Remembering – Journeys, Healing & the Outdoors

Alison Fellows

I once read that John Muir said he would ‘rather be in the mountains thinking about God than in church thinking about the mountains’. So with apologies to – and deep affection for – Mr Muir I can say this with absolute certainty: I would far rather just ‘be’ in nature with other women doing the same, than be anywhere else thinking about what it means to be a woman or the benefits of wildness. 

The Boom

Sometimes it’s only after a dislocation that you appreciate the power of a shock to clear the way for what you really need and help you remember who you really are. 

In spring 2018, my husband left me. I mean to say…he took an overnight bag and left our home (crying and shaking as he did so) and he never returned. After 12 years of endlessly ‘doing’, in exhausting pursuit of what I thought a Good Modern Working Wife should be, it all imploded. It was the best thing that’s happened in my life for learning and growth. But it wasn’t always so. It took some time for me to realise and just as I made my peace with that realisation, the pandemic rolled over us. I was in a new city, living alone in a new flat I had had for a short two months and with not a soul I knew within the distance I could travel under the lockdown rules. For all the horror it brought to so many of us, very close to home for my family, the experience of living through Covid has been the second most useful experience in my life. 

The Silence

I had no choice other to accept what was happening.   I hated it.  But all the comparison and the forms of competition that I created for myself became irrelevant. I couldn’t feel bad that other people were doing cooler things than me – nobody was doing anything.  It didn’t matter whether I was a good enough woman for a man to like me – I couldn’t go for a drink with someone even if I wanted to. My clothes didn’t matter – I couldn’t wear them to places anyway. 

And I started to notice what I yearned for. The pandemic experience left me with no alternative but to think.  Sometimes intentionally, often with a frantic intensity that I could not quiet and sometimes almost accidentally.  Waking up in the night in tears and panicking became frequent.  The silence and the emptiness created by COVID was a space where stuff surfaced to remind me what I needed. And it wasn’t the life I’d had before. It was things I’d previously ‘known’ weren’t for people like me. When I cried it wasn’t because I missed going to excellent restaurants, or posh spas. It was because I missed my friends, my family.  I missed hugs and the feeling of pure contentment when you can just sit silently with someone and not need to talk. And I wanted to be outside, I mean REALLY wanted to be outside. I stood with a glass of wine every night at sunset, leaning out of my sky-light window, and I cried because I couldn’t go to the water, or the hills or worst – the islands. I remembered why I stayed in Scotland in the first place, and I hadn’t been doing any of it.

Beautiful Bay on the Western Isles, Scotland
Dreaming of the Outdoors

Circle of the women

Back in 2018 and to this day I was and am encircled by astonishing women (and a good few wonderful men, for completeness). The effects of the end of my marriage meant that I could suddenly really feel their love. I could properly let it in, through the shattered parts and into the space left when I stopped going all out to revive a relationship that was dying for far longer than I acknowledged. I had a far-flung circle of women who rallied. They came together – despite some of them not knowing each other before or meeting one another since – and held me at the centre of a circle and kept me intact. I was loved by women who laid on the bed with me and let me cry and snot into their hair, or wordlessly held my hand, or sent the kids in with tea and toast and hugs – explaining that its healthy for them to see that life is sadness as well as joy. 

I moved into the Scottish home of a friend, for three and a half months immediately after The Boom, and the day I moved in was the first day I met her husband and children and her elderly dad. A depth of trust and love that I somehow can’t fully convey and that can still bring me to tears. The people who brought me to Scotland, to Fife. 

Where you belong, not where you are born

I knew from the outset that I would heal faster here than anywhere else.  There are moments when I feel like Scotland is too much for me to cope with.  It’s beauty, wildness, the richness and variety of its cities, the amazing people, history, the way this country opens up to those from other places and welcomes them in. Scotland has helped me to remember that I love wild edges, and islands and dark skies and the otherworldliness of watching the aurora.  I had forgotten that I could access all of this in the UK, that I didn’t need to spend a lot of money, or be an explorer or super-fit or or or… 

Scottish nature – especially the Western Isles – has helped me to remember that for most of my life until The Boom, whole seasons, years even, would pass me by and I’d barely notice. Disconnected from it all as I counted down to the next flashy holiday or fancy weekend away. I had been so disconnected from myself that I even found it hard to look at or talk about my body, to not feel shame for it. I had learned to ignore its increasingly urgent messages to me as my unease and loneliness in my marriage grew, often to stuff those messages down with food. Somehow living in Scotland and healing here has altered my relationship with myself.  I still wish I wasn’t so heavy, that I had a more functional relationship with eating.  But I’m no longer willing to hate myself for it. 

