I grew up in a typical mid-western college town. I lived in a neighborhood. We didn't own any land. Our backyard steeply dropped off, i.e. we didn't have much of one. We were lucky enough to be on a corner, but otherwise all you could see in all directions was houses. We were on the edge of town, so a quick walk lended itself to pasture and pasture and pasture with a creek at the end of all that pasture. And corn fields after the creek.
What I remember my dad saying most about my teenage years and my chosen activities was 'Why don't you guys DO something?!!!!' He was always exasperated by our un-creativeness (?) and our desire (need?) to just watch movies. Most phone calls (yes, to the shared landline... we didn't all have cell phones back then) went something like this
My dad 'hello!!'
Any of my friends 'Is Ami there?'
My dad 'Yep.'
Friend 'ummmm....Can I talk to her?'
My dad 'OHHHH!!! If that's what you wanted why didn't you say so. (Big laugh) She's right here'
(sometimes, to my friends he knew better, particularly my cousin who I spent almost all my time with, he would actually hang up after answering that I was in fact 'there')
Me (rolling my eyes) 'Hello?! Sorry about my dad.'
Friend 'he's funny! What are you doing later? Want to hang out?'
Me 'he's not really. Sure. What do you want to do?'
Friend 'Come over and watch a movie? I'm also calling (name 5 other people) Do you want to call some?'
And that was what we did. At least a few times a week. It was really quite boring, even though we watched some good ones. And of course, I can't remember any of them. (obviously, really good)
But the thing is, we had fantastic, creative, outdoor, not much TV watching childhoods. I'm not sure when the need to just sit down and pretend like we were cool and knew everything about everything came.
Maybe it was the shock of adulthood coming on. The jobs, all the homework, all the drama of being in high school. Something was blocking the ability to PLAY. To get lost, to wonder, to dream and imagine...
Is this something other teenagers dealt with? Or were we weird? Not to say we never did stuff. Because we did. But not like before. We didn't have adventures...
The backyard I mentioned before did end abruptly, but for several years (before they built a house there) it ended abruptly into the 'woods'. It wasn't really a forest. It was a clump or trees and bushes and undergrowth in a vacant lot in between two houses. But to me, to my brother it was the woods. There was a small clearing in the middle of the woods. It was magical really, how there could be NOTHING growing in the middle of this 'dense' grouping of trees. It was dirt. In the spring, I don't even remember weeds growing up. Whatever else it was, it was perfect. Perfect for the Boxcar Children. Yes. Absolutely. I was Jesse. I was in charge. I was the oldest (girl). I knew how to take care of everyone. I swept that dirt floor with my tree branches like my life depended on it. I snuck cups and spoons out of the house so we could pretend to be the famed orphans. Their life was so different from mine. It was exciting.
I would go out there and be lost. For hours. I was somewhere else. I was someone else. Before I had anything I wanted to escape from. I went out and created a whole new world for myself. Or we created it if I was with my brother or cousin. It was a special, sacred spot. Good thinking went on there. Pretend hunting/exploring/searching for treasure went on there. Every tree was amazing and had hundreds of uses. Watching the season change was like walking into a new forest four times a year.
When we were 12, my cousin and I decided to be explorers. All our friends pretty much lived in one neighborhood that was about 2.5 miles from mine and we wanted to walk. The road was busy and dangerous so we decided to cut through the fields. We bushwacked our way. It took us HOURS. We crossed streams, lovely tall grass pastures, thorn thickets, dense trees, and a few neighborhood streets. (I later drew a map) We stopped off at a woman's house we knew well, she had taught us Sunday School, for some water when we were half way.
We got to our friends just in time for it to be late afternoon, and for us to be starving and the most tired we could remember feeling in a long time. I mostly remember laying on our friends driveway, arms and legs splayed out, feeling marvelous. We did it!
It didn't take long for us to call our parents and have them come get us. We were NOT walking back. We never did it again.
But it was such a fabulous experience. The wonder of seeing something new. Something you feel like no one has ever seen or charted before. The thrill of that kind of independence. My dad of course was thrilled that we were doing something! He was advocate of activity even before the dreaded teenage years hit.
A few times we walked by all that pasture (on the road this time) down to the creek. We sat, and threw rocks, and talked, and were experience something 'larger and longer standing than [our] own immediate human existence.'
Being outside is the place that I have always felt most at peace and most confident in myself. My parents have their confused faces on right now, I'm sure because I pitched a HUGE fit about all the camping we did as a pre-teen and teenager. Looking back, though, I don't think it was the camping that bothered me so much. It was doing something my friends didn't do (because they didn't!) and I dont' remember doing it before it was 'uncool'. (Also, I HATE packing and unpacking. There was a lot of that involved) I have some good memories from going. Like the time my dad and brother decided to play in the river a little longer after it had started raining so my mom and I walked back and waited for HOURS for them to come back. Turns out they had the time of their lives and also got struck by lighting while my mom and I thought they were dead.
But, really, as a kid, outside, in nature, usually by myself is where I learned who I was. Or who I wanted to be. How strong I could be. How strong I wanted to be. How creative I was. What my dreams were (run an orphanage and adopt 15 babies. Live in the French countryside. Open a cafe in Boston called Spilt Milk with my cousin.) How small I was.
And not just the Missouri outdoors, seeing the mountains for the first time was breathtaking. Literally. How could something be SO big? My cousins and I found a rock one year nearby a cabin we were staying in, we named it Humphrey. Humphrey had a little ledge that was a perfect bench for the three of us. We sat up there for what seemed like hours everyday. I tried to read, but was mostly captivated by the beauty and the peace that surrounded us. And even though I've been going to the ocean since we had a blue Toyota station wagon in the 80's it still amazes me. It's vastness. The roar of waves. The rhythmic way they rise and crest and crash. I get lost in my smallness. And the peace. The calm.
Life is messy. It's stressful. It's heartbreaking, spirit crushing. People let you down, you let people down. People don't believe in you. People misunderstand you. And sometimes in all that mess I forget who I am. That I am strong. That I have worth.
It's been particularly messy for me lately. My heart hurts.
I go outside. I take my posse and head to the mountains. We hike and climb. We feel the wind and taste the dirt. The sun burns us. Our senses are engaged watching for tracks, for birds, fields of wildflowers. And that little girl returns to me. The girl that is still inside me. The one that knows who she is. The one who knows she has worth and is loved and that she loves. The one who is creative. The one who is strong. The one who is AMAZED.
I feel it even in the backyard when a bird lands in front of me and makes eye contact before flying away again. And when a fawn tiptoes around me. When a squirrel and a bird are fighting on a telephone line with the smell of lilac being carried on the breeze.
This is it.
This is life.
To be amazed. To wonder. At 'something larger and longer standing than [our] own immediate human existence.'
Life feels better outside.
*quote from 'Last Child in the Woods' Richard Louv pg 296. I finished it. It was fantastic. Book review later.