Out Of My Comfort Zone
A week in the Northeast shows me how much of a Southwesterner I am. Twenty years, more really, spent in the mountains of New Mexico and Colorado have shaped me, confined me, held me and let me grow into who I am now. A long way from that arrogant yet insecure young traveling Brit who came to Santa Fe with a backpack and little else, not even a green card stuffed in with the teddy bear and juggling clubs.
This. Sitting in the White Mountains of Maine in a little seven-campsite National Forest spot next to a forty-acre pond deep in the hills. I let the kids, the pets that is, wander freely. No longer do I worry about Stevie the cat, not once we’re in the trees and hills. This is our comfort zone. The first thing I did once here was finally fall deep asleep. For two hours. After a week of running on adrenalin, it’s a sign, reminder, that this is where I need to be, in nature, smelling a musky stagnant pond, watching a symphony of leaves rustle under the command of a gentle breeze that announces itself in the treetops before reaching down to the underbrush.
Instead though, I’ve been frantically moving for weeks now. Setting up my home for a new tenant, putting in that screen door, painting the floor in the main room (easier than cleaning it), and picking up around the acre of fenced property she’ll be using. It’s amazing how many details there are to take care of when moving. I had no idea. This is a first for me, to consciously move, sell up random extras, fix a home for another to love, take care of banking, post office, payments and bills. Then we were off in the van and comfort took over once again, sleeping and driving and exploring brought me hourly smiles. The dogs took to it once again, and Stevie? Well, he hid once on the road, popping out in the campgrounds to climb trees and shit in the woods.
The town life is not for me. Dense woodland is not for me. Loss of mountain views and huge open rangeland stifles me. And then followed by an afternoon in Portland? Well, it was too much, I didn’t see the ocean, couldn’t deal with the traffic all around, the noise of brakes, people yelling, cops and fire trucks streaming/ screaming past us, it’s all too much. Sensory overload, a fragile system shorted out all coping mechanisms. I ran for the country again with pets locked down in the back, we slept on the side of a street in a small town next to a lake before finding this pond in the White Mountains.
The town life of Montpelier is doable. Doable. Not great but I can manage a town of eight thousand, one you can walk end to end in half an hour. I park by the college, hook up dogs to leashes, lock Stevie inside the van with windows and screens in place for a breeze but no jail-break, and off we’d go, me and the pups. None of us are used to cars, traffic lights, construction zones, or walking on pavement. Country dogs we are, myself included. Thoroughly out of our usual lifestyle, I persist because quitting is not an option. We’re here for the next three years.
Comfort zones are interesting to me. What I’ve experienced all these years, the places I’ve dropped into, and the conversations had and images stored. They fill my brain, waking and dreaming, to the point of squeezing them back onto paper is a relief. Writing them out loosens me, like now, at this table in Crocker Pond, Maine. The breeze shakes out a few leaves onto Rosie’s white fur as she sleeps against my left foot. Harold is behind me and Stevie, the little bugger, is under the van once again. He’s been on the shit list today, running off in a town this morning and hiding from me for three hours and twenty-six minutes. He wasn’t lost or he’d call for us. He’d meow until we played Marco-polo and he’d come back. Or that’s the usual pattern. He knew where I was, where the dogs were, where the camper van was, but he would not show himself for three hours and twenty-six minutes. Then I started the van, moved it into the shade of a birch and killed the engine as I mentally prepared to tell my friends that Stevie had moved to Maine while I’d moved to Vermont. Then here he comes and strolls past me. I grabbed him, tossed him inside like an unwanted bag of spinach, and slammed doors shut. Then I swam in the lake, alone, to drown that anger simmering on the surface.
Crocker Lake in the White Mountains appeals to all of us, dogs, cats and human all. The sunshine flickers across this laptop, the beer is cool and the afternoon slow moving. The pond is empty yet I’m not ready to swim in it. The signs warning of black bears haunt the toilets and tables. I’m not worried though. This is better, easier, than a town or city. This is my comfort zone. All those years of bear phobia have turned into a moment of knowing, an ease in the world of predators and prey. I sip the bear, oops, I mean beer, and wonder what that sound was in the trees behind us. The dogs didn’t flinch so it’s nothing much. Harold would be in the driver’s seat if anything scary were approaching. Stevie would climb into the engine bay on the radiator. Rosie is the sole protector, the smaller of the two dogs; she’d stay near me and bark, bark, bark, a monotonous warning. It works. We listen out for each other after six years together.
How then am I going to deal with Montpelier? If I’m at home in the hills, in wide-open spaces or with water to gaze upon? I don’t know. Finding a home in the country was the first challenge and I’m thankful to be offered a home share not too far out, in a log home with a meadow and apple trees, gardens and sheds, one that I can explore and fix up as I stay there. The hills aren’t closed in on the home; the deck looks out to a bigger picture than most do in this place of dense forests and private land. I can do it, there at Anne’s place, I can breathe. I’ll be working, yes, in another city, commuting through the passage of thick forests and past farmland, a drive of an hour each way. I’m okay with that. Driving is my place of comfort even if it’s for work and not pleasure, I can do that.
