“Coat and shoes,” I repeat for the fifth time. This time I think he processes it because he grabs his shoes, but only one shoe goes on.
Ian gives a voice to his random thoughts as he sets his other shoe down. “Mom, did you know that in Minecraft the axolotl…”
I am trying to pay attention, but this child is going to be late to school this morning if he does not get his shoes and coat on in the next two minutes. “Coat and shoes, Bud. We gotta go.”
He manages to focus long enough to get his coat and shoes on, and I hand him his bag and mask. As Ian puts those on, I reach for his hat and gloves. How does this child get himself to school on time every day?
It is bitterly cold outside. The wind bites instantly when I open the storm door, and I shrink back as if to hang onto my body heat for just one more second. Ian bumps into me and gives me a shove out the door. We walk swiftly to both generate heat and to make up for the time lost dancing around each other in the kitchen while he begged me not to wear an old lumberjack hat. I left my normal hat at the office and this one was readily available. What was I supposed to do? Waste more time digging through the winter clothes bin? Freeze to death?
Our conversation on the walk this morning is typical.
“How loud do you think the loudest fart was?”
“Ian, I have no idea. I am pretty sure it was inappropriately loud.”
He is now trying to mimic what he believes the loudest fart would sound like—at the volume he imagines it would have been. Fortunately, my glance backward has eased my embarrassment. No one else is walking to school right now. We are alone. I realize I have been holding my breath and let it out slowly, releasing tension at the same time.
“Do you think you will have outside recess today, or is it too cold?” I ask to change the subject.
His answer sounds excited. He will be inside. I do not recall ever staying inside for recess because it was too cold. You either brought your cold-weather clothes or froze. Then again, I have no desire to be walking the half-mile to and from school this morning, so I cannot blame him for wanting an indoor recess. My thighs already feel like they are numb, my fingers and toes hurt, and I too am wearing a mask to keep my face a little warmer.
I beckon my body to move a little faster, a little less stiff. Thump! “You got me! But it hurt, so no more ice.” Ian is giggling as he reaches for another solid chunk. “I am serious. You can throw it at a tree or something but not me.”
The covered walking bridge is slippery. The wood is bare, but our shoes are packed with icy snow and have no grip. The cracking sound of the boards is drowned out by our stomping feet, and our shoes are cleaned just in time to step back onto the snowy pavement—this time on school property. A slushy puddle has somehow escaped the deep freeze, and I am forced to leap over. I turn to see how Ian will manage the jump just in time to see his short legs leave the ground. I grab him and save his feet from hours of soggy discomfort and talk with him about his expectations for the day and something he is looking forward to. A schoolmate has been picking on him again, and I want him to start the day on the right foot.
“Bye. I love you. Have a good day.” That is my ritual goodbye greeting. Ian does not respond, but I know he hears me and secretly waits for it every morning. I wave to Tom, the traffic director, and turn to head back home.
I should pull out my phone and take some pictures. It really is beautiful out here. I promise myself I will open my eyes to the beauty around me and capture something to share with the people in my life who cannot see what I see each morning on my walk.
I pause at the end of the bridge and look out over toward the creek. The flowing water has narrowed into a two-foot-wide trail, cutting deeper into the ice formations along the banks of the creek. The path of least resistance takes each drop past the large, flat rock in the middle, a dry shelter for a child’s sore feet after walking the rocky, crayfish shore and shallower water. My mind flashes to House Rock. House Rock is an incredible boulder resting in the middle of the swiftly flowing Gallatin River just outside of Bozeman, Montana. It is a sight to see.
However, this rock is not quite like that one, but the memory it packaged causes me to inhale slowly and then exhale with my eyes closed.
My eyes open again. The creek is now partially hidden by the patch of brush I blindly walked behind. I squat and search for the perfect angle. The way the morning sun glistens on the ice and refracts light is creating a hazy, steamy appearance. My legs turn slightly as I twist and reach for my phone in the right pocket of my denim pants. But I stop. What is that?
The creek is calling to me. I see it and feel overwhelmed by the impulse to show the world how incredible this is, but I cannot share it. The picture may be worth a thousand words, but neither could paint the full picture.
