I love how we connect to physical places. Like Grandma’s kitchen or the tree house in a friend’s back yard or maybe that bend by the fishing river where your dad took you. The sense of safety and comfort we develop around such places grounds us in a way that people cannot.
In my theological childhood, this would be considered heresy. God and people were the point of the whole experiment; the earth just a glimpse of goodness. We had a healthy respect for the earth and nature’s cycles, but it was tertiary to the “I-thou” relationship of human to human and God to human. In my experience with reality, sometimes the earth is more comforting and dependable than anyone or thing else I encounter. Sure it can’t buy me a double short latte or hold me when I need a good cry, but then again, you don’t always do that either.
People. They change. They are frustratingly imperfect (and yes, I am still celebrating imperfectionism.) They are your friend or lover or spouse one day and the next, they’re flirting with some pretty young redhead. They get grey hair or lose hair or start growing hair in places we avert our eyes from. They become ill or depressed and sometimes they leave us for good. We watch the process every day. I’d really like to be able to to trust you like I do these places that ground me, but frankly, you have a tendency to be less predictable. These chunks of earth and memory hold me in a more comforting way. I depend on them. I think we all do.
When I was a teen, I attended and counseled kids at a camp in Eastern Washington. I had a quiet place I would retreat to – and somehow just sitting there under that old pine tree with a hot summer wind blowing off the lake brought out the most honest and vulnerable parts of me. That and the sleep deprivation.
I returned as an adult to visit the place one year and walked right up to that same shelf of rock and sat down. I was a child again, smelling the hot pine, watching the chipmunks scamper across the rocks, feeling my cheeks parching from the summer wind, watching the silver dance of the sun on the cold waters of Davis Lake. It was as comforting as my mom’s arms in her non-drinking moments. She had a wee drinking problem. And lucky her, the poor woman could not have a drop of wine without my sensitive nature being hoisted to stage 4 alert.
I had to work hard at being tough when I was a kid. I was the “overly sensitive” child. “Shannon, don’t be so super-sensitive … Shannon, quit fretting.” I heard that from teachers and parents alike. My feelings were big – my intuition a bit irritating – and often people attempted to squash it into a nice little package so they could handle it. I learned to buck up just to get by.
At the time, I felt misunderstood. I probably was. It took a number of years of reckoning with my intuitive, mores sensitive nature to accept that it is a good part of me. Sometimes I still feel the need to justify it. Granted, it can be a bit overwhelming, even to me. But, I am a bit further down the road of life, and I now understand that there are pieces of growing up that we just have to do. It doesn’t matter whether we are a walking human barometer or high on the oblivious scale. Dealing with and overcoming difficulties in life is hard, and potentially more so for we sensitive-types. If I had not been pushed to “just deal with it” in some way, I’d probably be much less functional than I am now. Of course, it would have been nice to have been understood and appreciated for the upside also, but that wasn’t so easy back then.
Every strength has a shadow side. Every weakness has a glimmer of well-being in it. And truly, the most unsettling parts of life now – are those that I imagine firmly established. Most of them are in relationship with nature. Maybe this is why when there is an earthquake or a flood or some other natural event, the survivors can be thrown completely off kilter – physically, mentally, spiritually. This happened to my sister-in-law’s mom after Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans.
The Le Peyre’s lived in an old part of New Orleans with picturesque tree-lined streets and large turn-of-the-century houses. When the advice came to flee the storm, they were driving in one of those cars with the long snaking tail lights heading north that the remainder of the country watched on TV. And when they were told to stay away for a long time, they did.
Eventually Kay, my sister-in-law’s mom, returned home. Their house was still in tact, and not completely flooded out, though weathered and worn. Their refrigerator was so infiltrated with maggots from rotted food that they had to haul it out into the treed strip in the middle of the street and wait for someone to pick it up. Everyone did. People were living in their neighbor’s houses because theirs were gone; completely gone.
For Kay, losing large chunks of her city got under her skin. She was traumatized. Everything she had known for years had gone under a huge shift and she had trouble wrapping her mind around it. One day they took her to the hospital after she went through an extended period of confusion, repeating her words, wondering where she was, and then having no memory of that. It was particularly scary for those around her.
After tests and scary conversations with doctors, they decided she had PTSD. These episodes happened a couple of times. Eventually she would return to normal and carry on.
When life uproots us as children with divorce or death, we have a similar response. It seems to me, though, that as adults, when nature conspires against us, it is unsettling in a similarly foundational way. We have learned that people screw up. We have experienced the pain of broken relationship. But when a town is washed away by a flood or a mountain disappears, adults revert to being children. “Momma, why is the mountain gone?”
Fortunately, this is rarer. It takes a long time for the earth to evolve.
I spent the weekend staffing a retreat at an understated conference center on Bainbridge Island, Camp Indianola. The folks who attended have mostly been coming for years. Their children grew up here. They know the cliffs, the beach, the fire pit, the rope swing tree. Many revolve their schedules around getaways to this one chunk of earth. It was a joy to see such relaxed, happy faces. One woman told me about her children, now grown, who say their happiest childhood days were on that property. The 5-year-olds remember being there “when they were little.”
When the world is pulling us apart at the seams; when we can’t get our heads together; when our partners or friends or children are stretching us like rubber bands, it may be time to head to one of our grounding places. If you cannot physically go there, maybe you can do what I do. I just close my eyes and recall every sense I can uproot of these blessed chunks of earth. Mini vacations, I think of them as. Create your own guided meditation. It isn’t indulgent. It will help ground you. If that doesn’t work, plant some tomatoes. When April seems like February, this can really be a source of joy and comfort.