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The Beauty of Unexpected Trails

Smith Creek Bridge

Today was a day for me to get some much-needed nature therapy. In the summer months, I struggle to get into woods because of the hellacious Southern heat and humidity. And August is truly one of the cruelest months. However, yesterday, I experienced a panic attack that took me by surprise. My daily medication usually helps, but when I don’t mind my thinking and neglect my body’s need for the outdoors, I get easily knocked off balance.

It certainly wasn’t one of my worst panic attacks, but it was strong enough where I needed to take a knee and regroup.

Committing Self-care
Well, I say I needed to take a knee, but I had every intention of going into work today. It’s a Friday and things are usually a little more chill so I could just gut it out. But when I woke up at 4:30am and couldn’t go back to sleep, I knew something still wasn’t right. My thoughts were swirling around in a spiral and my body would not unclinch in spite of the breathing and relaxation exercises. Nope. Gutting it out wasn’t going to happen today, no matter what my always unhelpful Inner Critic was whispering. So I did the self-compassionate thing and called in for a sick day. The salaried workaday tasks could wait until Monday. It was time to start looking for a trail.

For those of us living in North Georgia, we are blessed with hundreds of trails within a reasonably short driving distance. On my list of “future hikes” was Smith Creek Trail that starts at Unicoi State Park and ends at Anna Ruby Falls. So after downing a few cups of coffee and a plateful of scrambled eggs, I packed my hiking gear and headed north to the mountains.

Forest Mindfulness
Once on the trail, all the forest scents, sounds, and other sensations washed over me. There is actually a term called “forest bathing” and while it might conjure up images of people streaking through the wilderness buck-ass naked, it’s quite a bit more chaste than that. The term is roughly derived from the Japanese Shinrin-yoku and has been advocated by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries as a form of meditation. It’s slowly gaining attention in the U.S. as our society’s ever-increasing technology addiction, rising healthcare costs, and overall life satisfaction are all out of whack.

With a renewed sense of calm, and the tranquility that comes with no fellow hikers, I could let go and just be with the forest. And as I did, my attention was drawn to all the life around me, both large and small. Towering trees above me. The soft trickling of Smith Creek to my right. Mosses, ferns, shrubs, rocks, and mushrooms at my feet. I’ve been reading natural history books on the Appalachian Mountains and there are chapters devoted to the multitudes of plants and fungi that thrive in these ancient landscapes. With our recent rains in North Georgia, I got to see and smell exactly why some folks are fascinated by the world of mushrooms and lichens. With few flowering plants on the trail, the various fungi provided much of the color and transformative life.

Spider Webs
Dammitall, I knew that August brings insects of all varieties with its heat and humidity. I even had the foresight to stop by the grocery store on my way out of town to power up on some industrial-strength bug spray.

What I totally forgot was that all those active bugs mean dinner for some other critters. Namely, spiders.

Unfortunately, my one weakness when it comes to being in wilderness is an aversion to spiders. I’m perfectly comfortable with snakes, millipedes, and other crawly things of the forest. Not so much with arachnids. And definitely not so much with arachnids who build their webs spanning the width of the trail.

Not to scale (maybe)

That’s one of the negative trade-offs of having a trail pretty much to yourself. There’s no one else to knock down webs that hit you full in the face. You’re on your own. And I’m certain that at times I looked like some hysterical extra from a battle scene of Game of Thrones who decided a more productive use of a trek pole was slashing and parrying with whatever was 4 feet in front of me. Well, better that than having a face full of web with a larger than necessary spider dangling from it.

Strange Pathways
A funny thing happened on my way to the trail’s end: I accidentally meandered off the path by what could have been a quarter mile. I’m still looking at trail maps trying to figure out exactly where and how I could lose the trail in such a spectacular way. Perhaps I was overly entranced by the magnificent array of ferns that covered the forest floor. Perhaps it was just bad trail management by the usually reliable U.S. Forest Service. But as I moved further into a mountainside covered in lush ferns obscuring what could no longer be defined as a path, I knew I went astray. I was no longer hiking a trail…I was blazing a path to somewhere unknown. Every time I thought I backtracked to the proper trail, it turned out to be more of the same non-trail.

