In the Wilderness

Something that saves me on the regular are walks outdoors. It can be in a park or on a beach. It can be through one of the recreated historical villages we’re lucky enough to have in our area. It can be just in my neighborhood, with Lacey trotting happily along beside me.

Spring has been peeking around the edges or our days lately, so walking outdoors has once again become a “thing” that I/we do every day. Lacey and I go out early before many people in this community are out and about in their cars. She revels in all the scents on the ground under her nose; I revel in the warmth of the sun and the songs of the birds above my head. I read somewhere this week of a writer who referred to bird song as her “personal temple bell” - every time she hears it, she uses it as an reminder to “stop and be grateful.”


I’ve been trying to do that too on these happy morning walks. The birds here are cacophonous, so I am often in gratitude mode. Which I know is good for me because at home edginess settles on me like a prickly wool sweater. I need the softness of gratitude to smooth it out.

One of my earliest happy memories is of walking with my grandfather in a woodsy area near our house. It was just a suburban wilderness, a plot of land leftover at the end of a newly developed residential street. Tall, wild trees grew in haphazard fashion, their old, dried out limbs fallen into forgotten piles on the dusty ground. We would take Ginger, our cocker spaniel with us and I would carry a toy Winchester rifle, pretending I was hunting for rabbits. I couldn’t have been more than three or four years old, because we moved from that house when I was five. Now, six decades later, I can still recall the sounds and sights of our makeshift wilderness, and the satisfying feeling of tromping through it, knowing I had my Granddad and my dog to keep me safe and guide me on the way.

I confess, lately I’ve felt as if I were deep in some kind of wilderness. There are so many things happening in the world that I neither understand, nor can remedy. It’s hard for me to see obvious wrongs and not be able to right them. It’s hard for me to be unable to see a clear way out of these thickets of underbrush growing every taller around me.

Closer to home, the past three months have felt like my own personal wilderness, one thick and overgrown with anxiety, sadness, uncertainty, and disappointment.

I’ve been reading a lovely book called Placemaker, by Christie Purifoy. She talks about wilderness places and times in very meaningful ways.

“The wilderness is a place without paths,” she says. “It’s geography is unknown and unmapped. Wandering is what one does in the wilderness because nothing else is possible. To walk a straight path through the wilderness requires outside assistance. If the metaphysical wilderness serves some purpose in our lives, that purpose is found primarily in waiting and in stillness. We may move in the wilderness but we never arrive.”

This concept of wandering through uncharted territory feels so apt to me. During the entire winter, I wandered through every day, getting nowhere and accomplishing nothing. I didn’t even know what I wanted to accomplish in the first place. Being frustrated daily at my lack of motivation to do anything, my lack of satisfaction with anything I did manage to do. I couldn’t write, I couldn’t play music. I. just. could. not.

What seemed like frustration could have been an integral part of the wilderness experience. As Purifoy says, “The great gift of any spiritual or geographic wilderness is that you lose your habitual sense of purpose. It can feel as if you are only existing aimlessly, but this aimlessness frees you to live in the present and eventually dream new dreams.”

I’ve spent a lot of emotional energy this winter thinking of myself as already old and “used up.” I’ve been worrying about the future - about what will happen to us as we age, about our family, our health, our finances, the world around us. I’ve been trying to envision a way to control the outcome of it, a way to plan for every eventuality before it ever happens.

This is, of course impossible. “In the wilderness we are given the opportunity to lay down the burden of our desire to make and remake,” Purifoy reminds me. That desire to “make and remake” haunts me. I always feel the need to be doing and fixing and making someone or something better, often until I literally make myself sick with it.

As I seem to have done this winter. For several weeks now my blood pressure has been extremely high, and I’m having headaches, dizziness, heart palpitations. There’s no apparent physical cause for these symptoms, so I’m wondering how much my agitated emotional state has contributed to them. That and heredity - both my parents suffered from high blood pressure and my mother’s was extremely high for the last 20 years of her life, despite a handful of medications every day. Whatever the reason, I know I need to try and correct it.

Winter places a heavy burden on my physical and emotional energy. The endless gray days, the inability to enjoy being outdoors, the long, dark, nights, all conspire to drain everything good out of my system. I have hope that spring sunshine will light my way out of this wilderness.

What waits on the other side of this tangled thicket? As Lacey and I take our morning walks on these early spring days, my heart begins to whisper. You have more to do, it says. You have things to say. You have music still within you. You have much to give the world. The ways to do it will unfold naturally in time, like the blossoms and buds of spring as the days brighten and the soft rain falls. God leads us in and one way or another he leads us out again. If he doesn’t lead us out, he does something almost more miraculous: he plants trees in the desert and he causes rivers to flow there.”

In the meantime I will walk and ponder. I will take note of small ordinary moments and use them to mark my path. I will seek those guideposts of hope to point me in the right direction, until eventually I emerge into the clearing light.

How about you? Have you had a wilderness experience? How did you find you way out? What was waiting on the other side?

Placemaker, Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace, by Christie Purifoy