WANDERING THROUGH WONDERLAND - Come Closer (No. Closer.)
I’d like to take you to Wonderland today. But in order to come with me--to truly walk with me, you have to slow down for a moment. You have to be able to pause. Breathe it in. You have to be capable of wonder. Of awe and reverence, but also of wondering. Of searching as you’re wandering.
Do you have the time? Or are you the White Rabbit, oh-so-very late? If so, you won’t be able to appreciate our date. Slow your heart rate. Digest what you last ate. Let your worries and schedules abate. Come meditate.
Take my hand. Today I’ll show you my Wonderland.
Remember that time I unexpectedly deviated off course and got myself lost down the Rabbit Hole Loop on a trail called Through The Looking Glass? Remember how I'd originally started out intending to do some recon to see if Mom would be able to go up to the cliffside and walk the Sally Trail?
Well, I got lured back to the cliffs, and this time I completed the mission. Prognosis: there is one questionable spot that is a steep, rocky downslide. So...we'll see what Mom's knees say on any given day.
I, on the other hand, wandered that rock ledge trail from where it started at the parking lot until where it branched off into a magical place called Wonderland. At that point, I knew where the path would take me: up into the forested hills where I had been turned around by sunflares in the eyes like Katniss under the watch of the Gamemakers.
During my previous escapade, I had come down that path from the other direction, so I hadn't realized that's what they'd named it. Seeing that tickled me. When I came to the familiar broad curves of the switchbacks that had led me out of my Looking Glass obstacle course blundering, I grinned.
Now I know how it all connects. With a beaming about-face, I traipsed back the way I had come. This time, I took the second-level trails between the cliff and the concrete back to my car--yes, squeaking into my house minutes before the next storm hit. Again.
Before we start out on our walk today, I think you should understand who I am with regard to the Ozark Mountains.
Have I ever properly conveyed just how much I LOVE vertical rock faces? I don't think I have. In the Western zodiac I am a Fire Sign; in the Chinese I am a Water Sign. Maybe that’s why. Maybe I crave the stability of the Earth because it's not in my nature. Whatever it is, there is something about passing through or alongside sheer rock faces that gives me immense joy. I also salivate over striated layers. I can stare at those for hours.
When I followed my parents’ car during my move from Colorado to Arkansas, I did that last stretch alone. Sometimes Mom would keep me company, and other times she drove or rode with Dad. But I knew I had made the right choice about this move when the landscape changed from the arid Rockies, past the flatlands and rolling hills between Colorado and Missouri, into what was about to become my new home: the Ozark Mountains.
There’s a spot in Missouri just before the Arkansas border where the highway slices through the limestone cliffs and then GREEN!
Until I moved here, I hadn’t realized how green-deprived I was living in the Rocky Mountains, and especially living so long in Pueblo. Don't get me wrong, I made magic in that town, and I loved my time there or I wouldn't have stayed so long. But geographically, Pueblo is pretty much that kid in the Rocky Mountain family with an uncertain patrilineal line, and everybody lets him know it.
You have Mother Colorado--✨ah-HAHHHHH✨--glorious aspen-and-pine dotted Majesty. The golden fall foliage. The snow. The daunting power-fist of upthrust rock. (Rocky, duh.) She leaves the uneducated with no idea that, beside giants like certain individuals in Asia, Ecuador and the Pacific Ocean, she is cute.
There's a lot of chest-puffing pride about Colorado's mighty landscape. A bunch of that comes from people who don't actually live there.
Amidst my travels, when I would tell people that I was from Colorado--whoooooah-- they had a fantastical image in their minds. They assumed I could roll out of bed to a winter wonderland in that Rocky Mountain High. That's funny. I couldn't afford to live in all that, and it certainly wasn't snowy all year. Other people assumed I must at least have had towering peaks in my back yard. For the first few years, I did. I lived in the shadow of Pikes Peak. But then I moved, so this was not my reality for most of my time living there.
What nobody likes to talk about--and visitors definitely don't like to imagine--is the eastern 3/5 of the state. It's basically Kansas and a smidge of New Mexico. The Colorful Centennial State does actually have a Western Slope as well, even if the Front Range and the ski resorts get all the attention.
And then there is Pueblo.
Although he is invited to all the Front Range family events, he does not get to sit at the Big Kids' table--at least, he didn't when I lived there. They usually made him eat his meals on that side stoop just off the edge of the Mountainous Pretty, and hardly any family members could be bothered to come to his birthday parties, especially if they lived north of Monument Hill.
We’re not really sure if Mother Colorado got knocked up by Kansas or New Mexico when she birthed Pueblo, but it is dry. Dusty. Travel just a tad south and you’ll run into literal sand dunes forming across I-25 on particularly droughty years. I actually came to love Pueblo, and he loved me back quite well. But I am allergic to all the clay, the junipers, and the sage that dominate the place, and you couldn’t see a single mountain from either of my houses there. Not even a foothill.
