Finding solace among the trees

I do my best thinking in the woods. They’ve become my haven, especially lately.

The woods have always felt like home to me, a place to let my mind wander, to feel the wind on my face, the sun warming my shoulders. The moment I step onto the trail, a soft bed of pine needles beneath my feet, the world around me quiets, and I can just be. Even on my worst days, the second I’m surrounded by towering trees, I can always come back to center, find my footing.

Today was one of those days. I needed solace, and I found it among the pine trees. I come here to think. I also come here not to.

There’s a beautiful forest not far from our house that I’ve grown to love. Few people know about it, so much so that most of the time I have the woods all to myself, and other times, I run into the same familiar faces and their blissful Labs and hound dogs with tired tongues hanging from their mouths.

As I’ve weathered through these past few seasons, so have these hundreds of acres of forest. Together we’ve morphed and changed, parts of us died but new growth came. I was thinking about this today as I walked beneath the trees which seemed to have bloomed over night. The bare branches of winter have been replaced with lush, green. I remember in February, deep in my grief, wondering if spring would ever come.

Walk in the woods from Carla Kucinski on Vimeo.

Growing up, my backyard consisted of hundreds of acres of forest in rural Pennsylvania. Those woods provided the perfect hills for sledding in the winter and produced the most delicious blueberries in the summer that still felt warm from the sun when you popped them in your mouth. I remember going for walks sometimes with my father and getting lost with my sister, and watching the sun set behind the tree line, casting hues of pink and orange across the sky. I suppose that’s where my love of nature began and why it always felt like home to me – and still does.

My appreciation for nature grew deeper in my early 20s when I adopted my first dog as an adult. I’ve been fortunate that both dogs I’ve adopted over the years are both lovers of the woods. When my first dog Yoshi passed away four years ago this month, I sprinkled some of his ashes along one of his favorite trails by a lake and among the creaking, swaying pine trees. Even in his old age with his shaky knees and deteriorating hips, he came to life in those woods, hopping over logs. It was his medicine. When he died, it seemed fitting to return him to the earth, to his favorite place. I remember the day I sprinkled his ashes, the wind kicked up suddenly, and I could feel his spirit there with me. Some days, like today, I can still feel him in the breeze in the middle of the woods. He’s never left me.

Yoshi woods web

Yoshi and me hanging out on his favorite trail. He died less than a month after this photo was taken.

I have a new doggie companion now, a black Lab and Border collie mix who also has a deep love for woods and hopping logs. When she’s in the woods, she’s at home, too. It’s a magical place for her. She completely loses herself in the experience, chasing squirrels and running after deer. But often times I catch her pausing for moment on the trail, looking up to the sky, scanning the scenery around her. Most of the time she’s listening for squirrel movements, but sometimes I think she’s intentionally stopping to take it all in. She constantly reminds me to rest, to linger, let go and be in the present. Everything is temporary. Tomorrow will be different.

Molly woods web

Molly among the pine trees circa March 2016. Photo by Carla Kucinski.

 

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Make a wish


My mother always made me feel special on my birthday. Every year she picked out the perfect Barbie doll, the best stuffed animal, the prettiest bracelet. When I look back on my birthdays as a kid, it’s not so much a particular gift or image that I remember most, it’s a feeling, how the people I love, especially my mom, made me feel important.

For years, my mom hung a Happy Birthday sign above the sink in our kitchen, chunky letters in every color of the rainbow strung together. It was the first thing I’d see when I came downstairs from my bedroom. As I stood sleepy-eyed in my pajamas, she’d sing “Happy Birthday” in a country-western twang with such passion – and volume – even though she doesn’t have the best singing voice. She still calls my sisters and me on every birthday and sings to us. I always let her call go to voicemail because I like to play the message over and over; it makes me smile.

What also made my birthdays so special every year as a kid was being able to design my own birthday cake. We went to a bakery called Mr. Baker, where your senses were greeted with the scent of vanilla icing whenever you stepped through the door. I loved the ritual of going with my mom to pick up my birthday cake and riding home with it sealed in a traditional white cake box. The anticipation of waiting to eat it drove me crazy. At age 36, I have not outgrown that and probably never will.

I took my birthday cake seriously as a kid – and still do. I had obsessions with Snoopy and Garfield when I was a child, so naturally they ended up on a lot of my cakes during my early childhood. I can still picture my double-layer cake with Garfield drawn on the top of it. It was my fifth or sixth birthday, and my whole family was gathered in the dining room, the lights dim and golden. My mom’s face glowed in birthday candlelight as she walked toward me with my Garfield cake, and everyone started to sing “Happy Birthday.” I burst into tears before I could blow out the candles. I ran to my room and threw myself down on the bed, burying my face in my pillow. My mom scooped me up, and I cried into her chest unable to explain the tears.

Now, as an adult, I know the reason. It wasn’t just that my mom ordered me the perfect Garfield cake; it was that everyone I loved was gathered in the same room to celebrate me, my life. That birthday was the first time that I recognized what it means to be truly loved and cared about.

