Monday, May 26, 2008

Walking on uneven ground

Sidewalks on Common just east of Rampart
New Orleans, Louisiana

Was it a week ago Friday that my coworkers adjourned to the Shimmy Shack and I joined them for the first time? Or early last week? I lose track.

In any case, I had driven home then walked to that local watering hole. As I left the perimeter of this particular apartment complex I found myself walking on the side of a very busy street. Discretion being the better part of valor, I made sure I was walking on the grass alongside the curb and not in the street itself, though the path was narrow and not often frequented. I had to exercise caution because the ground was quite uneven.

To appreciate my attention to this you might need to know that I am prone to spraining my ankles. One summer, back when I was 19, I sprained my right ankle not once or twice but three times. The second and third times were less traumatic than the first, which was a very serious sprain for which I got no sympathy and was cut no slack. I was working on a summer camp staff back then - of the sort that fosters what was once called muscular Christianity. While it has been a while since I have sprained an ankle, I have a great respect for irregularities in the surfaces I traverse.

So, as I walked along, I was pondering the issue of "walking on uneven ground." This led me to think of the sidewalks of downtown New Orleans. The photos above are of the section I traverse twice a day between the parking garage and the office. Nearly every sidewalk within sight for blocks is like this, offering endless and varied possibilities to trip, fall, sprain, and injure oneself. A wrongful injury attorney's dream, I dare say.

I can only presume the irregularity in the sidewalks is the result of water from Katrina and its aftermath, but I really have no idea what shape they were in prior to that. The appearance of the sidewalks is more like old damage from years ago that has never been tended to. It makes me think of how zealously cities and neighborhood associations in California come down on anyone whose section of sidewalk might possibly lead to an injury. Once two sections differ by about half an inch you'd better fix it or the fines begin to pile up.

Here, however, there are so many greater challenges that even something as potentially dangerous as this falls lower in the priorities than other things that desperately need to be done (and should have been done some time ago if the collective will were there to support the efforts - shame on us as a nation). The rebuilding and repairs, though visible everywhere, are still so little in view of how extensive the damage was. Each day I drive for miles past buildings with boarded up doorways and broken windows, gross signs of dilapidation, all waiting for the money, the energy, the labor, the materials to restore or replace them. Amid all that there are places that have been fixed up and are open for business.

The point of this reflection, however, is not really to lament the state of sidewalks and building or ponder shattered lives. It is to consider the phrase that leapt into my mind and has remained there: "walking on uneven ground."

I rather like uneven ground when that means natural, unpaved terrain, such as walking in the country or on the beach or in the woods. It stretches and exercises one's feet and is much better for them than plain hard surfaces. Provided I have adequate protection (i.e., shoes), I love walking deliberately on uneven ground - when paying attention, natch. Walking in the dirt is way cool. I am not a country boy, nor an urban one. More of a townie, I guess. But I wax nostalgic about residential areas without sidewalks, as parts of my boyhood neighborhood was back then. Not our street, but portions of the walk between home and elementary school.

Metaphorically, however, life does not present us with even ground for our journey. It is very uneven, with all manner of irregularities - surprises both delightful and dangerous. We can sustain injuries not only to our bodies but to our minds and souls and hearts at any and every turn. Making it through our journey calls for alertness, resilience, and toughness.

We are all walking on uneven ground.

Our friend Kirstin has witnessed to this in her sudden bout with melanoma, facing the diagnosis, having it removed from her ear, dealing with the profound emotions erupting in all directions, and through it all learning, listening to her heart and her body, staying open to God and the community and her own self, and fearlessly sharing it all with the rest of us. I salute her. She has shown us just how uneven the ground we walk truly is, and done so with amazing grace.

The people of New Orleans deal each day with uneven ground on so many levels. Right now the people of China and Myanmar have had the ground beneath them shift, in different ways. Amid all this we recall that what seems to us to be so very solid is only a very thin crust atop a great mass of liquid rock. Amazing to consider.

May you all walk with equanimity and have the health, flexibility, awareness, and sheer life force to make the journey. May love surround you and joy abide deep within you. May you find the grace you need for each moment. May the entire journey be one of growth and greater wholeness, even when chance and age make the parts rather doubtful. May we companion each other well on the road.
--the BB


susan s. said...

Thank you for this Paul. Yes, we all walk on uneven ground of one kind or another.

Not OT, but a little more utilitarian, I have been carrying a cane for several years now because I have weak ankles and have fallen several times, usually bunging up at least one knee and spending time out taking anti-inflammatories for 2 or 3 weeks after each fall. Most of the time I don't need the cane, but I hesitate to leave it at home or in the car because I don't want to risk another fall. You might want to get one at the drug store. They are fairly cheap(under 20 bucks) and give you a third leg(we are anglicans after all :-). I was using my cane in Chicago O'Hare and the guy at the curbside check-in asked me if I wanted a wheelchair. I declined, but I must say that by the time I got to the gate, I was wishing I had taken him up on it!

FranIAm said...

Walking on uneven ground... you really have my mind and my heart humming with that one.

This is an especially beautifully written post, so thought provoking, soul stirring.

Thank you.

(FWIW my right ankle has had multiple sprains as well!)

Padre Mickey said...

A wonderful reflection, Padre.

The worst sidewalks I've ever seen are in San José, Costa Rica, where the ground seems to shake quite often. They've simply given up repairing the sidewalks after so many earthquakes.