What Adventure is Calling You?
Note: A different version of this piece first appeared in my Advent series. I’m reposting it because I read this on January 9th for the Freedom Road Global Writers’ Group Showcase.
My friend Amanda told me a couple weeks ago that the human body doesn’t actually have receptors to feel “wet.” I wasn’t sure I believed her so I looked it up, and sure enough, what we call “wet” is a combination of sensations, but mainly the temperature difference that we experience as cold. It's why if something is warm in the dryer, we can’t tell if it’s really dry or not. Our brains make up the response “wet” from other data. It’s clever of them, but also telling. If we don’t have needed information, our brains will fill in the gap with something. We are meaning-makers and consciously or unconsciously we are making meaning. The task falls to us to do it intentionally and to question how we know what we know and how it’s all really connected.
How did we miss that the trees were connected? As I walk down the trail, I step over root after root, placing my foot in the center of tangles of roots from multiple trees. The trees reach for each other: they don’t repel each other's roots. And in doing so, they hold the forest floor together. They hold up the path I’m walking on, keeping the dirt in place and preventing erosion. The trees hold the shape of the land or else these hills I’m walking over would have been worn down by millenia of rain. There’s a clearing where engineers dammed the streams to form a small lake. As I step out from under the trees onto the grass, I see roots running where there are no trees, the last one disappearing into the grass fifty feet or more from the treeline. Along the edges of the small lake, roots curl around the shore line, enabling me to walk a somewhat soggy trail mere inches from the water and the shoreline doesn’t give under the weight of my passage.
The dry season in Tennessee is ending and most of the streams are running again. I can follow the folds of the hills with my eyes and figure out where the streams should be. This part of the world is shot through with streams. A map of Tennessee runs with lines that look like veins and arteries as the streams flow into the rivers all rushing down toward the sea. The land shapes the streams and the streams shape the land, wearing down rock and carving an inexorable path that can be rerouted, but never stopped. Water has to go somewhere. If we are seventy-percent water then the water I step over as I jump one of smaller rivulets as it laughs its way down hill is me or was me or will be me. How did we miss that everything is connected?
When I started hiking and backpacking, especially on solo trips, I had concerns and eyebrows raised. After all, this was not how I was raised, was it? What’s the appeal in disappearing into the woods? I feel the juxtaposition of society's expectations when I come off of backpacking trips and need to run in somewhere to grab a coffee or use the bathroom or find a sandwich. I feel conspicuous. Society looks down on those who show up dirty. It’s uncivilized, and after all isn’t civilization the end goal of, well, everything?
But who defines civilization? Who gets to make those rules? As my feet feel their way across the roots and around the rocks, through the occasional squishy spot on the trail, it strikes me that the combination of colonization and industrialization has not only disconnected us from our role in nature, but has invented a set of rules and standards for how everyone except white men get to live. I’ve noticed that the same people that think it’s strange for me to go off alone don’t bat an eyelash if it’s my husband or a guy friend talking about doing the same.
In my book I discussed the mental struggle I had matching up the image of “woman” and “mother” in my head with my desire to go off and have adventures on my own. And then it struck me: for me, hiking and backpacking is part of decolonizing the “nice white lady” I was meant to be. It’s fitting because I’ve always despised that nice white lady and all the baggage that came with those words. I don’t want to be nice: I want to be kind. Nice is surface and performative: kind springs from under the mountains and runs wild with the rivers. I don’t want to embody whiteness: I want to embody shalom–mutual thriving for everyone. And I certainly don’t want to be a lady. Ankles-crossed, proper-posture, the right-fake-word-for-everyone prison that I was raised to believe was my ultimate destiny. Never cussing, never dirty, never cross in public, fake smile, pulled-in stomach, pleasant expression, taking catcalls as a compliment, never taking up my own space. Being small, tidy, and vacant of ambition, disappearing into a spouse and children. I’ve always hated that word with a passion even when I didn’t know why. Lady is a cage disguised as a pedestal that we step right into if we don’t stop to think about what it is that’s really calling us.
Perhaps we missed that everything is connected because we’ve been too busy stuffing ourselves into the boxes and restrictions that “civilization” has created. Restrictions that cut us off from ourselves, each other, and commodify nature and humans alike instead of recognizing their intrinsic value: not widgets for exploitation, but wonder in which we can participate.
What is it that we need to decolonize, unpack, or uproot in ourselves? I first wrote this reflection during Advent and for the first time it struck me that Advent and adventure come from the same root word. We look at Advent as a time of waiting which seems to be the opposite of adventure, but both are something that’s coming, something that’s waiting to begin. Advent is an invitation: an invitation to reclaim our wild, to embrace darkness as a place of birth, to see what is being birthed and begun in us.
The invitation has been extended: what shape will your adventure take?
Anna Elisabeth Howard writes highly caffeinated takes on shalom as a lens for everything from her front porch in Hendersonville, TN where she lives with her husband and two sons. She is a community organizer and movement chaplain with a background in youth and family ministry and is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary. An avid hiker and backpacker, many thoughts start somewhere in the middle of the woods, or under a waterfall. She is a regular contributer to Earth & Altar and her latest book is Inward Apocalypse: Uncovering a Faith for the Common Good.
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