It was early morning and as I laced up my sneakers I could hear my husband’s question coming from the kitchen.
“Where’re you going?”
“Out for a walk. Do you want to come?” I asked.
Sofie, the Bernese Mountain dog who had already begun panting from the heat building up, looked at me horrified as if to say, “Please mommy, don’t take me out in that humidity. My fur will frizz just as badly as your hair!”
With a pat on her head, I reassured her she could stay in front of the air conditioner. I would deal with my hair by throwing it up into a ponytail. Again, I asked the question. My husband sided with the panting dog.
“Okay. I’ll be back when I’m back.”
And with that, out the door I went.
Walking had always been a time for me to clear my head, lighten my burden, slow myself down and talk to God. Lately, though, I’ve noticed my walks haven’t been all that prayerful.
Was it the oppressive humidity that comes with living below the Mason Dixon line? Was it now having to walk busy suburban roads rather than the rural ones I had fallen in love with while serving as an accidental country pastor? Or was it because I had unwittingly invited a long lost, toxic friend to join me on my walks?
Yes, somewhere along the way I had welcomed back Miss Rushed And Frazzled—the part of me that takes away any peace that does exist. The part of me who plays a narrative in my head of all the things that need to get done and keeps on playing it like some one-hit wonder on my playlist that I can’t seem to delete.
Admittedly, there was a time when my walks were anything but prayerful. There was a time when I couldn’t even feel the ground beneath me because I was so caught up in clutter. Hmmm? Clutter? What exactly is the definition of that word? That’s right. Clutter—to fill with too many things. My life was filled with too many things and it was destroying the who God wanted me to be.
Then one sweltering summer afternoon, where the exhaust from the New York City buses mingled with perspiration from people packed onto the sidewalks like sardines, all that clutter fell away.
It was on the corner of 32nd Street and Park Avenue that I, for the first time in my life, felt the ground beneath my feet.
It was there my fast-paced walk came to an abrupt halt when a boyfriend, walking by my side, dared to stop mid-step. Before I could ask why, the boyfriend pointed to our shadows and held them with his eyes as if he was gazing upon a Paul Klee we had just seen earlier that day at the Metropolitan Art Museum.
“Look,” he said, embracing a beauty I was blind to—just as I was to the Paul Klee earlier that day. Personally, I prefer the folksy charm of Grandma Moses. But I digress.
I guess my obligatory, less than a second look didn’t convince him that I was in the moment with him. He insisted again that I look. I did my best, but I just couldn’t see what he was seeing. He was noticing us in a moment of time on a city sidewalk. And he took the time to honor that moment as if it was sacred.
There we were, standing still as a silent liturgy lifted to heaven as the city rushed on without us. A squeeze of my hand signaled to me the sacred moment was over and we could begin walking again. I noticed, though, I was pulling him along as his steps were still so slow and mindful.
“Now what?” I asked with as much patience I could muster. He stopped again.
“You don’t get it,” he said with sad puppy dog eyes.
No, I didn’t. And he was more than willing to fill me in on what I was missing.
It seems I was missing what a privilege it was for me to be able to walk. I was missing what it meant to actually feel the hard pavement underneath my feet and to be thankful for the shoes I had that protected my feet from the scorching heat of the pavement. I was missing that fact that each step taken in my life was a gift leading to something beautiful.
A step taken leads to a cool drink. A step taken leads to arms waiting to embrace us. A step taken leads to hearing a new voice, seeing a new place, experiencing a new experience. Without steps taken forward, you wind up nowhere. I was able to those steps. Be thankful for that, he said.
I didn’t understand, too, that life was like our shadows on the sidewalk, begging for us to notice and savor the moment we are in, for that moment will never be again. I didn’t get it. But he did.
He had spent time in the Peace Corps teaching English to children in Africa. It was there he began noticing for the first time the ground beneath his feet. He noticed how others didn’t have the ability to walk as he did. He noticed how others didn’t have shoes to protect their feet from the sun soaked, drought ridden ground. And it was there in Africa he stopped to marvel at the beauty of his shadow on the earth, for far too many of those children he taught would not have shadows to marvel at as their life was shortened by strife, poverty, war and hunger.
“Do you realize what a gift we have right now?” he asked, looking down at his feet. I stood there speechless. I never knew there was so much to be seen, experienced and celebrated in each step I took. I looked down and stared at my feet on the ground beneath me.
A squeeze of my hand nudged me to begin walking again. Right foot, left foot. My shadow walked with me—and I noticed.
Right foot, left foot. I noticed the pounding of the pavement on the sole of my shoe.
Right foot, left foot. I noticed the gift I had been given. I noticed the gifts that were waiting ahead of me.
Right foot, left foot. My steps were different. My steps were prayerful.
Now, many years later I stand on a noisy suburban road. I find myself stopping again. I need to notice my shadow. I need to marvel at the sacredness of the moment I am in, for aren’t all moments we have sacred?
I drink in the heavy morning air scented with car exhaust from the busy road near the house my husband and I rent, not as fresh as the air in our home in Vermont but at least not as pungent as the air that summer afternoon in Manhattan. It is air nevertheless that fills my lungs and for that I thank God.
Right foot, left foot. I am walking—prayerfully again.
Right foot, left foot. I am walking—with God again.
Right foot, left foot. I feel the ground beneath my feet—again.
Right foot. Left foot. I know each step forward will lead to something beautiful—again.
Donna, this essay reminds me of my late friend Elinor Mosser, who was guru to many on Ecunet, in the early days of the internet and email. When things were tough, she would repeat to herself as she walked, “Round side up, flat side down…” to remind herself that she could keep on. Then there was a day when she stopped, and I can only cling to the hope that she is still walking on, this time with Jesus literally by her side… you also remind me, that though my legs give me problems they didn’t used to, I still can walk, I still can move forward, and I’m thankful!