Juandering Out Loud: On Stress, Nature and Finding Your Place in College

The author, Juan Rodriguez, sitting by the Kalamazoo River. The river runs through the Whitehouse Nature Center, one of many places on campus people can visit to take a break from the stress of college life (Photo illustration by Juan Rodriguez).

November 15 wasn’t a good day. 

I woke up with my burdens already waiting by my bedside. In my waking haze, I was able to ignore the voice in my head that recited my tasks for the day. 

“It’s too early,” I said to myself. Let me shower at least. 

The shower cleared away the haze that had muffled the babbling voice. It did so too well. All other thoughts were soon nudged aside by the growing list of demands that others expected of me. 

I could feel the mask start to slip the moment I’d gotten dressed for the day. I was having a hard time getting up and moving out from behind my desk. My combat boots weighed me down like cinderblocks. I figured I’d step out for a moment. If I kept busy, maybe I’d feel better. 

 I got to the Whitehouse Nature Center around noon. I wanted to take some pictures and relax, so I went to one of my favorite spots. I followed the Rail Trail up until it intersected with the Wesley Arden Dick Prairie Trail. I veered to my left and followed the Prairie Trail until I reached the bank of the Kalamazoo River. 

Usually, there’s a bench in this spot along the river. That day though, no bench. I checked. Leaves might have covered the earth and snow might have covered said leaves, but there’s no way the two could have concealed an actual bench.

I made do with the exposed root of a tree that leans over the Kalamazoo. I set my bag down beside me as I tried to seat myself on the root. It wasn’t the most comfortable seating arrangement, definitely no bench, but it wasn’t the worst.

The stress rolled back in as my gaze became fixed on the Kalamazoo. Snowflakes began to fall and create ripples in the water. I could feel my anxiety spike.

 I thought: I have assignments that are past due; why am I here? I can’t keep pace with those around me; why do I have to struggle when playing the part of a productive individual? I’m happy with who I am normally; why do I have to put on a show every time I step outside my room?

“Who are you performing for here, in this moment?” asked a gentle voice in the back of my head. “It’s just you, the trees and the river.” 

I spent half an hour sitting on that tree root until the cold reached my bones. When I chose to get off the root, my anxiety had been frozen out. The cold helped keep me grounded in the present. The river and the voice had further helped ease my nerves, if only for a moment. I was grateful to have had my burdens eased, even temporarily.

Looking back, I’m reminded of a sentiment voiced by environmentalist John Muir in his writings. Muir often spoke of the benefits of the outdoors, whether that be the good tidings of the mountains or the necessity for a touch of wildness. 

One quote sticks with me in particular:

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

I constantly feel that I’m putting on a performance, more so than most people. I struggle to generate the bare minimum that others produce effortlessly.  I constantly have to give all my energy to do tasks that everyone else has deemed to be easy and basic. 

This performance has gotten stale. 

I can’t keep pretending like stress isn’t draining me, especially when the urge to go watch the Kalamazoo grows. I don’t have to pretend out there. I don’t have to spend precious energy keeping up my appearance. I’m allowed to exist and meet my own demands, instead of the demands others ask of me when all I feel I can give is the bare minimum.

I feel like I’m competing against an imagined ideal. If I didn’t feel this way, I wouldn’t even bother entertaining the idea that there was something wrong with me. But because I’m expected to keep pace with the standard before me though, I have to constantly assert who I am to myself. 

I shouldn’t have to spend time and energy justifying my existence to myself or anyone else.

The nature center, thankfully, doesn’t ask me to. Every time I leave, I return revitalized, as if the breeze that carried me out had healed my wounded soul as a parting gift. 

I can’t guarantee that the outdoors are for everyone at every time. That simply depends on what a person needs at a given moment. I do, though, encourage anyone in need of respite to go out and explore. 

Find that specific corner of the world that calls out and offers peace of mind. I’m forever grateful to have found mine, especially because of days like these.

About Juan Rodriguez 23 Articles
Juan G. Rodriguez is a junior hailing from Dallas, Texas. He is double majoring in English and Political Science. As an individual with two pencil leads in his left knee, writing seems to be the only career that Juan is capable of.

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