The woman stopped and wiped her feet on the tufted mat at the door. Then she hesitated another moment longer before entering the church. She was older, dressed in plain dark clothing, wearing her Sunday shoes. It was a fair day. So the wiping of her feet seemed less necessary than it was symbolic.
She was attending a funeral. And I began to suspect that, more than any dirt or dust from the soles of her shoes, she was somehow also wiping off any bits of worldliness clinging to the underside of her thoughts and heart – leaving it outside, shuffling it off at the door. So that she would be open to the experience at hand. It seemed an incredibly respectful gesture. Terribly mindful and meaningful and tender.
And so I started noticing if others did the same. Some did, some not. Some with more intentionality than others. Some only from long habit and muscle memory and echoes from childhood.
But the image of the lone woman wiping her feet at the church door that day stayed with me for a very long time. And then, quite unexpectedly, it became a new perception – out of all context of place or time – but with clarity and possibility.
I was walking with Quincy the dog through a small woods not far from my house. I was focused on watching for snakes and ruts in the ground, thorny vines to snag at us, roots to trip us up. And suddenly, standing perfectly in the middle of my path, was a grey-brown tree trunk. Its mottled barky skin was discolored and worn. And, just at my eyes’ height, there was the unmistakable shape of a heart. Slightly sideways with uneven edges, there it was – the image of a heart – as clear as if it had been drawn by hand. And placed just so, just for me.
I have a good friend who collects heart-shaped rocks and other types of heart images wound throughout all kinds of natural environments – from deep woods to seashores. Rather like love notes scattered over the earth waiting to be found and read. She is helping me learn to spot and gather and photograph them, too. I still don’t have the “eye” that she does. So this tree heart delighted me.
I suspect that many of us are too often caught up in watching out for the dangers of the world, and miss out on the messages of affection it offers us. I suspect we pass by too many fairy houses in tree stumps and speckled eggs in feathered nests, the mushroom families in our own front yards, and the foot prints of crabs on the edge of a beach, the secrets whispered between the wind and waves on a lake, and all the heart-shaped rocks on our paths or smudged onto the trunks of trees.
One of my favorite A.A. Milne quotes is this: “Always watch where you are going. Otherwise, you may step on a piece of the Forest that was left out by mistake.”
Perhaps if we are careful enough, and wise enough, we may see the magic pieces of the forest that sometimes do get left out – right in our paths. All the misplaced butterfly wings and half-hidden colors, the moss beds beneath the roots of trees, the sly watchers at the edges of pools of water or sun, even the scents of unseen winter jasmine and late spring magnolias and leftover summertime rain.
Perhaps we need to wipe our own feet before we enter all nature-saturated places. Not just out of respect. Not just to avoid tracking in very real debris and detritus of civilization all over its floor. But to wipe off the residue of our own worldliness that clings to us as we enter these sacred spaces. With mindfulness and meaning and tenderness. Like the woman who entered the church. So that we may be open to the experience awaiting us.
I suspect it may be like that as we travel through much of life: We would do well to wipe our feet … and look for the hearts.