Views from the Wilderness

(Emerging from “the field,” expedition pack in tow)

(Journaling post-work to process all the craziness)

Trails , December 2021

When someone asks me, “How was work?”, upon my returning to the “real world” out of the woods, it’s laughable, because so many terrible things happen— yet I feel invigorated and fulfilled. (For example, I was proud of myself for being viewed as “calm and optimistic” by coworkers when 2 kids ran away from my group at nightfall, and we searched the woods for 6 hours in the rain until finally we had to call in Search & Rescue teams. The kids were found 12 hours later at a nearby house, eating pancakes. [One of the kids who ran had been faking seizures for the past two days, and complained of debilitating back pain to the point where I had to administer her medications while she lay in her tent. She swore reading her book helped alleviate her headache, so I let her read The Hunger Games instead of participate in group work. MmmHmmmm…..])

People also often ask, since I have taught yoga for many years, if I am able to do yoga with the kids. Or as an artist, am I able to do crafts with them? Well, yes and no. As part of their “phase work”—booklets of info and activities that they complete in order to graduate— they learn coping skills and hard skills (knot tying, fire building, etc.) including simple tools of breath work, which I encourage them to practice as part of their daily routine. But as for “yoga class,” any attempts I’ve made to lead these 11-13 year-old kiddos through orchestrated movement has generally captured the attention of but one or two who remain engaged for perhaps 5 minutes before noticing something on the ground or amongst other group members, and alas, their attention shifts in an instant and off they go. (Although one time I taught tree pose to a preteen girl, who I then challenged to practice for five minutes on her own the next day, and it was quite a joy to see her taking space on the edge of camp, quietly holding vrksasana for an impressive length of time).

As for art, if there happens to be some down-time when we are not busy hiking, setting up camp, building a fire, cooking meals, or having therapy, some groups have been given permission to keep materials such as friendship string, markers/crayons, coloring books, etc. (When I first began this job, I was told by the therapist that the group had lost the privilege of such crafts, which had to be earned back through good behavior and completion of phase work). It’s a pleasure when the kids are allowed and have the time to use the crafts, because it holds their attention for hours —to their own detriment at times, when they refuse to set up their tents because they have to finish a drawing or bracelet, and suddenly its dark and freezing outside… (perhaps I should be more rigid and put a stop to these hypnotizing art sessions for their own safety, but I’m not one to put an end to art-making even if it means dark, inconvenient camp set-up later).

Although there are glimmers of peaceful moments spent doing these wholesome activities, for the most part there seems to be little time to all sit and “relax” together. There’s usually at least one, and more likely two or three or four students who are needing mental or medical attention. Tummy aches, anxiety, homesickness, debilitating low self-esteem, bickering (to put it lightly), physical boundary-crossing, and general rule-breaking are in almost constant need of management. (The smallest group I’ve been with had 5 young boys, and even with so few kids, their energy and needs and capacity for raucousness felt as if there were 30 of them).

These kids are not here for summer camp. For most parents, sending their kids to this program is a last-resort, a desperate attempt to receive clinical help for what they’ve come to admit is an unmanageable situation with their child, for whatever reason. (Especially in this fall and winter season. If your 11-year-old is sent away into the woods for 3 months during Thanksgiving and Christmas, it’s most likely against their will).

In the groups I’ve been working with, almost every kid is diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Some have been seeing therapists and psychiatrists for years; others are just learning that they are autistic based on testing completed during their time at this program. For some, it comes as a shock to learn this about themselves. But for many, it is a relief. A sense of, “Oh! That’s why I’m different!” I’ve met several kids who thought they were clinically depressed and anxious, when really they were undiagnosed-autistic, and their struggles in life without understanding why had led to those feelings of depression and anxiety. In wilderness therapy, they have the opportunity to rebuild self-confidence, practice leadership and service, and endure struggles of survival that are based on basic human needs— food, shelter, water, warmth— that I see helps them cultivate a deeper sense of gratitude for the simple things, and helps undo deep patterns of entitlement. (It’s interesting to note how offended these kids will become if you suggest they might be acting entitled. But one of my new co-workers, a middle-aged man from South Carolina named Stu, just came back to the USA after living and teaching in Burma/Myanmar, Southeast Asia for the past 30 years, and he was shocked at the entitled behavior of the kids. One of the girls said, “My parents owe me a trip to Disney World,” and Stu almost fell stunned onto the ground, and had to laugh with disbelief at the disrespect and entitlement laced in this statement).

