I had forgotten that I love to find places to sing in the wilderness. As a child, I would wander deep into the forest and sing country tunes to my dog. In the lean years when I had no woods, I sang in the garage or under my breath as I panted up and down my street, speedwalking in the soupy air. In college I would sing in the cathedral-proportioned chapel, the next closest thing to a forest, when the deep night made the pillars creak in the wind. I sang to my husband on the glacier lake where we honeymooned. I hummed motets all through the botanical gardens I hiked twice a day in grad school. I sang by the clear brown streams at scenic overlooks in Scotland and in the ruins of abbeys and to the seals on Iona. When my children were smaller, I would whisk them to the forest paths of the museum and sing them the little tunes I made up for them about peripatetic toddlers and whichever curious animals were nearest. Then deadlines and stress and singing under my breath in grocery stores, the eccentric lady humming Madame Butterfly in Costco or harmonizing with the butter cooler at the corner store. As soon as I could sit up after getting Covid in 2020, I sang breathless lullabies to my mom on Facebook live. Recuperating was a kind of wilderness. Then, gradually, as breathlessness turned to exhaustion and exhaustion turned into aches and aches turned into slow progress, I began to miss the old ways.
That’s when I found myself back in the forest. At first I could hardly walk a mile. My first flirtations with this wildness were trials of my meager endurance after long illness. I woud walk a little and then crash for weeks. But something came alive in me during those short, painful circuits of the shortest paths. I began to thrive on the beauty and ferocity of the land, the overwhelming details that calmed my hyper-perceptive senses. In late August, I took my first solo hike, pushing myself to walk for 45 minutes. I made it about two miles.
It seemed like a coincidence at the time, but now I know it wasn’t, that I woke up the morning after that first hike to feel a lifelong shame lift off of me. For forty years I had struggled with a sense of being bad, damaged, defective, after incidents of severe abuse when I was four. I had fought my way through and out and to and for–through hell, out of it, to safety and stability and deep roots, and for healing–but could not feel that I was loveable as I was. When the illusion finally broke that morning, I laughed so hard that I had to lie down. It seemed like divine good humor to make me wait forty years to hear something God had been saying all along. That it’s me as I am who God loves, my salty personality, my autistic inability to resist deep diving when I learn, my loudness and transparency and unsettling quiet and intensity. Whatever it is about me, the things I know and don’t know, they’re part of how we love each other, God and I.
Most of my autumn was wasted with coughing. Then my family got the cough. I did my best to tend them, but I found that I needed to slip away to the woods once or twice a week in order to be present to them. The woods healed my battered attention, replenishing the calm I need to navigate the loud world of other people. I would envision my favorite trees when I reached for quiet in my mind. But sickness kept sweeping through the family, wave after wave until we decided to stay home from everything for the weeks around Christmas. Everything except the wilderness.
For two weeks, I hiked every day that wasn’t soaking with rain. I took the children half the time, and the other times I went alone to let the wind clear out my illusions. My hearing transformed in the roar of the evening breezes over the lakes. Delight in the call of birds can fill a belly. When I would get back to the car and around people, they were no longer noisome. The falling night was filled with the song-like speech of confidantes, the echoes of a laugh that makes fruit ripen, the solidity of families cooking under trees.
Each day a different path, each day the certainty that the roots of the Cross were feeding the whole underground life of the forest. I switched to only three hikes a week but made my solo hikes longer. A map grew in my senses with landmarks like, “the deepest quiet” and “sweetest air.” I know where the deer are, where the biggest alligator can be spotted on bright cold days, the copses and clusters of trees that must be ready-made holy places, the haunts of cardinals, the patch of new trees that makes the playground for those small blue gray finches, and the part of the stream filled with giant purplish snails. I’ve always had a mapping brain, the kind that remembers places after one visit, and I love to test my maps with return visits. Yes, these trees still smell like beeswax. Yes, the earth is cool and quiet here. Yes, this is where the oldest trees stand sentry to memories that smell like grief, of incense and the bite of life.
There’s a change that comes over me as I hike. I spend the first mile unlearning the stiffness of walking around people. My hips ache until I walk so fast that they’re released from their polite candences. I know when my natural walk has returned when I feel the muscles in my back and belly come to life. I feel my hips swinging the way they’re meant to do, the way I can only let them move when no one is behind me. I take on a gait like the Wife of Bath’s horse, confident and sturdy, burly enough for pilgrimage.
Now I make good time, because I can move freely to the places I love. I get to my favorite path between a lake and swamp, favored not because it’s more beautiful but because I can go ten minutes or more without passing anyone. I sing Dvorak’s Biblcial Songs (God is My Shepherd, Hear My Prayer, O Lord, I Will Sing New Songs). I sing carols and hymns and art songs. I sing whatever pattern comes to mind. Then it’s up the hill in silence, and I try to put my conversation with God into words.
Four miles into a hike, in the part of the forest that smells like honey (the quietest part), I pray aloud, “What do you want me to know?” I hike around a curve in the path, and there are three deer paused, ears twitched towards me. “I mean you peace,” I whisper. They don’t run away. I repeat my benediction the whole while the path runs along their meadow. They do not raise their tails in alarm. They go back to grazing.
When I get to the end of the path, I wonder if that’s something else I ought to know about myself. Here’s what has made me say thank you aloud on this hike: that God granted my prayer that I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than to dwell in the tents of wickedness, because I’ve held keys in all the churches I’ve been part of in my adult life, that being able to walk without fear is as good as having wings (something Teresa of Avila said in Interior Castle that I used to misunderstand), that there must be a bee tree in the sweetest air of the forest, or else I am associating beeswax with holiness out of habit, and the place is just one that God likes to visit, that the sun is so golden that I think someone has painted the dock up ahead until I’m right upon it, that the day is so beautiful that the moon showed up early to be able to witness it. My feet ache as I enter the last half mile of the journey. I think, “This is the pain of coming back alive.” It rhymes with the sweet air and sadness and mystery of the copses and cathedrals of the forest. Suddenly the air is pink with the last rays of sun, and I recall, “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” I try to wrap my head around the words, but they’re inseparable from the calls of waterfowl and the brightening moon and the gold-pink sunset. They aren’t balanced, exactly, but I know it’s all part of the answer. What do I need to know? “Walk with me.”