I trudge, wading and sinking, in the woods. The snow lies deep, up several inches over my knees, nearly to my waist where the trees are thin and the branches less likely to block the falling blizzard. The dogs burrow ahead of me, almost swimming, unable to move save by great bounding leaps forward, one behind the other. They take turns breaking trail for me, their every one bound equal to two of my strides. It is growing dark under the trees, and I am cold and moving slowly, forced to stop every hundred yards to catch my breath again. For once, the dogs don’t seem to mind the pauses–they too are winded.
When I stop to rest, shifting my weight to sit in the snow I am wading through, the woods are silent. All I hear is my own gasping breath. Even the trees are perfectly still, their branches too weighted down to move in the breeze. Overhead, the sky is dense with snow-filled clouds, now holding back their burden for a while. Tonight, I know, the wind will rise, will pick up the weight of the fallen snow and churn it into great drifts against the house, the barn, the little spring house by the road. It is cold now, but it will be colder then. My cheeks are numb, but underneath the senselessness of my skin, I can feel how warm my muscles are.
I am reminded of myself on a day like this, fully ten years ago or more. It was a school day, but I finished my homework early in order to hurl myself into the silence that comes after a blizzard storm. I went out in the new, surprised sun without a coat–just a hat, mittens, and bib-overall snowpants between me and the new-fallen snow. It came up to my armpits, and I swam out alone, pushing and sliding my way down the meadow to the stream bottom under the trees. It took me ages to make my way back up the long hill afterwards, laughing with every struggling step.
I am reminded of myself, too, on a day not as long ago, in late spring or early autumn. We climbed to the top of the highest sand dune in south-western Michigan, and stood looking out at the Lake under the brilliant sun. We left our shoes and socks there at the top, and I made my way barefoot along the ridgeline, walking the sharp, sandy spine between earth and sky, picking my way through the razor-edged grasses that somehow manage to find a foothold, even at such a height. At a place where the view of the water was swallowed up by a deep valley-bowl between the dunes, we went down.
It was like flying, or walking on water. Every step was a giant’s step, the sliding sand sending me ten feet at a time down the impossible slope, sunk up above my ankles in the heavy hot. I felt a need, burning, to leave something in that silent place, and so, at the bottom, cupped in the palms of the great dunes, I danced. I will never forget what it felt like, to leave the print of my bare feet, spun and circled at the bottom of that windless valley, my fleeting signature for the gulls and sand fleas to read and marvel at. The toil back up the endless slope took days, it seemed, sliding two steps back with every one forward, the only firm ground hundreds of feet below us, and my heart tugging backward all the way to the smallness of my bare footprints at the bottom.
This sliding of the sand underfoot is like the sliding of the snow at my breast long ago is like the sliding of my feet and the dogs through the drifts tonight. My trail stretches out behind me, and it will be erased by wind and falling snow, just as the pattern of my dance in the palm of Michigan was erased. All the imperfection of my scratched attempts to mark a place, to force there the imprint of myself, is made clean in the deep changing of the wind. Tomorrow, all the record of my stumbling in the darkness of the forest will be gone. Tomorrow, I will find here grace and a second chance, as immeasurably overflowing as that of Christ.
photo of me by Kim Goodling