I’m noticing: There is something in our western society that is breeding entitlement, and within this entitlement is inherent disrespect— to parents, elders, authority, & land/earth. I am seeing that these kids view themselves as separate from nature. (Most of them spent hours and hours on screens everyday, and often this technological addiction is one reason parents have sent them to wilderness therapy). I also notice a similarity in the way kids act and speak; even when a new student arrives, on the first day they seem to fit right in with their mannerisms and lingo. The therapist says, “It’s TikTok.” Billions of people (mostly youth) around the world are watching the same things— flash-trends of culture-influencers that are shaping behavior and language. And what value does it hold? What ethics are being transmitted? It disturbs me that Cardi B and her “WAP” song is the music I’ve heard most commonly sung in all the female groups at work (and I checked yesterday to see that on Spotify alone that song has over 1 billion listens). —[If you haven’t seen the music video on YouTube, prepare to be horrified… or just don’t look, because it will just add to the views]. But to give you an idea, the song begins and ends with a back-up vocal that repeats, “There’s some whores up in here, there’s some whores up in here…”. And, yah, sorry mom and dad, “WAP” stands for “Wet @$$ pu$$y.”

Am I just becoming more like a parent in my older age, in disbelief at “kids these days” and the horrible music they listen to, just like generations past? Clearly though the music is becoming more and more obscene with each passing decade. What does this mean? With all the emergence of female rights and freedoms, yet there is this blatant objectifying of women. Yes, sex sells, but because “parental control” of technology is so difficult nowadays thanks to the free-flow of information on the internet, sex is being sold to younger and younger children. My first week at work back in August, I asked one girl what she wanted to be when she grew up, and she said, “I want to be famous for being sexy.”

Another thing I’ve noticed: perhaps half of the AFAB people I’ve worked with (meaning “assigned-female-at-birth”— because being called a “girl” or “female” doesn’t jive with everyone anymore) have opted to NOT be referred to with she/her pronouns. A majority, in fact, want to either be gender-fluid (referred to as they/them,) or referred to as a boy (with he/him pronouns.) Maybe a few truly feel they have been born into the wrong-gendered body, but I think for most of them this decision is rooted in trauma. They have either been sexually abused or verbally abused, called “whore” and “slut,” and associate their trauma with the fact that they’re AFAB, and thereby want to no longer be known as a woman. The decision to disidentify with their born gender is an attempt to avoid future abuse.

Yes, this can all certainly be very distressing and depressing. But as I have learned again and again, the world behaves in a way that is symbolized by the Yin-Yang. There is a balance of energy at play at all times… Nature in a constant flux to be in flow toward equilibrium. Where evil and chaos seem to be increasing, so, too, is love and goodness amplifying. We can choose to focus on one or the other. For awhile we can delegate our time to reflect on the disharmony in order to send our love and compassion in that direction; and then we shall intentionally shift our attention to the beauty and harmony that exists all around us, in every moment. Where we put our attention, that is what we nurture— like watering a plant. So, rather than dwell on the terrible and mourn all that is lost, we can acknowledge it, and then envision the world that we want to live in. Our thoughts/prayers/imagination will shape the world. All things that exist now first began as a thought. We may despair at the loss of innocence all around us, but if we cultivate a sense of peace and joy first within ourselves, this will ripple outward, and create beautiful shifts. World Problems may seem so big and beyond our control, but it is through our intentional actions expressed through poetry, food, song, generosity, and simple-living, all rooted in peace, that we may become the strongest activists.

Thanks for reading!

What are your little ways of creating a more beautiful world?

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