A Turn in the Forest

When I was a little girl, about 9 years old, I would make peace with stress by thinking of the worst case scenario. I loved to walk in the woods, woods that held dangerous snakes, steep banks, scorpions, venomous spiders, wolves, coyotes, wild boars, hunters. They also had quiet and peace, and to my eyes, the possibility of tracking deer to their beds, of counting the indentations of their warm bodies in pine straw. There were so many birds that I could fill an art supply store with their colors. When I would get sad or stressed, I would think of lying down under those tall pines and sycamores, right in the bed of pine straw where the deer slept, and I could sleep there forever, fading into the ground and resting in the forest until I was woken on the last day. I didn’t wish for death, but I didn’t fear it.

            It’s such an old habit for me that I didn’t question it. I know I had it by age nine, but I wasn’t afraid when I was five, either. Then the peace of it wasn’t wrapped in my own decay, but in my comfort with old places and old people. Some places and people could be restored, and some could be bidden farewell with grace.

            When I became an Orthodox Christian nine and a half years ago, one of the familiar aspects was its comfort with death. There’s a mourning culture that holds people in love even while they’re asleep, and there’s a recognition that death has been conquered. There is a tree that we don’t sleep under but whose fruit revives us, slowly over ages of ages, until we breathe in fire and exhale healing and fill every pore with love, of the tiny birds, of the pine straw, of broken skin and hurt bones and faces whose eyes are beyond crying. My habit of remembering death since I was a little girl seemed to fit seamlessly into the rest of the faith. I was familiar with death as someone who has already died and been raised. I know it’s never far away and also that I have more to do if I am granted another breath. But my thoughts of lasting peace have changed.

            Where I used to daydream of sleeping under trees, now I am not afraid of any kind of death. I think about knowing my own ending. Would that I could swallow incense first if I were to be burned. Would that I could be filled with seeds if I were to buried. If I were to lie where I fell, I hope I would be colonized by bees, so that my skeleton could host a hive where my heart once beat, a nursery of bees behind my eyes. I would wish that my death were healing, because I want my life to be that way. I want to be a myrrh-bearer, tending not only the dead and dying but bringing what’s suitable for gratitude, generosity, teaching, prayers.

            I like to donate incense and candles to the church. When I smell them burning in the prayer services, I remember who I am along with who God is. We are wrapped up together in this world, a girl who knew God was there all along, and a God who doesn’t leave us. To not be abandoned, no matter what. What adamantium grace! My fierce little heart saw it before I could name it, the lovingkindness and mercy that endures forever.

            I am clinging to that Lovingkind God now as I face down my trauma and begin planning to move north towards a cool green forest where I and my husband and children can walk. We have a big move on the horizon. I miss the woods, and it’s too hot where we live. But in the meantime, I have been walking metaphorically through the forest of damage that I have kept like a hoard in my heart. I have an eating disorder, and I have been in treatment with a counsellor-nutritionist for a couple of months, undoing damage and learning to eat. If you know how fat I am in person, you might make an assumption about me. It’s probably wrong. I was starving myself for years. That’s what I’m undoing. After growing up in neglect, I internalized the idea that I didn’t deserve to eat. Ironically the only time I got close to adequate nutrition was when I was put on diets by people who assumed (falsely) that I was a glutton. I had a slow metabolism because I have a brave and fiery soul that wouldn’t let me die. My body is braver than hell, making space for me literally when I was told to disappear.

            I have had so many horrible things said to me about myself, and I have said horrific things to myself about myself. Like the disciples, I erred, not knowing the manner of Spirit I was of, for the Son of man is come not to destroy our lives but to save them. And now, walking again towards a forest, this one that I will have to strive for, I am casting off the lies and too-heavy burdens I accepted for myself.  I was told to diminish, diminish, when God was saying, Shine, Shine. My body was breaking under the strain. My mind was divided between a blazing grace and a cowering obsession with trying to please the people who hated me. All the while, there was a child mind in me that refused to back down or to let go of the hand that walked me through woods unafraid. Brave girl, faithful girl, you have won.

            Whether I die one day and turn to incense or dirt or bees, I am not going to die following the rules of tyrants who want to shrink me and starve me. There’s plenty to eat in a forest, plenty of food on the trees God tends.

3 thoughts on “A Turn in the Forest”

  1. A powerful reflection, we do not often acknowledge how prevalent Eating Disorders are even within the Church, which makes finding an understanding Spiritual Father hard sometimes. As one now two years into recovery I will encourage you it is very much possible to reach full recovery and for it to be safe to join in most of the normal ascetical practices of the Church (a good spiritual father will guide you on what to bring back when).
    We also have St Ephrem of the beautiful mountain, a recently reviled Greek saint for the Ottoman occupation who works many miracles and has a whole series of them related to people struggling with Eating Disorders. He is much loved and venerated by Greeks and Romanians in particular but anyone else who has come into contact with him as well (there is also a really good book of his life for children published in Greek, Romanian and English which supports the monastery his relics are in).

  2. Be Strong. Feel God’s love and Grace. It is always there. You are loved. Your heart is so big and so full. It is a demon that tears and strips you away, and you have to fight with all your might a war that you will win with God by your side.

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