One Foot in Front of the Other

“You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.”
A.A. Milne, Christopher Robin

Several years ago, my granddaughter and I took a short hike toward a promised overlook. It was obvious that she was really not enjoying this adventure. Her foot hurt, she was tired, and she wanted to turn around. The ‘beware of bears’ sign didn’t help either. We stepped off the wooded trail to rest on a large boulder while we considered what we would do. In this small clearing, the sun’s rays shone down upon us, no longer filtered through the leafy overhang. We could hear the rush of a small stream as it played amongst the pebbles on its way to the sea and wildflowers were peeking through the scrub in their dresses of white and blue and yellow and orange. It was just a brief moment of light in the forest. After this short respite, we stepped back onto the path, into the shadows, and beneath the umbrella of leaves.

Glacier National Park

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.

C.S. Lewis

Grief is like that too. As I hike the trail through this valley, the trees open up more frequently to moments of light and flowers and joy, but without warning, I look around and find myself once again in the gloom of thick underbrush and beneath branches that block the sun. Even so, if I keep myself open, grief continues to teach me her lessons. Fear, courage, and bravery are on the first page of her syllabus. It takes a certain amount of daring to face the disorientation and uncertainty of life after a loss. Nothing is as it once was and it’s difficult to find your bearings. To live without equilibrium takes strength, faith, and fortitude.

Grief is also about becoming untethered. It’s about losing an identity. Losing a map and compass all at once – a way to orient our life.

Samantha Smithstien

“You’re so strong and brave,” people told my friend at the death of her second husband. “I’m not brave or strong,” she replied. ” I just get up every morning and put one foot in front of the other.”

Each day we make the choice whether to pull up our big-kid pants, put our feet on the ground, and take those steps forward…or not. Often, we’re doing well to sit on the edge of the bed and just think about moving and there are days when even that is a stretch. But, with courage, hope, and a great deal of bravery eventually, we shuffle our feet and move to the music of life.

One Foot In Front of the Other and Lead with Love

I decided that this year one of my goals is to consciously work on being brave. “Be brave. Be brave. Be brave, ” I chant to myself throughout the day hoping that at some point it will become internalized and I can change this admonition into an affirmation. “You are brave! You are brave! You are brave!”

For me, being brave means moving forward not necessarily with confidence, but with faith. It is the belief that scrambling over the obstacles life puts in our path will make the next hill a little easier to climb. Being brave acknowledges that we’re all going to stumble, fall, and skin our knees. It also gives us the resilience not to let those set-backs put a halt to our progress. Being brave allows us to laugh at ourselves when we trip and land spread eagle on the ground, our glasses askew, and those big-kid pants on display for the world to see. Bravery reminds us we just need to get back up.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Winston S. Churchill

On my December trip to Vermont as darkness fell and after hours of driving, I accidentally turned off the road I knew, the road I meant to be on, and started down an unplanned route. In that instant with a single right turn, I was facing my top three fears…being alone, being somewhere unfamiliar, and making an error in judgment. The disembodied voice from my GPS assured me that I could indeed go forward on the new road and that it would lead me to my destination. Since I had never approached my destination from this direction I thought perhaps the GPS knew a better way. She didn’t. Following her instructions, I found myself in upstate New York, on the wrong side of Lake Champlain. She’s taking me to a bridge, I thought. She wasn’t. At 10:30 on a Wednesday night, I found myself at the ferry dock which had been closed for hours. I was on the wrong side of the lake, I didn’t know where exactly I was, I had no idea how to find the bridge, I was tired, and it was beginning to snow. In all honesty, it was scary.

Seyon State Park, Vermont
New Year’s Eve, 2019

Don’t be afraid of being scared. To be afraid is a sign of common sense. Only complete idiots are not afraid of anything.”

Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Angel’s Game

With help, via cellphone from my son; after figuring out how to override the GPS that kept trying to take me back to the ferry; and with a great deal of positive self-talk as I drove twisty, snow-covered and deserted back roads I eventually found my way to the bridge and familiar roads in Vermont. I was disgusted with myself for not simply returning to my regular route after making the wrong turn and yet, facing my fears and solving the challenge of the situation was exhilarating and empowering. Half of being brave is just breathing and taking that next step.

“A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Be brave. Be brave. Be brave.” Yes, this is my mission for the year. I was never courageous enough to climb the huge pine tree with the rest of the kids in the neighborhood. I missed seeing the world from that lofty vantage point. What else will I miss if I don’t dare to live my life as it is, even if it is still a little out of sync? I’m learning to be brave, so I’m pullin’ ’em up and I’m steppin’ out.

