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Cobbling together a transformative quest, peace by peace

Recently I went on a business trip and picked up a copy of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild in an airport bookstore. Several people have told me that it’s a movie I should see, and I had subsequently written it down on a list of “movies I should see,” but if a movie is adapted from a book, I generally prefer to read the book first.

I still haven’t seen the movie yet, but I read the book from cover to cover. I found it engaging and the journey was impressive. I was looking to be inspired, as I could use every bit of inspiration I can get these days.

I did feel inspired, to some extent. Even more than inspired, though, I felt envious.

Although I had not anticipated this emotion, it dominated my thoughts by the time I finished the book. Here was a person who had a tremendous amount of pain to work through with the loss of her mother, a recent divorce, issues from her childhood, the absence of her father, and new distance from her stepfather. She left behind every person, place, and thing she knew (save what essential things she could carry in a gigantic backpack), and spent months alone hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Every step was through a landscape she had never encountered before, every challenge was new, every person unfamiliar. What a fantastic way to open up your mind, shift perspective, work through emotions, face demons, and make progress on the path toward healing. How wonderful, how cleansing.

And how utterly unavailable to me and to so many others I know.

I started thinking about Elizabeth Gilbert and her Eat, Pray, Love journey post-divorce, alone, through completely unfamiliar territory in several countries. Then Martin Sheen’s character in the movie The Way came to mind, with his unplanned solo pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in France and Spain after the loss of his grown son.

All of these individuals, real or imagined, had arrived at points in their lives where they were as unencumbered as people can manage to be. They were independent adults who could travel alone and take care of themselves. Children didn’t exist, or hadn’t shown up yet, or were grown. Jobs were nonexistent or set aside. The stage was set for a long transformative journey.

My question is: What do people when they could really benefit from checking out and going on a months-long quest, but they find the price of doing so to be too high?

This is not just my question. I would quickly run out of fingers and toes if I were to count the number of people I know who are in crisis of one sort or another and feeling desperate to escape on a quest for peace. People who, like me, look longingly at a plane in the sky or a Greyhound bus and fantasize about traveling on it to, well, anywhere, for as much time as it would take to clear their heads. But also like me, all of these people are entrenched in midlife in such a way that to exit for any significant period of time would exact an enormous cost. Depending on our individual circumstances, we all have some combination of school-age children, regularly-looming bills, demanding jobs that bring in necessary income, partners or spouses with whom we share our lives, and/or parents depending on us. Furthermore, for those of us who are self-employed, no money comes in unless we work.

This is an intricate setup of dominoes. Imagine how many would fall were a person to set off for a couple of months on a solo trek in the mountains without a cell phone.

Some might say that people in crisis should just prioritize their needs, follow their instincts, and have faith that not all the dominoes will fall. I appreciate the value of this approach. But such a person, by virtue of some combination of temperament and circumstance and mindset, has to be willing. And I can honestly say that right now I’m not. I have imagined the cost to my children of having an absent mother, the cost to my husband of having an absent partner, and the challenge of life management that would ensue, especially since my actor/singer/musician spouse never has any idea what the next day, week, or month will bring in terms of auditions and jobs. And I must measure that cost against more than the benefit to me of a transformative experience. I have to also throw in whatever cost would result from my not working for an extended period of time, a serious issue when my income depends on creating content for my publishing company to sell. No content, no sales; no sales, no income. It’s that simple.

On top of everything, my family is living through a highly sensitive time in this first year without my brother, where our buffer zones have eroded to nearly nothing, our energy is depleted, and our nerves are on edge. We need one another in a particularly intense way right now. Whatever role I play in our interactions, I can’t abdicate that role, especially for my children, who have found their faith in the world profoundly shaken and who need to be able to count on things, their mother being one of the most central of those things.

So what do I do? My answer doesn’t solve everything, but it’s what I have right now. I look for small segments of time when I can have what I call a micro-escape. Because my unpredictable schedule changes every day, such time pockets arrive sporadically and in varied sizes. When they present themselves I have to have the awareness and energy to use them. Sometimes I lack awareness, or my energy is low, or both, and an opportunity passes by unused. But other times, I end up with a pocket’s worth of peace that helps me navigate the rest of the day.

Here, as examples, are some recent micro-escapes:

  • Ten minutes lying down in my bedroom, breathing, one hand on my head, the other on my heart.

  • A walk up and over the hill to Northfield Avenue and back.

  • An acupuncture appointment.

  • A therapy appointment.

  • Five minutes on the backyard hammock in between trips unloading family memoribilia from the trunk of my car

  • A few hours on an airplane, actively avoiding in-air WiFi (can’t imagine sabotaging one of the few places and times custom-made for a micro-escape).

  • Half an hour driving solo in my car listening to Gavin Harrison’s album “Cheating the Polygraph.”

  • Several minutes sitting in my car after parking it, settling my mind, training my focus on the most immediate next thing that I need to do.

  • An overnight stay at the West Orange Relay for Life, when I walked on the track for several hours, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone.

Put together, my pockets of peace may not equal a trek on the Pacific Coast Trail, neither in time spent nor in aggregate transformational power. But they are what I have right now, and they don’t compromise my connection to my family and my work obligations, and I’m grateful for every one. I’m going to keep grabbing them as they appear. I look forward to finding out where they will take me. Maybe it will be someplace unfamiliar, mind-clearing, and wild.

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