The Feast

A reflection on nature and community as nourishment

Rainbow Lake beach
Image description: photo of Rainbow Lake, with canoes and a boat house on the beach – taken at Camp Dawn. Photo by Julie Nowak, 2016

Note: This piece was originally presented in September 2016 at the closing ceremony of Camp Dawn, an annual 4-day camping retreat for brain injury survivors in Ontario, Canada. While the reflection is, in part, about the Camp Dawn experience, I think the sentiments can be applied to the general experience of navigating the world when disabled and the need for nourishment.

Content warning: mentions of ableism, healthism and hardship after brain injury; the use of starvation as a metaphor

I breathe in the fresh air as I sit beside the small lake. The water and surrounding forest fill my senses with serenity as I bask in the sun and feel the September breeze on my skin. I am by myself in this moment, feeling the calm of solitude in nature. Yet I do not feel alone, as behind me lies a camp full of people – teeming with excitement and friendliness as they participate in various camp activities.

This – this is what I need right now. To be honest, this is what I need a lot of the time, though I don’t always get it. In my daily life in the city, I try to spend time in parks and go for walks in the forest when I can; but this “nature therapy”, as I call it, is not enough. I need nature immersion, not just nature breaks, in order for my being to actually be rejuvenated and strengthened. I have a hunger for nature that can only really be satisfied by escaping the city and escaping all of the chaos of my life that is there. I believe that all humans have this hunger, but some may crave more nourishment than others. For many of us, the realities we face – by simply being ourselves – are so harsh and hostile that we are depleted of our reserves. We are starving. Starving not only for nature and for a break, but also for community and solidarity.

bonfire
Image description: photo of a bonfire, taken at Camp Dawn. Photo by Julie Nowak, 2015

This – this is why I am here. To satiate my hunger. To be nourished. To fill the void in my stomach that is created by this cruel, ableist, healthist society that tells me I’m broken, worthless, burdensome. Over the past few years since my brain injury, I’ve been in perpetual crisis, having to face constant financial stress, bureaucracy, judgement, and lack of supports to meet my needs. These are stresses that no one should have to deal with – let alone those who are vulnerable and marginalized. Perhaps I could have mustered the energy and fortitude to face this oppressive system before my brain injury – but not now. Not when there are some days when I’m too exhausted to even cook for myself. How ironic that those of us whose health could most benefit from stability and calm are the ones who are thrown into constant stress, as we fight for our most basic needs to be met.

So as I struggle to feed myself with actual food, this system I am now forced to navigate is starving me of other things I need: money, supports, understanding, compassion, non-judgement, community, and a calm stability so I can actually focus on healing and self-care instead of on paperwork and having to constantly prove myself. Without these, I am malnourished.

I am incredibly weak from this starvation, making it that much harder to go looking for food.  But I do what I can to feed myself, even if only in small amounts here and there. My nature walks help, as do other activities that bring me joy and offer community. But these snacks are not enough to properly sustain me. What I need is more regular sustenance, or at least a feast now and then to help me get by for a while.

Rainbow Lake rainbow
Image description: photo of Rainbow Lake at sunset, with an actual, tiny rainbow in the sky above – taken at Camp Dawn. Photo by Julie Nowak, 2016

This – this is the feast. Camp Dawn may only be a few days once a year, but it is a beautiful, delicious, nourishing feast. While, of course, a feast isn’t the same thing as having ongoing access to daily meals, camp fills me and satisfies me in a way that I’ve rarely experienced since my brain injury. The nature immersion calms and revitalizes my whole being. The camp activities offer me a fun and therapeutic break from my regular, everyday life. And the other campers and leaders provide a safe community of understanding, non-judgement, and solidarity. When I am with this group, I feel I can just be “me”, at ease with peers who I don’t have to prove anything to.

This community and this place have fed me so much. I feel less withered, pulled away from the brink of starvation, even if only for a brief time. But the effects are far more than brief. This feast has strengthened me enough to push on – to return to the chaos and face it. The serenity, rejuvenation, and support I’ve experienced here have empowered me to keep fighting for survival. I will continue navigating the harsh realities I live in, taking one step at a time. I will try to regularly seek out nourishment, including spending time in nature and in community throughout the year, as I am able.

And I will hold onto the knowledge that there will be another feast next year. Camp Dawn will be here once again, welcoming me in whatever state I’m in, offering tables and tables of food to restore me for a few days, and sending me on my way with a full belly and renewed spirit to keep me going.

This year Camp Dawn was a scrumptious, satisfying feast, and I am so grateful for this gift. Camp isn’t just about having fun (though certainly it is very fun) – it’s about equipping us to have more endurance as we continue on this long, tough journey. I look forward to the next camp feast; until then, I will take this needed fuel and continue surviving.

forest path
Image description: photo of a path in a forest, taken at Camp Dawn. Photo by Julie Nowak, 2016