Barefoot Beneath My Feet
On the rare days that I have the balance to walk, I choose to do so barefoot, even if it means that I compromise my stability in the process. Grant you, those days are exceedingly rare and when they do come, I am like a child again, constantly making discoveries that my peers have forgotten long ago. I was 18 when I first felt the morning dew from the grass on the bottom of my feet. I was walking across a freshly mowed field in the foothills of North Carolina, a friend on each side, when the crystal drops kissed my feet. Each little drop held an entire universe of color and science as it baptized my feet with the fresh water of the new morning haze.
Two years later, I found myself walking along the southern beaches of the Carolinas, again firmly supported by two more friends. Never before had my feet sank into the sand, been covered by a compound so vast, or felt the entire earth move beneath my feet. I had no sense of the ground I was walking on, what crevasse the sand and splinters would next inhabit my foot, and everything beneath my step was alive. The shells, the critters, everything that the ocean pulled in was full of vibrant life compared to everything I felt on my sole. Walking barefoot connected me to the rest of all that was in existence rather than that same mettle plate that held my feet day in and day out. When I did not walk, what I felt beneath my feet was only the same five inches of steel day after day.
And so, when I stood to feel the life beneath my feet, the new discoveries were made with two other souls by my side holding me up from the ground. Souls who had felt the life move beneath their feet when they were still stumbling to walk neglected their discoveries now. It was a period of their life which had passed long ago and they had long since forgotten. But now, they were serving me by walking me across such an unknown landscape, not just helping me get my destination, but unknowingly allowing me to explore a new corner of a complex life. To the people walking beside me, it was the place I was trying to get to that was the important service. Any new discoveries I made along the way were side effects.
Often I think when people look at me, they see an opportunity to serve, to have a good deed done for the day. While I do need more help than most, my independence is all the more valuable to me when it comes to the very limited amount of things that I can do. Many of my friends call it stubborn when I try for 20 minutes to open a can of soda or put on a jacket, but it’s so much more for me than that. Every mundane accomplishment is a declaration that I am here, that my actions are strong and that I am still a force moving and shaping this chaotic place. Reduce me to someone merely to be served and I am worthless except when it comes time for you to feel good about yourself.
And yet. as an individual of faith, I am bound to appreciate my fellow man and the offering of service he renders. To serve another is to knit me together with my fellow man in an offering to the transcendent truth that is merciful to us all, or so they say from the pulpit. But I, in my frail humanity, am often considered one to be served rather than offer service to another. I sit in the simple wooden pew and even in the silence feel the questions boar inside my skull from the rest of the congregation. Now I feel connected to all around me only because 10,000 inquisitions bounce around in my head from being trapped inside like a thoughtful superball. Should I? How much pain? How long? What can I do to help? The answer: I’m fine. I got here by myself, didn’t I?
However, let me challenge you for just a moment in a way that drives the Western world mad: let me serve you. I am not just someone to be served when I need it and when it is convenient to you. I do not only exist at Christmas or when the charity bucket gets hung up for donations outside some Wal-mart chain. Therein lies the true shame of it all… here is the true tragedy of disability, if you will: Are we not all equal? And as equals are we not required to pull our own weight so that not only do you feed me dinner because I need to eat but then, I can hold your head when you’re fighting from going under. My hands still work, my heart is not yet at peace, and my heart yearns to shape this world as much as yours does. I want to shape the ground that my feet walk upon.
A few weeks ago, we held a foot washing ceremony during the worship service I go to every Thursday night. The service is simple in that Calvinist sort of way that only can come with years of struggling with calloused hands and aching muscles. The feeling and optimism come from hard work and from biting into the impossible while trying to swallow the world whole. The sanctuary is dimly lit by flickering candles reflecting against the whitewashed walls and simple oak pews. Our water basins are not made of glass or silver, just sturdy plastic so that the containers can have a myriad of unexpected uses. The towels we use are old and have seen everything from rainy days and the bottom of muddy boots to hot pans from an oven. The tools are meager, but like so many things in life, the more meager something is, the better it feeds your insides.
The Christian tradition of foot washing is one of my favorite actions. It’s not a ritual, requirement, or even retribution. It’s just a form of service taken from the ancient days when everything that was in the world (rocky, soft, or just plain disgusting) touched the bottoms of a man’s feet. For me, that’s the tenderest area of body, mainly from years of inexperience. However, when a host did not wash the feet of his guests, that was a sign not only of dirty floors but of a hard heart, as well.
I dipped my feet in the warm water and prepared to lift them up by request. I looked at yet another friend who had gotten me up countless mornings, fed me a multitude of meals and caught me from falling both physically and emotionally. Without thinking, I got out of the tub and knelt beside her, every bone of my foot pressing into the wooden floor. I did not worry about splinters or even sores in my feet, I only wanted her to know that she was loved. The warm waters of the bucket felt more soothing on my hands than it did on my feet. Though I felt that every eye in the room was watching me, I did not mind that I was feeling such discomfort. I knew I had not completed the act of washing her feet because I wanted everyone to see what a stellar servant I was; I did not mean to get on the floor for my own comfort, because if it was up to me I would be doing it in a closet. I washed her feet to understand her life, her way of traveling the world, and the places her feet had taken her that mine had not.