Every return begins in a departure lounge. Mine did too.
It was a late evening in the early 80s. I was in my bedroom behind its closed door, my ear pressed hard against it, listening to a story about a boy becoming a man. It was recounted by my parents’ friend in the lounge of our family home at the time.
The bare bones of it were that when he was eighteen he decided to spend a night on top of a local hill. Alone. He had never – before or since – been so scared, he said. In that darkness and aloneness his most frequent visitor was Fear. Making sure he stayed awake all through the dark night of a New Moon. Until dawn, when he walked down the hill, knees still wobbly but steps steady and strides wide. And by the time he reached the bottom the boy was no more and a man returned.
I was so in awe of his tale about initiation and the transformative power of courage that I wished at that moment more than anything in the world to go on the same adventure myself.
I was twelve at the time and as with anything pre-teens once the hormones kicked in all that was before became irrelevant.
Until three years ago.
An event popped up on my Facebook wall, as they do. It was for a Wilderness Vigil – four days and nights alone in the woods, fasting. It was the lightening that reignited my long-forgotten desire.
It finally came true this August.
Which is incidentally all I am prepared to tell you about it. Possibly ever. Or at the least, for years to come.
And not just because it’s my prerogative, but because it’s also the prerogative of the experience.
Let me however tell you about my return.
We were warned about it.
We were told it would be difficult. But return we must – the meaning of our experience rests completely on it.
At first it felt right to feel removed from the wider world I left behind. Not wanting to “get out & mingle” too soon felt appropriate. I know this was healthy because my more private world and intimate connections felt so wonderfully deepened and richer for it. The goodness of return was fertilising the tenderer grounds I walked on.
Then two days ago I woke up with an urge to go into London. But to my utter surprise it was an irredeemably flat affair. I was literally dragging my feet through galleries and bookshops – places that never, ever before failed to infuse me with excitement and inspiration. And then it hit me – so that’s how it feels to struggle to Return?! It’s actually a physical sensation. Or rather the psychic feeling is so strong that it manifests somatically as muscular lethargy. But knowing I had to return for my dear life still didn’t help because I still didn’t know how. And I didn’t know how because I didn’t feel it in my body.
Until yesterday. After an encounter with a slug on a walk through my local woods.
It was the same colour as the mud path it was slithering across. It was in fact a miracle I didn’t step on it. Feeling grateful, I stopped to look at it closely. Such fragility – the softest of exterior, the slowest of movement, harmless to its core and yet exposed daily to harm’s way.
(Exposed softness & harsh exteriors. Don’t we all know the juxtaposition, slugs or not!)
Continuing on my walk I soon crossed paths with another walker. As we exchanged nods of acknowledgement. I wanted to warn him of the slug so he wouldn’t step on it but ended up saying nothing. Once he walked past me I started to feel uneasy about my decision. I stopped and turned around but he was already disappearing behind the trees.
The spot where the slug was seemed quiet and undisturbed enough. But I had to be sure. Filled with both hope and dread I walked back. My hand covering my mouth, just in case, to stop the shriek of horror escaping. At first I struggled to see the slug. There were so many wet and dry shapes of the same colour I just couldn’t tell what was what. And then, I saw it. Its tiny head with cute little antennas turned to mush. A life extinguished because I chose to remain silent. A life squashed because I chose not to act on my gut feeling. And as the weight of this responsibility continues to squeeze my heart – far into the future – I also feel it’s imbuing my body with life, the life I struggled to reclaim upon my return. My life, the slug’s gift to me. But as I watch the curtains draw on this uneasy dance between life and death I feel deep and poignant gratitude for its gift