On Nature Writing and Divorce

This blog is new, but my struggle is not. Last summer was a pivotal moment for my healing, and as I embark on this summer–a happier, more confident, more independent person–I want to share with my new readers how I felt last year on May 31. I wrote this last year at that time while I was working in a guard station on the outskirts of the Frank Church Wilderness. I wasn’t acknowledging publicly that I had been abused, but the sentiment is the same, nonetheless.

Working near the wilderness again has me thinking about nature writing. As my graduate school buddies probably remember, I set out at one point to write an “anti-nature” essay. I was tired of the genre of nature writing and the idea of the redemptive power of nature. That essay idea came from a single sentence that occurred to me when I was washing dishes. “This is a story about a woman who went into the wilderness and came out unchanged,” and the essay was later published in the Mid-American Review, then at The Hawaii Pacific Review

I’ve always loved nature. I was raised in Idaho by a forester who had me backpacking into remote wilderness areas when I was just a little kid, so I’ve had more exposure than most, but for some reason, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the genre of nature writing. It’s just a bit too “on the nose” for me. I’ve seen people saved by nature, for sure, but I’ve also seen people who live in the woods in an attempt to escape their own demons. Many of these people sink into alcoholism and depression. Nature doesn’t judge those illnesses, but it also doesn’t heal them.

The reason I’m thinking about this issue again is because, right now, living in nature is giving me just what I need. I’m currently going through a divorce, and it’s not amicable, and it’s not easy. I’m working very hard to be enlightened about the whole thing and not feel any ill-will towards my soon-to-be-ex-husband, but the truth is that I do feel a lot of ill-will towards him, and that upsets me because I loved him once, and we made a child together, and I want to feel that love can survive divorce, even if the relationship can’t. But, when I’m in town, and I have communication with him, it’s frequently upsetting. I spend a lot of time crying. I spend a lot of time ruminating. I refresh my email and check my phone, and frankly, it makes me very miserable. But, being out here with no phone and a satellite internet connection that is only slightly better than dial-up forces me to slow down. Whatever issue may arise–if my husband threatens to hire a lawyer who will “pull every dirty trick in the book” or, if he withdraws money from my bank account without telling me, or if he sends me a funny picture of my son that brings all of that grief back out of the recesses of my chest–none of it matters out here. Because I can’t deal with it until I’m back in town, so I might as well not worry about it in this moment. And this is a skill that I probably should have learned long ago. I need to let go of what I can’t control.

I’m thinking of the redemptive nature essay in a different way now because, in many ways, I am feeling healed a bit more each day. Of course, a lot of that also has to do with having a support system in place. I moved to West Virginia for my husband, which meant that, when we split, my family and closest friends were across the country. In the past six months, I’ve spent more time on the phone than ever, and my friends have picked up each and every time I’ve called, but it’s not the same as a hug. It’s not the same as seeing them. The other night, I was having a mini-breakdown, and my mom came downstairs. She listened to me, and she tucked me into bed like a child. For a moment, I thought she was going to crawl in with me. Having her there made me realize what I had been missing. For the past six months, until my husband took our son for part of the summer, I’ve been raising our 7-year-old on my own, and I’ve had to be strong for him. And, now, it feels good to have someone be strong for me. The next day, when I was driving out to my guard station on the edge of the Frank Church Wilderness, I felt better. I felt as though I was leaving my troubles behind me for a few days.

Now, I kind of want to write a redemptive nature essay–a response to the first one–except that I still struggle with the same issues with the genre. Too many writers–nature or otherwise–write as though they have it all figured out. Often, I’m sure that they do have it figured out for themselves. But that doesn’t mean they have it figured out for others. People have similarities, but our life circumstances are different, and the same solutions don’t apply to everyone.

On Facebook a while back, a friend posted something asking people to comment on what makes a marriage survive or work. Many people responded that “failure is not an option.” That comment thread frustrated me; I felt it was self-righteous. Failure absolutely is an option for everyone in a marriage or relationship, no matter how confident someone might feel about their chances. Marriages change, and people change. Sometimes, marriages are doomed from the start. When I married my husband, he already had many secrets that he was keeping from me. I didn’t find them out until after we had been married for a couple of years and had a child. By then, as is usually the case, I was more upset by the dishonesty than the events that had occurred. And someone who is dishonest early on will probably not be honest later on. Looking back, of course, I can see the red flags, and that frustrates me now. I’m frustrated that I blinded myself to those red flags because I wanted so badly for the relationship to work. I wanted to not be lonely, and that made me impulsive. 

When I see my friends embarking on relationships with red flags, I want to shout “Don’t do it. Those flags are there for a reason.” But I don’t. Because their relationship might survive. The end of my own relationship doesn’t, in any way, make me an expert on other peoples’ relationships. I’m frequently amazed and surprised by which relationships survive and which end.

A few years ago, I wrote an essay where I compared the destruction of a Demolition Derby to the destruction in interpersonal relationships. My initial ending was along the lines of “My relationship is strong. We’ll survive the destruction.” A workshopper and friend, Molly, told me that she thought that ending was too confident–not realistic–and she was right. I changed the ending to make it more ambiguous; instead, I compared myself to a woman driving a derby car. She was just trying to make it to the end of the round. The new ending turned out to be far more honest, and far more accurate. The essay itself was born out of my uncertainty about my relationship. I was already deeply unhappy in my marriage but unwilling to end it. I thought, somehow, that if we weathered the tough times, there would be a reward at the end, but there was no reward. Times kept getting tougher, and in the end, they were so tough that I had to leave. One of my many regrets now is that I didn’t leave sooner, but I did what I was able to do with the resources and knowledge I had at the time. I made it to the end of the round, then I chose not to participate in the next round. I chose not to let the destruction rule my life anymore. 

Being in the woods has given me the opportunity to see much of this. In many ways, I feel happier than I have in a long while, but I still don’t feel wise. I feel flawed, uncertain, as if I’m on a road, but I don’t know where it is taking me, and I can’t see myself ever realistically writing a redemptive essay. I don’t know what’s around the bend. I don’t know if what is waiting for me will be better or worse, but that’s okay.
I tell myself that’s okay.
My friend, Ab, has some comforting thoughts on the subject of uncertainty, and when I confided in him how scared I was of my future, he wrote this back to me:
“Uncertainty is grace. We can’t know the answer to so many questions and we can’t know what’s going to happen, and even though that leaves us open for a lot of strife and pain, it also leaves us open to beauty and surprise and wonder. Nothing is set, nothing is known, and that means we can always change.”

Nature, like everything else, is uncertain. And nature is grace. There is power in that. I believe this. But it’s up to the individual to find the redemption. Nature doesn’t simply bestow it.