by Joshilyn Jackson
Last weekend I went on RETREAT with my church ladies up to the actual woods, and fittingly, the theme was A TABLE IN THE WILDERNESS. We left on Friday, and a good thing, too; I was feeling all spiritually clogged and barn sour and hatefully weepy and SO SO SO SORRY FOR MYSELF. I think it was sticking out EVERYWHERE.
My best friend is being eaten by her children’s SPRING activity flood (as am I, best beloveds, as are all parents) and so we hadn’t talked in a couple of weeks. She called me and said , “WOW I CAN TELL FROM THE WORDS AROUND THE EDGES OF YOUR BLOG THAT YOU ARE ONE RUSH HOUR TRAFFIC AFTERNOON AWAY FROM HEADING UP TO THE TOP OF A WATER TOWER WITH AN OUZI! WHAT GIVES?”
And I was all, “OH! ‘Scuse me! Is my mental illness showing? Here, let me just tug my skirt down…” And so I tried, but I fast realized I didn’t have NEAR enough cloth. I would have needed a hoop skirt to rival Scarlet O’Hara’s at the BBQ to hide all of the FROTHY layers of lacey mental illness I’d wrapped around myself. “WAHHHHH I am a big fat hateful selfish cannibalistic failure of a human being with BAD HAIR WAHHHHH! Who is a sad! Sad! Panda? WHO? MEMEMEMMEME.” Like that.
So I headed off to a an electronics-free woodland spot with a labyrinth and hiking trails down by the Chattahoochee River, and spent three days pretty much alternately marching around in the weeds and praying, and now I feel----retreated. Which is to say “significantly less crazy, with a firmer grasp on my actual priorities.”
The day before I left I thought, “I will go on my Table in the Wilderness retreat in the spirit of BABY BIRD! I will hunker down in a nest and scream and peep with an ENORMOUS OPEN BEAK and be stuffed with the worms of calmness and the worms of happiness and I will be given all good worms! ALL GOOD WORMS FOR ME!”
SO I went, and that first day, I was very weepy and stompy, and I missed my beautiful Television, and I missed my patient and beautiful husband, and I thought to myself, THIS IS USELESS! Where are my good worms??? I AM HOOTING AND PEEPING! I DEMAND THE GOOD WORMS! I came out here to the wilderness to find a TABLE in it. A BANQUET of sanity and grace spread just for me, and instead I found a table spread with ACTUAL WORMS, and NOT the kind that secretly mean peace, the damp squirmy kind…and here, you see, my baby bird and table in the wilderness metaphors met up and began breeding indiscriminately and had to be abandoned.
So Saturday morning I got up at 6 and put on my tennis shoes and went stomping down the trails with a map, like a moron. Because when it comes to choosing the correct fork while out hiking, a map is USELESS to me. I do not SPEAK map. I might as well take a bag of chicken bones and rattle them together and toss them to the earth and then see how they mystically fall to decide directions. Chicken bones, a map, magic 8 ball… same, same, all same.
But I took a map, and I headed into the woods.
You should know I am not a very WORDSWORTHian type person. I know some people look at a sunset or a mountain or some flowers and they go OH! THE BEAUTY OF THE ERF! OHOHOH! And their eyes get misty and they wander off refreshed. Me? I say, “Dude. It’s a tree with some blooms on it, and come Autumn that tree is going to poop it all off and I will have to RAKE. Bleh.”
But I AM an endorphin person. Hard physical work clears my head and makes me cheerful. SO! Armed with my map and a near psychotic level of optimism regarding my ability to use said map, I marked out a three mile course for myself. Then I put my head down and put my back into it. I am sure there were lots of breathtaking natural vistas along the way, but the trail was hilly and root-infested; I kept my gaze trained directly on the next piece of dirt my feet had to navigate so I could go fast without falling onto my face and breaking it. I moved from a trot to a satisfying canter, tearing along like a little steam engine, puff!puff!puff! very earnest.
A MIRACLE began to happen. Every time I STOPPED and checked the map, I was WHERE THE MAP SAID I SHOULD BE. It was BIZARRE! When the map said I would come to the river, I would come to the river. When the map said I would see the fork leading to the tent campgrounds, LO! There was a fork that led to the tent campgrounds. When the map said the labyrinth would be coming up on my left, THERE IT WAS! MAGICALLY ON THE LEFT! As if the WHOLE labyrinth had grown centipede feet and creeped from where it USUALLY sat to wherever I was inevitably lost and plopped down just as I came around the corner as a gift to me.
