Through a large swath of Virginia, there’s a road called the Skyline that hugs the Appalachian trail at the top of a series of mountain ridges. It’s basically exactly what you’d imagine it should be: pristine views, stretches of asphalt where you find yourself driving under, through, and above the cloudline, rain that pops up in splotches and lasts for mere seconds before it’s a clear day again. It’s greener than you thought green could get in the dead of summer, and it’s never all that hard to find that one giant rock that juts out over it all – the one everybody goes to when they just want to sit a la “Simba” and look out for miles on end at creation in gratitude and celebration for the kingdom coming in and beyond the trees below.
I had a chance to drive the Skyline this week and just take a little time to rest and relax with some loved ones. It’s been, well, a vacation. When you go from the busy-ness of New York City to the stillness of the Shenandoah just some six hours away, it can take your entire week-long vacation before you suddenly realize that relaxing is normal, that it’s okay to come down, quite literally, from the towering go-go-go of the bustling city. It’s okay to gift yourself this quiet, this respite, this sacred nothing that’s become everything – to connect again. It’s the painfully hard task of pulling yourself away before you can do re-entry. There’s a nagging, haunting question over whether you’ll succeed at getting the right amount of time to recharge or whether you’ll utilize that time in the right way to make sure it was worth the time you took to get there and the money you spent to make it happen.
For me, against the backdrop of deer and gophers, grassy ski slopes, and Smoky Mountain views, my dive into relaxation has all been a time of intense listening, and oddly enough, a lot of what I’ve gotten to hear has come from my fifteen-month old nephew. A nine hour car ride with him was how the trip began, after all.
I’ve never really spent much time around infants or toddlers, to be honest, but my great nephew makes these cooing noises that are so filled with joy, I’m convinced I could bring about world peace if they were something I could share on a platform over at the United Nations building. The sound is like a mixture of grand curiosity with genuine love for the world all at the same moment. It’s high-pitched almost as if forming a question but also seems to answer the question with happy assurance. If I could put it into words what he’s saying, it might be different for every scenario, but the general gist of it is something along the lines of, “Is this what could be happening now?“
At the risk of pontificating on what a fifteen-month old means with the sounds he makes (that aren’t quite words), I’ve thought a lot in the quiet here about how simultaneously free and imprisoned it must feel to be an infant. A kid with no language must suffer through the inability to be adequately understood by the very people we most need to understand us. And yet, there is a language at work and it’s a language I imagine myself and my generation so desperately lack where we’ve needed it most: the ability to let our emotions speak for us. Be it raw screams, tears of joy, cooing anything from desire to satisfaction, my nephew is not silenced, has plenty to say, and is probably capable of saying more without words than most of us struggle to say in [insert however many words there will probably be in this little writing and then some].
I’m moved and amazed by it, maybe even a little jealous. What would I say if I could just cry it or scream it out? What would I freely toss into the world as my own curious question if I could do so without judgment or societal norms to stop me? It’s so interesting to me that we’re brought into this world free to share all of that only to have that freedom shut out slowly over the years – something that I imagine is even harder for boys the way our society has fueled these expectations that boys should not really be in touch with their feelings. The beginnings of some toxic masculinity; it starts early.
On the other hand, I’m moved to think that there are also times where the inability to freely ‘speak’ our hearts – perhaps more than our minds – has served as a kind of bottle cap on a slowly shaken bottle with the pressure building. Sometimes, actually, we do freely throw out, spewing it rather, the rage we’ve not been able to share in the moments we needed to share how we felt most. It’s as if our inner child will find its way out – one way or another, but we haven’t always managed to figure out how to provide some loving safe space for ourselves and for others when they needed it, too. We have to be gentle with the kid within. That child within is a reminder that every day, every moment is a new opportunity to give them what they maybe didn’t get before we grew too big for them. There’s still time. After all, they are us. And we are them.
Driving to a ‘lookout’ on top of another ridge this afternoon, I let myself dream a little about the things I would say, spoke a few of them into being. I prayed a little prayer for my nephew, for the world he’ll inhabit in hopes he’d always be able to coo like that or cry like that or scream like that when he needed to, or at the very least, that he would be able to escape to some mountaintop for a week some day long from now and yell out a great loud yawp! to the universe and she would hear him and he would hear her in the echo from the valley below. And in all of that, he would find rest. Enough rest that he could go back down the mountain and do whatever he needed to do again, and it would be good enough – until next time.