What is your comfort zone? For some I know, it’s the same old conversations at the local coffee shop and pubs, day in and day out, complaining about having to drive to Santa Fe for errands, reluctant to leave their little town of like-minded liberals. The home brings comfort. I get that, the home base, it’s a beginning and an end for me, where to relax and where to leave as often as possible. An ongoing split of desire for my familiar and the need to see, observe and note the new. How will I ever truly relax though if I need both? How do I create both in an unfamiliar place like Vermont? By that, the mix, finding a new mix that will work with responsibilities of pets, home, work and college.
I’m hoping that my stay at Anne’s will give me the steadiness of a home, and that the commute to a social job in Burlington will feed the need for conversations and the physicality of driving.
As to college? That’s the reason I’m here, breaking through to a new layer in myself. Tired of not living up to my potential, a phrase that’s haunted me since middle school, I need the challenge. I’ll get it too. A master’s degree in Fine Arts will challenge me thoroughly. I can’t wait. I need this. Stability in the storm of an unsettled mind like mine. I just hope the faculty like me in person and not only my words on paper and screen. Off-centre in an unfamiliar and academic setting, I’ll not be at my best, but my writing comes freely, it’s containing it that we’ll be working on, looser yet tighter both, stopping this stream and the inconsistent floods of verbal diarrhea and creating a sustainable process despite all the upheavals I put myself through in the aim of ‘experiencing’ life. This will be interesting as is homemade beer. Try it and see, I tell myself; it’s all part of the process.
Now then is time to make that campfire, grill up the mushrooms, and settle in for another night in the woods. I’m okay with that.
What is it about a basement that affects me so? Instant depression. Lying down to hope that tomorrow comes faster. Why? This would still be my temporary home, wouldn’t it? Claustrophobia? What’s the opposite of agoraphobia? Scared of waking those suicidal tendencies? Monsters haunt the attic of my brain. The worst of the worst climbs out and claims me. This basement’s damp cold sends me to bed with clothes on and covers over shoulders. The dogs and cat claim the other inches left free on this single bed. The rain starts up once again.
“Is this more rain than normal?” I asked the landlady as we mopped the kitchen floor.
“Yes. This hasn’t happened before though.”
Seeping through the tiles, the kitchen and bathroom have puddles building day in and out and we were sliding towels under our sandals.
The rain comes in the afternoon and the wheels of the trucks speeding past my dungeon window reminds me of days, months in London that drove me down into a darkness that scares me. Is is still within me?
The drive back from Maine was through thick dense woodland, searching for an open field, a meadow, a picnic table overlooking a valley below in the Green Mountains. Knowing these exist in a packed landscape will be my escape route. Finding them, the challenge.
Claustrophobia usually refers to rooms, attics, and basements, not the bigger environment. Am I spoilt by those years in New Mexico? Huge views that cross an empty mesa and valley to the Jemez Mountains to the west of the twenty acres I call home? Sunsets down past the Sandia Mountains? And not another home light to remind me that I’m not alone. But maybe I like being alone? That’s another discussion. This is space. Use of space. Psychological space. Physical space. Comfort of space. Need for it, cravings, passions, itching, breathing, and tall open high space. Need. But why? Why? That is the question of my childhood. Apparently I haven’t grown out of it. Nor have I found the answers.
The larger range of space that a person considers to be “near,” the more likely it is he or she will feel claustrophobic, according to a study published in June in Cognition (Vol. 119, No. 3).
At root is a phenomenon by which phobias either cause people to perceive the world differently than those without such fears. “We’ve known for a long time that fear and anxiety can disrupt cognitive processes,” says Stella F. Lourenco, PhD, a cognitive psychologist at Emory University in Atlanta, who led the study. They found that the larger an area that the person claimed as ‘near space’, the more claustrophobic and anxious they become as that large space shrinks. It’s hard to explain the process of this study but it seemed that we have a comfort zone of a specific distance and as it gets closer to us, our visual perceptions also change as to how close that really is. Perhaps then, the sixty miles of empty high desert has ruined me for anything else? In which case, three years in Vermont will be one hell of a challenge.
Systematic desensitization is the process recommended for agoraphobics, the opposite of my own anxiety. Well, yeah, that’s the only way I can figure this out since I’m here in the woods and valleys of Vermont, desensitize myself. What will be the escape route though on a daily level? Finding a home with open land nearby, one to walk easily and breathe deeply. The sense of congestion is worse when my views are limited to only hundreds of feet. Chest tight. Fingers twitch. Nerves shake. Patience gone. Sorry pups. I don’t mean to bitch.
“Patients must remain in the situation until anxiety has abated, because if they leave the situation, the phobic response will not decrease and it may even rise.” A related exposure treatment is in vivo exposure, a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy method that gradually exposes patients to the feared situations or objects to lessen the reactions over time. Yep. Time for a walk in the woods then. Followed by a cup of tea in bed.
Polly. Meet Polly, a blind and mentally impaired goat. She used to panic when she couldn’t sense her humans near by. But then they found a duck costume in the kids’ section of a local store. Polly now wears her costume and even falls asleep in the shopping cart as they go to the grocery store. Polly is calm.
Imagine us then in the forests, walking Harold and Rosie, with Stevie the cat following along, and with me in a yellow duck costume. Happy. I can do that.