Lessons of Winter: Learning How to Heal
[Please note: This post was originally published on Shale’s personal blog.]
Two weeks after walking across that stage at graduation, I spent the next next 50 days geared up on my bicycle to ride across the United States and raise money for an organization called charity:water. charity:water is a non-profit dedicated to bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations. The organization partners with locals to build water sources that are sustainable; so far, they have brought water to over 7 million people worldwide.
There were six of us women and 3,300 miles to cover, and a goal of $80,000 to raise for this organization we undoubtedly believed in. 50 days. Sounds crazy, right?
Planning our route the night before, being on open roads with small shoulders, riding close to 80-100 miles a day, staying with total strangers, living out of little plastic boxes stuffed into a van... and for what? We were making a statement that the craziest thing a human can do is nothing, yes, but more than that, we were living out our convictions regarding how to care for and treat our friends around the world that lack basic human fundamentals. As women, we believed it was necessary to show just how capable we are.
So we completed the ride in New York, celebrated the 4th of July, and I watched one of my best friends get married the next week. Moments of celebration and exhilaration—this must be what post-grad is always like, right?
After the ride, I ended up moving to one of the towns we rode our bikes through: Jackson, Wyoming. Jackson and I had an immediate love affair. I saw her mountains and her rivers, her open roads and her wide spaces, and I knew this would be home. As bizarre as it sounds, coming back to move here after the ride ended felt like coming home.
A total of 48 hours and my soul felt like it found its little corner of the world to tuck itself away in. But tonight as I found myself on a sunset walk, thinking of the one million and a half reasons I feel like the luckiest girl in the world, a voice inside me reminded me of the reality it took to be at the place I am right now. Writing this blog post. Riding on open roads for hours. Exploring trails every day. Listening to the river for sunset. Cooking meals for one. Here, today, happy, exhausted, and regrown.
About two weeks into moving to Jackson, I went on my first backcountry day hike alone. Deep in the mountains, I had no clue what to expect around each turn. It was on that hike, about 10 months ago, that I saw a small wooden sign that read "closed for regrowth." It was planted there for hikers to avoid walking over, giving the new life time to develop. It didn't have an expiration date, and it didn't have an explanation. Just "closed for regrowth."
I stopped hiking (about 7 miles in), stared at this sign for a solid 10 minutes, and decided, "That will be my motto during my time in Jackson. Let it be 3 months, let it be 3 years, I'm not sure what this looks like. But for now, for today, and for tomorrow as well, I am closed for regrowth."
I'm sure immediately after reading that, it seems logical to conclude I was healing from something painful, running from something tragic, or regrowing from a crash and burn. But I don't think I was.
I had just graduated from the school of my dreams, left the best friends I ever had, and accomplished a charity ride of a lifetime. However, I did know one thing: I was starting to feel too complacent, too comfortable, too secure in the high I was riding. Don't get me wrong, I don't believe being content and feeling comfortable are bad things whatsoever, I just didn't feel right living in those things for the season of life I felt like I wanted to be in.
So I began this journey of alone-ness. For the first time in my life, I was alone. I was wrestling with my own thoughts, on my own two feet, in a whole new town. And it was great. I got a job, two jobs actually, I hiked... A LOT, and I got to learn from one of the wisest couples I've ever known.
I was busy being smitten by Jackson. Walking for hours on end, making phone calls to college friends, trying to continue in normalcy while my world was 180 degrees from what it was it used to be.
But then came winter.
Winter was absolutely and undeniably brutal. Days without sunshine, only being warm in a hot yoga studio, missing my lifestyle in California, isolated from the only scene there is here in winter: the ski scene.
I hadn't experienced a winter so cold and dark since.... maybe ever. There were more days than not when I questioned this whole "time alone" decision, especially on the days when people would try to relate and I would look at them angrily and wonder, "Do you honestly believe you understand how shitty this feels?"
At a pub one night drinking with the girls, I silently got up from my chair, walked to the bathroom, locked the door, and began uncontrollably weeping right then and there. I couldn't explain the feeling that was locked inside my brain, and I certainly didn't enjoy it, but all I could say was, "This isn't me. I'm not sure who this is right now that's here, but I don't feel me. I miss my crew. I miss feeling like I want to be out, being social, being loud and being comfortable in my skin."
I couldn't shake it. It's like every time I was around people I became more awkward. When I tried to explain this to my friends at home, they couldn't believe it, nor could they try to imagine the person I was explaining to them.
When I tried to explain it to people here, it sounded bizarre because that's the only side of me they had yet to see. I wanted to scream, "I'm not this awkward!! I'm actually fun!! And I LOVE being social!!" But I was too exhausted to try to be anything else. Closed for regrowth. A closure I didn't know I needed until I felt it.
My best friend here is a 55(ish?)-year-old woman. I met Amy a few weeks after starting my job at Picnic when I first moved to Jackson in September. As our most loyal 1/2 caf, no room, americano drinkers, Amy and I quickly developed a friendship when I picked up qualities in her that I often linked to my mother or my godmother back home.
She was kind, gentle, and far more soft-spoken than I could ever pray my way into being. She countered everything I'm not, so I was naturally inclined to know and befriend her. I started having her coffee drink ready by the time she walked in the doors. What I loved most about my friendship with Amy is that it always took place first thing in the morning, my favorite time of day. The time of day my mind is most curious and activated, before the busyness of the world sets in. She would come before the line begun, before the sun would rise, and we would spend our first moments of morning getting to know one another with warm coffee between our hands. We began walking together, seeing each other outside of the cafe, sharing stories with one another. Building trust. Establishing a friendship.
