Shadowy Thoughts

“It is only through the shadows that one comes to know the light,”–St. Catherine of Siena

Sunshine filtered through diaphanous clouds strung across a canvas of azure.  Inhaling gratefully, the pit-pat-pit-pat of my footfall maintained its slowly-as-I-go pace, as I headed along Third Avenue towards the campus of Marshall University.  Temperatures were hovering in the low 40s when I left the confines of Ritter Park and were predicted to rapidly rise into the 70s once the wind shifted and sky cleared.  It was a glorious morning for a run (or, in my case, a slow trot); time for my mind to likewise roam free.

It was about 40 minutes into my run that first revealed the beginnings of a lesson.  Rays began shining so brilliantly as the light of the sun began breaking free from the cloud cover. I was reminded of summer morning sunlight, especially at the beach when . . .

. . . the air is still cool, but the warmth of the sun, reflecting off the oceans waters, whispers of fiery heat to come.  Ocean breezes playfully tousle the hair of beachcombers walking the shore lines; their shadows cast long, accompanying their journey along the sand.  Birds call from above, and they too cast shadows of flight as they dip and dive at their prey . . . .

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Passing through part of the campus of MU, silhouettes of tall multiple structures stretched long and lean as I ran up, over, and around their contours thinking of all the potential possibilities that would typically pass over this walk if it were a weekday.  I was reminded of my former self on another campus, in another time.  It seemed like a lifetime ago.  Pit-pat-pit-pat, my continued cadence reminded me time waits for no one; like the dark building profiles, those university years were shadows of my former self.

Mind wandering once more, it circled back to the sunlight and the way it played hide and seek with each shadow I encountered.  How miraculous the sunlight had seemed this past week–one of those rare, early March weeks, when you know, despite the early morning chill, spring is around every corner, nook, and cranny.  It is that time when the earth remains cold, but soft–wafting with scents of melted snow, recent cold rain, and potential growth sprouting signs through the surface. Meanwhile, spring birdsong abounded each morning throughout the week, as the mating season began with the hope that winter’s shadow is finally shaken.

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Taking notice once more of my surroundings, I took in the expanse of St. Mary’s Hospital;  it’s shadow stretched towards the multitude of campus offshoots behind it.  How many visits have I made there for and/or with loved ones in the shadows of duress?  I began to name them in my head, one-by-one; and yet, my own daughter was born there–one of the most miraculous, brilliant days of life.  What a contradictory place, a hospital, filled with celebration, healing, and hope, but its shadows are filled with fear, illness, and stress.

Crossing over 29th Street, I moved back towards town along 5th avenue where the shadows flipped positions with my shift in direction. I caught a glimpse of my own shadow, appearing long and tall, cantering slowly alongside.  Do I really move like that because I know I am not that tall?  My head began to play games.  For the first time, my mind took notice of the leg fatigue and achiness, the swelling of my feet.  I have less than an hour, I remind the negative side of my brain, my own shadow-self.  Look how far you’ve come.  Think how proud you will feel knowing you did not quit. But I could quit.  I could walk the rest of the way.  I could even call my husband or daughter to come pick me up.  Why would you do that?  You can do this, mind over matter.  No sense believing your shadow, it’s only there because of the light. 

Wait, what? The shadow is there because of the light?

 I am not sure how it made sense, but there was something there, in that thought, in that moment.  Trying to grasp its meaning, its deeper lesson, my mind instead slipped back into the present moment as my feet made their way onto another side of MU campus.  People in colorful costumes were walking towards the campus’ Student Center.  Their colorfully adorned hair, swords, and/or light saber-sort of things, capes, and shields cast intricately shaped shadows that seemingly entered the building well before the actual person.  They must be headed to a comic-con celebration of the shadowy heroes of graphic design.

From 5th Avenue, I eventually made my way to 6th Ave, slowly edging closer to 8th Street for my final lap around Ritter Park as the sun continued to rise and the winds shifted in short, gusted outbursts.  Preparing to pass a presumably homeless gentleman who was walking with a grocery bag in one hand,  I voiced my approach that I would pass him on his left–not wanting to needlessly startle him. He turned to look at me.  His face was red with exposure, covered in a film of grime, his beard was in need of a shave, and his eyes were swollen, but within the center of each sparkled the hint of another life.

“Good morning, Sir.” 

He smiled a mostly toothless, friendly grin.  When he did not speak, I wished him a good day.  He raised a puffy pink hand, and shouted a cheer in my direction.  Within a split moment, his face seemed to fill with light, and for a fleeting instant, I saw the person/the child he once was.  Briefly choked with emotion, I wished desperately that I could somehow impart within him the same vision of potential that I saw within him, in the hopes he could; instead, step into the light and walk away from the shadow of addiction and/or mental illness.  Sadly, I could not, his fight was greater than I could imagine; so instead, I waved back to him, whispered a prayer of hope for his life, and continued on my way.

Returning to the welcoming, much softer path of the park, I completed my run through the dappled light of the Ritter Park loop.  Sections of the crushed limestone path were swathed in shade, and other parts were bathed in full-on sun. Newly established decorative, and highly symbolic, sunflowers dotted parts of the path, allegorical reminders of the shadows of hate and greed left unchecked on a global scale. Can the light of love and peace overcome this?  I can only pray and hope it does.

