Out of the woods

Susannah Hopkins Leisher, SAIS '92, spent a year with her family off the grid in the Maine wilderness. When they returned, she found it hard to adjust to life back in New Jersey. Harder still, she writes in this essay, was confronting her reasons for leaving in the first place.

Credit: Susannah Hopkins Leisher

I caught myself staring out the window into my backyard. It was autumn. A dozen houses crowded my view. The trees, tall, calm, watchful, seemed incidental. My journal sat at my elbow, untouched. I had a mundane afternoon ahead of me—pick the boys up from school, finish the laundry, talk to a friend, answer emails, study, supervise chores and homework, run the dishwasher at dusk.

Image credit: michael black | Black SunĀ®

Later that evening my youngest son, Ilem, called my attention to the sunset. I worked my way past piles of untended tasks, unfolded laundry, and undone homework to the back of the house. A flush of tangerine spread across a patch of sky framed by rooftops. I tossed it but a glance before returning to my to-do list.

We had been back in suburban New Jersey from an off-the-grid year in the Maine woods for only a few months. But it was easy to imagine the year had never happened.

The word adventure is engraved in my engagement ring, and my early married life lived up to that promise. After 10 years in Vietnam and three in Australia, my husband, my three sons, and I had returned to the United States in 2006. Though we had returned to unadventurous suburbia and a mortgage and the daily commute, I had what I'd always wanted—a life full of purpose, a wonderful husband and children, a home, and a meaningful job.

Yet, perversely, I wasn't happy. I felt my potential had barely been tapped. Children and work had pushed out everything else I thought I had in me. I was sure that I could/should/would do more, but I always came up short. I missed applying for a fascinating job. Let a doctoral program deadline go by. Let my dental floss run out. I advised young people who came to me for guidance to "follow their hearts" and felt two-faced. Despite all my good fortune, sometimes I burst into tears on my commute for no reason. I looked at photographs of people who had really changed their lives and criticized myself for not doing the same. My unhappiness spilled over, as it will, unfairly touching family and colleagues. I let fantasies drift into absurdity—smashing a mirror to shards, even stepping out my 12th-floor office window into nothingness. There had to be something wrong with me. Why didn't having what I'd wanted bring me joy?

I knew some of the answer might lie in the not-too-distant past. Craig and I had found each other in our mid-30s, and since we both wanted kids we'd gotten started right away. Within three months of our wedding in 1998, I was happily expecting. The pregnancy seemed perfect. Eleven days before my son was due, however, I sensed that he had stopped moving. Sure it was just first-time-mom jitters, I nevertheless went to the hospital just to check that things were OK. They weren't. Wilder Daniel, my first child, had inexplicably died. I gave birth to him two days later, in the presence of my loving family. We had him cremated and scattered his ashes from our bare hands in the field where Craig had asked me to marry him. In the following four years I went on to have three more sons, all healthy. But I feared constantly for my kids. No one could tell me it would "all be OK." I knew better.

On the last day of March 2009 as I was trying to meditate during my evening commute home, I had a flash of insight. Pythagoras, Pasteur, da Vinci, Buddha—none of them knew their monumental destinations. They just did what called to them, what felt most right. They didn't know where they were going, yet each went in his personal right direction. Perhaps the same could be true of an average person like me. I didn't need to know where I was going. I just needed to step off the path I was on and be open to perceiving a new one. That path might even be right beside me. But as long as I was consumed by my job and burned by my first son's death, I couldn't see it. Or, perhaps I saw it, but hadn't yet decided to walk down it.

I worked hard to discern my values. There were nine, they were prioritized, and each was a single verb. The first was "Awake!" Without awareness, I knew, I could get nowhere. To wake up, I had to get rid of the static. I needed to sideline myself for a while to figure out how to spend my remaining brain cells. I had to go off life's grid.

Craig wasn't seeking the answers to fundamental questions of life, but he was always up for adventure and the particular adventure of moving to Maine for a year appealed to him greatly. We both yearned for natural beauty. He could also see how important it was for me to make a change. Yes, there would be a downside. After crunching the numbers, we knew we'd take a significant financial hit. A more important concern was how our middle son, who is on the autism spectrum, might do with a year of very limited opportunities to practice his social skills. His support team (therapist, social worker, and psychiatrist) predicted some backsliding, but encouraged us nonetheless. Families have cultures, philosophies, and values, they reasoned, and living by them is part of what makes us a family. Going to the woods would further imbue him—and all of us—with our family's adventurous spirit and bind us even closer together.

So in July 2011, we squeezed most of our belongings into the basement of our house, piled our two cats and three sons (now 7, 9, and 11) into a minivan and a Jeep, and headed north.

We spent most of the year in a 1,200-square-foot cabin on a hillside in central Maine amid 300 acres of wild land crossed by the Appalachian Trail. We were not connected to municipal services, but we did have electricity via a set of solar panels we had purchased specifically for the year. We were often asked why, if we were seeking a wilderness experience, we had decided to cart along laptops and cellphones. The answer was financial. We could not afford to spend a year with no income. The Nature Conservancy, where Craig works as a social scientist, is a very flexible employer, but it did require that he be connected.

The cabin had a sleeping loft and, most importantly for Maine, two wood stoves. We burned through nearly all seven cords of wood we had stocked the previous summer, and taught the kids how to build and tend a fire. Bringing in firewood was one of their daily chores. During the winter our two-mile-long "driveway" wasn't plowed, so we brought groceries in and trash out on a sled attached to a snowmobile. Our closest year-round neighbors lived a couple of miles away. We happily spent most days alone. The boys and I spent a lot of time on homeschooling, which included meditation and yoga along with our study of poetry, art, music, ethics, life skills, math, and English. The kids painted and sculpted, complained about too much homework, and learned to recognize Bach. There was more than enough time for other activities: paddling, swimming, gorging on wild raspberries, tree climbing, whittling, building forts, working in the garden, skiing and sledding, and running naked in the woods in the chill of early spring. Indoors we read, played board games, daydreamed, and, yes, allowed the boys 20 minutes a day on the computer.

