I was innocently reading a web page and abruptly ran into a challenge: What have you learned from being chronically ill? What has changed for the better? The challenge was given with the protestation that this wasn’t about being all Pollyanna about the miseries of being chronically ill, but when they looked back on their journeys, there had been positives.
I know there have been in positives in my life due to chronic pain and illness, and one of the changes I’m embarrassed to admit. Most who follow my blog might, by now, have picked up that I like nature. Maybe, perhaps, I’m a wee bit nuts about it! I enjoy taking pictures of colorful but still very buggy bugs routinely. I was raised to enjoy the outdoors and when my dad handed me a Nikon film camera when I was a tween and started to explain the magic of photography, I was hooked. But when I first moved over 2000 miles from my tiny coastal village to a large landlocked city, I had a pretty horrendous attidude about their version of the “outdoors.”
It was a city. It had parks. With smooth asphalt paths and a few carefully marked, well-traveled, wide “nature trails”—code for something that often had little educational signs periodically and maybe even pooper bag dispensers. The trails were all easy, and almost everyone on them believed that they were really experiencing nature or “hiking.” I did one park’s trails 3 times before lunch one day and then gave up, disgusted. I went through three different sporting goods stores before I found one that had hiking boots. The stores did have ATVs though, to make it easier to pack out after a successful hunting trip—or perhaps to pack in an adequate amount of beer for the trip. There was some good hiking several hours’ drive away, but I had been used to literally walking 10 minutes from my house and finding my way around a preserve on trails that no one had ever bothered to label. Even in my master’s program, everyone escaped into the mountains every chance they got and some also for some chances that probably weren’t really chances but just phosphenes from squinting too hard for a second. Didn’t matter. They were “outdoorsy” and proud of it, and that didn’t just mean ties with pictures of deer on them.
Now, I did think that it was cool that there were accessible trails and playsets and treehouses scattered about, but I’m ashamed to admit that I thought pretty much every trail in the city was accessible. I had a plenty of scorn and very little consideration for anyone who believed differently,
And then I went from having a condition that was supposed to be permanently fixed to having a condition that was less fixed to having multiple surgeries and diagnoses and needing help to make it to the bathroom. My world drew in on itself, and I was so sick I didn’t even notice the suffocating snugness of it until it was practically skin-tight. I couldn’t walk far at first, but eventually I began to stagger around one of those little looped asphalt paths. Those tiny jewel-like parks meant a lot more to me.
A lot of my butterfly photographs are taken at parks like those, a couple hundred acres of playing fields and playsets. Some of them have woods and natural areas—fields left to grow wild, ancient trees with the scars of past disasters still visible in their trunks. With a bit of care and a long-range lens, many of my photographs give the impression that I’m much farther in the wilderness that I actually am.
I learned that not all the trails I had thought were “accessible” were really accessible at all. I learned that there were many different ways to appreciate nature, and not all of them involved putting on a pack and hiking. My world had shrunk to me like a cotton shirt that had accidentally been washed on the hot cycle—now, with the help of friends and parks and ramps and door paddles and elevators, it began to slowly stretch out again. I appreciated the kindness of the people who graded the difficulty of the trails and made some short loops—bugger my old self, so proud at being able to do them all in a morning! My old self was an ass. The one place where there should be plenty of room for everyone—our parks—I was perhaps the most judgemental about sharing in any meaningful way with people less fortunate than I. There was room at those parks both for people wanting to take a nature walk and for people like me to lap them. The only place that hadn’t had room was my mind.
I’m still learning. I hope not to stop learning any time soon, either. I hope I’m not so arrogant now as to think that I’ve mastered the art of empathizing with others, or that I’ve suddenly solved the problems of accessibility in public nature preserves. I also still find myself thinking that many people in the city need to redefine what they think of as “wilderness” and “hike” yet, too. I’m not quite so far from my old self as I’d like to be! But neither, thanks to chronic illness, am I the same smarmy, scornful girl of five years ago who mocked trails that were less than a mile and had handrails. For that, I am grateful.