“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”

Rainer Maria Rilke with

If You’re a Worm…Sleep Late

The Virtual Jar

As the end of the year approaches and thoughts of the New Year are slipping into our consciousness a simple suggestion begins to pop up on social media. Write your gratitudes on a slip of paper at the end of each day. Put the slip into a glass jar and a year from now you’ll have 365 reminders of the many blessings that you have enjoyed during the year. I immediately liked this idea when I first read about it several years ago, but being in possession of assorted diaries that are blank beyond February, I was aware of limitations…I’m not always that good at follow through. “What if I had friends willing to undertake this idea with me?” I wondered.

And so it was that in January 2014, fifteen Facebook friends, whose only connection to each other was their relationship to me, committed to one year of sharing blessings, joys, and happy surprises with each other in a secret online group. We called it The Virtual Jar. We filled the jar…the virtual jar…with the description of small joys, pleasures, and wonders as well as photos, memes, poems, and paragraphs about the large events in our lives as well. The group commitment kept us all involved and at the end of the year we were indeed able to all look back on the blessings and gifts in our lives. Sharing the riches of our lives, was uplifting and encouraging, but the added bonus of this exercise was listening as these women reframed misfortunes, disappointments and sorrows into a positives worthy of gratitude. By their example I discovered that on the days it’s a challenge to find something to smile about simply changing your point of view could make all the difference.

I’ve been thinking a lot about perspective in the past few months as I went through the process of moving from Vermont to Michigan. Many of my friends…in Michigan and Vermont…knew of my decision, but of course nothing is totally official until it has been posted on Facebook. When I finally made my plans public the juxtaposition of the comments made by my two groups of friends was quite humorous. My Vermont friends left messages of shock and sadness, while my Michigan friends left messages…in the same thread, I might add…of surprise and delight. The same facts, but the reaction was totally based on perspective.

Change Your Perspective

One November, decades ago while Dave was in the UP…Upper Peninsula…of Michigan deer hunting, I came home from shopping to discover that my electric blanket had been smoldering all day and my mattress, while not yet in flames, was also slowly burning. I called my friend and asked if her husband was home. “Yes”, she drawled. “Why do you ask?”

“Well,” I replied, “Could he come down and help me? My mattress is on fire.”

Yes, I know the situation left the door open for all kinds of joke telling…husband away…hot mattress and all…but at the time I was just concerned about getting the bedding out of the house. I also know I should have called the fire department, but…like I said…I just wanted that hot mess out the door. Of course, once the smoldering fabric hit the oxygen of the outside air, flames erupted and it made quite the sight out on the lawn until we doused the blaze.

The next day at work my friend said, “Boy, you were really lucky.”

“Well…I was thinking that if I were really lucky the fire wouldn’t have started at all.”

“But you are lucky,” she said. “You are very lucky that you have a house that could have burned down. Not everyone has a house that they could lose. You do.”

I’ve often thought about that logic and being prompted to look at the situation from another vantage point.

My sister and her husband live on the Muskegon River. Shortly after carpenters had completed a project installing new gutters on the front of their house a large tree fell onto the roof, taking a large chunk out of the brand new gutters. When they surveyed the damage they noticed that although the roof and the gutters would have to be repaired…again…without the tree blocking their view they were suddenly able to see the beauty of the river much more clearly. Like the 17th Century Japanese poet, Mizuta Masahide, who wrote: “Barn’s burnt down –now I can see the moon,” they were literally given a new way of seeing, but more than that, in the case of the poet and also in my sister’s case, looking at the entire situation in the less obvious way gave them a new perspective. Instead of lamenting what was lost they rejoiced at what was newly discovered. Well…at least until they get the bill for the gutters.

Changing the way we look at things can be healing and helpful. Leaving Vermont was like suffering another loss; another grief. I mourned as the Green Mountains of Vermont gave way to the plains of Ontario. For more than four hundred miles I was leaving a place and people I love until suddenly, just as anticipated, my perspective changed. I was no longer sadly leaving Vermont I was arriving in Michigan with a sense of excitement, adventure and looking forward to being with other people I love.

I-89 North of Montpelier

If you don’t like something change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.

Mary Engelbreit

When my son was young we took him to the eye doctor. After the exam, the doctor said, “There’s nothing wrong with this boy’s eyes.”

“But his teacher said he can’t see the board,” I exclaimed in a puzzled voice.

“That’s ’cause Bruce’s head is in the way.”

As far as I know, the ability to change how we think about something is a uniquely human experience. For the most part, we can control where we stand to watch the sunset. We can choose where we sit to gaze at the stars. If Bruce’s head is in the way…just move our desk.

Sunset on Simon Pond, Tupper Lake, NY ADK

Peacemaking, acceptance, understanding and compassion are also the result of a change of perspective. Looking through another’s window might help to explain the way they see the world. We might not agree on what we see, but it is a beginning. At least we’d be looking.

