Ah, graduation season, a time of tearful hugs, too-hot auditoriums, funny hats, and speeches with vocabulary so consistent you could make a bingo card for them. Seeing the flood of new alumni pictures brings back fond memories of my graduation from Taylor University last year.
You know, the day I got lost in the woods.
I got up early on graduation morning, around sunrise, and slipped past my sleeping roommates. (Because I live by the motto that it’s always a good idea to disappear without telling people where you’re going.)
I carried my flip-flops and walked barefoot down the quiet streets to campus, then visited my regular spots there: my former dorm, my adopted dorm, my reading tree, my favorite room in the prayer chapel. It was my way of saying goodbye, because I am sentimental and because place is important. Not as important as people, but still important.
Then I walked all the way over to the nature preserve area. You know, trees and such. 145 acres of trees, I found out later. The part nearest the science center has lots of trails, and I thought it would be a good place to wander around and pray. (You know, typical grad prayers like, “How am I going to say goodbye?” “What am I doing with my life?” “You aren’t going to send me someplace freezing cold like Minnesota, are you?”)
This plan was complicated by several things. First, I have little to no sense of direction. Two, there was an adorable couple eating a breakfast picnic in the woods, and, wanting to avoid awkwardness of clomping through a sunrise date, I went way off the path to avoid them. Three, I continued to go barefoot. In the woods. Even after pulling out a good-sized thorn from my heel.
But, you know…adventure!
As I was being all monk-like and enjoying the birds and the sunlight through the trees, I heard the distant sound of the Taylor bell tower striking the hour. I glanced at my cell phone (silenced, of course) and winced. Time to get back.
The problem was…you guessed it…I wasn’t sure which way back was. All clumps of trees pretty much look the same.
So then I did what any logical person would do: I picked a direction, toward the light that indicated a thinning of the tree line, and pushed toward it.
I should have brought a machete, because it turns out that I went the opposite direction from the nice, trail-lined part of the preserve. So I clomped my way through waist-high, often-thorny underbrush, muttering “Ouch!” and giggling to myself because this was going to make such a great story.
Eventually, I made it out. And I was on a road. That was good, I figured. Didn’t recognize a thing. Not a person in sight. So I walked to a nearby farmhouse, one with a dilapidated plastic carousel horse in the front, and, more importantly, a mailbox with an address number painted on it.
And then I made a call that felt strangely familiar (because it was). “Ruthie,” I said, to my longsuffering and awesome roommate, “I need help.”
Ruthie, after asking where I had disappeared to a half hour before graduation, hopped in her car, plugged in the address to her GPS, and drove up to see me standing there, thumb up in hitchhiker position, T-shirt soaked and legs scratched from dew-covered thornbushes.
Once back at the apartment, I changed into my dress and “did my hair” (read: brushed out stray leaves) in five minutes flat before rushing to graduation. On time.
I might have noticed a little itching along my legs during the ceremony. Maybe. But it was only later I realized both legs had broken out into blotches of poison ivy.
Why am I telling this story? Well, first of all, it’s a warning to the Taylor students graduating on Saturday: don’t do this. Not recommended. It stresses your mom out when you text her shortly before the ceremony saying, “You’ll never guess where I am right now.”
But I also want to say that the idea behind my adventure was a good one. Especially during chaotic times, we need to take time to be still. To be quiet. To listen.
Right now, soon-to-be grads, there is probably a lot of noise going on in your life. The noise of people celebrating the end of finals, the noise of last meetings with friends, the noise of a thousand and one people asking you what you’re doing next.
But don’t forget about silence.
Henri Nouwen said something about solitude that has really stuck with me: “Through a spiritual discipline we prevent the world from filling our lives to such an extent that there is no place left to listen.”
Find a place to listen, guys. Even if you have to get up a little earlier. Even if you have to break away from people for a while. Even if it scares you because you’re not entirely sure what you’ll hear when you’re alone with yourself and God.
Although if you do choose to wander around in the woods, I recommend close-toed shoes and a compass.