I have been in freezing lake water. I stood at the edge of the hole in the middle of the lake in January 2021, stripped down to almost nothing in the bone chilling cold, and jumped. The water welcomed me, and the cold hugged me tightly. My movements were slowed, except my single gasp for air. When I opened my eyes and saw Jay standing there waiting to pull me out, I took a deep breath and embraced all of it at once. Three minutes passed before I held my hand up and called out, “I’m ready.” This creek is not a lake, and I am not in it. But this creek just gave me something the lake gave me one year ago. Peace with a sprinkling of joy. You cannot capture that in a picture no matter how hard you try or how peaceful something appears.
The calling of the creek brought me a memory. A gift. It was a gift just like the memory of House Rock was a gift. But now, I am in the moment and listening to the gift-giver. At first, I notice a trickle. Then, I hear a rushing brook muffled only by the dense air around me. No one will hear the creek if I take a picture. A video will not do either. It will be void of experience. This is a living, breathing moment. It is my moment. No one can or will ever see it the way I see it. I accept it and let it go.
I stand and begin walking toward my house once more, awake to the air I am breathing, the foggy sunlight, and frozen trees ahead of me. Another mesmerizing picture-worthy scene. I widen my eyes and take it in without reaching for my phone. The crunch of the crystallized water beneath my feet pulls me in deeper to the experience. And then, like that, I am pulled away by a thought, a bird, a car driving by on the road above me. I wander home, take off my coat, and grab a glass of water.
I could have captured two separate pictures that day. Both would have shown my visual perspective. Neither would have captured the experience or my sensations, feelings, and thoughts. Neither photo would have been complete enough to package my worldview, memories, passions, or perspectives.
The same is true when we hear another person tell a story about his or her life. Whether it is happy, sad, or somewhere in the middle, we cannot fathom his or her experience—no matter how hard we try.
A man, strung out on drugs, is sitting on a curb in a parking lot, holding a pocket-knife and shouting angrily to keep me from getting close. He is broken. He is horribly misunderstood.
A whiny child with snot dripping out of her nose is just another cry baby. Kids and adults alike ignore her or pick on her. She will stop crying eventually. She is hurting. She is horribly misunderstood.
An intelligent athlete in college who just scored the highest grade on the comprehensive exam snuck into the main building with a flashlight just to be sure. She was convinced she failed the test and would appear as an imposter. She is afraid and horribly misunderstood.
The short kid with glasses is a nerd. If you like him, you must be “deformed or retarded.” He is weird. He is also very intelligent. He is beaten up on the playground again and again. He never throws a punch. He tries to hide his differences. He is horribly misunderstood.
The hard-working woman next door was dating a real man’s man to prove to her friend that she was straight. She came out and was disowned by her family, forced from her career, and ignored by her friends. She feels unwelcome and hated. She is misunderstood.
The sweet neighbor boy— the one with the twin brother—he is an incredible singer and dancer. His family is perfect. “He has never had a bad thing happen to him,” others jealously proclaim. But his oldest brother’s best-friend has been raping him for two years. He only seems happy. He is horribly misunderstood.
That roommate who reads her Bible every night before bed, prays consistently, carries herself confidently, and has it all? She grew up with no food in the house and a mother who did not care about anyone but herself. She is not judging anyone for going out to a party. She is not trying to be annoying. She only wants to know where everyone is because she is terrified that she will be abandoned again. She is horribly misunderstood.
I know each of these people, and I know large parts of their lives. I have listened to what they have told me and have shared pieces of my life story with them. I will never fully experience another’s life, and another will never fully experience mine. That is just the way it is. The snapshots these people have shown me—the snapshots I show you—cannot and will not be enough to capture the excruciating, bone-crushing, mind-numbing pain of our individual experiences. Nor will it be enough to capture the enigmatic, orgasmic, potently joyful individual experiences along the way.
A picture of a creek could never blind you the way the reflection on the water blinded me. A picture of a creek could never tickle your ears with the trickling sound of cold, clear water flowing over river rocks. A picture of a creek could never treat your imagination to my experience of the lake in Utah or House Rock in Bozeman, Montana. A picture of a creek cannot open your nostrils wider to breathe in the shocking frigid air that smells of “winter.”
We must remember that—both when we share our own stories and when we listen to another’s. We must.