Yeah, that would be me. Standing alone on a trail with a HUGE smile on my face. If you happened to come upon me just then it would be understandable if you gave me a wide berth and glanced over your shoulder after you’d passed by. But let me explain….
For the past couple of hours I’d been enjoying a much-needed leisurely walk in one of Ohio’s beautiful nature preserves. It was the tail end of fall migration, and I didn’t expect to see too much bird activity. I had planned to do some thinking about my life as I contemplated some big decisions.
And I did get some serious thinking done, but only in between distracting flurries of bird activity. (So much for expectations.)
I saw dozens of White-throated Sparrows traveling through the undergrowth in small leaf-flipping gangs. Flitting around above them were flocks of tiny kinglets, both Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned. I watched a pair of Dark-eyed Juncos foraging in the grass, my first sighting of that species this season. And wait–what was that? A Brown Creeper!
Brown Creepers are tiny brown birds that climb the trunks of trees in a spiral pattern, eating insects and eggs they find in crevices of the bark. They’re beautiful and yet hard to find because they’re so well camouflaged against the tree bark. I’m very excited whenever I get to see one of them. And on this day I’d seen two of them already. (They’re hard to photograph because they move fast, but I was happy to get this photo of one a couple years ago.)
And then, just moments before you came upon me smiling in the woods by myself, I’d seen my third Brown Creeper of the day. When I realized I was standing there with that silly grin on my face I quickly tried to modify it into a not-crazy-just-friendly smile, and I waited for you to continue around the bend.
Then, alone again, I tilted my face up to the sky, savoring the moment. With the warmth of the October sun on my face, I took a deep breath, feeling days worth of stress leaving my body. I felt lighter, almost as if I could walk on air. And as I write this more than a week later, I’m smiling again at the memories of that special day.
If that doesn’t illustrate the healing power of nature, I don’t know what does.
Note: If you’d like to read more about the Brown Creeper and listen to its calls, check out Audubon’s Bird Guide, here, or Cornell’s “All About Birds,” here.
This whole business of divorce recovery and starting life over again in mid-life…it ain’t for sissies, as they say. For a while I’d thought I was through the worst of it, after going through the initial few months of sleepless nights and sheer panic about my future, then a period of calm reflection and settling down emotionally, and eventually starting to feel more optimistic about what lay ahead for me. When I got to that point I was sort of surprised: I thought it was supposed to take longer than that to heal from the trauma of divorce, but maybe I was one of the lucky ones, right? Wrong.
When I was offered a great job several months ago, I felt temporarily courageous and decided I was brave enough to move away from my friends and a place I loved. I convinced myself I was strong enough to start life all over, in a place that was geographically not all that far away but felt – psychologically – like it was thousands of miles away. Today I’m not so sure I’ve got enough strength.
But I’m not giving up. I’ve worked incredibly hard over the past 15 months to adjust to being on my own again. It’s taken every ounce of strength I could dredge up from the depths of my soul to get to this point. I’ve gone through all the stages of grief about my divorce–some of them more than once. I do wish the grieving process could be a linear one, so that once you’ve gone through each stage you could be done with it. But it’s not that way, and even though you think you’ve finished with the “anger” or “depression” stages, they can come back when you least expect them, which is even more unsettling than the first time.
I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m falling back into negativity and sadness lately. I just spent a few minutes looking back through my Facebook timeline for December of last year, and I almost can’t believe how happy I looked back then. The photos in this post were all taken last December while I was living alone in my apartment, in limbo, not sure what I was going to do with my life. But look at me, I was happy! So why am I not happy now? I have a house and a job, so you’d think I’d feel better about my future, right? But what I’ve realized is that I’m still missing so many of the people and places that I love, and more importantly, I don’t have the time or energy anymore to do the things that make me happiest.
I can’t remember the last time I went out and just walked in nature. These days I come home exhausted, often crying as I walk into my dark and empty house, and spend the evening just sitting on the sofa in front of mindless television. And that is so not how I want to live my life! I want to be with friends who want to be with me, and I want to be able to smile without forcing it, and to see birds. In fact, I’m really missing the joy of seeing birds and just being able to spend time in nature. That’s been an important part of my healing process, and I can easily see the impact of less nature time in my life. Clearly, I need to make this a priority.
I’m also sure that this recent sadness is also partly due to the fact that it’s THE HOLIDAYS and we’re supposed to be giddy with happiness all the time. Maybe that’s why few people are willing to really hear me when I try to share something about my sadness and my fears. Since my emotions are so raw, I cry easily. And I see the way they look at me when I mention my troubles–their eyes glaze over or they just pretend they didn’t hear me and quickly change the subject. I wonder if people are afraid to acknowledge my pain because it makes them feel guilty for their happiness. Does that make sense? Or maybe they think I expect them to make everything better for me?
