So I have this goal for the year to be a better reader. This is a lofty goal for me since reading is not something I’d naturally do, but for the first time in my life, I really do want to read more! I want to know works of the people I respect and to expand my knowledge in ways that only a book can do. So naturally, I’m starting with Barbara Brown Taylor. I’ve always known I’ve loved her ever since Dr. Barnette had us read The Preaching Life for class. But I’ve decided to actually attempt to read another of her books, huge I know. In her book, An Altar in the World, she has a chapter called “The Practice of Walking on the Earth: Groundedness” where she literally talks about the practice of walking with awareness. At the end of the chapter she invites the reader to partake in the spiritual practice of going barefoot. She says:
“Take off your shoes and feel the earth under your feet, as if the ground is holy ground. Let it please you. Let it hurt you a little. Feel how the world really feels when you do not strap little tanks on your feet to shield you from the way things really are…”
With an invitation like that, there was no way I couldn’t try it out. How convenient that everything I do here I walk to anyway! So I tried it. I don’t start work today until 2:00 anyways and I had promised my housemates I’d go to the grocery, a good 6 minute walk from our house. But I gave myself no time limits, put my shoes in my bag and set off.
As I began, I could feel the heat of the day warming my skin. Now I have pretty sensitive feet already, so a practice like this was a test in vulnerability. With every single step, I noticed the heat from the sun rise through the sidewalk. And every time I took a step into a shaded spot, I felt the coolness rush through the soles of my feet and cool my body. But what Barbara forgot to mention was just how hard it is to keep your balance when you are walking that slow! I would attempt to walk at a slow pace in rhythm, but every once in a while I would have to catch myself and reset my balance. But each time, it brought me back to focus on the practice at hand.
I noticed the times when I got to walk on the grass that was coming up through the sidewalk and the relief that came from its softness. I saw every line of tiny ants that I passed by and avoided them so we could both continue on our walking. I saw every ancient piece of gum that had become part of the sidewalk and could avoid those too while still remembering that there were actual people who put that gum there. I listened to the birds and the bugs as they broke the silence.
But of course, it wasn’t even a block before the barking started. It started with just a tiny Chihuahua fenced in my neighbor’s backyard. But as I passed, I practiced the art of paying attention that BBT talks about in one of her earlier chapters. Instead of getting frustrated, I tried to think about that dog in its context. I thought about the family that it belongs to, the kids I’ve seen playing that have named and love that dog. And before I knew it, I had passed by. But that practice became a little harder when I passed the house with four large, snarling dogs pressed up against the fence barking at me. I had to laugh to myself because I can just imagine Barbara loving this. As much as I wanted to quicken my pace and get it over with, I kept going painfully slow. The fenced in part seemed to stretch on forever as the dogs followed me. Their barking even stirred the Chihuahua to bark again in the distance, but I kept going, thinking of the family that lives there. Thinking that each of these dogs have names.
As I got about halfway there, I started thinking, “I should make some meaning of this, see some deeper connection”, but then I stopped myself. That was not the point of this practice. It is simply to be present. I had to also stop my desire to give up, seeing that the destination was ahead and recognizing that more and more people were on the sidewalks too, staring at the crazy white girl walking barefoot at old lady speed. But I didn’t. I walked the same pace, open to the possibility that the next leg could be just as meaningful as the first had been.
At one point, I saw in the sidewalk some footprints I had seen before etched into the cement. I took time to place my own foot inside the print, thinking of the person that must have made them a long time ago. In a neighborhood where it is so easy to see the differences between myself and the people living here, I felt connected to them for the first time.
I noticed when I crossed the street and the ground became tougher and hotter. Admittedly I did quicken my pace twice to avoid the incoming traffic that was inevitable. But I felt the discomfort of the rocks and heat under my feet and it deepened my walk. The sweat down my back. The discomfort of chafing beginning. It all added new dimensions to this simple practice of walking.
The whole walk took me almost 40 minutes, but it was time I had not even noticed I passed! I can’t say that I’ve had some great revelation from this experience, but I can tell you this. Walking that path, the same one I will walk to work and church, will never be the same for me. Thanks be to God.