Stripped to the Bone

Storytelling, let alone the telling of your own stories, involves an uncomfortable amount of vulnerability, curiously paired with courage. For many years now I’ve said “I’m gonna write about that,” or “it’s time to tell that story, I’ll do it this winter,” only to have more and more moons and seasons pass me (and the story itself) by. Diluting my nerve. Talking myself out of the trouble. Because I have to strip some otherwise comfortable parts of my life bare to accomplish it. My inspiration to stop this cycle came weeks after Hurricane Maria, when I visited a tiny, storm-battered Caribbean island.

I’ve visited this island for 20 years now and may well end up living there. It’s intimate. It’s old-fashioned. It’s governed by nature’s whims. It was especially hard to see this sanctuary, especially its cloud forest, stripped by two successive category 4 and 5 hurricanes. The once-lush trees were whipped bare by 120 mph winds. Boulders and rocks now blocked the roads and footpaths. Thankfully no people died in the merciless deluge, but the trees and animals were hit hard, and that’s never a good thing to see. Three images stuck in my head and jogged me out of my personal view as an outsider: 1) The trees were blown to the bark. It looked like a forest fire happened. But within weeks, new flowers were climbing onto the dead timber for support and gentle nutrient. 2) A dead bird still clinging to a Heineken bottle, surely losing its battle during the storm. 3) A clutch of baby chicks peeping and hollering with their vigilant mother hen. I realized she sat on those eggs out in the jungle during both storms, or adopted these tiny survivors. Hard to return to the States and my routine and superficial news, and not feel solemn and curious about what I’d seen and felt exploring the aftermath.

In about a year I returned. Sure, some of the infrastructure was still behind schedule, but the mountain was green again. The dead timber was here and there but covered in life.The mangoes bigger and better than they’d been for years. The young chickens were by now laying their own eggs. The surround-sound birdsong never failed to wake me at 6 a.m. in the bright morning light. Life was renewed even after all the trauma and sadness and worry. It made me also think of the controlled fires we’d see in my homestate of North Carolina. They’d burn the swamps for weeks so only the strongest trees grew, ensuring a forest and soil of strength and better diversity for all creatures in and around it. A straight, adamant baby white pine emerging from smoldering ashes.

Depression, grief, disappointment, and trauma, are the storms that blow us apart inside and out. There have been months, even years, where I feel like my mind and body are failing the challenges of time and spirit. In truth, they have. But in returning to this island again and again, and by being present here in nature, better understanding that the strongest storms can generate new strength, if not new health and life, within and without myself. I’ve been blown down to my bark and can now hold on to that empty bottle and fight for my life (even if futile), grow new, healthier armor around my body and heart, and be there for those who may need extra support and tenderness as they choose to rise, too.

And I’m ready to pen the stories that were part of the storm. Whatever direction and strength its fickle trajectory takes.

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