The sunlight had been a welcome sight, but it was bearing down nearly 30 degrees warmer than when I had first begun.  I was over-dressed and overheated. Nonetheless, I realized, as I walked uphill towards where I had parked, my sunlit run had brought both brightness and heat, cheer and defeat, mind over matter, and lessons of shadow-side of light. 

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Life can indeed be filled with shadows–the darkness of depression, despair, hopelessness, sickness, and for some, even moments filled with greed, jealousy, hate, and numerous other forms of darkness I cannot begin to understand.  Of course, we cannot control the shadows of the world, but we can remind ourselves that where there is shadow, there can also be light.  Without the light, there is no shadow. It is a duality for which we must make peace.

In the meantime, it is up to each one of us, in those moments when we find ourselves dwelling in the shadows too long, to step out into the light.  We may not be able to do it alone; however, by relying on faith, and trusting in the Ultimate Creator of Light, we can, step-by-step, find the light once more.  Who knows?  Your light might be the light that leads another out of their own darkness.  

May your light shine brightly.

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Like a Prayer

“Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I’d look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.”–L. M. Montgomery, Anne of the Green Gables

“Ms. Hill, don’t you like doing healthy stuff like hiking and running?”

The 6th grader looked at me with sincerity written across his face.  He was in my homeroom, the group of students with whom I start and end the school day.  By this point in the school year, I have come to know most of the students in this group fairly well, and this particular young man, in spite of his energetic youthfulness, has an uncommonly thoughtful side.  

The group of boys with whom he was talking and joking around at the end of the day, all turned to look at me.  I affirmed that I did indeed like both of those activities, but that I also enjoyed walking or simply being outside equally as much.

Nodding, seemingly with understanding, the same young man further inquired, prodding as to why I liked being outside.  After pausing to gather my thoughts, I explained that it made me feel happy, at peace, and connected to God. 

“So it’s kinda like a prayer, huh?” 

Out of the mouths of babes, or in this case, a 6th grader . . . 

Then, in typical middle-school fashion, the young man’s conversation quickly pivoted back to his buddies, so I returned to my routine end-of-the day tasks.  However, his words remained with me.  In fact, his words have often returned to me on a number of occasions for the past several weeks, especially during moments when I am out-of-doors. 

Scanning through photos of my recent trip to the Blueridge Parkway as well as past out-of-doors experiences, it is clearly evident from the large number of nature-centric images that I relish time spent outside.  From images of wispy cloud billows to leaf-scattered earthen trails; from layers of cerulean blue mountainous peaks to emerald green moss dressing up a boulder, and a great many variations in between, I have collected hundreds of images of Mother Earth. Nonetheless, my fondness of nature is so much more than taking photographs.

Time spent outside is like pouring soothing salve over my weathered soul.  One deep inhalation of fresh air, and I can instantly feel more calm and grounded.  In fact, I have an overall sense of vigor, not just in my body, but in my mind and soul when I am outside in the natural world.  It is as if my whole being comes alive.  

Therefore, it was no surprise for me to learn that numerous research bodies and scientific communities corroborate my personal experiences with nature.  As I scanned through several research pieces published by well-respected groups such as the American Psychological Association, Yale School of  the Environment, Harvard Health, and Scientific Reports, to name a few, there were some variations as to what defines “nature” and how long one needs to spend time in nature to reap the benefits; however, all pointed to the fact that spending time out-of-doors is overall beneficial to good health and mental well being.  Some of the commonly cited perks of spending time in nature include: improved mood, increased cognitive and memory function, reduced stress levels, improved mental health, boosted immune system, and overall reduction of blood pressure and heart rates.  

While I whole-heartedly appreciate and welcome ALL of those benefits, it has been my experience that there are also other, more ethereal, benefits of spending time in nature.  I find that when I bear witness to the brilliant rise of the sun, gaze upward as sunlight dapples through a canopy of leafy green, or catch sight of sunbeams streaming across dark silhouettes of towering tree trunks, naked in their winter respite, I feel a sense of awe and wonder.  The wide array of colors, lines, shapes, sizes, and the symmetry rivals great artists of our time–our world is a marvel!

The more I observe nature, the more curious and inquisitive I become.  How did all of this happen?  How do I, a person so small and insignificant in the face of all this wonder, fit into the grand scheme of the great I AM?  How am I to comprehend Divine Providence and this wondrous creation called earth?  I have no answers, nor do I feel a need for answers.  Rather I am in a state of being–being appreciative and feeling adoration for the great playground that is nature. After all, we are called human beings.

Francis Bacon, often cited as the father of science and ironically attributed to have invented the essay form, is quoted as once stating that God wrote two books: The Scripture and “a second book called creation.”  Time spent with the “second book” offers me tangible, first hand reminders of the greatness of our Creator.  Standing in the presence of a lofty range of mountains, floating across a lakeshore rippling with life, strolling through the rhythmical edge of ocean tide waters, or simply jogging alongside streams and trees on an earthen park trail, my heart and soul are at ease.  There are no timelines, no demands for my attention, no to-do lists, or looming deadlines.  Instead, there is a softness that envelops my soul, a well-worn quilt of comfort, that is available to all.

I suppose my student said it best after all. Spending time in the majesty of nature opens my heart and mind, allowing me to feel as if I have been gathered into an embrace by a loved one happy to see me once more as God’s peace settles over me.  My spirit is more serene, and I feel as if I am part of something larger than myself.  Something so large, I cannot fathom it, but it is something like a prayer.