Real life has its ups and downs. We all know that. While there are always highlights and good times to enjoy, equally there are challenges to face on so many different levels. And the tough times always seem to come at once don’t they? As though they want to test you to the limit, to see at what point you melt into a puddle of misery!
Over the festive period I was ill. I coughed my way through Christmas Day and Boxing Day; the result of a nasty chest infection. Because of this, I was out of action in many respects as it took its toll and over the past couple of weeks I have had to spend some time catching up on everything, including my studies with the Open University. I had an assignment due on Monday morning of this week so as if on cue, on Friday night my youngest son had a raging temperature and spent the weekend writhing with stomach pains. Of course, family always comes first and so I put my work on hold to care for him. When he slept in-between vomiting episodes I typed, trying to pull together my essay. My husband got the groceries, made the meals and kept the other two boys occupied. When my son woke, I left my laptop and looked after him. And so the weekend went. As weekends go, it wasn’t that much fun. There was potential for panic, stress and anxiety as my deadline loomed closer, sleep was elusive, and I had to dig deep to locate my joy and inner calm.
All was not lost though. By Sunday evening, my son was perking up, my word count was going up too and my essay was slowly but steadily coming together. It was by no means a first class effort, but it was completed by late Sunday night, and I was proud to have kept my cool in the midst of the demands upon me as a Mum and student. Not one single meltdown!
I felt the surge of relief that comes with clicking ‘send’ and shutting off the computer. When Monday morning came though and I had to get up for work I realised just how truly shattered I was. My energies had been spent caring for my poorly son and writing my assignment. The exhilaration of having survived a rough weekend had faded and my storehouse was low on fuel. I needed replenishing.
With a night of well-needed rest on Monday and a day off work on Tuesday to look forward to, I knew I needed to get away from the house despite the endless list of jobs waiting to be done.
I felt the call of the forest, a quiet voice from within….and I was eager to respond. A few years ago, I would have ignored that yearning within me. My priorities were different then and I didn’t know that I even could go adventuring while my kids were at school. My days were busy with tasks, my evenings busy with homeworks, dinners, then more tasks before collapsing in a dishevelled, stressed-out heap on the sofa. I was feeling burdened. I had to get up and do it ALL over again the following day and so on…
I began to question if there wasn’t more to Motherhood, more to life, more to me than the routine. Hear me right, I love with all my heart and soul caring for my family. But, I was in a cycle that was draining me, and at times making me feel like nothing more than a robotic housekeeper going through the motions, and something needed to change. I didn’t feel that I wanted to accept that this was it. I started to step outside more and more in a search for nourishment, for restoration and calm. I found, to my surprise, that nature was only too willing to bestow these gifts upon me, was waiting with arms open wide to draw me in, embrace me and envelope me in its comforting warmth.
I’ve only more recently embarked on an understanding of what people mean when they talk about ‘self-care’. I assumed the phrase meant candlelit baths, eating healthy meals at the right time and remembering to moisturise your hands after washing the dishes, and maybe on one level it does mean doing those things. What I am learning is that it also means allowing yourself to step outside of expectations, to swipe away the Mum-guilt that can become so all-consuming and debilitating, to wave goodbye to shame and feelings of inadequacy and allow myself to know joy, an inner steadiness and reassurance that I am doing my absolute best. I realised that it’s actually quite alright to be confident in the choices I have made for me and family, whether or not they’re the ‘norm’ and that it’s ok to be in love with life and want to pursue the pleasures that it has on offer. That it’s completely ok to have passions and dreams and to go after them wholeheartedly.
So I went to the forest on Tuesday. I layered up in warm clothes to keep out the biting cold spell that was sweeping across the country. As I wandered in an eerie silence it began to snow. There was just me, the trees, the birds and the freedom to roam. I hopped over fallen tree trunks, did a little dance in a wide open space alongside the forest that had been blanketed in white. I giggled to myself, thinking that if a passer-by caught a glimpse of me twirling with my head thrown back in abandon, they might just think I’m a lunatic. I didn’t care. It felt so good to unleash this inner child within me after being cooped up indoors all weekend. I was finding my wild and it felt invigorating.