It took returning to Colorado at the height of the “wet, green” season to realize just how desiccated I had become in my seventeen years there. Not only creatively and in my heart, but physically. For many years, Colorado was my heart-home, and I was deeply bonded to my friends and students, so I will never regret moving there. It saved my bacon after everything that had happened in Minnesota. But by the end, I felt shriveled up to a husk.
So when we hit that Arkansas border and the limestone cliffs gave way to the dense oaks, maples, hickories, fruit tress, dogwoods, redbuds, and the profusion of green vines dangling from them, I nearly cried in joy. The little town where my parents lived has seven lakes all to itself, plus other streams, creeks, and ponds. The main museum in the area is built around a water feature.
Say what you will about how inhospitable the state of my birth was to my nature, I had never realized how much my bodily system and my soul needs all that lush foliage and water.
"Oh, my Gawwwwwd, Arkansas is so humid!"
YES, it is. And we loves it, Precious. We needs it.
When my GPS informed me that I was only five miles away from my new townhouse, I squeeeeeed. I’d never seen it--never even saw pictures. I’d given my parents my preferences and trusted them to choose, so I’d had no idea that I was about to live in the woods. My first townhouse was built literally into the side of a forested ravine. It had two levels of aerial patio that pressed up against all the bird-and-squirrel-rich greenery.
My parents had chosen wisely.
People turn their noses up when I tell them that I left Colorado for Arkansas. That cross-country move, like the first one I made in 1997, saved my life-force. In addition to being close to my parents again, this is one of the things I love most about living here:
Whenever I start out on a hike, at first I'm overcome by all the panoramas. The glimpses of vistas peeking through the trees and the grandeur of the cliffs towering over me. Particularly if I don't know where I'm going or I'm on a trail designed for mountain bikers, my awareness casts a wide net. Broad listening, attunement to direction, one eye on the sun for both location and the passage of time (matched with the state of my hydration levels and birdie-bladder readings). I am on a constant mental sweep, taking in the scope and the general lay of the land.
But as I continue, especially when I know where a trail is taking me, other things begin to lure my notice. Smaller details. Nuances. Variations. Layer upon layer of vibrancy that is so much more intricate and interconnected than I had noticed while gawking at expanses. Life growing upon rock. Creatures tucked into crevices. Something that's dying, and something that's feeding upon it. Scars and vines and blights and knots.
Once I've noticed one feature, I can't help wondering what I will discover around the next bend. Who will I find inside the next cave? So I look closer.
Uh-oh, now it's started. The stopping. The pausing. The deviation off the trail because something has caught my eye. I have to investigate. I'm tellin' ya, it's that Sagittarius thing. I can't not. So I walk more slowly. I look more intentionally. Halting, I hunker. My head tilts. Something squirms or scuttles. I cringe and shudder but I can't back away. I have to look closer.
Are you beginning to understand? Can you feel it? The excitement of the hunt. The intrigue. What else is in there? Spirals and ripples and a head poking out. Windows through leaves and death filled with seeds. What amazing sights will I be gifted with today, if I only take the time to look?
It had rained earlier in the day. I went out exploring between storms, so there were wondrous sights I have never gotten to admire in all the years I've lived in Arkansas.
The one that delighted me most was a large snail, and the tiny one nearby. As I crept closer with my camera, I felt her tell her precious one, "Hide now, before the big scary creature notices you," and he did. Can you see him? Just the last glimpse before he disappeared. The slugs were out, too, amidst a myriad bejeweled branches.
If I hadn't been looking, if I hadn't already been deeply seeking what I might otherwise pass by, I would have never seen him. In fact, I might have stepped on him, for he was right there, an inch away from my foot.
People tell me I'm an over-thinker all the time. They tell me I get too wrapped up in the details or get sucked off into rabbit-hole tangents that "don't matter to anybody else," and there are times when that is true. But now that I've shown you a glimpse of the world through my eyes, can you appreciate a little more why I do? Why I often even want to? In truth, there are many times when I can't not. I can't help but see this closely, this intimately.
I see you this way, too. If it hadn't been stamped out of me through my youngest years--"Gawwwd, stare much? Take a picture! It'll last longer. What're YOU lookin' at, huh?"--I probably would stop and hunker in curiosity over your wonder lands and hidden crevices the same way. But fear not. I've been trained up properly.
I'm still a bit feral around the edges, and completely so deep down, so if you let me I'll look.
Even when you don't, I still can't help but see layer upon layer all in a glance--that is, when I'm not off in the clouds or even farther out with neither foot on this planet, plotting a story in another world, plotting a dance to the ear-worm stuck in my head, or wrapped up in something else.