Fast forward and here's the scene I was caught in:
All day I had been on the brink of crying, when about 5pm rolled around and I finally sent her the text, "Can I come over? I need someone to talk to right now." Having Amy live one block down from me makes the effort of a friendship not only more appealing, but also more convenient. She replied quickly, "Just walked in the door. Come over." As I sat down, Amy looked at me without saying a word, sending the, "I see you. We're here and it's uncomfortable to sit in silence but I need you to know I acknowledge your presence here, now" message. I looked back at her for a total of 2.7 second before my head collapsed into all ten fingers as I attempted to hide my ugly cry.
Amy sat across the table from me in her little studio apartment. A bowl of tortilla chips and jalapenos slabbed between us. Hot tea on either side. Head between my hands, red eyes and a soaked face full of salty tear streams, trying to catch my breath as I heard myself, for the first time in my life, admit a feeling of loneliness and failure that I had yet to experience.
"I don't get it. I don't know what's wrong with me. I can't figure it out," I told her as I pushed my face harder into my palms.
My phone continued lighting up, I had 7 missed calls and 16 unanswered text messages awaiting my reply. She asked why I wasn't responding to anyone; all I could muster up for a half decent reason was this response, "I'm not ready to tell people I'm not okay. I'm not ready to answer the 'How are you?' and 'Why have you been so distant?' questions that I know are bound to be asked. I'm not myself, and I want to figure out that bit before letting people in on the secret that who they might be wanting to talk to isn't currently there."
I sat at her table for two hours unable to contain or soften my tears. She didn't ask me to, either. Her grace met my embarrassment, her soft voice countering my irrational inhales. When I finally looked up, she asked me to fill her in on what was the catalyst for this breakdown.
"I hate this feeling. I hate winter. I don't know if I made the right decision by being here. I miss my people. I miss having a sense of purpose. I don't know where I went, mentally, but it's an overwhelming feeling to live with a mind that's telling you you're not fine."
She looked at me for a while, then proceeded to oil my wounds with her words for about the next 45 minutes repeating the simple declaration, "You did nothing wrong." I shrugged.
She continued on, "Shale, you're doing exactly what you need to be doing. You are exactly where you need to be. This winter, this isolation you're feeling, that can't last forever. Because seasons don't last forever. This winter—this isn't your reality—it's a season that is necessary for you to go through because it's a time of growth, and stretching, and healing, and finding answers that are necessary for your soul's health. Shale, we're all just trying to figure out what the fuck we're here for. Give yourself a break. You didn't do anything wrong."
I can't explain the feeling I got hearing those words, but I think it felt a little something like completing my first century bike ride. It felt like acing a test. It felt like saying all the right words to your best friend in the midst of their first heartbreak. It felt like crushing my first cross country race, or getting my first A+ on an exegetical. A sense of utter relief. A sense that I made it. I'm gonna be okay. I'm on the right track. Things are getting better from here. Hearing those words, resonating with those words, felt like shaking the dust off something old and stale.
I'm learning more about loneliness and independence here in this time of being in Jackson than I ever have. But people don't talk about that part of being alone too often. People don't talk about how hard it is to feel alone. Mainly because people don't want to admit a feeling of isolation in the first place.
Some people move to Jackson to ski, others to figure out what the hell they're doing with their life, and others to make money. It's a weird transition place for most people to walk in as a mess and continue to stay a mess as long as they need to be. It's a place for the limbo—the "too young to grow up" mentality mixed with the "old enough to want to answer a few questions about myself."
As for me, I think I came to heal.
I'm learning to take care of myself, to be more kind with my heart. To read more of what inspires me, to sit with my silence long enough to feel uncomfortable, and to partake in the human experience a little more everyday through authentic honesty with myself. I'm learning that maybe I don't fit in with the people here because I didn't come to feel normal, I came to regrow a sense of identity that I had lost in the busyness and the joy of being a part of a community.
That's what I love about being human. About our twenties. We get to show up to the table, broken and messy and confused and insecure, only to be reminded that part of the human experience is about showing up anyways. Being kind anyways—to ourselves and to others. Carving out time to do things which make us believe we're a little more whole than we were the day before.
I'm beginning to realize there is no shame in not knowing what I want yet, in not knowing fully who I am or what I choose to commit to. I might never know those things, but in the meantime, I will not give myself permission to be stagnant. To stall out and wait until the day I wake up and see things clearly.
I want to live constantly confused—because the more confused I allow myself to be, the more room for curiosity. The more room there is for figuring out the answers on my own, for constant change with an open hand. That's one of the things my charity:water ride taught me: the more fixated we get on doing things exactly the way we envision, the less likely we are to pick up on the little in-between moments that make life the adventuresome, ever-changing journey that it was always meant to be.
I've learned the meaning of seasonal growth spurts. I was never meant to stay in college, I was never meant to stay riding my bike the rest of my life, I was never meant to return to familiarity and safety even if that would've been easiest. Seasonal growth is seasonal because it's meant to teach me something for the time-being, wake me up to the little growing pains it's designed to put me through, then push me along to the next place that I'm on track to arrive at.
It's given me time to lean into pain and acknowledge, "Yeah, my heart kinda hurts a little bit. This is stretching me in ways I'm not comfortable with. Things would've been easier if I took a different route." Acknowledging that I'm healing, that my insecurities and my doubts and qualities that I still need much refining in are real, but they do not have power over my decision to choose joy when responding to life.
And I think these are the beautiful things about humanity. It's a never-ending ebb, a snowball effect of one action to the next, that ensures the human condition will only ever be as healthy and flourishing as the individual people who dare to pursue love and kindness in a world that often invites us in to believe otherwise.
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