By Jenny Rough
According to the online job site CareerBliss, I once held the unhappiest job in the country: associate attorney. During my years at a Los Angeles law firm, days blurred into nights that toppled into weekends as I drafted motions at 2 a.m. yet still failed to hit the required number of billable hours.
During my downtime, I ignored the urge to unwind outdoors and breathe fresh air. I was too busy managing panic attacks, insomnia and tension stomachaches. (Lawyers argue a lot, and I hate to fight.) Not surprisingly, I burned out. The day I left the firm, I burst out of the cold office building, dumped my business suit and heels in a heap on my apartment floor, and ran — sprinted, in fact — to the Pacific Ocean.
Eleven years later, as I walk throughout the Chesapeake Bay area (near where I now live), I’m still drawn to water because of the way it soothes my soul. Today I work out of my home as a writer. Each morning, I try to take at least a little time to immerse myself in nature.
A 2012 study found that hiking — without electronic devices — boosted creativity. And a recent article in The New York Times discussed how a growing body of research shows that the most productive workers are those who take vacations and get enough rest. But that’s not why I do it. To disconnect from technology and let myself simply be in nature opens the door to the deepest connection of all: a chance to commune with creation and the Creator.
Modern day conveniences designed to make life easy — wifi, smartphones, televisions and even veg-out sessions on a big, comfy couch — drain me. Rivers, rocks, trees and sunlight: That’s what restores my health, not only physical and mental, but spiritual, too.
In her book, “Walking on Water,” author Madeleine L’Engle said she cannot separate her feelings about God and art. Similarly, my feelings about God and the wilderness are intertwined. Nature unlocks my defenses and opens a hidden desire to receive the spiritual meaning of life. As I walk, I often remember the poetry of the Psalms, or the wisdom of the Proverbs, meditating on those ancient words, as if chewing on a reed.
Nature, like our region’s wetlands, is a place to rediscover awe. To marvel at the elegant stance of a great white egret; to study the artwork on the domed shell of a box turtle; to soak up the melody of songbirds (instead of the mindless chatter of Twitter); to relax underneath a gentle willow tree that has draped me in its tendrils. Even the sight of a dead caterpillar on a walking trail stirs me in a mysterious way — a sober reminder that my days here are limited.
Nature educates. I love to watch spider webs. They are flexible enough to sway with the storms and winds, yet strong enough not to break. I want to develop that kind of character. Among the swirly switchgrass and blazing star wildflowers, I feel a connection with nature that invites me to protect our world and its creatures. How else can we learn to be stewards of the earth unless we pay attention? Understand we are a part of it? Nature has endless lessons to teach. Maybe that’s why Jesus said, “Look at the birds of the air . . . observe how the lilies of the field grow.”
As I ride my beach cruiser on the Mt. Vernon Trail along the Potomac River, stop and admire the blossoms of a cherry tree, or glide along a creek on a paddleboard, Psalm 23 floats to mind: “The Lord is my shepherd . . . / He makes me lie down in green pastures / He leads me beside quiet waters.” Makes and leads. I laugh out loud at those two words. During my years in the law firm, my soul screamed for fresh air and light. My hands wanted nothing more than to plunge into the soft mire of the Earth’s clay. I yearned for an intimacy with the sacred and eternal. Yet I didn’t change course — not until I was forced.
At times I wonder if it’s selfish to do nothing more than sit by the still waters. But, no. Whenever I see a bird nesting on her eggs, I’m reminded of another author, Elisabeth Elliot, who wrote of such importance. She pointed out that during those “silent weeks” it seems like the bird accomplishes nothing. She said: “But the bird sits quietly, knowing that in the stillness something vital is going on, and in the proper time it will be shown.”
I no longer have a prestigious job or the big lawyer paycheck. I have a treasure much greater than that.
Jenny Rough is a lawyer-turned-writer. When she’s not outside, she’s in her loft office with big windows that let in the sunlight. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.