And Edinburgh…the first place I ever loved enough to buy myself a property. I’m still secretly anxious that it must be a mistake that I’ve just been allowed to come. No exams to sit, no need to prove I’m qualified to be here. But I couldn’t ground myself here at the start.  The city was shuttered and still. I knew the people were welcoming – this is an internationalist city for sure.  But we were all inside, together alone. 

Emerging

And eventually the situation eased and I was sure I’d naturally adjust, slot straight into the life I’d remembered I needed. I was friendly, I could lose the lockdown cheese and whisky residuals and I’d be up the hills in no time.  I didn’t. I just wasn’t. All the childhood feelings I had about activity and outdoorsy stuff being for other people, not people like me…  All of that came back.  I had spent so long gazing from my windows across to the Ochils in the far distance, the Pentlands much closer, that when I was suddenly able to go there I froze and realised I didn’t really know how.  This was somehow worse.  I wasn’t prohibited from doing those things any more. My cover-story was blown. 

The friends I’d drag along with me, so we could be red-faced and out of puff on walks together – my women – they weren’t here.   They were with their circle of the people, making up for the time we all lost. I felt sure I would go back to Yorkshire as soon as I could. To be where I was born and closer to more of my circle, reconnect to my roots. Comfortable and busy. I couldn’t see a way to get a toehold in the life I wanted to build. I wasn’t sure how to access all the things I’d cried for when I was confined to my high-floor tenement flat for 23 hours a day. (Like prison but with less convenient access to the exercise yard…)

Grounding

Explaining the difference that finding WanderWomen has made to me is to risk sounding dramatic. A bit overblown maybe. But if I’ve learned one thing its that the best you can do is speak your truth and maybe someone will spot something of themselves in it. What I understand now is that all that striving and pushing made me be a person, a woman, that I wasn’t really. I forgot who I was; I thought being kind was to be a pushover, that being flat out busy all the time was a life lived well and to be soft was to be weak. I took my good self and put a wrapper around me, and I don’t fully know why. I felt discomfort with myself and deflected it outwards as scorn or judgement towards others.  Sometimes I still do a bit to be honest, its muscle memory. If I feel less than myself, or cornered or out of my depth – there are still moments of it. But I also know I wasn’t the sort of women I would want to have in my circle.

At the WanderWomen experiences nobody knows my past or my flaws, the things I wish I’d done or not done. Not unless I choose for them to know. The things that act as indicators for how someone decides to live or make their living – they are just absent. Being out in nature levels us.  The women there may not love me the way my friends do – they don’t know me of course – but I feel them, holding me in that day’s circle and giving me space all at the same time. And that sets me free. I can talk or not talk, be with them or at a distance. I can cry into the sea or feel angry and be quiet. I can listen to Anna’s voice or block everything out. I can respond to the prompts offered for reflection or just stare into nothing. I can say I don’t want to discuss a topic and nobody pushes or pulls, meaning well but causing panic. I can lie on the ground, lean on a tree, stare into a fire or walk barefoot in the grass and it doesn’t feel weird. I thought it might. The combination of that energy, and being outside – whether in the light or the dark – is something close to magic. I don’t know whether we are a coven, when we do these things. But if we are, I’m here for it. 

It’s not magic, of course. It’s the product of great care. The framework is light, so light that if you didn’t bring it into focus intentionally you’d almost not see it. Which only underlines how clever it is, the way those elements are stitched together with invisible thread; love for the city, for nature, learning and how beautiful it feels to spend time with a group of supportive women. Remembering who we are. 

Face to the sky

Some days I feel like I’m fully healed, others I worry that I might never be. There’s rubble from The Boom that I’m still a bit scared to pick through. But I never feel worse for time spent outside, absorbing scraps of knowledge from the group. I always feel better for recognising how I feel and letting myself be vulnerable with a group of accepting women, whether I say it out loud or keep it inside. 

I always feel better with my face to the sky. 

For space and connection book your WanderWomen Experience now: Healing in Nature & With Like-hearted Women

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