But that’s just it, I don’t expect that of anyone. And thankfully, I found one friend recently who was willing to justlisten to me. And I’ll be eternally grateful to her for really seeing me for who I am and for not thinking I’m weak. She didn’t try to solve my problems, and I didn’t expect her to. She just listened to me. And that was such an amazing gift.
Is there anyone in your life who could use someone to just listen to them this holiday season? Could you give them that precious and life-affirming gift? I know I’ll try to pay it forward now that someone has done me the immense honor of acknowledging my struggles. After all, isn’t that what we all want from life, to be really seen and heard?
Wishing you and yours a holiday season filled with love and healing.
Two months ago I lived in a beautiful home on two acres of woods, with a husband and two cats. The four of us weren’t always happy, but we were still a family. Our daily lives were deeply intertwined.
Then it all came apart.
The cats and I moved into an apartment a few miles away. The three of us began a journey together. None of us were thrilled about it, but it happened nonetheless.
The first night after I brought Mickey and Dexter here, after they’d explored their new home and settled down on the sofa with me, I felt a tiny glimmer of optimism that maybe we were all going to be okay in the end. The cats gave me much-needed comfort as I began my new life on shaky legs.
Then one month ago it became clear that Dexter, an active five-year-old, wasn’t happy here. His favorite activity at the house had been watching the many birds at our feeders. He spent his days “stalking” the ground-feeding Juncos and Mourning Doves, leaping against the glass and scattering them. Over and over. Sometimes the squirrels would stand face-to-face with him in a sort of contest of wills. The floor-to-ceiling windows were perfect for his critter-watching hobby. And he made good use of the entire 2800 square feet of the house, galloping up and down the stairs, running headlong into that big window by the feeders. He was so happy there.
Here in this second-floor apartment of 1100 square feet he didn’t have any vantage points to see wildlife. And since I’m not allowed to have feeders here, he had little chance to see birds either. Of course I made extra efforts to play with him often throughout the day, tossing his favorite toys across the apartment until he grew tired of chasing them. But it just wasn’t enough.
He began showing signs of frustration and, I believe, unhappiness. I told Eric about my concerns and he offered to take Dexter back to live at the house with him. So two weeks ago I said a sad goodbye and took him back there. When I let him out of his carrier he ran directly to his favorite window, clearly happy to be home. I’m sure it was the best decision for Dexter, but it was pure torture for me. I had immense guilt for splitting up the two cats, who had been great companions for each other. As a younger cat, Dexter was great at keeping 15-year old Mickey active. Mickey would rather chase Dexter than play with toys. So I beat myself up over my perceived failure as a responsible cat owner. Every time I adopt a cat from the shelter I make a commitment to care for it for the rest of its life. So I felt I’d broken that commitment. And I missed Dexter terribly. I worried that Mickey also missed him.
So now the two of us began a much quieter life. Those first few days without Dexter felt like I was living in a funeral home. It was like the life had been sucked out of my home. Eric reassured me that he was smothering Dexy with love and lots of new toys. And he said he might get another cat to keep him company. That made me feel better.
So Mickey and I were starting to adjust to our situation. Then, on Tuesday last week he stopped eating and slept all day. I was concerned and watched him closely. On Wednesday morning he didn’t wake me up early as he usually did, and I found him sleeping on the bathroom floor, someplace he’d never slept before. He seemed to be in pain when I picked him up. I called the vet and they let me bring him in right away. After an exam and an inconclusive x-ray, they sent us to the vet hospital for an ultrasound. Mickey had two ultrasounds at this hospital before, most recently in July this year. He was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease and was being treated with a daily steroid pill.
The new ultrasound was inconclusive too, and they gave him pain medications and wanted to keep him overnight for observation. On Thanksgiving morning he was worse and had emergency surgery. The vet called me in the middle of the surgery to tell me she’d found a hole in his intestine. They could remove a section of his intestine but because of his long-term steroid use and enlarged organs, he would likely not heal well from the surgery and would require a long hospital stay. I knew what I had to do, and on Thanksgiving day I made the excruciating decision to have my baby euthanized to spare him all of that trauma. At that moment I thought I would die too. My heart was still bruised and battered from all the other losses I’d experienced lately. My world crumbled right then. I’d felt alone before, when I had both cats. But now I was really alone. Heartbroken, I made the 15 mile drive to say goodbye to my sweet baby boy. Numb, I came home to a very quiet apartment.
Mickey and I had a very close relationship for his entire life. He slept beside my pillow every night. He sat on my lap whenever I sat down on the sofa. He loved to be carried around on my shoulder as I went about simple household chores. He was my buddy. I loved him dearly. I still have moments when I can’t believe he’s really gone. I still can’t sleep through the night. In fact I’m writing this at 3 a.m.