It’s all just a matter of perspective.

Oh, if you’re a bird, be an early bird
And catch the worm for your breakfast plate.
If you’re a bird, be an early early bird–
But if you’re a worm, sleep late.”

Shel Silverstein, Early Bird, Where the Sidewalk Ends

Gettin’ In The Water

One afternoon last week, my three grandchildren and I piled in the car and drove up to the neighbor’s for a swim in his pool. We plopped our towels and other paraphernalia down and prepared to enjoy the inviting crystal clear water. I watched as the three children excitedly approached the pool. I watched my grandson gingerly putting a foot into the water at the first step and immediately pulling it back onto the sun-warmed cement deck. “Ooooo. That water is cold,” he giggled before trying once again. Our teen decided to sit on the edge and dangle her feet in the water to get acclimated before taking the plunge. This back and forth activity went on for quite a while…first one body part and then another. Perhaps, they thought, going slowly, bit by bit, would be the easiest way to get fully submerged in the cold, but enticing water.

The middle child walked confidently away from the steps to the side of the pool. She adjusted her goggles, took a breath, and then just went for it. In a seven year old’s version of a cannon ball she was immediately wet from head to toe, and after regaining her breath, momentarily stolen by the frigid water, was soon paddling around like a little otter while the other two were still trying to work up the courage to actually get in.

When I was younger I might have opted for the dive-in method, but now it takes me longer and longer to get into the water and adjust to the temperature. With age and experience comes caution. I’ve experienced that shock of frigid water and I carry that memory with me. I want to get in the water; I mean, what’s the point of swimming if you only wade in up to your knees, but yikes! You can put it off, but if you’re going to swim, sooner or later you’ve just got to get past the tender bits and duck beneath the surface.

As I exercise my decision-making muscles, I recognize that I make many choices in much the same way. Sometimes I make a cannonball determination. I run forward, pull my knees to my chest, make a huge splash and displace a lot of water. There’s no turning back and there’s no second-guessing. You’re in baby! From head to toes you’re fully committed. On most occasions I’m more of the toe in the water kind of gal; moving slowly toward a decision while weighing every possibility, each step deliberately taken, hesitating momentarily, yet still moving forward down the path toward the beach.

Prince Edward Island, 2018

Several years ago, three women friends and I decided to spend a glorious summer day exploring some of Vermont’s nude swimming holes. Yes, you read that correctly.

Interestingly enough, in Vermont, it is not illegal to be nude in public, but it is illegal to disrobe in public. You can leave the house without clothes, but you can’t take them off in the public square once you leave your house. Skinnydipping is not only permitted in some cases it’s encouraged and expected. Most kayakers I know have at one time or another stripped down on a hot summer day for a quick dip. Getting back in the boat can be a challenge, but trust me, it can be done.

We are always looking for new adventures and nude swimming certainly seemed to fit the bill. It was absolutely something none of us had ever done before. There was a limit to our bravery however and we were only interested in swimming where the bathers would be limited to the four of us and even then there was discussion about whether we’d go in sans undies or not.

All it takes is one brave soul and before you know it you’re at the edge of the pond in the all together, wrapped in a towel, trying to figure out the most discreet way to enter the water. I stepped to the edge of the shore and before I could give my modesty and my entrance any consideration the gravel beneath my feet began to slide and I was propelled backward on my bum and sliding with great rapidity into the drink. No time for uncertainty or indecision. Within seconds, I had lost my balance, my towel, and the internal argument of should I or shouldn’t I. I was in and after the initial shock it was quite delightful.

Skinny Dipping in the Mill Pond
Summer About 2010

I know the adage about not making any hasty decisions when your partner dies…give yourself time to test the new and unfamiliar waters…but a few weeks ago when I decided to sell my house it didn’t seem rash or unwise since Dave and I had been weighing the pros and cons of it together for a long time. It was definitely not a cannon ball leap toward something new. For months it was absolutely a toe in the water situation. Until unexpectedly one day it wasn’t. Without even realizing I’d made the decision I was suddenly at the pond knowing that the gravel was sliding and so was I…feeling vulnerable, exhilarated, scared, and excited. Yep, I was going for it!

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” 

John Lennon, “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”

Whenever any of us stand and contemplate whether to get in the water or remain on the warm deck, it’s good to remember that most likely the worse that will happen is that we’ll get wet and maybe a little chilly. As I prepare for my next adventure I know that if the water’s too cold or I’m getting a little too ‘pruny’ I can always get out, towel off, and see what else I can find along the shore or maybe I’ll just grab a beach chair and just sit in the sand for awhile.

Standing at the Irish Sea
June 2015

Jump!

