Last weekend my parents visited and Mom and I talked about my recent blog post “Wilderness.” She found my take on wilderness surprising because (1) as a little girl she would rather be alone in the woods than anywhere else, and frequently was, and (2) I’ve done a ton of things that would terrify her to do, like flying alone to other countries and driving long distances by myself.
I asked her if I’d ever shown her the musical Into the Woods. (I haven’t. We’re going to change that very soon.)
In the musical, I explained, The Woods are scary, but all the characters have to enter the woods in order to obtain what they most want. There’s no other way for Red Hiding Hood to reach her ill grandmother. Cinderella’s stepmother won’t allow her to attend the kind’s festival, so she must visit her mother’s grave in the woods, hoping her mother will provide the means for her to attend the ball in secret. Jack must sell the dry milk cow at the next village, through the woods, so he and his mother won’t starve. The baker and his wife want to have a child more than anything, but the witch next door cursed the family a generation ago, so they must go to the woods and procure the items they need to break the curse. (Interestingly, the only person who doesn’t go into the woods for what they want is the Baker’s father, who went into the witch’s garden instead and was cursed for it. Even the lady giant descends the beanstalk and goes into the woods to seek revenge.)
Moreover, each character views the woods differently. To Cinderella, it’s a place of hidden safety, where she can escape her stepmother and sisters, mourn her mother, and later escape to and from the palace unseen. Red Riding Hood takes a familiar route and isn’t afraid, but the woods are not to be explored. To the Bakers, it’s unfamiliar and frightening, but holds possibilities for familial and personal growth. For Jack, it’s just a long path he doesn’t want to travel; if he’s aware of the dangers, he doesn’t heed them.
At times, particularly in the second act, we see that choices made in the woods can be drastically different from what the characters would do in other circumstances. The woods can make us desperate, daring, compassionate, petty, or wise.
“It’s like that,” I explained to my mom. “I have to go into the woods to do the things that I want and that I know will be good for me.” Like those trips I took. Like the new Bible study Tyler and I are attending. Like marriage.
Uncertainty and anxiety is necessary. I can lessen but not escape it. In order for me to live the life I want, I have to go through the woods.
Airports have become a sort of metaphor for the woods for me. They can be confusing, frustrating, labyrinthine, but I’ve traveled enough that I have a strong sense of how airports and flying work. Even if I’ve never been to a certain airport before, I basically know what needs to happen, how to get where I need to go, and how to gain information and supplies (bottles of water and Pringles, mostly). I’ve even earned some hacks/tips/tricks to make the experience of flying better (buy nothing until you’re through security; check the boards before you start walking down your terminal, there might not be another one and the gate might have changed).
I was once on a mission trip to a snowy cabin in the woods outside Pittsburgh and it was a personal emotional disaster.
A small sister church in Pittsburgh was holding a women’s retreat; our team’s purpose was to supply everything they needed, from food to teaching to fresh linens, so they could all rest, feel renewed, and build relationships with one another. We were to work in the background, unobtrusive but helpful, caring for their needs. I believed in the purpose of what we were doing and I was excited to be a part of it.
I was the only unmarried woman on the all-woman team, and also the only one without at least one child. Almost all my team members knew each other from before the trip through their children. And, they almost exclusively talked about motherhood-related subjects. For the entire weekend.
Like, the first night, they talked about breast feeding around the kitchen island while we were preparing dessert and for the next morning’s breakfast. For two hours. An hour and a half into it, the leader of the group, who is the only person I had a relationship with prior to that weekend, realized the conversation was isolating me. She exclaimed, “Oh, Katie! I’m sorry. This isn’t something you can really contribute to, is it?” There were exclamations of “Oh, Katie!” and “Oh no!” from around the island. Like they’d forgotten I existed. Or that silence isn’t my natural state.
I admitted, almost crying but smiling, that no. It wasn’t something I could contribute to. And then they continued to talk about breast feeding for another half hour. Someone had noticed, as I’d desperately wished, but the group hadn’t cared enough to stop isolating me and the leader didn’t do anything further to correct the problem. I finally fled the kitchen so I could sob in the basement bathroom, alone, while cleaning it.
The whole weekend was like that, in that big cabin in the Pennsylvania woods. I felt just as miserable, isolated, and unwanted as when I was a very young child in school. I prayed fervently for strength and humility and a good perspective. I went to retreat attendees and offered to hold their babies during sessions and while they ate, offered to clean rooms and wash dishes, whatever could think of to stay busy.
I tried to have discussions with my group members about the Bible (we were all Christians after all), travel, health, siblings, anything I could think of. And I did manage to draw a few of them into those discussions. They were nice people. But they were thoughtless and self-centered and hurtful. I even learned all the names of all their children, wrote them down, and prayed for each child every night. But I was still miserable and, emotionally and spiritually, felt my threads unspooling as the weekend went on. A few hours before we left town, while out souvenir shopping, the entire group was ooo-ing and aww-ing in a kitchen store. I walked up and down every aisle, feigned interested for about thirty seconds in the mixer 6 of the 8 women were drooling over, and finally stood in the back of the shop watching the kitten bowl until they were ready to leave.
I’d given up watching the Super Bowl with my friends, a long weekend, plus taken an additional day off work, for this. Our service was over, my hands were raw from washing dishes, I was cold. I wasn’t enjoying the snow anymore, even. I didn’t want a single souvenir. And I wasn’t interested in being around these women one more moment. I wanted to be home.
Finally, finally, we reached the airport.
As we walked through the sliding glass doors, I felt myself relax. I scanned the terminal, located the sign we needed, and headed in that direction. The others were still standing in a knot behind me, trying to get their bearings. I turned and called to them, pointing at the sign to the Delta counter, but I didn’t wait for them. Up the escalator, across the terminal, to the kiosks. I was done catering to them and didn’t call them again. But they followed, and after checking in and sending my bag up the conveyor belt, I few breaths, smiled, and helped the others check in.
I was still fighting bitterness at their thoughtlessness, but I no longer needed to be part of this group. I knew where I was and where I was going. Despite never having flown out of that airport before, I was back in the woods. Scary and disorienting for them, familiar and empowering for me. I felt like myself again: confident, capable, kind.
Going into the woods is the means to gaining what you most want. In bad experiences, the woods can provide safe passage home. You don’t have to go through the woods in life, but To get the thing / That makes it worth / The journeying, the woods really are the only option. And the more you enter the woods, the more familiar they are.
Into the wood, you have to grope,
But that’s the way you learn to cope.
Into the woods to find there’s hope
Of getting through the journey.
Into the woods, each time you go
There’s more to learn of what you know.…
Into the woods,
Into the woods,
Then out of the woods—
And happy ever after!