Out of the Woods is the story of a woman whose only daughter leaves home to go off to college, the story of a life change. This happens to reflect what I have been going through lately, and of course I started reading it because I was looking for answers. What I found more than anything else was comfort that I was not alone, and that there was not something wrong with me. Or with my kids for that matter.
I have been complaining awhile about empty nest syndrome, which is interesting because all but one of my kids still lives with me (well, all but two if you include Michaela). But all my kids are young adults now, and they live their own lives, and come and go, and don't say hello or goodbye when they do. The two older kids live downstairs, and don't have to pass through the living room on the way out, so I just hear a door open and close from a distance and know they are gone. I have a Find Your Friends app on my iphone, and honestly that's the only way I seem to know where my kids are or what they are doing. I rarely make meals anymore, because I sure can't count on anybody being around to eat them, or wanting to eat them, and I can pretty much guarantee that if I make something with the idea that it would be easy for them to heat up and eat later, it will simply end up in the trash a few days later. And you know, as much as I really don't like cooking, this makes me kind of sad.
It's getting more real now, though, as a couple of my kids are getting ready to actually leave for distant parts. Coincidentally they are both intent on heading for the same part of the country, for entirely different reasons. For one of them, this leaving is imminent. I've been shown apartments on the internet and asked my opinion of which would be best. The circumstances of this move are happy, and it makes me happy for my children to be happy, but I have to tell you, there are those moments (like this very one in fact) that it causes my chest to fill with sadness that flows up and runs out of my eyes in tears. Not giving too many details about this, because I have been asked not to.
The other one planning on leaving is my youngest daughter. This is not imminent. She is currently attending community college and has chosen a university she wants to attend once she has completed all her transfer credits. She is not going great gangbusters to complete those credits, because she has many interests and she is not going to deny herself the opportunity to take classes she wants to take in order to rapidly accumulate the classes she needs to take. She has a boyfriend who is attending a local four-year university, and he plans to go to transfer to this other college as well. I think it will be a matter of allowing him to complete his B.A. here while she is still gathering credits and getting involved in other things that interest her. This semester, for example, she is choosing to take two required classes, while also taking pretty time intensive classes in costume design (sewing) and dance. She is also devoting her time to theater (currently playing Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream) and volunteering a couple of days a week at our local animal shelter. But the boyfriend is in his first year of college, so we have awhile to prepare for this departure.
Nevertheless the plan is there, fully developed and decided, and I have felt the fallout. She and I have always been very close. She was the baby, and she was the only one I got to keep, who didn't leave me every other weekend and holidays to visit another parent. She also has an extraordinarily deep and sensitive spirit, has had great separation anxiety and fear of people she loves dying while they are out of her sight. I have always suspected that she somehow absorbed my loss of her sister, Michaela, before she was born, but that's another subject. She just is who she is.
Separation anxiety doesn't prevent the process of separation, of course. It just makes it less pleasant. Anxiety flows from the unconscious, and however well we learn to deal with it (and she does fairly well most of the time, at least recognizing it for what it is), it still reverberates in unconscious ways. Let me put it to you this way: as an adolescent she was a holy terror. She wasn't a bad girl, didn't get in trouble, but she could be extremely unpleasant. I did, somewhere at some point, come to recognize this as her unconscious or subconscious reaction to the process of becoming a separate individual. In nature you see sometimes mommies and babies behaving this way as a way to facilitate the separation. It's much easier to separate from someone you find annoying than it is from someone you adore. Darling writes about this phenomenon in Out of the Woods: "The school counselors talked about a phenomenon called 'fouling the nest,' in which the child of your bosom begins to act like the scorpion in your shoe, an adolescent's defense mechanism, apparently, to make it easier to leave home."
The thing is that years after we got past the initial adolescent separation-through-antagonism phase, I have felt it creeping into our lives again. I'm guessing it is due to the decision she has made that she is going to go. It isn't as horrid as it was the first time around. It has manifested primarily in her finding me annoying. She told me I've been mean lately, and that I am rude. This seems to happen whenever I try to act like a mom ... you know, by telling her what to do. From my point of view, she started getting defensive about everything, which is the next step after annoyed. And honestly, I don't think I have been any of those things she has accused me of being, but it started getting to the point where I just didn't want to talk to her anymore. It made me very sad, because we used to talk all the time. When she wasn't in school, I'd call her from work when I had a break, check in with her, ask how she was doing. But that stopped awhile back. I'd step outside the office on my break and remind myself that I had to cut this tie, and I'd plug into my headphones and listen to whatever book I had on audible at the time instead. Now see, I am actually sitting here shedding tears over this, even though it is honestly not a big, devastating thing. It's okay. And I have to state that it's entirely possible that my daughter would completely and totally disagree with my assessment, and that's okay too. Maybe I am mean and annoying and I am just unaware of it. Maybe it is due to my own reactions and processing. I have an unconscious too after all. I don't mean to disrespect my daughter's feelings. I'm just expressing mine.