Sometimes I'm wrapped up in an energetic dampening blanket with the noise-cancelling headphones and the horse blinders on for my sanity. When I'm drowning in too-much-too-bright-too-fast-too-loud, then I can't see jack squat, much less See.
It frustrates me how inconsistent my deep Seeing is, because I am inconsistent. You just never know which version of me you might get on a day, or in the next hour. The more I have to be Out There in the world, the more inconsistent I become. Don't like the weather? Wait five minutes.
Perhaps you're beginning to understand now why I sit on the fringes of the room when everything is in full swing. I was saddened that one summer day when you hurried your seven-year-old son through the door with that nervous glance because the lobby was empty except for me. The party was booming out in the parking lot but I wasn't out there enjoying it. Instead, I enjoyed it from inside. Games, barbecue, throw the pie in the coach's face, music, kids running, kids chasing, adults barking, dogs frolicking, everybody laughing, the hum of overlapped conversations, that sharp, piercing whistle at the start of every new race, a baby screeching, more games, more laughter.
So after I'd made two passes through the crowd and gotten my food, I lingered just inside the doorway, watching it all from Minimum Safe Distance. I retreated into the quiet where all the sounds and the myriad moving colors only bombarded me from one direction. I wouldn't have been capable of driving home if I hadn't done that. It was as close to idyllic as I was capable of achieving that day, and for me it was more than enough to simply be near you all. It was enough to live vicariously through you.
And that made you anxious because you didn't understand. Neither did you ask a single one of the questions I saw ignited in your eyes as you glanced at the weirdo in your midst. Why didn't you just ask? Oh, right. That's something else that gets stomped out of us before we're ten.
"Musn't ask. Not its business."
So you shooed your son past me. The dad who paused outside the door to let you both come through saw your face. Your mom-alert pinged his dad-alert. He scouted to see the source of the danger: me. Like a good social cue-follower, he ushered his three- and five-year-old daughters past me with the same vibe you wore. As I said, it was easy for Mr. Sidemount to slander my reputation. Minuscule moments like this made everything he said believable.
Are you beginning to see yet? Because I See things like this.
It makes me sad that you looked at me like I might be some predatory pedophile, lurking and plotting and twisting the mustaches I don't have. Yes, it jabbed my heart, but I was less sad for me than I was for you--that you didn't have the eyes to see the difference between a child-predator and someone who desperately yearned to participate in all the community fun, but had to protect herself from neurological overload instead. It makes me sad that you didn't ask, even though you obviously wondered.
Only one person that day did ask me why I was hunkered inside on such a beautiful, joy-filled day. I gave him the most concise and relatable version that a TBI-laden neurodivergent can. "I'm fighting a migraine and hoping that the meds will kick in so I won't have to tap out and head home early. Until then, at least I can watch all the fun I'd love to be having with everyone from in here where it's quiet."
As usual, there was a surprised blink before the, "Oh," of "that's completely reasonable and understandable to explain your strange behavior." He left me with, "Well, I hope your headache clears soon." His body language, eyes, energy and tone of voice all hummed in harmony instead of that jaggedy polygraph needle that scrawls erratic spasms around people who are saying "nice" things they don't mean. He did mean it, which warmed my heart and shone one beam of hope into that ever-darkening forest of lies and twisted facts that had begun to close in around me that summer.
The thing that saddened me the most about our subtle exchange was noticing how sharply life has convinced you that you have to be so hypervigilant with your children.
Unfortunately, you do. So you wear your own type of insulating horse-blinders, you don't poke into the questions you have, and you tell your precious ones without a word, "Hide now, before the scary little freak in the corner notices you."
It was the same with that family of five on the path of this very woodland when I stopped to gawk at life struggling to persevere against adversity. I had my camera out to film the tiny worm hauling its fallen cocoon back up into the safety of the tree. I watched and watched, fascinated by nature's rhythms you don't get to see up close every day.
When you're walking along the concrete path and you almost blunder face-first into something like that, how you can you NOT stop and gawk? I don't get it. But that's the norm. To either miss it completely, or to walk on by.
What's the big deal?
So those parents were nervous of me, too. Because they didn't truly look--didn't look into my eyes and See. They didn't come over to discover what I was gawking at. I even made room so they could join me. The kids wanted to know what had me so fascinated. The youngest girl stopped. She saw what I was looking at and she wanted to come watch it.
Her mother didn't let her.
I offered my "warm teacher, curious student of science, completely harmless" smile. Didn't matter. We're taught not to stare. We've been burned by being kind. We're chastised for coming too close because strangers are dangerous and "mustn't ask, not its business." We've paid crippling prices for letting down our guard, and we never have enough time, so we hurry by and we don't look. If we do glance, we often don't See.
We've lost the ability to wonder--to follow curiosity and to marvel at the miraculous right there underfoot or overhead or inside or deeper still. The bad apples ruin it for the bunch.
