I teach Creative Writing for Self-Discovery to help people discover themselves, but once in awhile, the tables are turned, and they help me discover myself. Last night was one such night. Krista dela Rosa, a participant, coaching client, and friend, gave me a rare gift. She gave me the gift of witnessing. This is what she wrote about me.

Shaman in the Woods

by Krista dela Rosa

Heather is a shaman in the woods.

It’s funny how everyone believes they will be able to find their way through the forest and everyone finds themselves lost before they’re even 100 yards in.

It was no different with me. I entered the forest of self-employment sure I would be able to stay on the path. It couldn’t be that hard to follow, could it? But by the time the curtain of trees closed in on me, I was tripping over roots, circling the same boulder and feeling incredibly panicked about my situation.

I stumbled into her glade pretty tossed around and torn up. Her tent is eclectic, patched together from bits of canvas, leather and fabric left behind from other travellers who have found her before. There’s a small group of people crashed on makeshift cots beside the tent and a few more are gathered around the fire, comfortably quiet and each meditating on their own far-off thoughts.

She smiled, brushed me off and gave me a cup of tea. “I’ve been waiting for you,” she tells me.

“How did you know I was coming?” I wonder.

She shrugs. “I collect wanderers. They seem to find me, anyhow.”

“Do you live here?” I ask.

“For now. Until I move again.”

We sit by the fire. The other people smile at me, but they don’t speak just yet.

“I need to get to the other side of this forest,” I tell her. “Do you know the way?”

“Nope,” she answers.

“But I’m lost. Can’t you help me?”

“Sure, I can help you. But you’re not really lost.”

“I’m not?”

“Of course not! Because wherever you go, well, there you are!”

I find it hard to laugh at her humor.

“But don’t you eventually want to leave the woods? Make it to the other side?” I press.

“I used to, once upon a time. When I first came in here, my goal was to get out as fast as possible. I got lost, like everyone does, but strangely, I felt more and more at home in the woods and less and less inclined to get out. And even though the forest seemed intent on beating me up – I managed to find all the swamps, cliffs, poison ivy and hornets’ nests in here – I felt such a kinship with this place, I had to seriously rethink my ‘end goals’.

“And then I met the deer.”

“The deer?”

She nods, taking a sip of her steaming tea.

“She and I stared at each other for what felt like hours. And then she turned and walked away. I don’t know why, but I felt compelled to go after her. I followed her for days – it might have been weeks, actually, and when I finally lost her, I found myself in a glade much like this one. I decided to stay for a bit – I had nothing better to do – fashioned a tent out of the supplies I had and the things I’d scavenged along the way. Almost immediately, the first wanderer found me.

“We talked a while, laughed, cried, created. I gave her a few of my tools and eventually she found the courage to leave and forge a new path for herself.

“The same thing happened with four or five more people and then the deer came back. I packed up and followed her again and found myself in a new glade. More people found me. We exchanged stories and tools. I had tools they seemed to need and they had tools or other items that I needed, so we would trade and they would move on.”

“And everyone who finds you wants your help?”

She chuckles wryly. “Of course not. Some people tear through, rip things apart, insult and defame me and spit in my tea. Not every wanderer is able to admit that they’re lost.”

“I thought you said I wasn’t really lost,” I challenge.

“You’re not – if by ‘lost’ you mean hopeless, weak, insecure, unable, unsuccessful or any other negative adjective you want to come up with. Lost just is. It has no intrinsic value. It’s simply a state of being in which you are given the opportunity to see yourself and your circumstances more clearly and possibly make new choices.”

The people around the fire nod thoughtfully at that. Perhaps this is what they have each been mulling over. I chew on that thought a bit, cupping my tea cup close and letting the steam waft over my face. Finally I ask, “Is it okay if I stay for a bit?”

She grins. “I’m pretty sure we can find some space for you.”

Over the next few days, I linger, at times crashed on a cot beside the tent, at times thinking quietly by the fire, at times in deep conversation with the other wanderers or Heather herself. Several nights I wake screaming from nightmares, but there always seems to be a hand nearby to touch my shoulder and ground me back into the earth.

Heather lets me rummage through her tent to try see if there’s anything she has that feels right to me – a backpack, an axe, a tinder box, a shawl. She speaks to me in the language of story – and it feels so achingly familiar. It draws me deep into myself and resonates profoundly with the child in me who loved story more than anything else in the world. Ego can’t compete and begins to thrash wildly in what I hope are throes of death.

And then one day I see it – the hawk perched on the lower-most branch of a giant oak at the edge of the glade. I recognize him. He hung around a lot when I was pregnant with my sons. We stare at each other for a while and I know that it’s time to move on from this place.

“I think I have to go,” I tell Heather.

“Of course,” she says. “Did you get what you need?”

“I think so. For now anyway.” I clutch the journal I found in her tent – the one that managed to deconstruct my brain and recall the storyteller in me.

She puts a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t be surprised if you find yourself returning to the centre of the woods again. The path is rarely a straight line. It’s more like a labyrinth – you have to circle back several times to make your way out.”

“Will I find you again?” I ask, suddenly unsure whether I was truly ready to leave this safe haven.

“If you need me, just follow the deer. And there will be others along the way.” She leans in close and gives me a sly smile. “I’m not the only one in here.”

We embrace for a while and I turn towards the hawk on the tree. He’s flapping his wings, anxious to be going. I nod to him – to myself – and take a single step forward. He screeches loudly and takes off, alighting at the top of a tree about 50 yards further into the forest.

I look back at Heather for assurance. She hands me a travel mug full of hot tea and a warm biscuit.

“You’ll be just fine,” she says.

“I’ll bring this back when I find you again,” I tell her, holding up the mug.

She laughs. “You know, that is the one thing that never seems to run out around here.”

I do laugh at that. I have also found travel mugs to have the strange ability to reproduce when you aren’t looking.

I take another step forward. And then another. And then one more and before I know it, the forest has closed around me again, the camp swallowed up in its foliage, and all I can see is the hawk, waiting for me at the top of the tree just ahead.

I have no idea where I am going or what the path will look like or how I may have to forge it, but I’m less afraid now. I marvel a little at how it’s not thirst or hunger or even pain that will cripple a traveler – it’s loneliness. And now that I know that shamen like Heather, and even other wanderers like me, are in these woods, I feel a lot more confident in my ability to stick with this journey.

I fix my eyes on the hawk and carry on.

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