“When it feels scary to jump, that is exactly when you jump. Otherwise you end up staying in the same place your entire life.” —

Oscar Isaacs as Abel Morales in A Most Violent Year

While walking through the park the other day I watched a group of little girls running along the top for five picnic tables which had been arranged in a long straight row. The elevation of the tables provided added excitement and the girls giggled with the sheer delight as they dashed from one end to the other and back again. As I got a little closer, I noticed that there were two little girls standing at the end of the last table in line. A girl in a pink and white sundress stood on the ground while her friend remained at the edge looking down at the ground. “Jump. Jump,” the one in pink implored, but her friend hesitated. I wanted to stop and ask the one considering the jump what she was thinking. What was she weighing in her little mind? Was it the distance from table to grass? Was it the fear of a hard landing? Was it peer pressure that caused her to consider jumping in the first place? I walked on while the hesitation and the cajoling continued, but I’ve thought a lot about those barefoot girls in their summer dresses.

Summer Morning
Star Island, 2019

About fifteen years ago my sister, Kelly, invited me to join a group of women on a white water rafting trip down the Gauley River in West Virginia. The morning of the promised adventure the eight of us, in various sizes, colors, ages, and levels of fitness and only loosely connected by a shared relationship to my sister, climbed into the raft together.

The first test came when our guide, young Captain Mike, who at that time was still under the impression that he was in control of a boatload of middle aged women, informed us that we were approaching Jump Rock. “This is Jump-Rock,” he said in his most authoritative voice. “It’s not Climb-Up-There-and-Decide-Rock. Once you’re out of the raft there’s only one way back in. You have to jump.”

I’m usually pretty timid about such things and I hate heights, but as I gazed up at the cliff face I suspected that the tenor of our entire adventure hinged on this decision. I was going to climb up there and jump. When the others who were hesitating saw me…old, chubby, and out of shape…preparing to make the trek up rocky path to the top they too gathered their courage and we all jumped off that rock.

She took a leap of faith and grew her wings on the way down. 

David Brinkley

I suppose you could call my jump…holding my nose, my eyes squeezed shut, and yelling all the way down…a minor leap of faith. I’d watched others do it before me. I was confident in what lay ahead. I knew that eventually I’d hit the icy water, sink momentarily beneath the surface and then pop up gasping for air and, I imagined, feeling exalted. It took a fair amount of courage on my part to move from tera firma, but in doing so I was given the wings of self-confidence, fearlessness, and moxie. From that point on we were bonded; we were invincible! That day was one of my peak life experiences. I sometimes wonder, would that have been the case if I’d remained in the raft and merely watched?

White Water Rafting
Pixabay Photo

Often of late, I find myself standing at the edge of what feels solid and comfortable contemplating whether to jump or not. The loss of my partner has also meant I’ve lost a part of who I am or at least who I was when I was part of a team. I am trying to discover, create, or at least identify who am becoming. That journey involves risk and taking chances. Sometimes the metaphorical jump is just a matter of going to the movies by myself, walking into a restaurant and asking for a table for one, or checking into a hotel and only needing a single key. Do I jump or do I stay in the boat?

A Soft Day in Scotland, 2014

On a trip to Scotland in 2014, Cousin Doug, coaxed and teased me into taking a short hike up a. steeper than I’d like, hillside to see one of Rob Roy’s hideouts. I wasn’t planning to hike that day and was ill prepared, without proper footwear, or my hiking poles. Then it began to drizzle. it was Scotland after all. I was soon wet, tired and the trail had turned to mud. Oh, the evils of peer pressure!

I finally convinced Doug that I was in beyond my skill level and needed to turn back. Taking a different…supposedly shorter…return route we came to a very small stream…a trickle really…that Doug hopped over effortlessly.

“Jump,” he said. “You can do it.”

“No, I can’t,” I replied.

“Sure you can. Just jump.”

“Jump into the middle of things, get your hands dirty, fall flat on your face, and then reach of the stars.”

Ben Stein

Moments later I lifted my head from the mud where I had landed face first, to see my sweet cousin convulsed with laughter.

Life presents us all with choices. Do we stay with what we know or do we take a risk and discover something new? Do we jump and learn to fly or are we content to hang onto the branch for a while and enjoy the way it sways gently in the breeze ?

“The sparrows jumped before they knew how to fly, and they learned to fly only because they had jumped” 

Lauren Oliver, Liesl and Po

The real leap of faith is learning to trust ourselves to know when it’s right to step off and when we need to stand firm. It’s perfectly fine to wait on the edge, contemplate, and step back for a while or to decide not to jump at all. No one is ever forced to climb Jump Rock and we can always just wade through the stream or we simply slide off end of the picnic table. Then again…flying is pretty cool and if you get a face-full of mud it makes a good story.

Jump or not…the choice is ours.