I carried that same feeling with me throughout the day on Wednesday as I celebrated my 36th birthday. All day I felt surrounded by so much love from the moment I first opened my eyes and saw my husband smiling back at me. Sweet text messages and phone calls trickled in throughout the day, each birthday wish touching my heart. After the tough couple of months I’ve been going through, it felt good to truly feel joyful for one day.

My husband can’t cook, but he’s great at ordering takeout. When I walked into our kitchen on the morning of my birthday, he had set a table for two with a Chick-fil-A biscuit and golden hash browns waiting for me — my twice a year guilty pleasure. He went into work a little later that morning so we could eat breakfast together. It was a simple gesture, but it felt grand to me.


Later that afternoon, two of my dear friends treated me to lunch at one of my favorite restaurants. When I arrived, they were seated in a booth with a small flower pot of yellow Gerbera daisies on the table and the biggest balloon I had ever seen attached to it with spirals of multicolored ribbon. I shrieked with glee when I saw it — and teared up a little, too. Those little touches sure made this birthday girl feel special. I left our lunch that day with my heart full — and my face sore from laughing so much. Good friends always know what our hearts need.


Afterwards, I went for a stroll in the woods with my dog Molly, and as I walked among the towering pines and the wisteria in bloom, I paused and looked up, taking it all in, this vast and beautiful world.  My eyes, my senses, my heart — they felt wide open. In the middle of the woods, this place that I cherish, my daily haven, I felt a deep connection to the universe. Among the rubble of winter’s fallen trees and bare branches, new life was unfurling all around me. Birds chirped. Four monarch butterflies danced in a figure eight near me. Wisteria’s delicate lavender flowers clung to their vine. I thought about these last two months and all the grief that has consumed me, and I realized even in the midst of sorrow there are gifts. You just have to open your eyes, and your heart to see them.


When I got home, there was a card waiting from me from my best friend Addison, who I share this blog with. The cover of the card pictures a cluster of cars, traveling in different directions, and a young girl on a bike looking over her shoulder while pedaling away from them. “I like to think that this is you pedaling even further past the grief that began this year,” she wrote. “You’re looking back a wee bit but pedaling forward to your next adventure.”


I love that analogy. It’s always a comfort when those we love can see a future beyond our grief. Reading Addison’s words gave me hope. Yes, I’m still glancing back at the past as I weather this season of change, but deep in my heart I believe the best is yet to come. Birthdays are a perfect way to mark a new beginning.


That night my oldest sister, brother-in-law and two nephews sang “Happy Birthday” to me via FaceTime – a virtual birthday party. Hearing my sweet nephews’ voices in the chorus of adults made me laugh as they sang with such fervor. This time there weren’t any tears, just laughter and gratitude. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and made a wish. I wished for joy, but after I blew out the candles, and opened my eyes, I realized I already have it.

Being comfortable with the uncomfortable

bw chair web

Photos by Carla Kucinski.

I’ve been thinking a lot this past week about the idea of being uncomfortable, accepting where you are in your life and making peace with it. In my yoga class, my instructor often talks about this because it’s a huge element in the type of yoga I practice – yin. In yin yoga, seated postures are held for three to five minutes at a time, which forces you to surrender to the pose and allow your body, mind and spirit to just “be” no matter how much your body, mind and spirit fight you. It’s an exercise in letting go.

I’ve been practicing yin yoga for a little more than one year now, and it has helped grounded me in situations and periods in my life where I’ve felt groundless. February was one of those months. Sometimes life hurls at you one big explosion that pulls the ground out from underneath you. In one moment everything changes. That’s how my February started. It forced me to have to process a lot of difficult things and emotions all at once. Feelings I sometimes didn’t know what to do with. Every day felt like a freight train of raw emotions plowing into me.

After taking a brief hiatus from yoga, I returned to my practice last week to help find my footing again. Coincidentally, the lungs were the focus of class that night. The lungs represent courage; it’s also where we hold our grief.

spring blog web

During the class, my instructor talked about a YouTube video she posted on Facebook earlier in the day. The video features a rabbi talking about how lobsters’ bodies grow, but their shells do not. When the lobster is ready to shed its shell, it retreats under a rock, casts off its armor and then re-emerges to begin growing a new shell.

I feel much like a lobster these days. For the last three weeks, I’ve been in hiding and spent a lot of time reflecting and processing. But something has shifted in me recently. I’m starting to shed my shell. With each new day this past week, I felt the ground returning beneath me. The chatter in my mind quieted. My emotions began to find balance. I started to make peace with this uncomfortable place I’m in. I’ve accepted that this is where I need to be right now, so I can grow, like the lobster.

“Times of stress are also times that are signals for growth.” I keep coming back to those words from the rabbi. They grabbed my heart.

A friend remarked over brunch this morning how good it feels to see pops of color beginning to emerge outside, after enduring a bleak, grey February. Winter is starting to let go, and so am I.

Spring is a transitional season. It’s a time of growth and renewal. It’s a new beginning. Letting go is all about moving out of something, so we can move into something else — another wise observation from my yoga instructor. (Are you noticing her pattern of awesomeness?)

I do not know what I will be moving into, but I do know what I’ll be leaving behind (fear and grief) and what I’ll be taking with me (hope and promise).

spring flowers web