest it still was not a safe place. I nurtured that belief that all these years it was unthinkable to ever enter the woods alone. It seemed fitting that it was time to put that long and tightly held belief to rest.
I was grateful to be awarded a residency at Blue Mountain Center in the middle of the pristine lands of the Adirondack State Park in New York. This special place is known for its soft edged emerald mountains, clear and clean lakes, thick, lush forests and an ever changing sky which reflects its own majesty to the water below.
Much like the slight sense of courage it takes to overcome the hesitation of jumping into to the cold waters of a freshwater lake I put my hiking boots on and went for a hike into the woods at daybreak on the day after I arrived. I set out alone, my anxiety cloaked in doubts about my ability to find the trail, worrying the grade might be too much for a recent ankle injury, will the black flies torment me. (They did.) Looking back behind me every so often to make sure no one was following me, all the while tamping down those thoughts of that day, Swatting at the flies while swatting the repetitive thought of what if something horrible happened today. My internal work was much like the hike, rainy, sweaty, uncomfortable and steep. Taking it one step at a time I developed a slow and plodding rhythm with a mind that never quite settled down. The trail was called Lookout Point Trail and my intention was to reach the top that day, however, between the bugs and my monkey mind I had enough and decided to turn around half way up. Perhaps a metaphor for the healing needed, often in pieces, spurts, not a continuous smooth arc as we would sometimes wish. I did, however, walk out of the woods with a feeling of satisfied exhilaration for having started this journey. I was finally putting the ghosts of the past to bed. Two days later, I went back to the trail and was pleasantly surprised to find less bugs and less intruding thoughts, a truly more pleasant experience and after more sweating, plodding and encouraging self talk I made it to the top. The view was well worth the walk through the woods.