Somewhere near Smith Creek Trail

Shit. But here’s the thing. Even though I was alone and off trail, I wasn’t afraid. I knew I wasn’t truly lost since Smith Creek was still to my right. As long as I had that point of navigation, I could find my way back. Now don’t tell anyone, but I did a wee cheat and used my phone’s GPS to locate my position in relationship to the trail. As I zoomed in, I saw that I was so close…just a little further up the mountainside and I’d be back on the right track. So I continued my blazing and within a few minutes I saw what appeared to be the lip of the trail 25 yards above me.

I climbed up, dodging a few more spider webs, clambering over wet and decaying wood. There was the trail. I did notice it curving back around the mountainside in a slightly different direction than I expected, but my U.S. Forest Service map indicated there was only one trail in the vicinity. This had to be the right path. So I followed it for the next hour or so and it took me all the way back to the initial creek crossing near the trailhead. Instead of my waterfall destination, I merely looped back to the truck.

Confused? Yep. Disappointed? Sort of. Yet, by this point, I was in a space of appreciation for my day’s nature experience. Plus, I was to gain a sense of perspective that I misplaced after my earlier panic attack.

Today’s hike was somewhat like this past week. I started on one path with only one destination in mind. Along the way, I temporarily got lost and was no longer as certain about my surroundings. But eventually, I found my way back even if it was on a trail I didn’t expect.

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Finding Our River

Think back for a moment. Can you remember what it was like to be 18 years old? Even though I currently deal with occasional bouts of Stage IV CRS, I vividly recall just how much I wanted to escape my claustrophobic small town rural life of central Appalachia, grab my independence with both hands, and head toward anything approaching an actual city. I was hell-bent on trying to be cosmopolitan and worldly.

The opening lyrics to R.E.M.’s Find the River captures this desire perfectly:

“Hey now little speedy head
the read on the speed meter says
you have to go task in the city
Where people drown and people serve
Don’t be shy
your just deserve
is only just light years to go.”

This little speedy head didn’t need a speed meter to know that it was time to haul ass out of a sleepy, stifling West Virginia. And so I went to task in the city. First, Greensboro NC, then Washington DC, Austin TX, and now Atlanta GA.

I’m not alone in this rural to urban migration. Sometime in 2008, we officially hit a tipping point where, as Florence Williams notes, humans became an urban species. And aside from some sort of apocalyptic event, there appears to be no letting up. Back in 2014, 54% lived in urban areas and by 2050 it’s projected to increase to 66% where 6.4 billion humans will be urban dwellers. The UN describes this event as one where we will turn “much of the world into a global city.”

And yet…and yet. Something hasn’t always felt right about my own migration to urban life. I would sometimes hear an inner voice trying to rise above the din of incessant traffic, demands of work, cell phone dings, shuffling of mortgage and credit card bills. At the time, I wasn’t able to clearly hear the words this voice was trying to deliver to me. But I could feel the emotional weight of the message. Without fail, it always happened whenever I listened to Find the River.

I remember one morning, commuting to work in Washington, DC, the song found its way onto my playlist and I started to weep. I felt a deep sadness rapidly descend upon me and I had to pull off into a hotel parking lot. I don’t remember how long I stayed there, but I do vividly recall sitting in the driver seat and feeling the dark panic, emptiness, and confusion that was engulfing me. Something wasn’t right. I was going in the wrong direction. But what the hell? I enjoyed my work in nonprofits, I was moving forward and upward. I wasn’t exactly where I wanted to be, but I was getting there.

So I pushed all that shit back as far as it would go into my gut. I put on a cheerful, courageous look and went about my business of living life and working where the work was, which remained in the city. I even swapped nonprofit organizations for technology companies and entrepreneurship because that is where the real success is according to all the major magazines, popular blogs, and everyone else on social media.

