Woman in woods


By Dana Gornall

There are days when I wish I could unzip parts of my mind and let them fall to the ground like a pair of jeans that have been worn all day.

I suppose one could say I am an over thinker. This trait has served me well over the years. I think everything through, sometimes. I think about all of the things that will happen, the things that could happen, the things that might happen on a bad day and the things that probably won’t happen.

And then I usually think it through some more.

I remember a few years back, sitting on a therapist’s worn out olive-green couch and telling her about my thinking. She asked me a few questions about choices I could make if I allowed my brain to go this way or that, if I were to lean left or lean right, and I told her about all of the things that could happen or might happen. I remember her sitting back in her chair and looking at me for a minute as I twisted my ring around my finger, noticing the dampness from my sweaty palms.

“You get stuck in the thinking process,” she said. With that she drew a diagram of some sort of theory from some sort of person. She explained how we all make decisions, and then taking her pen she circled an area a few times, letting the ink trail off to the end and stating that this was where I was stuck.

Feeling my defenses slowly build, I argued that I simply liked to be prepared. I’d rather have all of the possibilities laid out across the span of things that could pop up so I would know how to deal with them as they came. This, to me was a survival skill. Rather than take a leap into the unknown—into the dark—I liked to see the place I would land, from every angle, and know all my options on how to get there (and also how to get back).

I was never good at finding my way on my own.

When I was in the sixth grade our teacher—a nature enthusiast—decided it would be a prudent skill to teach us how to use a compass in order to navigate our way out of an unfamiliar area. We had a small section of wooded area behind our school and all that week he showed us the compasses and talked about how to find North. Holding the small, round metal piece in my hand I twirled it around, watching the tiny arrow spin. It didn’t make any sense to me, really and so I let my mind wander as he talked.

The day came when we put our jackets on and marched single file out toward the woods. One child in front of the other, we treaded the path as our teacher led us further into the trees. When we finally got to an area, he gave us each a packet with clues and our compasses and told us to follow the directions and use the skills we had learned to find our way out. Glancing at the spinning arrow and my packet, I didn’t know which way to go. So I just started walking.

Keeping my eyes toward the dirt path that was littered with rocks and bugs and smelled of sweet moss, I glanced up from time to time and walked. The paper envelope containing my clues began to feel heavy and the arrow continued spinning round and round, this way and that, as I walked.

A feeling of tightness grew in my chest as I realized I had no idea where I was or where I was going. Suppose I stayed out here all night? Would anyone come looking for me? Would my parents worry about where I was?

Shifting my weight, I twisted the compass around watching the needle spin—trying to find my breath. Sighing, and feeling as though maybe my lungs were running on thin air, I saw a flash of color from the corner of my eye. One of the boys from my class was walking in the other direction and he seemed to know where he was going. Slowly and carefully I followed him, making sure to stay far enough behind. Every once in awhile he would stop and look at his packet, look at his compass, and I would stop too.

Finally, what seemed like hours later, we came upon the exit to the path where some of the other kids and my teacher were standing. We were congratulated, given stickers for our jackets and patted on the back. I felt like a farce—a phony. But the tightness loosened up in my chest, and I was no longer lost along the path; the sky never seemed so open and big.

I don’t have that compass anymore and it wouldn’t do me any good anyway.

I still can’t figure out how that spinning little needle can point me in any direction—home, or out or through. Yet it seems no matter how much I plan and how much I think, I find myself again and again led into unfamiliar territory with only a few tools to find my way out.

The air always begins to feels thin, my chest tightens, I grasp for direction and walk—following the dirt path littered with stones and smelling of sweet moss.

At times I wish I could unzip the parts of my mind that seem to crowd all of the thoughts into such tiny spaces that I can’t find a way to get out. I would let those parts fall to the ground like a pair of jeans that had been worn all day. I suppose I am an over thinker, a worrier, a person who wants all of things thought through and mapped into place.

And yet, perhaps it’s okay to be a little lost.

“Not until we are lost do we begin to find ourselves.”~ Henry David Thoreau


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