“I’ve decided that if I had to live my life over again, I would not only climb more mountains, swim more rivers, and watch more sunsets; I wouldn’t only jettison my hot water bottle, raincoat, umbrella, parachute, and raft; I would not only go barefoot earlier in the spring and stay out later in the fall; but I would devote not one more minute to monitoring my spiritual growth. No, not one.” –Brennan Manning
This week marks a lot in my life. The ending and beginning of several things. Saying goodbye, and saying hello.
I decided to sit with this transition, to ceremoniously mark the end of one season and the beginning of another in Conception, Missouri, home of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. For twenty four hours, I sat in the silence of this place named after the very beginning of newness, of birth. I considered newness and my conceptions of where I find myself, in the here-and-now.
My soul needed this stillness, this quietness: to remember, to let the hidden questions in my soul rise to the surface and to engage with them. To remember that, in the flurry of to-do lists and packing and grading and meetings, that I am a human being, not a human doing. To enter into dialog with the one whom my soul most deeply knows and is deeply known by, the one whom I still doubt and question. He who named me, I needed to ask him again to tell me who I am.
I have been, in the last year, in a season I’ve described to others as pretty steady. There hasn’t been a lot of change, and that has been a gift. It has been a time of setting down roots, of being nourished and in an environment in which I have flourished. With the upcoming changes and shifts on the horizon, I realized this weekend, was able to give voice to the fear that I have of this change. I find myself bracing for this hard, tumultuous, painful season that I’m assuming is ahead. As if this year of favor and rest has an expiration date. Which is somewhat of a paradox. Yes! Of course change is scary- there is a grieving of a season coming to a close, and fears arise as you try to look ahead and guess what the future will be like. But deeper than my fear of pain or hardness, I have a deeper sense of fear that I will settle. That the subtle allure of comfort will trap me in The American Dream. I feel most alive when I am vulnerable. God meets me so sweetly in transition. He has been with me every step of the way. So why these clenched fists? Why this suspicion that He doesn’t actually have what’s best for me?
It stormed during the night. Glorious, mysterious flashes of light causing the trees to silhouette in striking lines on the horizon. The next morning brought in a windy, cloud billowed blue sky of a Sunday. I strapped on my backpack and headed down a road that was labeled “closed” in a kind, hand carved sign put up by the nuns. Down this meandering, broken road was a creek, teeming with muddy water from last night’s storm. Without hesitation, I skirted the bridge and found a side path down to the water’s edge. It was slippery and my feet became covered with slick, silky, silt, but I made it to a sturdy boulder about 100 feet away. Laughing at my little adventure, I took off my shoes and dipped them into the creek. The sun peaking through green leaves, the shock of water weaving through my toes. Well, hello summer. I’ve missed you.
Without knowing quite why, I had, at the last moment, decided to throw a book created by my favorite artist, Sabrina Ward Harrison, Brave on the Rocks. Pulling it out, I flipped to one of the first pages, and read this letter written to Sabrina by her dad. (It’s a little long, but stay with me!)
I drift through your evocative work as if in a dream. Your meld of image and color and word surprises my heart and brings back the many rich moments we have shared together: the magic of our “explores,” holding your little head back to feel snow fall upon your face, the special wave we invented to greet passing trains at Westmount Station. Best of all, I recall the tactile sensation of our barefoot adventures at DeGrassi Point.
Up at our family cottage everybody goes around in bare feet. It’s been that way for over a hundred years. Barefoot travel allows you to get the true feel of a place. Hot sun on the grass, worn roots, slabs of pre-Cambrian granite. When I was a kid the best “secret trail” was the narrow path along the lake once used by Indians who brought their quill and beadwork to the cottage every August. In the old days it was called the Indian Path and it used to go all the way to the Creek, where I watched baby painted turtles sun themselves on lily pads.
Just before you were born the Creek was dredged and new cottages were constructed right on top of the Indian Path. By the time you were ready to discover “secret trails” of your own, the Creek had become a marina, and even a small stretch of the original path was so overgrown it was hard to find.
The summer you turned six you were undaunted. You were obsessed with secret trails and you pleaded with me to show you as many as I could remember. There were a couple of great ones out on Pine Ridge where I used to build tree forts with my cousins. I remember there was another one you especially loved behind the McMurrich boathouse.
The best trail of all was still the Indian Path, and sometimes at sunset we’d find it and walk along together, usually on the way back from swimming on the sandbars. We’d cross over the Frog Bridge and head up the road to your granddad’s driveway, which he had covered that summer with two tons of new gravel.
The thing about bare feet is that they move easily and quickly over mud and dirt and sand and grass but tend to hesitate before a barrier of pointy, sharp-edged gravel.
As a little girl you used to hold your arms up for a “special carry,” and this is what you did the first time we reached the gravel. But in this situation something told me not to pick you up. It’s odd how I can see the moment so clearly, even today.
In my mind’s eye I see myself hunker down in front of you and explain the rules of barefoot travel. I told you paths are not always smooth and familiar like the Indian Trail or the good ones out on Pine Ridge. Sometimes there are rocks on the trail and the only way to cross them is to be brave.
As I sit here so many years later, I smile when I remember how proudly you walked over the gravel that summer. Whenever we came back to the cottage by way of the Frog Bridge, you would get breathless and boldly announce how you were going to be ‘brave on the rocks.’
The words of this letter– a love letter from a Father reminding his beloved daughter who she is, remembering how he taught her how to be brave and how she listened and accepted (wholeheartedly) the invitation. I wept. Funny how that happens when we come across something that so poetically articulates where we find ourselves. We are named by these moments, these pictures of beauty, these metaphors.
I’m not sure what this next season will bring. I have moments of open hands- of accepting and readiness to receive the gift, whether it be severe or sweet. But I am still a frightened little girl, afraid (of so many things– intimacy, change, rejection, failure, of my not-enough-ness and too-muchness). I want to be brave on the rocks, but what if I can’t?
“Oh, Allie! Baby girl, you are! You have been! You will be! Because I’ve got you. I am right here with you,” he says as he hunkers down to my level, holding my hand. What if, even in the moments where we listen to our fears, even when we fall or hide, He loves us like Sabrina’s dad did? He loved her, not by picking her up so her tender feet wouldn’t feel pain, but he Loved her Well by nourishing her “undaunted spirit,” who she was meant to be.
So here’s to choosing to go barefoot. To getting the true feel of the spaces and lands that we find our feet on. To breathe in deeply, to be fully present for all of it.
“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and the pain of it no less than in the excitement and the gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” –Frederick Buechner