However, after 25 years of believing success, money, and happiness would be found in the city, I realize that I might actually have been drowning and serving and losing my authentic self as part of the Faustian bargain. (Oh and by the way, small detail…during this time I was also clinically diagnosed with depression and acute anxiety.) What if no matter what I did, my just deserve was always going to be light years away simply because it was never there waiting for me? What if it was closer to where I started in the first place?

The song continues:

I have got to find the river
Bergamot and Vetiver
Run through my head and fall away
Leave the road and memorize
This life that pass before my eyes
Nothing is going my way

Where you may find this sad and depressing, I actually read these lyrics as a call to be courageous and honest with our selves. As a forty-something, I’ve come to a place where I believe my path is no longer tied to the city. It is a return to my roots, a return to nature. My authentic self now knows its time to leave that busy, frenetic highway and find my river. And because it is my own unique river, nothing may be heading along my way on a road far less travelled.

My soul is not truly at peace surrounded by steel and concrete. I am most alive when I feel the breeze flow gently through my fingers, hear the sounds of birds singing in the distance, feel the earth beneath my bare feet.

Those same memories from my youth that I casually discarded have now found a way back. Almost like a type of muscle memory. I now vividly recall moments of winter snow, spring wildflowers, summer fireflies, and fall leaves. Of moments spent with my grandmother at her kitchen table watching birds eat from her back door feeder. Of chasing small snakes, toads, and salamanders. Of building dams of sticks and pebbles on small streams.

I’m compelled to reclaim an inheritance that has patiently waited for me to return.

And so I am making it my life and work to reconnect with all that nature continues to offer: beauty, harmony, mystery, awe. Perhaps your authentic voice is whispering something similar. It’s not too late to find our river.

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The Harmful and Ridiculous Lie of “Mentally Strong People”

Take what you need posterLast year, when I was in the hellish gutter of one of the worst depression and anxiety episodes of my life, I kept seeing articles pop up in my Facebook feed talking about “mentally strong people” and the actions they take every day. At the time I felt anything but mentally strong. I was just trying to get through each day, moment by moment, without completely losing my shit. Some days I managed to hold it together; others, I was in one of the office bathroom stalls quietly praying to just not exist. It’s not that I wanted to die, I just didn’t want the continued pain of being. And then my internal critic would angrily ask why I was so mentally weak because mentally strong people – according to these various articles – don’t hang out on the toilet and contemplate the option of nonexistence. They’d be out there, kicking ass, making all the right moves, being generally awesome.

And that’s the insidiously subtle message of these articles: that if you’re not mentally strong…well, you must be the opposite. And when you’re struggling in a state of depression and anxiety, what other possible explanation could there be?

Yet, I persevered. I suffered, but I persevered and somehow came out on the other side to where I am today. And today is joyful and hopeful and meaningful. Does that perseverance make me mentally strong? Who knows but every time I read these articles and blogposts about mentally strong people, I don’t relate one bit.

This week, I saw another article about “mentally strong people” and felt angry because I wager there are people out there just trying to keep their shit together and don’t need any more of these types of messages. (Here’s my Facebook rant if you’re curious about the genesis of this blogpost.) If you care to see what I’m talking about just do a Google search for “mentally strong people” and you get plenty of these types of articles:

  • 10 Toxic Relationships Mentally Strong People Avoid
  • 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do
  • The 9 Essential Habits Of Mentally Strong People
  • 12 Common Lies Mentally Strong People Don’t Believe
  • The 13 Tough Habits Of Mentally Strong People

Now that I’m in a more healthy mental and emotional place in my life, I see this tripe for what it is: at best, lies masquerading as someone else’s vain attempt to claim toughness and superiority; at worst, linkbait for those who are worried they’re just not measuring up to some impossible standard of success. The more I think about it, it’s probably both.

Turns out I’m not alone. As I was doing the Google search referenced above, I came across this similar critique from Denise K. Shull in Psychology Today:

Despite the widespread appeal of the message, I can’t help but wonder: says who and based on what? How do we actually know what so-called mentally tough people (whomever that is and whatever the standard is) do? There isn’t a shred of psychological research referenced. It appears to be an opinion grounded in the rapidly deteriorating cases for positive thinking and intellect’s superiority over emotion. Sure there are a few valuable truisms like “don’t give up” but the undercurrent of stoicism running through the list is as likely to harm as to help.

