Aching Feet, Empathy, and Mindfulness

God, my feet hurt, like millions of shards of glass inside when I step, their skin is red and angry. Just touching them, even to rub, hurts. The ache is not only in my feet, though. Ankles, knees, arches, heels, basically my legs, hurt. I would rather wear my New Balance sneakers, the ones with patented foam cushions, today. But I can’t. Because I am on the management staff at a Renaissance Festival.

Yes, a Renaissance Festival. Huzzah!

To be completely precise, it’s a Medieval Faire, and we staffers wear all sorts of fun costumes. Sometimes I’m a pirate, sometimes I’m a fairy, sometimes I’m just in a pretty velvet gown. Whatever the costume, I am never in sneakers. I wear boots. The ground is rocky and hilly, and I have recently had knee surgery. I ache as I work and walk, it’s as simple as that.

In the world of the Ren Faire, fashion choices are as closely and critically scrutinized as those at any runway at New York Fashion Week. The “insiders,” those who have been attending for years, whose closets are stocked with thousand-dollar hand-crafted leather breastplates or jewel-encrusted Elizabethan gowns, love to see and be seen. We may be guilty of preening a bit, like peacocks proud of their beautiful feathery tails. We may also be guilty of sneering at those whose costumes are less correct, less complete, and no single faux pas gathers more derision than the improperly clad foot. “Why bother to wear a costume at all,” we whisper to each other, “if you don’t get the right boots to go with it?”

I am discovering, friends, that it might be that the wearer quite simply doesn’t have the physical stamina or health to do it. And here is where I finally get to the thrust of it, the point, the moral: We cannot always know the burdens that are carried and endured, unseen and unspoken.

 

My grandmother was a survivor of polio, contracted when she was a girl. Her legs were withered, her feet gnarled, with toes literally curled underneath the balls of her feet. When she walked, she walked on nubs, her weight carried by lower legs as thin as the shinbones themselves. As a child, I did not know why she walked as she did, slightly wobbly and frequently touching bits of furniture or wall to steady herself, nor did I give it a thought. She walked how she walked and I loved her dearly, no matter. In retrospect, I marvel that she had the courage to bear and raise five babies. What determination and possessed, to lift children from cribs and carry them with her.

Puckett 50th, 1983

When her children celebrated the 50th wedding anniversary of their parents, they threw a wedding. My grandmother, who had a JP wedding in her youth, made her own wedding dress, it was a beautiful ivory lace top and a moire taffeta skirt with a flounced knee-length hem. Ivory stockings. And she wore matching orthopedic SAS shoes. Her hand was firmly tucked in at my dad’s elbow as he walked her down the aisle until Daddy handed her to my grandfather, where her hand tucked lovingly into the elbow of the man who had been her firm foundation for half a century. Her shoes were not elegant, but her heart was.

Sometimes, we look at the outside appearance and make a judgment of worth, of intelligence, of taste. But we don’t know the battles the target of our judgment is facing: health, fear, pain, want.

The same is true for things less obvious, less visible than shoes. The student who is chronically tardy because she’s living with an alcoholic parent, the CEO whose money can’t save the mother disappearing in plain sight due to Alzheimer’s, the single father working three jobs to pay the light bill.

As I mulled over my grandmother’s cheerful tenacity and stretched in an attempt to minimize my own discomfort, I realized that the simple act of putting on my sneakers, of slipping on my grey no-show socks and tying that double knot, had become a spontaneous meditation. It had enabled presence. I was, for better and worse, fully present in the moment I set my sore feet on the floor. Mindfulness may be more than just walking amongst the bird and the trees. In fact, it must be; for how often do we actually find ourselves in a picture-perfect setting, like modern-day fairy-tale characters surrounded by chattering woodland creatures and babbling brooks? No, daily, modern mindfulness requires gentle rigor, a commitment to listening to both body and spirit. Presence needs an allowance of space and a measure of quiet for the mind to think thoughts and explore intentions. Dressing in solitude, without noise or conversation, this morning allowed me to be aware of my body and provided my mind a chance to make the sorts of connections that will allow me to do my work in the world, moving into and amid humanity from a place of compassion.

I am going to endeavor to seek mindfulness in this time of extreme stress and anxiety, to practice quietude, to intentionally turn off media and allow my spirit to rest. To breathe.

And then I will walk out of my home, sore feet and all, and chat with my neighbors. Conscious connection and gentle presence may be the way through this worldwide, yet crazily intimate, crisis. Peace, my friends. may you stay well.

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Short and Sweet: Love Me Tender

“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.” Charles Dickens

I cry so, so easily. In yoga class, I may cry in the final moments of savasana. Once, an instructor came through the studio anointing our wrists with essential oil;  at her touch, my spirit was compelled to tears; I felt silly. It is not uncommon for me to weep when rocking my grandchildren. I cannot listen to worship music without crying as my soul reaches toward the Divine One. Trees may bring me to a state of gentle lament.

A tender heart is both the blessing and burden of the empathic person and this week my empathy bucket has been drawn off mightily: my infant grandson hospitalized with RSV, disappointing election results, a day spent with local high school theatre students, some of whom went home disappointed and trophy-less. And my first weekend at a new job managing the vendors at a festival that sees a 17-day attendance of over 100,000. There are needs nearly beyond my ample list-making capabilities and the depth of my emotional wellspring when confronted with worried or angry artisans and crafters bearing their own burdens of creative, financial, and logistical stress.

In moments such as those, those moments when we are tired, depleted, and lonely, the Universe, in its Divine Knowing, places who we need in our paths.

At the end of a day of apprehension and problem-solving, I walked myself to a quiet garden, festooned with fairies and flowers, and sat on a wrought iron bench. And there, I met a new friend, a kindred spirit who sensed my fatigue and worry and listened with such compassion that I christened our first meeting with tears.

Too often in our American Can-Do sensibility, we perceive tears as a sign of weakness, sensitivity as a character flaw. We admonish our children not to cry, we lock ourselves in our bedrooms to weep privately into our pillows, ashamed of our vulnerability. And so I say: cry it on out. Cry in private. Cry amongst friends. Let your children see you cry so that they may learn the healing power of it. Own your gentleness and your wounded heart. And let those who love you, whether long-time spouse or brand new friend found by accident in a fairy glen, share your tears to create connections. For connection, relationship, those are the sweet, tender threads that bind us all together and give us the courage to keep walking.

Namaste’.

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