Most important was what I might call our "unlabeled time." There was the evening Zimri, our eldest, padded barefoot down to the dock at dusk and lowered himself to the weathered wood to gaze at sky, water, moon—not talking or doing, just being. Or the night Craig and I left the kids in the warmth of the big room and rode out to the Christmas-tree trail a mile behind the cabin, switched off the growl of the snowmobile, and sat close in the utter silence beneath a black sky spangled with stars and feathered with the dark shapes of evergreens. No one near, nothing but snow and sky and dark. Just being.

Things were not perfect. A broken leg (mine), a urinary tract infection (one of the cats'), a cantankerous toilet, underperforming solar panels and dropped conference calls, black flies and mosquitoes, and, toughest of all, the daily challenge of forging a school from a family—all colored our year as well. But those bumps in the road served more to heighten our awareness of how good the year was than to bring us down. We had surrounded ourselves with natural beauty. We had put adventure front and center.

The joy I had found in the beauty and simplicity of the woods seemed inelastic. It didn't stretch back to New Jersey.

But the joy I had found in the beauty and simplicity of the woods seemed inelastic. It didn't stretch back to New Jersey. In the woods, less seemed to be going on but I had paid more attention to it. To see the sheen of ice coating a rock set off a thousand sparks in my mind. I felt I could write a tome on a petal. Color and sound, past and future, connections between seemingly disparate things—content had positively oozed out of the world around me. Now, back in our suburban home, post-Maine felt a lot like pre-Maine.

True, there was something different, critically so. I'd told friends and family before we left that for me, Maine was a way to "jiggle the needle on the record of life." When I was surrounded by woods to a far horizon, I was able to open my mind to new possibilities. The realization arose in me that I could meld my personal and professional lives and instead of giving way to the grief I still carried from the death of my first son, I could weave it into something whole. I decided to return to school to study epidemiology, through which I might hope to work at the nexus of poverty and stillbirth. Without the jarring step of going to Maine, I believe I could not have perceived, nor been able to step onto, this path.

Still, in New Jersey I was back to harried, multitasking, sleep-deprived, impatient. I found myself on the other side of a locked door made of glass: I could look back to that off-the-grid year but not return. Despite quitting a job, leaving a career, uprooting my family, then returning to start on a new professional direction, I was surprised, even disappointed, that things didn't feel more different.

I began to see, with some chagrin, that in Maine I had been looking for a solution to all my problems. A permanent fix. Naively, I'd expected that the drama of uprooting myself and my family for a year would wrest me out of whatever funk I'd been in. Forgetting the advice I sometimes gave to friends going through tough spots with their loved ones—people don't change their basic natures; all you can do is change your own attitude—I'd fallen prey to the expectation that Maine would change me. Maine did not do that. I was the same person in August 2012 that I'd been in June 2011. I was impatient with the kids. I got angry at my husband. I cycled through the same old highs and lows. Being on a new path wasn't enough because the old and new paths had a common denominator—me.

Accompanying my younger two sons to the local playground a few weeks ago, I had to work to calm my simmering worry over leaving my post at the computer for a couple of hours. At least the kids were happy. I zoned out—and started to listen. There was an odd scratching noise behind me. Turning to look, all I could see was an ugly trash barrel, its lid fitted over a plastic garbage bag. The sound was coming from inside it. A few exploratory bangs on the sides of the can showed that whatever was inside was both alive and frightened. I cautiously tipped the lid off the can. In an instant a squirrel sprang a yard in the air and landed in a flurry of leaves, dashing for the stream and the wild.

The other day my middle son asked me to go for a walk. Not far—all we did was cross the large parking lot across the street from us, to what Kai termed "the little woods by the bridge" at the other end. It's a triangular patch of evergreens about as big as our living room, sandwiched by two of the busiest streets in our town. Commuters have worn a dirt path through it, seeking the quickest way to the train station and their jobs in the city. When I used to work in Midtown Manhattan, I welcomed this daily dose of green and brown in a sea of gray pavement.

We arrived at the little haven and almost immediately spied a downed branch, likely a casualty of Hurricane Sandy not yet cleaned up by the landscapers. At least as tall as me, the white pine orphan was elegant as a candelabra, each of its smaller brown branches ending in a downward brush of needles. "Do you want to take it home?" I asked. Kai carried it like a flag balanced on his shoulder all the way back, into the house and up the stairs. It now stands in a corner of the boys' bedroom, a comforting, familiar reminder of the woods.

Finding your path, learning happiness, cannot be a one-off activity, something to be done and completed in a cabin in the woods or anywhere else.

I think maybe I was right when, before going off the grid, I had made that list of nine prioritized values: Awakening is the key. Against the bare palette of Maine, with so few distractions, I had finally begun to pay attention. Our year in the woods had not highlighted what was wrong with being back in the world. It had put light on what matters. The little is big. The subtle is significant.

Finding your path, learning happiness, cannot be a one-off activity, something to be done and completed in a cabin in the woods or anywhere else. It is a lifetime endeavor. Last night, Zimri and I sat on the couch together in the dark. It had been a frustrating day. Not one of the many items on my to-do list had been crossed off. More would be added in the morning. I could not resist worrying aloud. "There's so much more to do here than there was in the woods! I haven't even meditated since we left!"

Zimri squeezed my hand and said, "Let's meditate now."

So we did.