How to Survive When You Find Yourself in the Wilderness…


Author’s Note: This is the unedited version of an essay I submitted to Proximity Magazine. 


Your life in the wilderness begins the moment you lose your mother. When the very thing that birthed you no longer exists. Your instincts somehow wither away with her. You thought you knew what it was like to survive the wilderness because you lived in the African Bush before and spent the other years of your life navigating through the streets of Baltimore, a place where it’s always survival of the fittest. Now it’s all foreign.

Being in the wilderness is when you cry out for her in the middle of the night and get no response. Nothing echoes back to you. Not a howl, not a laugh, not a sound. Just silence and stillness. You pray that something will call back to you.  You look at the things around you and realize the chill you feel is simply from the cool tiles on the bathroom floor. The puddle in front of you is not a watering hole because when you taste it, it’s salty like your tears.

You stop eating because you hardly have the strength to make it from one moment to the next. You show up when you are needed and put on your best face. You try to adapt to your surroundings. People keep telling you how thin you look and you know it’s not a compliment. You don’t expect them to understand because you know they’ve never encountered the wilderness. And you don’t have the heart to explain that you just aren’t into the hunt any more. So yes some nights you go to bed without eating or bathing. That some days you just play possum and wonder if you do it long enough will it become your reality.

Other days you wake up and feel the sun beaming on you. There’s a sense of hope. That today may be the day you reconnect to your lifeline. You look around to see if you see any traces of her footprints. Maybe she left you a road map, a clue, something that could lead you back to reality. Maybe she arranged for someone to look after you the way Charlotte asked Wilbur to protect her babies before she died in Charlotte’s Web. Maybe there’s something in your DNA that will intuitively fix everything that’s broken.

Your instincts are minimal. You’ve only trusted one thing and that thing no longer exists. You muster up enough faith to pray to the same God that took your mother and ask him that your time in this wilderness doesn’t lead to hospitalization, eviction, or the grave. In the wilderness days run together. Minutes feel like weeks, weeks feel like years.

Then one day you’re forced to realize that maybe this isn’t the wilderness.  Maybe this is simply life, as you now know it. And you’re not cursed like the people of Egypt. That you too have the power to set yourself free. You were made for survival and everyday that your own thoughts don’t eat you alive means you’re supposed to be here. Everyday that you don’t fall prey to drugs or alcohol or sex or shopping, you’ve survived.

You have lost things before. You have lost people before. You have survived before.

But what you feel now is indescribable. Nothing was ever this valuable. Nothing was ever this irreplaceable.

You don’t know if you are lion or lamb. You don’t know whether to hunt or be hunted. You don’t know whether to fight for your territory or just give it up. So you wake yourself up one morning and try to piece sentences together. You search to find words to tell a story about why you can’t tell a story. And all you can think to say is I’m in the wilderness. I don’t know if I will survive it. I don’t know who I am without her. I can’t do this.

Then you lie in bed and start typing words on your iPhone. You see small words become sentences and sentences become paragraphs and paragraphs a story. And that’s when you hear the familiar voice. It’s faint but it says, “Keep going, Ri. Write your way out of the wilderness. Don’t fear the page. Don’t run from the words. They are here to help. I asked them to guide you through this time. That’s what I left inside of you. The words you find will nourish you back to health and hope and love. You will be okay.”

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