I’m tucked in my sleeping bag amid poison ivy and dirt. I’m sliding down uneven earth, and I readjust my sleeping bag atop my backpack to compensate.
It’s pitch black. I have a headlamp, but I’m not allowed to use it. The students won’t have headlamps, so I can’t use mine. I can’t use my hammock either. Not yet. Not during this first phase.
Drums are beating in the black beyond my slanted tarp. Earlier today a wild man invited us to join his drum circle; we declined.
We’re in the woods, the eight of us, and I’m wondering what I’ve gotten myself into. My #RunningAway journey has led to this job opportunity in youth wilderness therapy. On paper, it’s an industry that seems forged just for me; in practice, though, I’m staring up at my tarped roof wondering.
The hiking and backpacking, I can handle. The kids, I’m sure I’ll adore. The paychecks and benefits will be nice too, I suppose.
But still the forest’s percussions pepper me with questions. Questions of personality and capability. Hard questions I’ve been asking my whole life.
I struggle to fall asleep on Night 1 not entirely convinced of this job. This upcoming chapter of unwritten pages and how it relates to all the others before it.
The drums don’t stop for hours.
~ ~ ~
Last month I saw an ad for a “year-round kids’ counselor.” It was a full-time position in youth wilderness therapy with an odd work schedule: four days on, two days off. I was intrigued. You’d have to fall in love with a job like that to work a job like that.
Needing an out from tutoring, I applied and was invited to a 24-hour immersion. I met some staff and followed this group of teenage boys.
They were good kids, but they had their share of issues: anger, violence, cigarette addiction, drugs. Most were sent there by courts in lieu of juvenile detention.
The groups lived in the woods and took classes in the woods. They worked in the woods, and they weren’t allowed to interact with other groups in the woods. I think the staff’s main purpose was to make sure the kids didn’t kill each other in the woods. Judging by everyone’s faces, it felt a lot like prison in the woods.
“Don’t take this job,” one boy advised me. “You’ll hate it here.”
~ ~ ~
I didn’t take that job. The reasons were many, but I grew intrigued by similar youth wilderness therapy programs. Several were even located in those old familiar Blue Ridge Mountains of yestersummer.
Last week I returned to the Blue Ridge, invited to another program’s seven-day training trial alongside five other trainees. Their week on, week off schedule and spontaneous backpacking felt like a more conducive fit than Prison Woods.
We started our week treated as students, unable to use some of our equipment or converse with one another. A sacred time for introspection and writing our life-stories.
Our hikes and campouts eventually led us out of this solitary phase, and we traded our stories with one another. I was surprised by the vulnerability in our circle: marijuana use, self-harm, abuse, unwanted pregnancy, purposelessness, and pervading loneliness.
I shared my own story with the group, much of the stuff I’ve written on this blog and in my book. It was strange: I’d never really been super vulnerable in a non-Christian setting until then.
I learned vulnerability isn’t just a Christian thing. Anyone can be vulnerable with a group. Anyone can splay his life open for rescue or roadkill.
We talked a lot about the Enneagram. Most of the other trainees were 7s, the bubbly outgoing life-of-the-party types. One guy told long hilarious stories in a Boston accent all week . . . because 7s. Most of the field instructors here are 7s, our trainers said.
Meanwhile, my stoic 4 self wavered. Surrounded by confident 7s, I often felt out of sync with their frequency. Such is the life of a 4: always on the outside.
I kinda liked these people, but I was afraid of them. Afraid of this whole ordeal.
Afraid of being roadkill again.
~ ~ ~
We did a meditation exercise by a stream. We were told to visualize ourselves in a vast wilderness. We were then guided to a house, a trail, a cup, a snake, a key, a river, a wall, and finally the other side. At the end of the exercise we were told what each aspect of the meditation represented.
The wilderness, our lives.
The outside of the house, how others see us.
The inside, how we see ourselves.
The cup, how we treat other people.
The snake, danger.
The key, knowledge.
The river, our emotions.
The wall, an ending.
The other side, a new beginning.
My wilderness was a desert, a lonely expanse. My house was a log cabin, the walls straight and the porch neatly swept, the inside filled with severed deer heads and unkempt billiard tables. Walking down the trail, I ignored the cup of water despite my terrible thirst. The snake, I acknowledged with a gulp and a side-step. The key, I grabbed matter-of-factly.
And as for the river — the welling river of my emotions?
I dove in. Hit the sandy bottom and rolled and tumbled, up and down, down and up amid the current. I climbed the shore drenched and scaled the concrete wall with lacerated feet, my emotions sopping. Exhausted, I stood atop the wall and stared out.
Stood and stared and gasped for breath at the other side.
We hiked and camped from Georgia to North Carolina. We built fires, we cooked on fires, and we pooped in holes far away from fires. It rained a few times, and we got mosquito bites and poison ivy. We didn’t shower all week.
We learned the ins and outs of the program, and we even got to observe a student group in action. I met one kid adopted from Russia and another sent here from England. Talking and laughing with these precious kids, I realized this job — like all the others before it — would not be about me.
This life of mine. When has it ever been about me?
By week’s end, I had a new job working in the same Blue Ridge Mountains that rocked my story three years ago.
I’m praying these mountains still have some magic left in them.
I’ll still live in Charlotte. At least for now. It’ll be a long commute, but one I only need to make once a week. Obviously, though, I don’t mind the road.
And yet the drumming persists: am I capable? Am I outgoing enough? Am I cool enough? Am I hopeful enough or am I hopeless?
All the camps and opportunities before have proved myself capable. Sometimes I acknowledge this truth and feel I can move mountains.
But other times I stare long into my river’s reflection. I hold my breath and struggle to see a man inside that shimmering face. I exhale with a shudder before diving deep into myself.
~ ~ ~
Looking out from the concrete wall, I absorb a landscape of lush jungle and lakes and rivers and mountains bathed in warm light. I see life. I see arrival.
I see Paradise.
As an Enneagram Type 4, I’m always yearning for the grass on the other side. The present is rarely enough, and I need rescue.
As a Christian, I’m often longing for the next life. This one drains me, and I need rescue.
I’m grateful for this new job and chapter. It feels scary, but it feels right. I don’t know how youth wilderness therapy and Charlotte and writing and relationships and further wanderings will co-exist in this brave new world, but I’m striving to be present despite my Type 4 tendencies.
To bask beneath every mountain.
To not take myself so seriously all the time.
To laugh at long stories told in Boston accents that sound like lazy babies.
To tell some stories of my own.
To continue practicing vulnerability with Christians and non-Christians alike.
To drown myself and be weak.
And in some mysterious way to stand and be made strong.