The forecast called for rain, so even though it was Sunday and the only opportunity I had all week to sleep past 5 a.m., I sprung up at 4:30 for some weightlifting in my basement gym — current whiteboard hashmark tally: 105 — then laced up my Asics and hit the road.
I’m currently at the step in recovery when you ask a higher power to restore you to sanity, and for me, that’s setting out on nature walks, every single day, weather be damned. I take lunch walks along the riverfront to break up the work day. I go for hours-long morning walks in the local state park on weekends. Through hair-trigger hamstrings, boots that cause blisters, insufficient outerwear, full bladders, busted headphones, rain, mud, 40 mph winds…if there is time and even a little bit of daylight, I’m out there trying to calm the emotional cauldron that’s bubbling away inside.
Fresh air and movement are the only two things in the universe that ever made (the sober version of) me feel sane.
My grandparents lived on a farm in Wisconsin throughout my childhood, and we went up there several times a year to visit. We would set off from our house in Chicago’s northern suburbs on Friday night when it was already dark, Dad driving the old brown Ford Fairmount station wagon (and playing one of his legendary mix tapes), Mom next to him on the front bench, and my younger sister and me in the back.
I remember staring out the window as we rolled along on the two-hour trip, and excitedly waiting for the point when the bright lights of civilization faded into the countryside canopy of stars.
Looking at those stars made me feel something I didn’t know how to identify, much less put into words. The feeling was too deep to reach and too large to identify. And decades later, that hasn’t changed. There are times I step out on the patio outside my basement gym — it’s always 4-something a.m. — and see those same stars, and I think I should try to capture them in a picture and say something profound about them on social media.
It never works. Have you ever tried to take pictures of stars? Maybe I’m just not a good enough writer, or photographer, but I think there are some things you just can’t capture or articulate to others. You just have to feel them for yourself.
(Peep my Instagram to view my feeble attempts at nature photography. My feed is basically a daily weather report. See samples below.)
In hindsight, the inexplicable power of nature’s beauty was my source of sanity, long before I’d ever even heard the word “alcoholic.” Running around the fields and woods at my grandparents’ farm was pure serenity for an anxious, busy-brained kid. I went from tightly wound to completely free, climbing up to the treehouse Grandpa built us, swinging on the tire swing he hung on the deck, driving (and occasionally crashing) the four-wheeler, hiking down to the creek or crawling on top of the line of rolled hay bales in the field and making up movie plots, then acting them out for hours and hours, until Grandma rang the big dinner bell.
(Yes, there was an actual dinner bell attached to the farmhouse, and no, I didn’t rip this place from a page of The Saturday Evening Post. It was real, and with apologies to Tyler State Park, the sacred ground of my sobriety, The Farm will eternally be my true “happy place.”)
I remember befriending some wild kittens — my favorite was a gray one I called Misty — and the farm’s resident blue heeler, Pepper — until he started “heeling” with dead mice in his mouth. Other than that, I played out there all by myself and never once felt lonely.
Nature was also the backdrop to my earliest successful social interactions. I pretty much hated Girl Scouts for making me sell things — “we took cookies door-to-door” seems like today’s version of the “walked to school 10 miles barefoot in the snow” tall tale, except IT’S TRUE — and I loathed having to do, like, elaborate science fair projects to earn badges. But those camping trips rocked my world! I’ll never forget going to Eagle Cave (also in Wisconsin), and they gave you a special patch for hiking all the trails, and the whole troop loved finding spray-painted rocks on the completely flat Golden Nugget trail, but there were only a handful of us brave enough to tackle the steep, winding Billy Goat and take home that prestigious scrap of fabric. No joke; I can still see the view from the trail’s highest point.
(Before you start thinking I was a tween Bear Grylls or something, I should admit that the actual cave at Eagle Cave gave me the absolute creeps. Carmen Sandiego taught me that the world’s most dastardly villains were spelunkers with shoes full of bat guano, and I wanted no part of that.)
Some of the girls from my troop were my closest friends, and our families would all go camping together outside of scouting. We occasionally even set up a tent in my backyard for sleepovers, and loving nature as I did — and being the bossy little Type-A tyke I was — I would make sure we went all-out with our roughing-it adventure. No going in the house for any reason! Not even to pee!
Making other kids urinate in the dark in my parents’ garden ranks among my favorite childhood memories. I guess that explains a lot…
People in long-term recovery talk about having a “spiritual experience,” and my newbie brain short-circuits trying to comprehend the concept. I can’t help imagining them getting hit with a lightning bolt that magically fills the gaping hole in their soul and adjusts their emotion-o-meter from “shitstorm” to “serene.”
I also can’t help imagining “Family Guy” every time people talk about God.
I’ve got a lot of work to do. This much is clear.
Part of that work involves harnessing the higher power of other people. As much as it’s in my nature to be a self-sufficient loner, I know full well I will never stay sober if I obey the urge to isolate and work through all this shit on my own.
People sometimes ask if I’d like company on my weekend walks in the park, and I recoil. People tell me to reach out to my recovery group on a regular basis, and I never pick up the phone. Sometimes, it’s easier just to get lost out in the park — or in a book, in my bed — than to steer my shoes to a meeting.
But then, there are times when the immense powers of the universe (as I understand it) and face-to-face fellowship collide, head on, right before my eyes.
A woman I know from 12-step meetings randomly told me one day that she picked Mother Nature as her higher power when she first got sober. I nearly sprung out of my seat.
“YOU CAN DO THAT?!?!”
“Of course you can.”
Lifelong loner, meet “you are not alone.” Talk about power.
It’s cold now in the mornings, and on Saturday, as I made my way through the neighborhood toward that sacred ground of the local state park, I noticed puffs of breath engulfing the heads of occasional passersby. My hands went numb after a few blocks, and while I momentarily wished for more than just a hoodie and puffy vest’s worth of insulation, I suspected the rising sun would eventually work its magic and I would end up carrying all that outerwear in my hands on the return trip. It’s been the same story, week after week, in the time I’m out there wandering. I start out freezing and come home sweating.
Sobriety is kind of like that. You have to have faith when shit is uncomfortable — and shit is frequently, really uncomfortable at 105 days — that if you keep on walking, you’re going to warm up.
Who knows if you ever get that lightning bolt, if you ever feel fully comfortable in your skin, in the moment. But I can feel tiny saplings of inner peace starting to sprout, both in the great outdoors and in the rooms of recovery. I know there is hope.