We were lost in the wilderness. My sisters, my husband and I were driving on a bumpy dirt road, following my father and children in the car in front of us. My dad loves to drive fast on mountain roads and soon we were enveloped in a cloud of dust. When we came out of it my dad’s car was gone. We missed our turn, then turned around, and turned down another wrong way. We had no GPS, no map, and no service on our phones. “How did we survive before the internet!?” we nervously joked.
When I was a little girl I got lost in the woods. I was at camp with my family and during a game I tried to take a short cut on a trail and ended up wandering aimlessly for what seemed like hours. I don’t remember crying, but I remember feeling bewildered that nobody was calling my name and trying to find me. The woods seemed bigger than I remembered, but surely I would end up back at the cabins if I just kept following trail after trail. Dusk began to fall and I left the trail to wade through the underbrush. My little mind thought if the trail wasn’t working, I might as well cut through the woods.
The other day I was on my way to a meeting for a Flora Forager book deal. I was nervous about being professional, about parking downtown, about what I was wearing, about whether I was making good life decisions…about everything, as usual. I found the building and walked into a grand entryway with beautiful tiling and old elevators with gold dials. I pressed the button. I had checked the floor number a hundred times as if knowing exactly where I was going would help me feel less lost inside.
A worried voice trembled next to me, “Can you help me figure out where I’m supposed to go?” I turned to find a short elderly man carrying a briefcase. He shook a little as he lifted a piece of paper with an injury claims lawyer’s name on it. “You see, there isn’t a directory in here. I thought there would be one when I got here but there isn’t.” He looked as though he might faint.
I checked my watch. I had ten minutes. I asked the man if he had a smart phone. A number to call? He had no number or information. I looked it up on the internet on my phone. While my phone took its time I mentioned how beautiful the elevators were. The man brightened and told me about ones he’d seen like them. I found the address. We rode the elevator and chatted a little more. By the time the doors opened to my floor I was much more at ease. And he seemed to be, too. Having helped another person from being lost had somehow helped me.
One of the first things my counselor taught me about my anxiety was how to calm my inner child. “I’m the grown up, Bridget.” I was to tell myself, “You don’t have to do anything, just relax. Go play in the forest and I’ll take care of everything here.” My counselor suggested I imagine helping my own children and that would help me feel more adult.
I’ve seen this concept work in very startling ways. When I was a teenager I once helped care for a woman going through a bipolar episode. Her elderly mother needed a break and I would be there to help cook dinner while she went out. The bipolar woman had wild eyes when her mother was there. She was talking about lighting her hair on fire in a romantic dreamy voice and flailing about. She was like a child lost in her own world. But as soon as her mother went out the door she calmed down and looked at me. “I want to show you how to make my Italian grandmother’s spaghetti sauce,” she said. She “mentored” me patiently and calmly, telling me the steps and acting, as far as I could tell, like she was not having an episode at all. Like she was the adult.
Another time I saw this happen was when I volunteered on Saturdays with active Alzheimer’s patients at the home where my grandfather lived. I was about ten years old. When I would first arrive the patients would behave a little silly like children, or would wander aimlessly around the rooms. But after a while they would notice me. One woman without any teeth would put an apron on and pretend to cook something for me in the fake kitchen, singing a tune and treating me like her child. My Grandfather would raise his chin importantly and tell me I’d had enough cookies. They stopped wandering and came back to themselves when they were needed.
I often feel like a lost child. I worry about what to say, even to the grocery checker. I second guess my decisions, I think I sound stupid, I’ll slouch and bite my lip and work myself into a tizzy. Lately, especially, I’ve felt like I don’t know which direction I’m going. I have a destination in mind, but I’m not sure if I’m on the right path to get there. I’ve taken so many detours I can’t see the forest for the trees.
I would really love to publish my writing. I wrote a fantasy novel a year ago that is like my fourth baby. It is the story I believe I am meant to tell. It is my dream. But suddenly out of nowhere I got lost in Flora Forager. It is a beautiful, brilliant surprise of a career, but I feel as though I’m having to learn new things and make big decisions that terrify me every day. Contracts, negotiations, sales, marketing, posting the right kind of picture, learning to let comments go, crying over whether I have enough creative energy to finish each project, juggling kids and work… Before all of this I was so terrified to try to have my writing published, and here I am having a journal of my floral art published! What an odd detour! Which way do I go now and how do I return to my original writing plans?
I eventually hit a road at the edge of the forest. I did not recognize it. It was definitely not camp. I had to make a decision. Left or right. If I made the wrong decision I would be going even further from the camp entrance, on a country road, in the dark. If I made the right decision I was sure I’d find the camp entrance and walk back along the long driveway to safety. I shrugged and took a left.
My sisters, husband, and I eventually found the right road back. We sighed relief when we began recognizing outlying farm land. But I was still lost inside my anxiety. We eventually caught up to my dad’s car, but he kept driving. I couldn’t breathe. I screamed, “text him to stop! Make him stop! Why does he keep driving? I want him to see us. Does he see us?!”
I saw the camp entrance. Dinner had come and gone, people were settling in for evening events, and I came into the main area like a prodigal son. I looked at every face as if to say, I have returned! But nobody seemed to notice or care that I was there. I finally found my parents and they acted as if nothing had happened. They hadn’t even noticed I was gone! From the beginning to the end of my journey I had been the one caring for me and finding my way. I felt even more alone than I had in the woods, but proud.
Could it be that the direction I am supposed to take is simply the one I am taking all along? Cutting through the woods, backtracking through dust, trying to choose left or what is right… perhaps it is the act of returning that makes the destination more clear. In our fright we find our inner child needs help, and we walk through the elevator doors to find our adult self was always there. These journeys are not so much a product of being lost and alone, but a vehicle by which we shall inevitably return and feel proud. I will have thicker skin, more knowledge about the publishing world, and confidence from my floral adventures if I ever find my way back to my book.
My dad stopped the car and got out. I opened my car window and breathed in the air between us. “I figured you’d find your way eventually,” he said.
I think I will.
Bridget Beth Collins.
Writer, painter, and naturalist.