mental health


©Erica Cirino. Danish forest, BW. March, 2017.

©Erica Cirino. Danish forest, BW. March, 2017.

Deep inside me lies a vast but secret wilderness

Only I have explored, mostly while stumbling around

In the dark, late at night when most people are asleep.

I close my eyes and wander through a black tangle of thought,

A silent observer, studying my surroundings so keenly so that

By now, I know this place like the back of my hand:

My grief.

It is somewhere I visit often,

More often than I’m willing to admit to most people,

Because, each time someone asks why I look down, why I look distracted,

I tell them I am contemplating my grief, and I am met

With skeptical eyes, pained expressions, and the words,

“How can you be sad if you have it all:

A car, a job, friends, family, food to eat, a place to live?”

I argue that I said I was grieving, not being ungrateful,

And yes my grief does make me sad sometimes.

But this often makes things worse, because thinking of the things I have

Only fills me with guilt for mourning what has been lost,

And even sometimes convinces me that maybe I really do not have a reason 

To feel this, to feel like this,

But only until the next time I find myself staring off into the sky,

But only until the next time I find myself in bed wide awake at 3am,

But only until the next time I find myself blinking back tears,

Forlornly contemplating a friend’s dying child, my own childhood brush with death;

A lover’s absence, a friend’s silence;

My jealously of a colleague, my indifference toward a family member;

A species going extinct, an ocean strewn with plastic;

Bombs exploding in continents far away, a deadly car crash just a few blocks from home;

Women being raped, men being shot;

Money being wasted by addicts on drugs and booze while they starve themselves to feed their habits, money being stolen and stuffed into the pockets of powerful people who make rules that benefit only the wealthy few.

My suspicions are confirmed: 

I do have reasons to grieve.

There are so many specters of loss that haunt the wilderness inside me,

And to date I have been unable to eradicate them, shoo them away.

And I am coming to terms with the fact that perhaps I never will,

That maybe my grief will forever loom in the shadows,

Waiting for me to confront it, to endure what it wants me to feel,

Following me, reminding me that

The opposite of loss is not gain, it is presence;

The opposite of grief is not happiness, it is love.

I am present, I have love,

Therefore, I grieve.

Originally posted to Medium on April 9, 2017. 

A walk in the woods

I woke up last Friday morning in a small wooden bed in a small wooden room in a small wooden red-and-white cabin in a lush forest in western Sweden. As I pulled the multiple layers quilts away from my face, beyond wisps of my breath I could see early morning sunlight pouring through the frosty double-pane bay window, beyond which I could see light powdery snow piled on the rocky earth and weighing down the slim boughs of the many evergreen trees that congregated around the cabin. From my warm sliver of bed I could tell the weather would be cold that day, but bright and beautiful. The perfect day for a walk in the woods.

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

Woods are cathartic places for certain people. I’m one of those people.

All that’s needed to enjoy the woods is a love of nature, an adventurous spirit, a peaceful attitude and a lack of concern about dirt. That’s about it, I would say. (Maybe a good dog, too.)

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

I go to the woods whenever I feel the stresses of urban life are beginning to get the best of me: When I have been working too much, thinking too much or worrying too much.

Without periodic time in the woods, my mind and body become stricken by restlessness. I get the feeling that I just need to go somewhere else.

That Friday in the woods turned out to be a good one.

My normally languid Alaskan malamute was filled with energy, cruising up and down the snow-covered trails, so many times her paw prints overlapped in each direction at least half a dozen times by the end of the day. She ran and ran, only pausing occasionally to gulp down mouthfuls of cool snow.

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

I took my camera with me that day, trying to capture the essence of what it is about the woods that is so medicinal to me. Only while reviewing my photos back in the cabin that evening—with my feet kicked up by the woodstove and a hot tea in my hands—did I realize what exactly it is I find so healing in the woods: it’s the quiet.

Back home in New York, I can hear from my apartment: trains, cars, boat foghorns, people, dogs, sirens, appliances, electronics. Here in the cabin, all I hear is: the light wind outside, the electric kettle whistling, the woodstove burning, icicles dripping, my dog breathing, my own breathing.

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

Much of the stressors people get caught up in every day are insignificant, petty things. Worry about relationships. Worry about work. Worry about self-image. When we worry about these things, we forget about the most important part of life: living. When we worry, we don’t live. We forgo happiness for worrying about things we think we’ll be happy if we have, if we fix, if we do. “If only this thing were different, I could be happy,” we think.

Why not be happy now, with what we already have?

In the woods, you have what is around you and inside of you—nothing more, nothing less. It is pure living. It’s a place of reflection, of gratitude for being alive and loved. For me, it’s a reminder of how to live a fulfilling—and yes, happy—life.

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

I'll close here, and leave you thinking about the woods and your relationship to it, with my favorite poem about the woods written by my favorite poet, Mary Oliver:

How I go to the woods

By Mary Oliver

"Ordinarily, I go to the woods alone, with not a single
friend, for they are all smilers and talkers and therefore

I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds
or hugging the old black oak tree. I have my way of
praying, as you no doubt have yours.

Besides, when I am alone I can become invisible. I can sit
on the top of a dune as motionless as an uprise of weeds,
until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can hear the almost
unhearable sound of the roses singing.

If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love
you very much.”