The house my husband and I bought borders on four square miles of forest. Within the woods is an intricate network of walking trails and snowmobiling paths. The previous owner mentioned that those paths eventually meet up with other paths, supposedly reaching all the way up to the Canadian border. I shrugged and took it as hyperbole, but those woods and those trails were part of the reason I fell in love with the place and soon called it my home.
The paths reminded me of my childhood. It reminded me of the happier memories, summers wandering nomadically through a practically abandoned campground by myself, reciting stories to the wind that I was creating on the spot. It reminded me of my sanctuary from the not-as-happier memories, of running out of my parents’ house and down the street and to the park by the marshes, spending hours with the soft ground under my feet, thankful for some type of stability.
I’m solitary by nature. I withdraw. I keep whatever it is internalized and I shut out the world. I become convinced I can solve everything on my own. I’m always stubbornly assuming that I’m just one joke or casual shrug away from everything being okay again, even when situations are obviously and blatantly not okay.
For months, I had been avoiding silence. I was constantly moving, constantly living with only one foot firmly planted. The TV would be on for the sake of being on. I would go on walks with my headphones jammed into my ears. Everywhere I went, I listened to music. I checked every website, flickering back and forth between tabs and tasks and devices like I had lost control of my ADD. There was no such thing as down time. My mind was buzzing and I feared what the hum would sound like in a quiet room.
For the past couple weeks, I had found myself attempting to confront the silence. I would be driving in my car, my music steadily getting louder and louder, as if trying to drown out sounds that were not there. The music would get too loud and I wouldn’t be able stand it anymore and I’d eventually shut it off. I’d drive like that for a few minutes, the unbearable quiet weighing down around me, until I’d repeat the process all over again. And even then, I could only do that when I was driving — when I was literally on the move, never on one spot of road for longer than a millisecond.
A new patch of snow fell today. There were chores outside that I needed to do, spots scattered around my house that I needed to be, and so I put on my coat and pulled up my boots and went outside. I went from spot to spot, doing what I needed to do, mentally checking off things from my list, before finding myself in my backyard, staring at the path into the woods. Without thinking, without planning, without doing anything but going on impulse, I trudged through the snow and disappeared into the forest.
The snowmobilers had been making use of the trails, systematically packing the snow down, making it easier for me to travel further in. I couldn’t remember the last time I went down these paths without music to drown everything out. The quiet made my ears ring.
I kept going down the familiar trails, my mind bouncing around from thought to thought, as if the base of my skull were made of hot coals and it hurt too much for my brain to stay settled in one place. I thought of tasks I needed to finish, songs that were stuck in my head, little thoughts and memories and emotions that flickered in between everything else. Throughout all of this, I had the famous Robert Frost poem playing on repeat, as if to give my wretched mind a more thoughtful backdrop for its hysteria.
Whose woods these are, I think I know…
I wandered nomadically through the abandoned woods, verbalizing my deepest fears, reciting out words to the forest that I knew I would never say to the people they were intended for. The winds shifted and the trees creaked and the snow from the branches drifted into my path. I imagined the wind carrying everything that I was saying away and felt such a profound emptiness.
Between the woods and frozen lake, the darkest evening of the year.
There’s a quote in the book of Isaiah. I could say that it’s my favorite Biblical quote, but I’ve never really been one for the Bible, so that statement doesn’t mean much. It says: “Whether you turn to the left or to the right, you will hear a voice behind you saying, ‘This is the path. Walk in it.’” I came to a split in the path that I knew by heart. The snowmobiles had carved out a triangle in the center of the split, a soft mound where the vehicles had yet to cross over. To the right was five minutes of trail that would eventually end in another residential neighborhood. To the left was the rest of the forest, linking up with yet more paths, which supposedly snaked their way across busy streets, through all of New Hampshire, and into Canada.
I stopped for a second, letting my gut tell me where to go. Instead of going anywhere, I stood still, blinking back tears. I felt a surge of anger and despair, because I had lost faith in my gut instincts. I felt a surge of embarrassment, because I was letting a simple decision in trails become symbolic of my situation in life. I felt a surge of something I couldn’t define or categorize, and I knew it would drive me crazy if I tried to, so I didn’t.
Whether you turn to the left or to the right, you will hear a voice behind you saying, “This is the path. Walk in it.” I laid down in the triangle, the one created from snowmobiles turning left, turning right, and going straight ahead, and stared up at the sky instead.
The snow gently made a seat beneath me, fitting my frame as I leaned my head back. I looked up at the clearing, looked up at the overcast sky and the falling remnants of the morning’s storm, and I started laughing.
I started laughing because there was nothing else left to do. I started laughing because life is so brutally fucked up and unfair and confusing and I started laughing at my folly over trying to predict and make any sense of it. I started laughing because I had already spent too many goddamn days crying and this had to be the next step forward. I started laughing because life can feel so silly and surreal sometimes and it’s hard to decipher what is reality, what is dream, and what is narrative you’ve created to make sense out of the senseless.
I laughed until I heard a rumbling that sounded like a passing car. I sat up, trying to see if a snowmobiler was approaching, before realizing that it had been the wind again. As far as I knew, I was still the lone person in this tiny patch of forest. I returned to my spot, my little reclined seat in a previously untouched triangle of snow, and looked back at the snowflakes floating by me.
He will not see me standing there, to watch his woods fill up with snow.
I let out a long sigh and closed my eyes. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, in that millisecond of silence where everything was blank and I was focusing only on that exhale, I could hear one simple statement, delivered in the thickest of Boston accents, as if it were one of my family members telling me this:
“Ya gonna be alright, kid. Ya gonna be alright.”
I covered my face and started laughing again. Leave it to my subconscious to deliver what I needed to hear in the most facetious way possible. Maybe life really is one joke away from being okay. Or at least one joke away from reminding you that, eventually, ya gonna be alright. Ya gonna be jus’ fine.
There is insight in silence, and I feared what that insight would be, what it would reveal about me, my life, and my character. I feared the cold, hard truth about the cold, hard realities of life waiting for me in that silence. But sometimes the cold, hard truth is nothing more than a reminder that this too shall pass.
The only other sound’s the sweep, of easy wind and downy flake.
The snow had soaked through my jeans. I was cold and I was beginning to get antsy again. I knew it was time to turn around, retrace my steps until I was back home, and get back to reality. I knew I’d return back, understanding that I would be literally out of the woods, but not metaphorically – but also understanding that I could return back to those literal woods, repeat the process all over again, and maybe, just maybe, hear that little bit of Boston-flavored reassurance one more time.
I was thankful for the soft snow under my feet, thankful for that extra bit of stability. I was thankful for the briefest moments of silence where the quiet didn’t feel like a vise grip clamped on my chest. I wasn’t out of the woods just yet, but I was going to be alright. And it was time to get back to sorting the rest of the chaos out.
These woods are lovely, dark, and deep. But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I’d sleep. And miles to go before I’d sleep.
Excerpts from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost, from The Poetry of Robert Frost.