Some may describe Rachael Cyrus as one of those earthy-crunchy kinds of people. And they aren’t wrong—she lives up in the North Woods of Wisconsin and works at a camp, raises chickens in her backyard, and is so technology-deficient that she was once easily convinced that iPhones have holograms now.
So, yes, “that camp lady” is one way to describe her. But I think Rachael actually grasps one of the deepest truths about humanity, a fact about our design that evangelicals consider irrelevant in this day and age:
We were created to live in a Garden.
Created for the Outdoors
Sitting with Rachael in the dining hall of Wheaton College after hours, I noticed how surreal it feels to be talking with her under a roof, rather than the expanse of Midwestern sky. I realize as we’re talking that my memory of her is shrouded in sunlight, smelling like campfire smoke, complete with birds chirping and gentle wind rustling the pine trees. It seems so unnatural to be sitting in florescent light on mass produced furniture, and it’s only when a group of noisy middle schoolers burst into the dining hall do I start to feel more comfortable, like I’m back at camp with her.
Rachael knows she wasn’t designed to thrive indoors. Her childhood memories, set mostly in upstate New York, brim with hockey games—she actually aspired to be a professional hockey player—mud fights and skiing. “I didn’t have a favorite toy because we grew up outside,” Cyrus recalls, “I was always more content outside than inside.”
Even when she arrived at Wheaton College for her undergraduate studies, she quickly learned that her plan of becoming a biology teacher would aggravate more than enliven her. “I had a professor tell me that I would be very frustrated by the walls of the classroom. I wouldn’t make it very long as a teacher,” she says with a laugh. “Not because I’m not a good teacher, but because it just wasn’t who I am. I’m not meant to be bound up by four walls.”
She discovered this to be true during her time student teaching: “I was so frustrated by the list of boundaries of what I could and couldn’t talk to these kids about. And when they wanted to engage in conversation about soccer, I wanted to continue with that conversation because it was like, Finally I’m connecting with you… but we have all these state things that we need to live up to from an academic perspective.”
So when she discovered the outdoor master’s program at Honey Rock, she says “it was a natural switch at that point.” Honey Rock, the outdoor leadership development center (read: awesome camp) associated with Wheaton College situated up in the north woods of Wisconsin, became a place of solace and growth for her after her first summer in 2012. With a wide grin she says, “[it] was the first time, I think, I felt completely at home and at peace with what I was doing. I was truly just feeling like I was just me—it was awesome.”
Finding a place of such acceptance and peace was a long-sought journey for Rachael. The heaviness of leaving home and starting over at Wheaton in 2010, combined with the Wheatie-specific pressure of having it all together, proved to be a more taxing leap than she could have anticipated. “Emotions weren’t safe in my family,” she remembers, drumming her fingers on the laminate table, “I never knew how to name them.”
So she didn’t. She fell into the pattern that so many first semester Wheaton freshman fall into: hiding. “You kind of have these masks up of ‘This is who I’m used to being and I don’t want to be that person any more but I’m hesitant to come out of that shell’,” she explains, remembering how difficult it was to look at her own shortcomings, let alone show them to anyone else.
A lover of big Q-questions and deep theological investigation, she “didn’t feel like [she] measured up from a spiritual-theological perspective.” A hard working and passionate runner, her collegiate times fell far behind her high school records. With what felt like failure heaped on failure, by the time that first semester ended, all her unnamed emotions came up: “I was depressed, I was anxious, I did not know what to do, I was kind of at that rock bottom point. My identity just kind of washed out from under me.” She ended up needing to remove herself from Wheaton completely, “to take some time to go home and refocus.”
And it’s there, back outside at a garden center in upstate New York, that Rachael experienced “the most healing five months of my life.” With her hands in the dirt, she tended to her soul as she tended to the flowers, allowing God to “completely reshape my perspective on life.” She came back to Wheaton for her sophomore year rooted in her identity, no longer hiding.
Room to Grow
Now, five years later, when I ask Rachael to reflect on her transition to college, she lets out a dry laugh and says, “Oh boy, this is ironic, I love it when people ask me about it because I totally didn’t do Passage and it was the biggest flop of my life.” Passage is Wheaton’s week long optional transition program up at Honey Rock for incoming freshman, to help them acknowledge and process the significance of the step they’re taking from high school to college.
It’s ironic because Rachael is now the coordinator of the Wheaton Passage program.
“I always wonder how my experience might have been different if I had done Passage,” she says. “I’ve realized the value of taking time to stop before you dive into something as big as college. I think in our generation we tend to ignore the reality of a transition and what it does and the impact that it has.”
Borne from personal experience, Rachael’s empathy and care for those in the midst of turmoil or transition is tangible. A close friend of Rachael’s recalls a time when Rachael, who at the time was a middle school track coach, cared enough about the confidence and technique of these young runners that she would sprint around the track with them to encourage them.
I ask her, amidst the middle schooler chatter, which of her life accomplishments–from her second grade piano recital (“I dressed up as Charlie Brown!”) to her personal track records to triumphing over her rough college transition–she considers the most significant.
Without missing a beat, Rachael replies, “I try not to get wrapped up in those [accomplishments]; the pursuit of best is always futile, I prefer the pursuit of betterment.” She recognizes “betterment” as growth through transition, learning over the years how God the Gardener has been pruning her life and how she should be “responsive and responsible” with the work He has done in her life.
As our conversation in the dining hall, bathed in artificial orange light, wraps up, Rachael quotes a song lyric that’s been on her heart as she’s reflected on her trials and transitions: “You will find that you looked for a sign up above, but He’s there in the dirt where you stood.”
He was there in her childhood as she played in the mud, there in the trenches of her college transition, and there in the soil she tilled as she healed that following summer. Her earthiness feels like godliness; wisdom and confidence garnered only through eating the fruit but ultimately returning to the Gardener.