Into the Woods

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!
(I wish!)

Wilderness

I need another week on the proposal story (the second part to last week’s “The Ring”), so I hope you don’t mind a story from this week.

A month or so ago, I was privileged to discover Rev. on the Edge’s daily Lenten ruminations. Every day, she chose a word to explore, and one of them that I immediately responded to was “Wilderness”. The photo on her blog depicts C-3PO and R2-D2 in the red sand dunes of Tatooine, a deeply familiar image.

Even without the droids to put me at ease, desert isn’t wilderness to me. Wilderness is the woods. Wilderness is a place that, theoretically, I could, as a child, wander into and never return from. Areas I could enter, feeling confident of my way, and then become lost in. Wilderness is the big woods where Laura Ingalls lived, where Brian crashed in Hatchet, where Sam runs away to in My Side of the Mountain.

I grew up on an island on the coast of South Carolina. Family vacations were either to my grandparents’ home in rural GA near the fall line or Cherokee, NC. I remember trembling with fear when I watched a TV show’s dramatization about a Bigfoot sighting (and chase) in the Appalachian mountains. After that, I looked for hulking, hairy bodies stalking me from the woods as we drove those routes. I shivered, looking into the dark trees that edged the playground at school, behind the Holiday Inn parking lot, and my grandparents’ backyard. Wilderness was a place I could access and a place I couldn’t understand. Wilderness contained danger (poisonous snakes and poorly marked trails and kidnappers and cold and bears, and maybe Bigfoots). Wilderness could confuse and injure and trap and terrify me. Wilderness made me feel anxious, even if we were just passing through, and no amount of reading or hiking has broken me of the association.

Wilderness can also be a new social situation like the first day of school (oh, how I dreaded the first day of school) or the first day of a new camp or choir rehearsal or club meeting or doctor’s office. Even now, I equate wilderness with a new place and people I don’t know and no clear understanding of what will happen there. I faced this sort of wilderness Monday when Tyler and I went for the first time to a Bible study aimed toward engaged and newly married couples.

My social anxiety and shyness and introverted nature combine in the worst ways in social wilderness situations. I know going the first time is the hardest part. I know I’ll be nervous no matter what. I know it isn’t normal to ask a dozen questions about the format and set up and precise timeline of events and a list of likely attendees, so I don’t ask. Instead, to make the wilderness less formidable, I look up the exact directions, using Google street view to see the outside of the house, how it’ll look from the road as we approach, what the turn onto that street looks like, and back and back until I have a good sense of location and directions beforehand, as well as when we should leave to make it on time. I did this Monday afternoon, though Google Street View hasn’t traveled up that particular road before, and the satellite images were several years old.

I also fight the wilderness by planning details of my appearance so I feel more comfortable and confident. Unfortunately, on Monday I was completely out of clean jeans and my favorite work pants were dirty. I’d been out of town the weekend before, so I’d had no time to do laundry to prepare. It was also a cold day for this time of year, so I had to dig out a sweater and a scratchy coat that would match a pair of work pants that are lose in weird places.

That day, Tyler’s grandmother was admitted to the hospital (she’s doing much better now), and for a while we weren’t certain if it’d be best to visit her or go to Bible study. I found myself hoping we’d visit. You know your social anxiety is bad when the slight wilderness of an hour in a hospital you haven’t been to before to visit your fiance’s ailing relative is preferable to attending a Bible study out in the woods for the first time.

Tyler was nervous too. For days, he’d asked me a lot of questions about what the group studies and who leads and their style and what dinner would consist of. I didn’t know the answers, and with every “I don’t know,” my nerves ratcheted up another level.

On the phone with Tyler after work, as we both drove to his apartment, he told me what he’d learned about his grandmother’s health and that his dad didn’t think it’d be a good idea to visit that night. Tyler said we should just go on to Bible study. My nerves instantly spiked, my voice dropped half an octave, my answers became clipped. Tyler could hear the change.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I’m just nervous.”

“About going tonight?”

“Yeah.”

“Try not to be nervous.”

I didn’t answer.

“It’ll be okay,” he said.

“I know.”

“I’ll be with you.”

“I know.”

When we got to his apartment, taking my hand after we hugged, he asked, “Do you still want to go?”

“No,” I said immediately, “But it’ll be just as bad next week.” The last time he’d seen me this nervous and withdrawn about an event had been before his family’s big Christmas party.

“It’s just one night,” he tried to assure me. “We don’t have to keep going if you don’t like it.”

“I want to like it.”

And I did. I think it’ll be really good for us to be in a study together and with other couples in a similar life stage. But I did, desperately, wish not to go. I would have rather done most anything else.

Tyler held my hand on the drive.

I navigated, relying on the directions from my Maps app as well as my research earlier in the day. As we got further and further outside Macon, the road looked increasingly like my mental image of wilderness: thick trees and long shadows and underbrush, places to get lost in the worst ways.

Then we turned off the main road. At the top of a small rise, the road turned to dirt. I searched through the trees for any sign of the house, but it was too far away or the trees were too close together. Even though I knew from others’ stories that it was hulking, a mix of stone and wood.

We found the right gate and wove through still more trees until we arrived at the house. We backed into a space in a line of cars, right on time, but no one else was outside. We weren’t sure which door to go to. We followed a brick path to the nearest one as twilight fell in earnest, knocked, and received no answer. Tyler turned the knob and it gave. Upstairs, we could hear soft voices, so we let ourselves upstairs, me leading the way, smiling my shield, telling myself it’s going to get better. In just a moment, as soon as the leaders see us, it’s going to be better.

It was 20 minutes later before a face I recognized arrived. By then, we were learning names and wondering how the food situation would work (everything was laid out but no one was touching it) and where in the woods we were exactly. The rest of the night was like that, with no concept of what was coming next until the transition began. It’s a disconcerting way to spend an evening.

Once we were there and found the right room and were greeted by the hosts, most of my nerves calmed. The night was still difficult, and I felt caught in the unknown, but I know it won’t be so hard next time. And it did help, so much, to be there with Tyler. I tried not to lean on him too much.

Just because I’m going to have a husband and we’re going to be a team doesn’t mean I won’t have to go new places and meet new people without him. I need to continue to be able to do that. Resigning myself to the experience and the anxiety helps. So, near the end, I purposefully left a conversation Tyler was participating in to join one with strangers.

The drive back to Tyler’s apartment was much easier because we were more certain of the way. The dark had closed in, but we had things to talk about and the wilderness was slipping away with every minute.

In six months or a year, I’m sure I’ll feel familiar with every hill and turn, most of the signs and minor landmarks. I’m sure I’ll understand the pace and flow of the evening, and will probably forget to tell new people what’s going to happen before it does. But the first time in a place is always wilderness.

And unfortunately, in my limited experience so far, entering a marriage is a lot of wilderness.