I wandered off the beaten track into the dense forest, the ground beneath me so springy that my tread was silent. I paused to watch a family of birds, staying deadly still so as not to startle them. Among the trees it felt warm, like I had entered a space of refuge. I walked on, my mind not really focused on anything specific. I was simply enjoying the rhythm of my walking motion. It is within this motion that I begin to tap into my creative side. Words start to string together in my imagination out of no conscious pattern of thought. I welcomed it, grateful for language and its power to communicate, build, strengthen and encourage.
I had not come to the forest to escape my life I realised as I treaded gently on. I had come to embrace it. To live the best version of my life in the best way that I knew how. Being close to nature stills my mind. The voice that plays on a loop; that puts demands on me was put into its place and perspective was granted. In the shelter of tall trees the things that had that morning seemed important, necessary even, regained their rightful place. What a unique power the forest holds. To bring us back to ourselves – to reconnect with the natural world exterior and the natural world interior. To offer clarity.
The forest is quiet, as I walk on, I hear little but my own breathing, twigs crackling underfoot and the rushing sound of a nearby river. Yet, I know that the forest is brimming with life. Birds, insects, the trees, and other creatures unseen. I wonder if I am being quietly watched by an animal, imagining I can see eyes glinting among the branches. I love the mystery of the place. It feels enchanted. No wonder it is the setting for so many fairytales.
Trees are pretty special. There’s something about them, even mid-winter when many are barren of their leaves and skeletal in appearance. I often look at a tree and it’s as though it has a personality all of its own. The branches reaching out as if to welcome me into a hug. I once saw a tree that was so twisted and winding in appearance that it looked as though it was dancing in the wind – it made me smile. There are a few beautiful trees I go to see several times a year. Being close to them stirs in me an unbridled joy. I don’t know their species or anything about them really. But going to them feels like going to visit a long-known friend. When I think of how old some of them must be, I imagine the things they have seen. Families picnicking, lovers kissing, children climbing, dogs running excitedly, birds nesting, the clouds passing by ever-changing and speaking about the weather that’s on its way. And yet, they stay still, their roots weaving beneath the surface keeping them nourished and strong. They just are.
I keep on walking in the silent snowfall. I reach the river which is filled high from recent rains and snowfall and trek alongside it for a while. The ground here has thawed a little and is a squelchy underfoot. My new hiking boots that my husband bought me for my birthday are getting a good first outing – my feet remain warm and dry! The path loops round and crosses the river and I follow the uphill path back to the carpark. Gratitude swells within, as I relish the free time I have had to explore, to wander and wonder, to just be.
When I collect my boys from school that afternoon, they ask, as they do each day after they’ve regaled me with new-learned facts, stories from the playground and all sorts about their day, if I have had a good day. I tell them about my time in the forest and they listen attentively to my tale of wandering as we walk home together in the still-falling snow.
Today, I ventured out to another forest in another location. One, which through the trees in one direction offered stunning views of the distant Mourne Mountains lacquered in snow and in the other direction the Belfast hills looking serene in their new white coating. I took my friend’s dog, Ruby with me, and together we explored and wandered slowly among the trees. I don’t know what it is about forests especially, but they invite me to slow down, to stop and look, to really see and hear and notice. Life is so busy, that it’s so easy to go through it head-down, as if into the wind, without ever looking up to see what’s going on around us. We miss so much when we are in that mode I feel. My spirit calmed, my thoughts untangled, I breathed deep and allowed myself space to just be. Ruby and I watched in silence as two swans came in to land on a lake at the base of the forest. They were just so elegant and breathtakingly beautiful that I had to stay and gaze at them for a while – lured into stillness by their tranquil motion on the water. We walked for a few hours, seeing not another person along the way, how privileged to have the whole forest to ourselves!