Instead of going to church on Easter weekend I drove south from Indiana into Alabama to camp with a friend in Bankhead National Forest. We pitched our tents in a plot at Brushy Lake Campground, where the lake, nestled within a forest of loblolly pine, sweetgum, dogwood and tulip poplars, offered us a spring-green encapsulated world and a healthy dose of solitude.
I arrived around six p.m. on the evening of Good Friday. With no cell reception, no “LTE,” I threw my phone into the backseat of my Jetta and let myself sink into a camp chair, watching as my friend began a fire.
Before making the trip, I’d told a different friend that I hoped this camping trip would help to “straighten out my thoughts.” I fancied myself in a loose replication of John Muir’s trekking into the wilds of Yosemite or Annie Dillard’s pilgrimage to Tinker Creek; but unlike Muir or Dillard, I didn’t go to commune with nature, I was going to commune—to fellowship—with my friend. That was the plan. That was why I was going. And I succeeded (if one can call it “success”) in growing closer to my friend, but also growing closer to Christ.
“You remember how I met with that spiritual director a few weeks ago?” I said. My friend nodded. Of course. “Well, one thing he said was that maybe I needed to work on being present. Letting my mind rest.” My friend looked at me. Eyes on mine. Mhm. “I need to quiet my mind,” I said.
“Aha,” said my friend. “Okay. Sure.”
“Do you not have a problem with that?” I asked.
My friend shook his head. “My mind’s kind of a switch. I can turn it on or off.”
“Jealous,” I said. “I feel like mine’s always moving. I can’t focus on what’s in front of me because I’m always thinking about being somewhere or being with someone else.”
My drive to Alabama, for example, had been torture. Rather than enjoying the new scenery, I spent eight long hours living a prelude of questions, worries, and fears of the unknown. My mind forecasted the conversations, the hikes, the evenings sleeping on the hard ground in a cramped tent. I hadn’t seen this friend in a while, so I didn’t know whether two days together would be too much. Driving on unknown roads, moreover, also stressed me out. I worried, as well, that it was wrong to not go to church on Easter weekend; with my family back home in the upper Midwest, I knew they’d be thinking of me and feared they believed I was doing the wrong thing.
As I’d discussed with the spiritual director, all I wanted was not to think. I wanted just to sit still. I needed to learn mental healthiness. I needed to let my mind heal.
Healing for me began on Easter morning after my friend boiled water with his camp stove and we drank our mugs of coffee and ate our freeze-dried bacon and eggs. The morning was warm, the air lazy. Cream-yellow Swallowtail butterflies dipped and floated across the path as my friend and I walked to the lake, then around it to the falls at the opposite side. We both heard the rush of water cascading to the next level, the lower river.
My friend sat down at the edge of the falls to finish his book, and I walked a ways further beside the lower river, following a footpath that wound through hemlocks and oaks. A breeze fluttered softly; the river tripped over rocks and around lilies at the riverbanks. I felt quiet, and contemplative, and fully myself. Dogwoods bloomed white; budding wild azaleas exhumed a feathery-sweet fragrance. Sunshine fell through the trees, and I felt I could climb it like stairs, following the light through the treetops. I walked and kept walking. Nature seemed to spin, to shout with life and roll with its own identity, a perfection formed from an essential chaos. The world, very simply, suddenly seemed entirely beautiful.
My friend should see this!, I thought. I turned and tried to call him; but with the sound of the rushing falls, he couldn’t hear me. I decided to let that be okay. I turned, feeling even more alone, and went along the river as far as the path went and for as long as I wanted to go. A mile or so, maybe more. I truly don’t know—because my mind was at rest. And it was a deeper rest than I’d known in what seemed like years. I felt like myself; like I was loved, and like everything, finally, would be alright.
Though I’d gone down to see my friend, what I needed, even more, was time to start healing my mind. My friend was acting as a facilitator of peace: he allowed me the space to re-establish stillness in my mind, in my soul, in my heart. Sometimes God works in us to spur us on to action, but sometimes, as I learned, he is calling us simply to rest.