My first child left home many years ago, at the age of 18. He'd been staying with his girlfriend's family because we had moved to another town nearby and he had a job at a store in the old neighborhood. Then came the news that his girlfriend's family was moving to another part of the state. He came to me upset. They'd offered to take him with them, but he didn't know what to do. I told him to go. It was a difficult thing to say, but for him, well I think Michaela's kidnapping had hit him hard. I could go into all the facts and surmisings, but I won't. I'll just say that by the time he was confronted with this choice, this whole area had become such a bad thing for him that I knew leaving would probably be the best thing for him. Even now, many years later, having grown up and established his own home and his own family, I'm not positive I'd be able to feel good about him returning here. So there was that, the good thing about leaving. He used to come to visit after he first moved, and I remember crying every time he left. I went to the hospital to visit when my first granddaughter was born. At the end of the day my son walked me out to my car, and I sobbed uncontrollably all the way. I'm sure people who saw me thought someone had just died, instead of someone just being born, but for me I was grieving because I knew this little girl would not know me to be a part of her everyday life because she lived so far away.
Anyway. At this point in my life, I have spent a fair amount of time alone. I have to be honest -- it doesn't bother me to spend time alone. I was an only child and I grew up in a military family, always living somewhere new, never having a consistent group of either friends or family to rely on. I really enjoy a certain amount of solitude. And I have three little dogs who are always ready to shower me with love and affection. I have spent some holidays alone as well. And on one level this doesn't bother me because I am a practical person, and I know that just because a day has a name it doesn't really make it different from the other day. But on another level I have to admit it kind of does.
I do have a husband, unlike Lynn Darling, whose husband had passed away from cancer. We have been together for over 20 years now, but we have vastly different interests. He likes guy stuff and has hobbies like toy car racing and archery. I would actually like someone to go for walks with me, and hikes, but he says he hates walking. I think the best time in our relationship was a few years ago when I joined him in his interest in road bikes. We used to go riding together often, just the two of us, but that stopped somehow, can't remember really. The honest fact is that bike riding scares me. I have a hard time with the confidence necessary to navigate street traffic and the like. We used to drive out to the Alameda Creek Trail and ride there, which was really nice. Then one day our car was broken into while we were riding. I think maybe that's what put an end to it. The area where we parked was kind of secluded, and I felt violated I think, although the cost of replacing broken windows on the car was a significant factor as well. Anyway, we are where we are, and he pursues his hobbies and I read and write and play with the dogs. When he is home he is usually in the man cave he created in the garage. Originally he went there when he smoked, so he wouldn't smoke up the house. Now he doesn't smoke anymore, but it's his habit.
So facing these life changes, well, I have of course come up with the general idea that "I need to get a life." I've replaced children with dogs, and still tie myself to the role of the nurturer (meaning there are many places I don't want to go because I know my dogs will miss me). Honestly, I love to be home. If I have to do something "fun" on my days off, instead of thinking of it as a treat, it almost feels like I am being robbed of my time to dwell in the interior places of my mind and soul. Yet in the midst of this I have also found myself suddenly possessed by the desire for a Jeep or other four-wheel vehicle. Okay, there was a rational explanation to begin with, as it requires sometimes driving through snow to get to where my children want to go. But it started blossoming into a desire to be able to drive where there are no roads. Kind of odd for someone who doesn't want to leave the house, eh? Even more odd for someone who is really very cautious by nature. But there it is, this irrational desire. It's not likely to be fulfilled, because I currently have to commute 50 miles a day, so my Prius is undoubtedly the best choice for my actual life. But I do need to stay away from car salesmen.
Anyway. Back to the book. When Lynn Darling's daughter Zoe left to go to college, she decided to move from Manhattan to Vermont, to a house that was off the grid. All by herself! Very brave of her. In fact, I know she's a far braver person than I am. She got a dog, and the dog wandered in the forest and hills and ate things found there without her knowing what it was. I am always freaking out about my dogs wanting to eat or even smell strange things.
Honestly, way too much of the book is devoted to actual wandering in the woods, and actual wayfinding through map and compass. It's not even that such things completely bore me. I once attended boy scout leader training camp, and it's some of the most fun I've ever had in my life. But that's not what I was looking for in this book. I understand the symbolism of it all, of the process of getting lost and finding your way, but I could have understood that without quite so much time devoted to discussing it. I honestly didn't learn how to use a map and compass. That's a hands on skill I think.
The initial pages of the book just held me enthralled, probably in large part because they echoed my own thoughts, feelings, and fears, and Darling expresses them beautifully. She goes on to have all sorts of other life events in the four years she lives in Vermont. She is diagnosed with breast cancer and has to undergo treatment, including chemotherapy. I'd really have liked to have more details about this. She'd kept her New York apartment while she lived in Vermont, and she'd go to New York for treatments, but I kept wondering who was taking care of her, or if anybody was, and I wasn't clear on whether she stayed in New York for the duration of the treatments or went back to Vermont alone. I also wanted to know who was taking care of her dog. She also had to deal with putting her mother in an assisted living facility due to Alzheimer's, and talked about that and also a bit about how bad a life her mother had had, and how it had made her not the kind of mother she'd like to have had. Darling didn't express malice toward her mother for this at all, but rather seemed to genuinely love her, and if anything was sorry for her mother. I got this, but again, I could have heard more deeply about this than about the maps and compasses.
