Last week I stepped outside my comfort zone. Not only did I survive, but I had a breakthrough.
I’ve allowed no vagueness about my preference for city life over country living. Nature and I only mix well when certain comforts are within reach. But last week I willingly ventured outside my established comforts to a sleepy retreat nestled amongst the woods and within reach of several watering holes, waterfalls, creeks, and big lakes.
My first thought? I miss the water and all that it encapsulates for me.
I grew up playing in the murky waters of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. It never mattered that the water wasn’t clear, that the bottom was sometimes slimy, or that it took the length of a football field to swim neck deep. It was just...fun. In July I’d spend two weeks at Prien Lake in Southwest Louisiana. There, I’d run up and down the wharf, crabbing and jumping into another murky abyss that could have had any number of unwelcomed inhabitants in fathoms below. I was so distracted by play and wonder that I never considered what I’d now find creepy. Time away from those places, forced by hurricanes and termites, changed me. As an adult, rest and retreat have come from assured sophisticated vacation venues I chose. They were all beautiful, yes, but over time, I’ve lost my grip on simplicity and with that, have lost touch with my roots.
Last week I returned to my roots in a way I haven’t in a long, long while.
Water reminds me of my mom when she was younger and healthier, teaching me how to tie a rope, fastened at the end with a nail stuck in a chicken neck, to a wharf post to catch crabs the old-fashioned way. I see her then, hair spilling over her shoulders, laughing, guiding me, and playing with me. She was an expert swimmer too, and could scull like a natural Esther Williams. Mom, that mom, was with me last week as I dove to the bottom of a dark lake for shells with my son.
My father was with me too. I steered a boat for the first time in years last week, and as the wind ran through my hair, there was Pop. He was a well-reputed sailor and his eyes lit with a brighter glint whenever he sailed or even spoke of sailing. Even on a pontoon with “no wake” rules on a quiet mountain lake, I felt the closeness to Pop I’d longed for since he left us last fall. Then I nudged my children up a rocky mountain to four separate overlooks. I wore a silly hat and pushed for memories, just as he would. I didn’t choose to do any of these activities to emulate him. For the first time in months, it felt natural to be motivated again.
There was a roundness to life last week that felt whole after a year of emptiness.
Close to a year ago, my mother fell gravely ill with vascular aneurysms. We almost lost her, and even though she made it through, she isn’t as strong as she was before. Soon after Mom's recovery, Pop was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His fight was fierce, but brief. Since then I have been on a long road on which I haven’t felt overwhelmed by much of anything but grief. My sister describes it as living life through filters. There’s joy, there’s laughter, and even happiness that lasts, but all through a filter, like something is obstructing me from feeling emotions fully and seeing the world as naturally as I used to.
And now here I am. Almost a year since the heartbreaks began, I experienced a week in which I felt free again--inspired to cannonball into the water, regardless of temperature and opacity, to stick a worm on a hook and cast out, and to have my kids see fun through me just as I experienced with Mom and Pop way back when.
Outside my cabin there was a little bench. I use the word cabin liberally. My “cabin” had carpet, a full kitchen, two bathrooms, and Tempur-Pedic mattresses. But it was in the woods. So for me, that’s a cabin. The bench sat under a tree overlooking a large pond lined with evergreens. Birds chirped, frogs thumped, fish jumped...a noisy kind of peace...the kind that lets you know all manner of things are in order. I drank my coffee there in the morning and my wine there in the evening, and after a few days of this solo ritual I became overwhelmed with another thought. I was grateful to be present. It felt strange to have any overwhelming feeling again beyond grief--let alone gratitude.
But under that tree, cruising along the water, swimming into cold depths, building campfires, hiking trails, and skipping rocks in a creek, I didn’t need a filter to protect me. It was as if Pop was there as I taught Fiona how to work the boat gears and a younger, scrappy version of Mom was there too, as my kids and I held hands and jumped off the back of the boat. I’ve been madly clinging to memories to keep a grip on a former reality. I miss my younger, healthier mother and my strong, alive father so deeply that I suppose I’ve clung to certain memories of them as a way to keep the past. What I’m learning about grief is that holding on tightly and pulling down a filter only traps me in the past instead.
I know enough to know that for a brief time, one week in a hokey mountain lake town, I was free. I took off the filter and experienced life fully present. I felt grateful to be alive in this life and in that moment in time. And I was okay. Pop didn’t vanish. If anything, he was beside me because I let him be present through smiles and not tears, and that felt true to his spirit. In regard to Mom, I felt gladness in my heart when I thought of her. My mom was playful and a little mischievous. If I let go of disappointment, maybe I’ll see that the Mom I remember is still here today and that I just haven’t chosen to really look at her.
Now that I am back home in New Orleans, the filter is closing in. Signs of heartache are everywhere: chairs where I curled up and cried late nights, pictures of golden days, smells that recall new normalcy, and reminders of loss. But a new challenge and goal awaits me: fully living this new normal at home without the filter.
I would be stepping outside my comfort zone again--a zone I masterminded over the last several months. But just as with the murky waters of last week, I’ll miss out on all the fun if I don’t jump in.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.