Fall Creek Falls State Park

Most Tennessee State Parks re-opened on April 24, after being closed for several weeks due to COVID-19 restrictions. Yesterday, for her thirty-fourth birthday, M. and I drove to Fall Creek Falls State Park. There were social distancing recommendations posted on-site, though we didn’t have to be particularly careful in watching out on the trails as we went the entire day without crossing paths with anyone until we were within a quarter mile of returning back to our car. It was rainy, mucky, and exactly what we needed.

What sticks out to me now from the conversation that threaded several hours of trail time together was a focus on the freedom associated with letting go—certainly how letting go of the past creates open hands with which we can embrace the present moment, but also how much of letting go includes letting go of expectation. I struggle with that because of how easily expectation slips under the radar as “goals” or “planning.” If I were to write a book titled Planning and Goal Setting in the Age of Quarantine, the entirety of it would be a single page with a single line that simply reads, “Good luck with that.”

Such a state is a breeding ground for anxiety—not knowing, lack of control, fear, insecurity, it’s all in there. It’s easy to feel lost, and being lost is only made to feel that much more alarming when you believe you have to know exactly where you are at all times. Reflecting on that thought now, I’m reminded of a section in Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost which quotes a letter she’d received which read,

“[Explorers] were always lost, because they’d never been to these places before. They never expected to know exactly where they were, yet at the same time, many of them knew their instruments pretty well and understood their trajectories within a reasonable degree of accuracy. In my opinion, their most important skill was simply a sense of optimism about surviving and finding their way.”

That is so immediately and powerfully humbling. Emotionally, it’s incredibly easy to feel lost right now. The anxiety associated with that feeling? Wow, have I ever been there. Funny, then, how much of that awoke within me and created a ball in my chest when we actually got physically lost yesterday. I’m not talking the kind of lost where we’re off the path, in the dark, can’t find our way back home-kind of lost… maybe just a mile removed from making a wrong turn down the wrong trail-kind of lost. Easily corrected, even after a couple of failed attempts to right our course, but that did little to help lift that feeling until it was crystal clear exactly where we were again. It was getting dark. The ranger said they’re closing at dark. What if we’re farther out than we think we are and we’re late getting back to our car? As a close friend often says, “If I thought worrying would help, I’d worry all damn day.” I guess this is the point of all the reading on Zen I’ve been doing lately: To just observe and occupy space with what I’m feeling as I’m feeling it. Innocuous guidance in theory, pure terror in practice.

It wasn’t long before the trail markers made sense again, and then another brief period of time before we crossed a sign acknowledging that we were only about a half mile from where we’d parked. It wasn’t an hour or two earlier when M. was explaining how impactful the last year has been on who she’s becoming. She mentioned having to “trust the process” to help her to keep moving forward. We’re all explorers right now, and from time to time it’s easy to lose faith that the tools we have to help us find our way are actually capable of doing so. Even if we’ve never been where we’re going, that doesn’t have to mean we’re lost.