Take the reader who is feeling any form of “bad” over a challenging economic situation. What’s the net effect? Does the idea that they are weak if they can’t always suck it up make them feel better about themselves? Does it make them feel more like they can go out and create a new economic opportunity? I actually suspect that deep-down, this list makes them feel more inadequate – or in other words, weaker.

Want to know how to be mentally strong? I honestly have no idea. And if someone claims they do, they’re sizing you up as a sucker. But here’s what I can say from my experience of wandering the mental and emotional wastelands. All we can do is live each day the best we can. Appreciate that we’re going to have joyful experiences and terrible ones. Find ways to see ourselves for the goodness and gift that we are. Perhaps, to be mentally strong is to simply love. That’s all. Isn’t that enough?

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We’re All In-between Swims

This one’s subtitled: An essay on learning (and trying not to drown).

Once upon a time, I decided I wanted to experience the excitement and anxiety of learning something new – the art of whitewater kayaking. Ever since my first rafting trip as a teenager, I knew I wanted to paddle my own boat. The kayakers looked like they were enjoying the river in ways that we on the large raft were unable. I told my buddy next to me that someday I wanted to do that. Someday. So, a few years ago, I decided to stop letting life get in the way of something I yearned to do. I signed up with a local kayaking school and set out to pursue a goal that I had put aside for too long.

However, the first course did not go quite the way I envisioned. I naïvely thought kayaking would be much easier than it actually was and that I would pick up the instruction much faster that I actually did. In reality, I felt awkward in the unstable boat and unnerved by my inability to master something that on dry land looked so easy.

Yet I walked away from that experience with three powerful lessons that offered insights into my own sense of learning and living.

Lesson #1: Just because you’ve been on a river before does not mean you already know what you’re doing. I’ve been rafting before in whitewater and even done some flatwater kayaking and I thought those experiences would give me an edge in quickly learning how to paddle a kayak. One mistake I made was that I didn’t approach this new experience from a place of “not knowing,” but instead tried to filter it through past experiences that may have gotten in the way of actually learning. Recognize each experience, regardless of how familiar it may be to you, as an opportunity to learn something new.

Lesson #2: Don’t be afraid to do something new because you might look like you don’t know what you’re doing. Guess what? More than likely, you don’t know what you’re doing! This means you might notice some uncomfortable feelings like incompetence and helplessness. About half-way through the lesson, I committed a typical newbie mistake of panicking when I accidentally capsized my kayak. Trapped underwater in my kayak, I thrashed and flailed trying to get my boat upright. Two instructors came to try to rescue me before I remembered that I could rescue myself by ejecting from the boat. When I surfaced and caught my breath, I realized that my classmates had witnessed the whole episode with a mixture of fear and thankfulness that it wasn’t them. Yet regardless of how I must have looked, I learned very quickly how to remain calm while underwater and how to get myself out of a capsized kayak. Remember that embarrassment only lasts for a few minutes, while the lessons you gain through trying something new last much longer.

Lesson #3: We’re all in-between swims. After I managed to get back in my kayak, one of the instructors said, “Even the best paddlers get themselves into jams. Dude, we’re all in-between swims.” As I rejoined my fellow kayakers, the full force of that statement hit me. Individuals who choose to fully experience life inevitably encounter challenging situations that are bigger than themselves. Sometimes we can paddle through the situation and sometimes we have to eject. It’s about not letting our fears get in the way of fully learning and living. Be open to not getting it right all the time and understand that failing can often lead to the greatest learnings of all.

So, are you taking tentative action in order to always remain upright in your boat or are you pushing yourself and allowing for the possibility of tipping over? The first option is one of safety, the second is risky, but one of true growth. If you’re playing it safe now because you’re afraid of capsizing, ask what it’s costing you. Maybe it’s a life of significance, meaning, and fun. Start paddling in your life and see where it takes you.

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