And Zoe. There is very little about her daughter, Zoe. I understand that as a writer Darling needs to respect and protect her daughter's privacy, and maybe that's the issue. But given the way she skimmed over other things in the book, was that the issue? There are small fleeting glimpses of ZoE, but I would like to know a bit more about how their relationship progressed, and what happened to Zoe in the end.
And yes, there is the end. Darling talked about aging, and about seeking her authentic self, but concluded that this is elusive and possibly non-existent. She says:
"I went to the woods to run away, to begin again, to become a strange and fabulous creature: my true self. I'm no longer certain such a thing as a true self exists: we are all of us a web of genes and circumstance, of accident and purpose, and our notions of identity are as entwined with time as they are with blood and bone, nerve and sinew. Besides, the question no longer mattered the way it once had: getting older is largely a matter of getting over yourself, of stepping out of your own way, the better to see the world through a wider lens than the narrow preoccupations of self had ever provided. I wasn't any of the things I had strived to be, or tried to escape. I was just a walker in the woods, who had learned a thing or two perhaps about finding her way, one who would get lost again and again. With luck, I would walk into the future the way I walked into the woods, with my wits about me, with curiosity and humility, with a first aid kit and a compass. Or so it seems to me now We believe what we need to believe, in order to get on, until life takes its next swing and we land, on top of the world, or brushing the dust from our knees, and once again, we make ourselves new maps."Wow. Belief and disbelief. I have barely started down the new road, but on the other hand I am probably doing it further along the way than Darling, since my youngest child was born when I was 39. I have personally always had a sense of destiny, that there was something I was meant to accomplish in my life. I can't say I know for sure what it is. I think I am supposed to write a book, and I've been working in that direction, although I have no great certainty here, because if it's woven into destiny, then the book would have to have a significance about it. So far the significance of my life seems to have boiled down to this: if I survived, you can survive. My nine-year old daughter was kidnapped and has remained missing for more than 25 years now, her fate unknown to me. She could have died many years ago, or she could still be suffering right now, today. It's a certain specific circle of hell to live in, but I have lived in it. Yet I am here, I am alive, and I can even find joy in life still. If I can, you can. Oh, and I've been through all the other stuff also, unemployment, underemployment, divorce and custody issues, aloneness and togetherness, infertility and surprise pregnancies, the death of my father, the death of my mother. In the end, I am here, and I am undoubtedly stronger and wiser, and even nicer actually, for all that I have been through. So you will be okay, too.
That's largely the message of this book. In the beginning, Darling says, "I certainly hadn't seen this coming, this feeling of being punched in the stomach, of wondering whether I could even bear it, whether the grief of Zoe's leaving might be something I could not survive with any degree of contentment. I had never known such nights before, nights that grayed into days that darkened back into nights." But she did survive, and so will I, and so will you.
The key perhaps lies in her last sentence: "...and once again, we make ourselves new maps." I've actually read a couple of other books lately that made this stand out for me. One was Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things, and the other was The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. They are both stories that span decades and show lives that are remade several times over, being transformed into something completely different from what they were and completely unexpected. I read these books one after the other, and I was mesmerized by this. Today I am here, in my living room, in the living room of the house I inherited from my mother. I go to work five days a week at a demanding and stressful but also rewarding job as a paralegal in an immigration law office. I don't have a lot of money, enough to get by okay but too delicate a balance to feel secure, and not enough to even consider the possibility of ever retiring. I feel as though this is the way my life will be forever, and it is both scary and exciting to realize that this is not necessarily so. Life can change.
I know there are things I must do. I need to take better care of my physical body in order to be ready and able to travel whatever paths might open up, and I need to do that also because one thing that reaches into my soul is physical exercise, walking, hiking, running. My mind battles my body for attention and usually wins, but the body is rebelling with little aches and pains. My daughter Johnna gave me a bracelet for Christmas, which was engraved with the line "Deep roots are not reached by the frost." This is from Tolkien, the rhyming line to a bracelet I gave to her that reads "Not all who wander are lost." That describes the two of us pretty well. I need to dig my roots deep to resist the frost, and then I need to just be open to what may come along, to not be rigid and resistant to change but rather to bend and flow. We all need to believe that if we just keep taking one step at a time and keep moving forward, we will reach our destination, even if it's miles away from where we thought we wanted to go.
But back to the book again. The faults I found lay in a desire to know more, more fully. I do love memoirs, but I hate it when they degenerate into autobiographies ("and then I went here and did this and met that person" ... found most often in celebrity bios I think). Darling never did that. Her book spoke to me heart to heart, but left me to take her experiences and then find my own way.
One of the most interesting things in the book was her differentiating between way keeping and waymaking. The first is the ability to stick to an existing path. The second is leaving the known paths and making an entirely new way, "when you must rely on yourself, your reading of the landscape, and the decisions only you can make.... Perhaps in the end that is what wayfinding amounts to: learning how to allow for accident, and make way for blessing."
Life, I welcome you.
I give Out of the Woods four and a half stars. It is available on amazon.com at