Everyone seems to think I should get another cat, right away. I don’t know if I can ever get another cat. Every time I lose one of them it brings me to my knees. I just don’t know if I can go through that again. Now I’ve got three little urns filled with ashes in my closet. It’s unbearably sad. But, on the other hand, I can’t imagine not having a cat in my life — they’re such wonderful companions and fascinating animals, so full of unconditional love.
I know that anytime you love someone you risk the pain of losing them, whether it’s by divorce or death. Right now I hurt too much to even consider letting another cat into my heart. But I realize that by protecting myself from this hurt I’d be denying myself the joy of rescuing and loving another cat. I guess I’m pretty confused right now, in the rawness of this fresh grief.
At Eric’s urging, I went to visit Dexter on Friday and Saturday. It was like a bandaid on my heart to sit there and cuddle with him while he purred his funny little purr. I sat on the sofa in my usual spot and watched a movie, with Dexy staring up into my eyes as if life had gone back to “normal.” In fact it was surreal being back in the house like that. I almost wanted to close my eyes and pretend none of the past three months had happened. But I knew I couldn’t do that. As painful as it was, this split needed to happen.
So now I’ve got to just put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward. Time will ease some of this pain, I know. But I’ve been so sad and scared for months, and that really wears a person down. Very late on Thursday night, after crying until I was exhausted, I suddenly felt all the fight go out of me at once. I felt too tired to be scared anymore, if that even makes sense. I didn’t have the strength to keep holding up my protective walls anymore either. I had been shutting out my family because I always ended up feeling sadder after phone calls with my parents or my sister. I believed nobody really understood my pain. I resisted every suggestion they made in their efforts to soothe my broken heart. But suddenly I was ready to hear them. I had no more fight left in me.
Over the weekend I spent hours on the phone with my mom and sister, soaking up any crumbs of advice or positive thinking they had for me. I started to feel gratitude that they loved me enough to not give up on me when I shut them out. They know all my weaknesses but don’t judge me. They are strong for me when I can’t be strong for myself. They hold me up until I can stand on my own again. Some friends will turn away in times of tragedy — maybe they’re uncomfortable witnesses to your pain or they don’t know what to say. And I don’t blame anybody for that; I suppose it’s human nature. But I’m incredibly grateful to my family for catching me when I fell so far down into the depths of despair that I thought I might not be able to get back out on my own. Now I understand that even though I live “alone,” I’m never really alone. No matter what our differences, we are family and they’ve got my back. I am grateful.
Most of us cleanse our bodies on a daily basis, but have you ever given much thought to cleansing your mind and spirit as well? I’m not referring to traditional religious practice, although that may serve a similar purpose for some people. I’m talking about shinrin–yoku — forest bathing.
In 1982 this term was coined by the Japanese government to describe the practice of walking in the woods for refreshment and escape from the hustle and bustle of urban environments. They recognized the health benefits of being immersed in nature and encouraged people to spend quiet time among the trees as often as possible to reduce stress levels. Scientists in Japan are conducting a range of ongoing studies measuring the physiological effects of various elements of the natural world, trying to quantify exactly how our bodies respond to nature. But even without knowing their results, I think we all know how good we feel when we get away from our desks and the concrete jungle, even if only for a short walk on our lunch hour.
Scientists here in the U.S. are also trying to establish objectively measurable evidence of the health benefits of nature. For example, a study at the University of Illinois came to some interesting conclusions:
Access to nature and green environments yields better cognitive functioning, more self-discipline and impulse control, and greater mental health overall.
Less access to nature is linked to exacerbated attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms, higher rates of anxiety disorders, and higher rates of clinical depression.
The article goes on to explain that green spaces have more than just psychological benefits; they also have proven physical effects like helping you to recover quicker after surgery, improving your immune function, and even improving “functional living skills” among older people. In fact, I just read an article in the new issue of Birds & Blooms magazine that touts the benefits of “healing gardens” for dementia patients. Apparently these gardens are becoming more common at hospitals, senior centers, and even schools. I’m very encouraged by this, and I’ll have more to say about healing gardens in an upcoming post.
The scientists might need more evidence to satisfy them, but this is more than enough to convince me that I’ve named my blog appropriately: Nature [really] is my Therapy.
By the way, if you live in a location with lots of snow and bare trees right now (like I do), don’t despair; you can still get the benefits of “green”space without waiting for things outside to come back to life in a few months. All you need to do is decorate your home and office with pictures of flowers, gardens, rivers, or landscapes; then when you need a break, just gaze upon those peaceful images and feel your blood pressure go down, your breathing slow, your mood lift. If you’re skeptical that this works, try it. You’ll see.
Below are some photos of beautiful things I found because I was out looking for birds — I hope they make you happy too.