When I was a freshman in high school, I went on my first trip out into nature with a group of fellow students on a school trip. We went to the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee and did a mixture of hiking, rappelling, and something else- tree climbing maybe? It’s the first memory I have of doing something in nature, and it was many years later before I did it again. In high school I wasn’t athletic in any way, shape or form and never played sports. My love for nature slowly developed over time and did not really become a staple in my life until I moved to Seattle in 2013.
Seattle was also when I started graduate school and navigated being in a new city by myself, working part time and starting the intensive doctoral program I signed up for. It was also my first time to live near the mountains and by the sea. While the views at the top of those mountains can take your breath away, getting to the top of them is not an easy process. On many occasions I noted the similarity between my hike and my current life circumstances. I’d get excited about exploring a new trail, choose a challenging one with rewarding views and set off. Not too long after I started I would get hot, out of breath, and depending on the elevation gain, feel the pain of my muscles fighting gravity to climb to the top. Many times I wondered what sort of masochist I must be to voluntarily do this as a hobby. It forced me to practice my mindfulness skills of simply focusing on the next step, the next moment, one breath at a time.
Then I would make it to the top. My heart rate would return to normal, the pain in my muscles would pass and I would inhale the fresh mountain air while soaking in the beautiful vista in front of me. I would have a sense of accomplishment because no matter how hard it got, I didn’t give up. I felt like I had achieved something and my reward was a glimpse into the pristine beauty of our planet, inaccessible without having put forth the effort. The down hill part was never as bad as the up (well, the older I get my knees might argue) and before long, the difficulty of the uphill part was a distant memory and I was ready to go again. I compared it to my goals. I wanted graduate school more than anything for the opportunities it would afford me, but getting to graduation was an uphill climb that sometimes I wondered if I would make. I was able to remember my hikes in those moments and how worth it that view was, which motivated me to just keep going. So I would focus on the next step, the next moment, one breath at a time. I still do that today and it helps me remember that the good things in life often take a lot of hard work, sheer determination and have moments of downright suck. A bit of right place/right time and available opportunities are also involved, but that part is mostly out of my control. (**author’s note: I’m keenly aware of systemic injustice that affects many people and has nothing to do with hard work, but that is a topic for another blog).
I’ve also noticed in my life, similar to hiking, there are times to do the work necessary to climb up the mountain, and there are times to rest at the plateau and enjoy the view. I feel like each time I close a life chapter, or reach a goal or milestone, I’ve made it to a new plateau. I pause for a bit to rest and enjoy it and then I figure out what my next goal is and start all over. Over the Christmas break, I felt I finally reached the plateau. We were finally settled and all of the chaos and change from the past year was normalizing. I could rest. The beautiful weather, enjoyment of time with my partner, combined with our fabulous travel and time in nature, probably regulated my system and allowed me to relax for the first time in a while.
Then I went back to work. The energy of the prison hit me hard. I think the expansiveness and rest from the break cancelled my cortisol buffer that I probably had when I first started the job. I felt more keenly the stark contrast between the freedom of the outdoors and the challenges and complexities behind the wire. There’s an adage I’ve heard that I think refers to relationships that contain domestic violence. If a pot was full of boiling water, a frog would quickly jump out and try to get away, but if you put a frog in a pot of room temperature water, it would stay because it felt good. If the temperature of the water was slowly turned up over time, the frog would not notice that it had started boiling until it was too late. While I am not comparing my new job to a bad relationship, I am saying that the honeymoon phase and newness of it all buffered some of the initial realizations of just how difficult the environment can be. Coming in fresh from a break was a jolt, and made me realize that I don’t get the luxury of jumping out of the pot. Honestly, I do truly love it and and wouldn’t want to if I could, but it made me realize that I have just begun the uphill climb of my hike. The idea of change is the rewarding view at the top I am working towards. Now it is taking it one step at a time, using all the tools I have learned along the way, and reminding myself how much I love a good challenge.
Three weeks post break and I feel I have readjusted back to the environment and it feels easier again. I want to mention that imposter syndrome is a real thing that often occurs when a new role or activity is undertaken. I think part of my hard reintegration was mostly an inner adjustment and dealing with the part of me that is scared to have big goals in a new place where I haven’t fully learned all the rules and politics within it. I am constantly surprised at how much of the outer stress I feel has to do with the inner relationship with myself. It’s in these moments that I am reminded to slow down, be gentle, self-care, and have grace for the process to show up exactly how it does. On the bright side, I love my team and we have plans to work on some really cool projects this year. My partner and I get to apply for residency in March, and with that comes access to additional opportunities I have my eye on. Things are set in a good direction. Now we see what the future has in store.
Until next time.