Walking Through It
When I was younger, I dreaded my parents’ weekend declaration of an impending family walk. I would plead to ride my bike alongside them; to run, skip, cartwheel, anything but walk. We would (slowly) stroll along the dirt path at the nearby Ennisbrook trail and my eyes would meander towards trees that needed climbing, streams that needed stomping, rocks that needed skipping.
But this spring, 20 years later, I found myself on the same path. Since those earlier years, I have not only learned to find solace in a good walk, but I also have grown up and moved far from Santa Barbara. I have begun my third year of medical school on the East Coast and had returned to study for my medical boards with my family in early February. What began as an eight-week intensive study experience to start the new year dramatically changed. With testing centers closed and limited personal protective equipment for the medical community, my two-month visit stretched to over four, and I found myself in the same wobbly limbo that everyone in Montecito (and far beyond) now resides.
While at home this spring, I spent every bit of my day studying the minutia of the body’s cells – the innerworkings of biochemical pathways, and endless pharmaceutical interactions. But since the coronavirus pandemic violently swept through our routines and pushed pause on many of our lives, I made the effort to close my laptop every evening to go on a walk.
I often walk Ennisbrook trail and am consistently taken aback by how different it appears. The trail is not only different because of the many years between myself and the girl who would dread family walks. The trail is different because of the 2018 mudslides, the wreckage the creek caused and the strong hands that put it back together. This space that at one time was the epicenter of disaster is now my refuge. Should I be allowed to enjoy it, to find comfort in it? The trail does not look the way it once did, and we as a neighborhood had no say in when it changed, how it changed, or why it changed. And as I walk this trail in 2020, I once again feel like I have no way to contextualize the big and scary things that confront us today.
On this trail I see a gaping creek bed with only a modest stream of water winding its way towards the ocean. I see the fragile evening light break through the trees and I see new colorful vegetation that grows confident, youthful, and completely unaware of what came before it. I see houses still splattered in mud, and I see new houses lacquered in fresh, crisp paint. I hear families laughing and setting up for dinner. In these few frames, I see what is new and what is lost.
The mudslide taught me to hold these two opposing realities in a single breath. It taught me that it is okay to hold gratitude and heartache. It is okay to feel the overwhelming devastation of others while acknowledging that small ripples have made their way to your shore. Pain is not a competition and gratitude is not finite.
This is not a poetic story of metamorphous – how something awful can turn beautiful. I think it is important to look at, to see, to acknowledge the awful. What is awful is still awful and some wounds will not mend without scars and disfigurement. I do believe, however, that this unbelievable time and space we once again find ourselves in reminds us, as it did in 2018, of how people help in the worst of circumstances and how we, as a greater community, endure. Walking this trail, this time in a handmade mask, introduces two catastrophic and implausible disasters to one another and allows them to occupy the same place in my heart. It reminds me to acknowledge the unknown, the heartbreak, the mourning. It reminds me to take comfort in the strong and compassionate hands of helpers – the hands that bag our groceries, deliver cross-country notes, cook our food, take our temperatures, and rebuild our town. I believe it is important to see both – to see the new blooms of early growth and feel a longing for old oaks washed away. We must be kind to ourselves when holding both extremes in our hearts, because it is hard.
In our neighborhood, we listen to the rain on our roofs with a new and more cautious ear. Just as we may turn the volume up during the weather report on the local news, we will also come away from this pandemic changed. We will wash our hands with new vigor. We will feel a strange urgency when lingering at the grocery store. But I hope too, that we will hug our loved ones with a new sense of gratitude and sincerity. We will squeeze tighter. I hope that we will reach out to and for one another, like we did in 2018, after the camera crews pack up. And, personally, I hope Ennisbrook trail always remains a well-trodden path for many future family walks.