Camber Sands. It's winter and the sunrise is late enough for me to clamber over the dunes to walk on the beach at dawn. At low tide, a vast expanse of emptiness and solitude stretches from the dunes to the distant murmur of the sea. I'm the first to leave my footprints in the sand, which has been scoured clean of all signs of human presence by the withdrawing tide. I find myself repeating a rhyme we used to write in one another's autograph books when we were children:
Your life lies before you
like a path of untrodden snow.
Be careful how you tread it
for every step will show.
The words of that childhood rhyme often loop through my mind as I walk. Last year we had snow and the beach was covered with untrodden snow until I left my footprints there.
But time isn't like a beach swept clean by the tide or a field of untrodden snow. By the time we're old enough to write in autograph books, we've left a long trail of footprints behind us and we've already made many detours, navigated around many obstacles and struggled along overgrown paths, gathering scars and bruises along the way. The footprints we leave are a Rorschach test—patterns that appear different every time we look, revealing who we are only with hindsight, and seldom retaining their meaning long enough for us to write it down. The progress made in one direction is reversed by the difficulties we encounter further on. Here is lightest footfall of a dancing year, and there the dragging shuffle of a year of sorrows.
Do we inhabit time or does time inhabit us? Does time even exist in any meaningful sense? Quantum physicists say not. We are, says Carlo Rovelli, “stories, contained within the twenty complicated centimeters behind our eyes, lines drawn by traces left by the (re)mingling together of things in the world, and orientated towards predicting events in the future, towards the direction of increasing entropy, in a rather particular corner of this immense, chaotic universe.” (pp. 163-164)
We tell our stories by constantly drawing maps to make it look as if our meandering footprints are purposeful and going in a direction that we choose and control, but the maps keep disappearing. They must be redrawn with each unexpected event and every change in circumstance. Only those who come after us can complete our stories, for our final footprints lead to the edge of the incoming tide and vanish into mystery. Each one who knew us will tell a different story. We'll survive in many different versions of ourselves. That's why we the living must honour our beloved dead and tell their stories well, hoping that others will do the same for us.
I think of another poem about footprints, popular with some Christians:
One night I had a dream…
I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord, and Across the sky flashed scenes from my life. For each scene I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand; One belonged to me, and the other to the Lord. When the last scene of my life flashed before us, I looked back at the footprints in the sand. I noticed that many times along the path of my life, There was only one set of footprints.
I also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in my life This really bothered me, and I questioned the Lord about it. “Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, You would walk with me all the way; But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life, There is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why in times when I needed you the most, you should leave me.
The Lord replied, “My precious, precious child. I love you, and I would never, never leave you during your times of trial and suffering. When you saw only one set of footprints, It was then that I carried you.
I've never liked that kitschy reflection, which isn't really a poem at all. I haven't felt carried by the Lord in dark times, nor have I seen those parallel footsteps alongside mine. I suspect my faith is rather small (though I'm not sure how one measures these things since mountains don't really move), but I have hope and it's that which enables me to protect my small and fragile faith from the batterings of despair.
I think of Etty Hillesum, who wrote in her diary on 12th July, 1942, a year and a half before she was killed in Auschwitz:
I shall try to help You, God, to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. Alas, there doesn't seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold You responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last. (p. 218)
I'm more able to relate to that sense of us carrying a vulnerable and dependent God, than to the infantilizing desire to be carried like a child. They say our sense of God is shaped by our experience of fatherhood if we were taught to regard God as Our Father. That's true for Christians, though not for Muslims and Jews who are less patriarchal in their theology.
I never doubted that my father loved me, but he was a complex and vulnerable man who died too soon of self-neglect through cigarettes and alcohol. I think in childhood I more often felt that emotionally I was carrying my father than that he was carrying me, but it was a burden of loving care and concern as well as fretful anxieties and tears.
One day, I want to tell his story and tell it well, but until then I'll close with a poem-prayer which we found written out in his handwriting on top of his papers the day he died. Here is a version he would have loved, because he loved romance, and music, and beautiful endings. It's a good way to step out hopefully into a new year: