what I learned by spending at least one night per month outside in 2022
24 December 2022
As I write this, we are experienced a weird winter storm in which the wind is whipping, power is out in many communities, and the temperatures have plummeted to single digits from their almost 50 degree high two days ago. We are working with the Emergency and Disaster Coordinator for the diocese to open churches as warming centers. I am so grateful to several of our churches who have responded with generosity and kindness. This is the night in which we will gather to hear the story of Mary and Joseph who found no lodging in the inn and spent their night in the stable as the Light of the World was born.
And so, it feels a little bit uncomfortable to wax on about my adventures of sleeping outside without acknowledging my privilege and the fact that many people have no agency in making choices about the place where they will sleep each night.
Years ago- almost 20 years ago- I started an Overflow Shelter in Torrington Connecticut. The church where I was working at the time had lots and lots of room (we had both an “Upper” and a “Lower” parish hall) and I worked with ecumenical partners and the shelter in town to develop a program where people could have a safe and warm place to sleep on the coldest nights when the shelter was full. I learned so much about collaboration and the structure of other faith communities, about recruiting and empowering volunteers, about boundaries and fund raising and compassion and kindness. The various churches involved in the project took turns hosting the shelter in the winter months and we cared for many people, winter in and winter out. When I was back in Connecticut for Thanksgiving last month, I read a story in the paper that this project, “Operation Overflow,” was still going on and that it had recently found a permanent home in an empty/closed hospital. What a blessing.
My idea about sleeping outside at least one night per month was not about learning about the plight of those who are housing insecure. It had more to do with my love of camping, my desire to be close to nature, the challenge of a discipline that would take me through the whole year, the self confidence gained in sleeping alone in the out of doors, and just the stunt of it. I guess I like stunts.
Some of the nights I spent while on backpacking trips. Those trips included several nights in a row of solo camping on the AT. Of course, there are few occasions, these days, that you can actually sleep by yourself in a shelter or campsite on the AT- it has become a popular venue and so, in this year there was just one night on the AT that I was fully alone. It was a night of pouring rain and I was by myself at a campsite just off of the trail having heard that afternoon about some crazy guy who was wandering up and down the trail with a machete trying to intimidate hikers by circling their tents at night brandishing his knife. Yikes. Fortunately, I didn’t meet this guy.
Most of my nights outside in 2022 were in our own back woods and a few of them were honestly, just yards from the back door of our house. We live on a lot that is fully wooded in the back and there are lots of great spots to pop up a tent. In fact, stay tuned in 2023 for stories of the hermitage/retreat/micro-cabin/”she-shed” that I am building (or having built) for some space for writing/reading/yoga/prayer.
There is a feeling when one crawls into one’s tent and zips the zipper up and around, of peace, snugness, tranquility, compact-ness. It’s a great feeling to slide down into the sleeping bag and listen to the sounds of nature. I’ve heard owls, the patter of chipmunks, squirrels, groundhogs and the Boiling Springs train, far off. The wind knocks tree branches together in the canopy above me. The crows announce dawn. One morning (May? June?) the spotted lantern flies let loose their sticky spray (my childhood friend David who is a tree expert tells me that it was “lanternfly excrement”) and I spent the morning washing my tent in a bathtub of soapy water. Gross.
It has been a cushy, “glamping” experience, to be honest. Most nights I’ve had an inflatable mattress between me and the tent floor, big bed pillows, and internet access on my phone so I could read. I’ve been able to gain easy access in the morning to my coffee machine to press “brew,” and, although I’ve taken advantage of the cover of darkness to pee in the yard at 3 AM, a hot shower and big fluffy towels were just steps away. Pretty sweet.
And so, what did I learn? I learned the lesson of discipline. I became more aware of my natural surroundings. I learned that I can be afraid and that I will survive. (back yard camping is not scary, but camping with the threat of a machete-bearing menace is scary). I learned that I can put my tent up in less than 5 minutes. I learned a hard lesson about lantern flies and their bodily functions. I learned that a hot shower and a soft bed on the night after outside camping is always relished. I was reminded of my privilege.
While I do not think that I will work to sleep outside on any kind of schedule in 2023, I will continue to enjoy the occasional night out of doors under the stars and counting fireflies as they light up the night.
I’m onto other challenges for next year and will be sharing news of them in posts to come.