As part of my 80th birthday celebration I chose to do a vision quest—four days and four nights alone in the wilderness, with no phone, books, watch, or digital devices. I hoped being alone, with no distractions, and only a journal to write in, would enable me to shed emotional and psychological burdens I’ve carried all my life. I avoided thinking about my age. I knew I’d be the oldest by at least fifteen years. I knew I was the oldest participant the leaders had ever allowed to do a vision quest with them. I answered questions from friends who asked why I needed to do such a thing at my age, by telling them, “Because I need to.”
There were nine months of preparation—making a string of 44 prayer ties filled with cornmeal and tobacco to encircle our vision quest spot, a visit with the vision quest leader each month where we talked about being alone and on our own—how we wanted to spend the four days and nights, and what we needed to do to prepare for a 12-hour mini-vision quest in a nearby forest. Once we were at the retreat center in southeastern Canada, as part of our preparation, each of us brought a sleeping bag, four gallons of water, a tarp, and a bag with personal items and a journal to our space in the forest. As a group, and individually, we met with our retreat leaders to discuss our intention, participated in a sweat lodge, and performed ceremonies for two days before beginning the vision quest. Nothing we did prepared me for what happened.
We entered our separate, designated locations the first morning at 5am. I lay down on my sleeping bag, with only a tarp for protection and immediately slept for hours, lulled by the sounds of the forest. I was woken by an inner voice telling me it was time to get started.
What I did during the four days and nights is considered medicine, not to be shared. What I can say is that each time an inner voice told me to do something, like stamp on dead branches, memories of my early childhood surfaced—memories of horror and abuse and murderous violence—of living away from home many times before I was five. At times, I viscerally remembered events I’d been told never happened. Other times, experiences surfaced for which I was blamed and shamed. I began to understand the pernicious effect of the childhood abuse, that although I blame myself, the abuse was not my fault, that no child asks to have her bones broken, her body violated, her will shattered. As I thought about relationship choices I’d made during my adult life, I realized it was as if I’d had a metaphorical sign on my chest saying, “Abuse me.” I worked hard to allow memories and feelings and thoughts to arise without judgment. Being in the forest, feeling the warmth of the sun, the chirps of the birds—all helped to soothe and comfort as I did my best to leave the wilderness, knowing more, feeling more.
On the morning of the fifth day, we were awakened by drumming, calling us back to the retreat center where we processed what we had experienced during the four days and nights. I had no desire to share and never raised my hand to offer. Then, there was no one left. It was my turn. I cried for the first time since I was 16, when I had been refused entry into a school club because I was Jewish. The other retreat participants waited with calm, waited until I was ready to speak. I told the truth of some of the abuse, how it had scarred me, how I never felt good enough or smart enough or lovable. They listened with no judgment, many quietly crying. When I finished there was a perceptible silence. No one moved. Had I said too much? Had I said the wrong thing?
Then, as a group, they came over to me, offering hugs, encouragement, kindness, caring. For the first time I felt part of a group. For the first time I felt good enough. I understood that my age didn’t matter to them. Although the issues we dealt with during the vision quest were different, in the end, we were all questors, all seeking inner knowledge.
Once one knows something, one cannot unknow it. What I experienced doing the vision quest made it possible for me to continue healing, by choosing to be with people who treat me well and with kindness. I’m still learning how to feel good enough. It may have taken 80 years to feel strong enough to face the truth of my life, but it’s comforting to know that going forward, no matter how few years I have left, they will be years spent freer from the effect of people and experiences that burdened my life for so long.
Here are two photographs one of the questors took after we cleaned up our vision quest spots at the end of our stay.
Nancy King is a widely published author and a professor emerita at the University of Delaware, where she has taught theater, drama, playwriting, creative writing, and multidisciplinary studies with an emphasis on world literature. She has published seven previous works of nonfiction and five novels. Her new memoir, Breaking the Silence, explores the power of stories in healing from trauma and abuse. Her career has emphasized the use of her own experience in being silenced to encourage students to find their voices and to express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with authenticity, as a way to add meaning to their lives.