THE GOOD WORMS! THE GOOD WORMS ON MY TABLE IN THE WILDERNESS! I crowed to myself, going even FASTER and taking up my mis-mated metaphors again in the fervent heat of my delight.
And the whole thing was so VERY miraculous that I assumed it was Good Worms, and trusted it and put my head down, and stomped on trusting it, so that when I got to my last HALF mile, I came BACK to the same little rotty-looking plank bridge over a creek THREE times before I realized I was absolutely and hopelessly and finally rightly and justifiably Lost. As usual.
I became very bitter. The THEME was a TABLE in the wilderness, not LOST LIKE A MORON IN THE WILDERNESS. Yet there I was, a sad excuse for a metaphorical tribe of Isreal in my Nikes, NO MORE than half a mile from breakfast, but not getting any breakfast, but instead curling round and round the same criss-crossy tracks. I started to HATE that rotty bridge. I decided NO MATTER WHAT I would NOT come back to it. SO I began to choose only the left hand forks, winding myself farther and farther into the moist greenery.
All at once, I saw movement out of the corner of my eyes. The track had wound around to skirt a small clearing, like a mini-meadow, and IN IT, four little deer were eating breakfast. They had all put their heads up at once. And their tails. People think deer have little short tails, liked a dog’s tail that has been docked, but it isn’t so. The have long tails that are furry on two sides and when they lift them and they OPEN like big custodian mops. You can tell when the deer is Thinking Something by watchign the tails. All four stared at me, tails perked.
They were quizzical. They were GROUP thinking, and I could practically hear it: “Do you eat deer? Or are you just one of those TRAIL WALKING THINGS we see? Because if you EAT DEER please to tell us so we can bound away with our MOP TAILS UP? Yes? Yes? No? Okay!” Then three of them put their heads and tails back down and began grazing, with the closest one left to watch me and make POSITIVE SURE I was not secretly a deer eater. The breakfasting three kept glancing at the WATCHING deer to see if it was time to bound, but it never was, as I only stood there, gaping at them.
It is true I do not care for sunsets or mountain views, but I have a weird affinity for animals. I don’t mean I am some sort of DEER WHISPERER with a magic connection. I am never going to be a GUEST LOON on Psychic Pet Detective. My friend SARA is like that---everywhere she goes, animals fall in LOVE with her. She practically has little birds hurl themselves through her window glass so they can help her make the BED, for the love of Pete --- and I envy that. I WISH I had that. But I don’t have it.
What I have is a heart that answers the sight of something wild existing in its place. I thrill to it like some people thrill to the music (yawn) or sunsets (COMA yawn). I once hiked 5 miles up a mountain and then slogged another mile down through a muddy creek, peeping under every rock I could find to see this little native-to-Georgia rare red salamander. And then I saw him! I gently lifted rock number umpty-hundred-and-three and there, THERE at last, there he was. I saw him for at least THREE nanoseconds before he went OH HOLY CRAP! and goozled sideways and then whipped away so fast my eyes could not follow him. I set the rock back down and slogged my way back down the creek to the trail and hiked home, completely happy. And that was for a two inch slightly slimy object with no visible eyelids.
So I was beside myself over the little deer. The trail took me around the mini-meadow in a circle and I walked it, and all the way, the deer watched me. They were BROADWAY deer, very choreographed. As I circled and the watcher deer got farther from me, they would swap out, so it was always the CLOSEST who put her pretty head and her mop tail up in case I sprouted fangs and leapt at them. And the former watcher deer would fold her tail down and drop her head and keep breakfasting. It was utterly charming.
After I completed my circuit, I followed a random path leading away from the meadow and within two minutes I started to smell bacon and within five minutes the trail dumped me out of the woods directly behind the building where they served breakfast. By then I wasn’t baby bird anymore, and I didn’t need to scream or peep or demand or even to be fed. I had been fed already, in some lost way, and it held. It held me all weekend, and it is holding still. That day I went inside and I had eggs and I had peace. The end.
I say 'the end' because I do not have a pithy thing to say to tie it all together. All I have to tell you is that I saw some deer, and for me, it was a gift. Then I went to have breakfast, and I had eggs, and I had peace. Any other ending would only prove that eggs may taste great with cheese, but catharsis? Not so much.
Bestselling novelist Joshilyn Jackson lives in Powder Springs, Georgia with her husband, two kids, a dog, a scurrilous kitten, and a twenty-two pound Main Coon cat named Franz Schubert. Both her SIBA award winning first novel, gods in Alabama, and her second novel, Between, Georgia, were chosen as the #1 BookSense picks for the month of their release. Her third novel, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, which People Magazine calls “a treat” and Entertainment Weekly gave an A-, released in March of 2008.