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Grand Canyon: Mirror and Mother

Photo: Emma Donharl

” Almost all humans . . . have strange imaginings. The strangest of these is a belief that they can progress only by improvement.  Those who understand will realize that we are much more in need of stripping off than adding on.” 

– Doris Lessing

Nature . . . mirror to our fears, dreams, untended wounds, and deepest longings.  I had never felt this more keenly than my recent month-long trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.  In the midst of astounding beauty and magnificence, I found myself on a journey through awe and reverence, reflection, and the unexpected discomfort of early-stage-transformation. 

I entered the Canyon thinking I would exit with answers and clarity about my life . . . little did I know I would leave with even less certitude than a month earlier.

Accompanied by my two river-guide daughters, ex-husband, stepson, and a large group of under-30 friends, I wasn’t prepared for the Canyon to be a container holding all of the subterranean yet still active family dynamics, unresolved pain, and my own untended wounds.  

As we descended deeper and deeper into the Canyon, I found myself undergoing my own underworld journey of sorts – a descent into unearthing old patterns and roles that felt ill-fitting yet familiar.


My identity as a mother was up for observation and reevaluation.  I found myself rushing to my girls’ aid to rescue them from uncomfortable situations, as I did when they were seven and hurt by their best friend in elementary school.  

The trouble was – my impulses as a mother hadn’t changed . . . but their needs as grown women had.  They simply didn’t need or want my protection anymore, at least not in the way they did when they were little.


I knew that truth in my brain, but not in my body.  I felt myself responding to old family dynamics with familiar reactions and judgments, surprised that the old patterns were so alive and potent.

Yet another layer of my identity was shedding.  And the Canyon was the perfect (only?) place for this erosion to take place.  With no exits, one is left with few options but to endure and let the Canyon have its way with you. 

Delighting me with its colors and hues, thrilling me with its massive rapids, frightening me with its intense storms, scorpions and rattlesnakes, the Canyon felt unyielding yet wildly loving, wrapping me in her stillness. 

Just like a wise mother.

As I turn 60 this week and enter the “third chapter” of my life, I am grateful to Mother Canyon for holding me as I asked the same questions I did when I was 15.  Who am I?  What do I love?  What does my soul long for? And perhaps most importantly, what am I ready to let go of.


All photos by Emma Donharl unless otherwise noted.

PHOTO: Jake Rowinski


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Nature . . . mirror to our fears, dreams, untended wounds, and deepest longings.

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