No wonder the family scurried on past me and the cocoon with their "trying not to be offensive or show fear" smiles on both adults' faces. They slapped on the mask of oh-so-nice when encountering potential danger.
Shhh, don't provoke it.
I do that one all the time--fawn in the hopes that I won't provoke the monsters into attacking me. It's my oldest and most deeply ingrained danger response, learned in my own home in the attempt to keep the temper from igniting or the sink-hole of doom from collapsing in front of me. Fawning is second only to freezing and hiding in the hopes that the predators won't notice me. "Nothing to see here. Move along, citizen."
The littlest girl craned her head back as she was tugged along, and our eyes met. She seemed confused and frustrated about the entire exchange, so I gave her the knowing wink of, "Don't ever lose that curiosity. Someday you'll get to choose whether or not to gawk. Never hesitate to look closer. Your instincts are sound. Trust them, because they're telling you the truth. I'm not dangerous to you and this is worth investigating."
So are the things that make us nervous but appear safe enough.
Where is the balance? I haven't found it yet. Because looking closer teaches the difference between friends and masked foes. But looking closer can be dangerous. They can get their hands on you if you move into range. When you let them See into you, they can get their hooks in your heart. Yet only by experience can I learn how to Discern. If I don't have that skill, I either get creamed over and over or I have to avoid every single unfamiliar thing and every unknown person who isn't following the herd, hoping the herd is headed for safety.
I've found that they often aren't. But at least they're not alone. After all, our collaborative pack-nature against mutual enemies and our prey is one of the things that makes humans apex predators.
Alas, I've also found that being alone is not always the worst fate. When faced with the choice between loneliness vs. toxicity, between risky isolation vs. subtle predation in my own home, or even settling for "meh" instead of being alone, I'd rather leave the vacuum open for the right connections as often as possible.
But connection takes trust. It takes moving closer, and I've become like those parents with my Inner Child, but instead of herding her away from everybody I perceive as a potentially dangerous weirdo, I now perceive everyone who breathes as a potential threat.
Especially the ones who seem the "nicest." I don't deal well with people doing nice things for me and saying nice things to me anymore. That's how they lure you closer and get your guard down. All I can hear is my inner protector's growl. "Yeah? And what's that gonna cost out the back end that you're not telling me? How are you gonna use that against me?"
I'm told this is a classic symptom of trauma, and especially of things like predatory abuse, so I cut myself a bit of slack about my paranoia. I let my Inner Mama herd my Inner Child away and I let my Tigress snarl at everybody who smiles at me. I let the Gladiatrix drum her fingers on her sword hilt in warning as our Stat Keeper whips out the graphs and charts and that overly detailed, over-thinker's database stuffed with abuses committed by people who said the word "love." We read the data and we all nod in agreement, so we keep our distance.
We move along, citizen, and we don't ask. Not its business.
Do I find that profoundly sad? Yep. But it's a necessary step in giving myself the space to overhaul old neural ruts of How To Human.
In avoiding the Unknown, I potentially miss danger. But I also miss the chance to learn, explore, discover, grow, and today might be the last chance I ever get to see something miraculous or meet someone amazing, so I don't expect this to last forever. At least, I hope it won't. It's simply where I'm at right now. I hope to get back to that place where I feel comfortable dancing in tandem with others instead of always alone. I hope to once more explore humans like I explore forests, and to feel safe enough to allow the curious types of my species to explore me. You know...at a distance where they can actually touch me.
If nobody would think you're weird, if nobody would think you're scary, if nobody would think you're insane, if nobody would think you're rude, if nobody would hurt you when they got you close enough, if nobody would call you stupid...
What would you do?
Me? I would fill my eyes and my ears and all my senses and beyond with the world, if I could figure out how take it all in. Out there in Wonderland, it's quiet and everything moves slowly enough for me to do that. The world is natural enough for me to breathe.
Out there I can open completely.
It's still a dangerous thing to do. There's a reason why forests are one of the most classic faerie tale settings where monsters prowl.
But I do it anyway, because sometimes the only things that get me through this loneliness and the longest hours of darkness are the tiny and majestic wonders I discover out there in the elements.
Out there and in here, I perform my strange dances of devotion by myself. I close my eyes, I stretch out my mind, and I find you. I See you. I Feel you. I whirl as you whirl and I smile as you smile. I yearn for the day when the warmth of your hand closes about mine without inciting the urge to yank my fingers away and dart into the woods alone. I yearn to stand comfortably with you, side-by-side as the sun rises upon your face and mine in the same beam of light.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: THE GOOD PUMPKINS, THE BAD & THE UGLY - Stalking Death & Sunbeams. Again.
--OR: If you like my adventures through the woods, there are more of them HERE.
--OR: I've written a lot more about this topic of detail-oriented overthinking, wonder, and curiosity HERE.