A major turning point, at age twenty four, in my journey of dealing with my deteriorating physical capacity brought me to experience a significant realization. I don’t need to go anywhere, do anything and I can feel my essence. I can come home to myself and feel contented just sitting and being anywhere. Our spirit can soar wherever we are, and doesn’t need to be dependent on anything on the outside. Of course if we happen to be in a beautiful natural landscape, then coming home is all the easier. When you can no longer go anywhere you want, this is an important realization. It changed how I dealt with being able to do less and less.
I was in the jarrah forest for the weekend, outside the small timber town of Dwellingup, with a few friends having a reunion of sorts. Ray, Dave and I had met one memorable night at The Loaded Dog tavern in Northbridge close to Perth city, a few years previously. The Loaded Dog was a small intimate venue with live music and a dynamic Sunday session which attracted an interesting mix of alternative types of people. My university friend Sue and I were regulars. Ray was a good looking man with long dark hair, warm wise blue eyes, a gorgeous smile and a look of a native American about him. Dave was a funny, crazy New Zealander, with long curly blond hair and beard with bright blue sparkling eyes that would often bulge in humour. Sue and Ray were seated on bar stools next to each other and starting chatting, and we all hit it off. We laughed and laughed together as we progressed to the local food hall for some tasty Indian food for dinner. Things might have ended there but Sue’s attraction to Ray meant she was keen to accept their invitation to come and stay with them at the modest riverside home they shared near Mandurah. From that meeting came lasting, life changing friendships. We joked these are our only friendships that ever came from meeting at a bar.
A few years later Dave had moved to a bush block with a Nissan hut converted into a small cosy home. Ray and I, and his new partner Naveena, had been seeing each other in Fremantle, but none of us had seen Dave for about a year.
We arrived late Friday afternoon and after a night full of partying, laughter and fun, the next morning after a leisurely breakfast, Dave was keen to show us his land. We all loved being in nature and sharing it with each other so we were keen to explore the surrounding forest. It was a beautiful, balmy spring day. I started out in high spirits, happy to be hanging out with good friends in the forest. But it turned out to be difficult terrain. We went up and down paths on quite steep slopes, often covered in gravel, which made it slippery and hazardous as we wove out way through trees and wildflowers. From the time we headed off, I had to keep watching the ground, so I didn’t slip on the gravel slopes, or trip over the many possible hazards, and navigate safely. I was given a hand up and down the slopes but they were still a real stretch. In natural areas I am always navigating my way with a keen eye on the easiest route, up this step or smaller slope or around this tree and also watching out for any logs or rocks of the right height for stopping for a sit. This time I only found one sitting spot, a wobbly bank of gravel. I started feeling pain in my hips and legs about four hundred metres in, and then came the tiredness. All of my attention after half an hour was on my aches, and then my focus became making it back to the house as best I could, step by step. I wearily slumped into a chair when we arrived back, feeling a deep pain in my hips, legs and lower back. I kept it all to myself, I didn’t share with my friends how tough it had been but Ray years later told me they could see.
When finally the pain had subsided some, I realized I hadn’t been able to appreciate or imbibe the forest. In fact I had missed it, because all of my focus was on looking at the ground, and the aches and just getting through the walk. This was another of those times when I pushed myself beyond my new limits, and suffered the consequence of pain and terrible fatigue. These were at a level that grabbed my attention. They jolted me into realizing ’Ah, I can’t do that kind of walking anymore, it is too much for me, it’s too hard, this is a new limit”. In what became a repeating experience when I dramatically hit my limits over the proceeding years, I realized I would have to be more careful what I got myself into and not go blindly into terrain that was now beyond me (see also Misadventure in Gilli Nanguu). Then came sadness at what this new limit meant, that more wild places were now impossible for me to access.
The next day when everyone else was heading out for another walk, I opted to stay on Dave’s verandah. No more physical endurance battles for me that weekend. I decided I would sit instead in comfort, on a big old lounge chair on the wooden verandah with my feet up, and enjoy the view of the forest from there, and that would have to be enough. For a while I felt keenly this new limitation that meant I had to stay behind, missing out on whatever adventures my friends were having together. Like most of us, I hate missing out. All the feelings I felt as a teenager came back, frustration at my limitation, anger at the injustice of it and I had some resentment at the ease with which my friends could do whatever they wanted. At the centre of it all was grief at this new loss merging with all my other losses. But I was also pleased that I was looking after myself, and choosing to be gentle rather than pushing myself again.
Then the power of nature started weaving its magic within me, with the sounds of the birds and wind in the trees. After about half an hour the turning point came. I discovered the well of plenty lying in what could appear to be misfortune. I began to see more of what was around me, and so my attention was diverted from ‘poor me’. There was so much to look at and enjoy. The forest, along with other five acre properties, had been logged many times but it was still rich with many jarrah and marri trees, birds, reptiles, insects and kangaroos amongst the forest and the undergrowth of shrubs. I started observing more detail in each of the trees, how they were shaped, the line of the branches, the variations of greens of the leaves and the changing sky behind them. I watched the myriad of birds and what exactly they were doing, what they were eating, how they flitted from branch and bush, and so I became more immersed in the world around me. I relaxed more into the comfort of the chair and the experience, and I was just floating, observing, feeling my sadness and enjoying the peace, thinking about the fun I was having with my friends. Then came a great relief that I wasn’t out walking, that I was in no pain, I was comfortable, and I was still able to enjoy communing with nature around me. The relief from not feeling any more pain was so strong I think it heightened my joy. I was so happy with my choice to stay back.
Previous to this I would have felt like I was missing the wildness the others would be imbibing. I was a bit of a purist and it felt like a consolation prize to only be in the tamed nature. But I realized the contentment I was feeling from being surrounded by forest, even though it had been altered, was the same that I experienced when I was out in the wilds. I had always thought that the effect on me was more powerful in pure wild nature, but I discovered it wasn’t so. In fact I was feeling much more connection with my surrounds than I had the day before when all I could experience was the aches.
I felt the joy of simply sitting and being somewhere beautiful, without needing to be walking in the forest with my friends, without needing to do anything else, and feeling at peace and at home in myself. That’s when I realised I didn’t have to go anywhere to feel that. The contrast was very clear. I felt so relieved not to be pushing myself with walking and feeling pain. Instead I was in bliss just sitting doing nothing, enjoying the view. It helped that I’d been learning meditation. It came more easily being able just to sit and be, content being where I was, without needing to do or say anything.
When Dave, Ray and Naveena came back after a couple of hours I could give them a big happy smile, for I hadn’t missed out. I had had a wonderful sojourn on my own, going nowhere but soaring nonetheless.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this realization was to change the quality of my life. It has allowed me to more easily find contentment, wherever I am or whatever I am able to do. I’m not dependent on feeling at peace by what I can do and where I can go. This is a great liberation. As I have been able to do less, finding contentment just sitting and being, has meant that rather than a diminishing of my life from not being able to walk far or stand for long, and not being able to interact with the world as much, I have found a richness in whatever is in front of me. Now when I go away on holidays I am a happy woman with a verandah with a view, I have no need to go adventuring. Time and again I have experienced the truth that our spirit can soar wherever we are.