“Close your eyes and think of a place where you feel relaxed and safe. You could be lying on a sandy beach or overlooking the Grand Canyon. Choose a place you can see clearly in your mind.”
I closed my eyes. The counselor was guiding me through a relaxation exercise to help me manage anxiety I was feeling during my freshman year of college. I was a high school dropout who began college as an adult with complications: a job, a marriage and a kindergartener in a parent cooperative school.
When she asked me to visualize a place, I knew immediately where it was – a small section of forest I had stumbled upon earlier in the year.
We moved to New Bedford in 1975 for my husband, David, to complete his bachelor’s degree at Southeastern Massachusetts University. Our rundown apartment was on a peninsula that separated the harbor from the cove. The setting didn’t faze me, especially since the smell of sea salt infused the air. Although the ocean was right at the end of our street, the deep channel on the other side of the sea wall was too dangerous to bring five-year-old Justin, so we brought him to play at a little beach not far away. The water was chilly but he dug channels and constructed castles and moats.
There were no facilities and after a while I left David with Justin playing in the sand and looked for an alternative convenience. I crossed an open grassy field and found a small path leading through some bushes. As I parted the branches and stepped into the deeply shaded forest, I entered another world.
The temperature dropped and surrounding noises disappeared. Only a trace of sifted sunlight reached the forest floor and the earth was like a thick sponge, covered with emerald moss and miniature ferns. Rivulets crisscrossed the ground and fingers of mist rose from each one, giving the forest a primeval aura. It was not just beautiful; it was enchanted.
I forgot my original mission. I lay down on a smooth mossy bed looking up through the pattern of leaves to tiny patches of blue sky. I listened to the raucous call of a crow and suddenly, I was the big black bird perched in the canopy surveying the scene below. I examined the cushion of moss with its little reddish capsules, like miniature flowers waving over a green lawn. I picked out a tiny path between the moss gardens. Little stick fences bordered the trail leading to a notch in the side of a tree – a diminutive door to the fairy’s bower.
I felt a deep yearning to remain in this tranquil place, divorced from the mushrooming responsibilities of my life.
It seemed only a few minutes, but my sense of time must have warped, and when I returned to the beach, we had to leave so I wouldn’t be late for my GED class. I described to my family the magical place I had found, the memory already indelible.
During David’s spring semester at SMU, he had encouraged me to apply for admission. I was full of doubt and insecurity, but I unenthusiastically signed up for a prep class for my GED. I passed easily and registered for the fall semester. Justin was enrolled in Learning Tree School, a parent cooperative in Tiverton, so we moved to Portsmouth,Rhode Island.
Once I began college, free time was non-existent. Morning car pool; a twenty-mile commute to SMU; a full course load; and five to ten hours a week doing work-study and tutoring at Learning Tree kept my days hectic. In addition, I worked overnight shifts 20 to 30 hours a week as a private duty nurse’s aide in Newport,Rhode Island. I was routinely sleep deprived.
When I arrived home on Saturday or Sunday mornings, I found it almost impossible to give up the day with my family just to go to sleep. I would lie awake a long time, doze for a few hours, and then drag myself out of bed to get ready for work again.
But I loved college as much as I had hated high school. Finally I hungered to learn. The other freshmen all seemed so young and carefree, but I was determined to do as well—or better—than they did. This resolve multiplied my stress.
I was feeling swamped when I saw the poster at school which mirrored my thoughts: “Feeling Overwhelmed? Our counselors can help.” I made an appointment right away.
I used the image of the forest in meditation frequently during that year, when I was terrified before a biology test or feeling such panic that dropping out of college seemed inevitable. But I never had time to go back to the forest physically. I intended to, and I planned to, over and over again. But each time, something would intrude or some necessity would supersede my goal. When I finished my freshman year, we were bound for New Orleans. I transferred to Southeastern Louisiana University and carried the forest with me.
After many moves, we ended up returning to our home region in western Massachusetts. We added two new members to our family when David’s young nieces came to live with us after their father died, presenting new kinds of challenges. David and I were also struggling to run a fledgling automotive advertising publication.
I learned to use other methods to de-stress, different meditations and prayer, but whenever I would call the image of that forest to mind, it would spring to life complete with its peacefulness and magic.
In the mid-1990s, we took a snorkeling trip to Rhode Island, but met rough surf so we followed the coast to New Bedford looking for a sheltered cove. As we approached the familiar, yet unfamiliar, beach, I found myself holding my breath, excited but with an underlying trepidation. How would time have tainted my haven? The small beach hadn’t changed much, although the nearby parking lot was somewhat spiffed up.
While everyone went to the water, I veered away, pausing to orient myself. Although I located the grassy area behind the beach, I could not find my forest. It hadn’t been replaced by development; it just wasn’t where I remembered it. I walked back and forth, trying to recreate my path. In one area, a fence barred my way, but beyond was an open rocky knoll which shouldn’t have replaced the moist low area of the forest. At times, I thought I caught a whiff of the sweet moist loam and swamp decay, but it dissipated with any slight turn of my head.
I searched until I heard the others calling for me. I was tired, but reluctant to involve my companions in the hunt, so I left without finding the forest. Curiously, there was a strange relief in my leaving, as if, by not locating it, I had preserved something precious. Was I hesitant to perhaps discover that it was not all that I remembered? I’m not sure, but somehow I haven’t felt like going back to try to find it since.
The memory of the forest remains etched in my mind as vividly as if I walked there yesterday, with an added ethereal property springing from my failure to find it again. The explanation is probably simple, that it seemed much closer when I was twenty years younger. Still, I can’t help fantasizing that it was like Brigadoon, appearing only once every hundred years, or like Shangri-La only being findable to someone who really needed it.