Here in the Northeast, the weather is turning cooler, leaves are falling and geese flock in chevron flight across cloud-streaked skies. This time of year seems right to share this essay again. In 2012, it placed fifth — among thousands of entries — in the inspirational category of the annual writing competition of Writers Digest Magazine. I was, and am still, thankful.
Some of you have read this before. For those who haven’t, here is The Gift.
I have started walking again in the park. This has become a prayer, a way of grounding myself. When my feet are pulled to earth, my body centers, then my mind and finally my spirit. It does not always happen this way, but when it does, it’s as if irritating gauze has been lifted from my eyes, as if the earth beneath my feet becomes the salivated soil the Messiah used to heal the eyes of the blind man.
The park has a pond at its center, thick with geese. They are there now, but soon they will be gone. They know it will be time to go. How is it they have this inner sense of rightness, of being, without questioning? Is it the scent of snow crystallizing in the upper atmosphere, the blustery skies, the days of dim and muted light? I think it is none of those, but an act of trust in the highest good of which they are a part. So they surrender. And in surrendering, they are protected.
Winter is coming and I dread it. I liked this season once, appreciated the mystery of snow, the way it coated roof tops and tree limbs with layers of whipped-cream softness. It smothered the world in comforting silence, the muffled sounds of cars lumbering by, a child on a sled, her squeal of delight echoing across a hill, pure and clear as a soprano’s piercing the frigid night air.
Now, as I have grown older, I wonder where and how I lost those childlike eyes, the thrill of innocence in the present moment, the staccato crunch of snow beneath my boots. When did I lose the joy of building a snowman until my nose and cheeks were pink and my gloved fingers tingled? When did I abandon the delicious act of spreading my arms and legs on mounds of white to carve out angels?
I had become blinded by the winters of life, by deadlines and adult duties, meeting others through mist and fog — vaporous and not present — and hibernating, waiting for spring, hope and life.
One day, at the pond filled with geese, Sara Maria gave me hope. To say she gave me hope is to say everything. That day God was revealed to me and was embodied in this girl-child. She became Yahweh and Emmanuel, the ever-present moment of I AM and God with us.
In my life, I believed in God and often prayed to know God better. I sought direction and signs. I asked the eternal “why” but often, God was silent. Why then did God listen that day and choose to speak in that way? Was it because that afternoon as I sat on the park bench, watching geese lift from the pond and glide off into the dusky sky, a young father and his child filled my heart with an unexpected thanksgiving?
The sun was low, soft light filtering through the leaves, dappling field and wildflowers. Father and daughter walked hand-in-hand in the distance. Patiently, he waited as she stopped at times to bend down and scoop up something in her hands. Even from afar I could sense his love for her, she, free to explore, and he, watching and protecting.
As they walked closer to me, I could see she was a pretty child, a round face and curious eyes, taking in all of life without question or judgment. Her thin legs would break into a happy skip and then she would squat, exploring the earth in great detail.
I knew they meant to pass me by, and I, in turn, would offer a simple hello. Then, the child did something unexpectedly — she stopped before me. She stood there, frail and elfin-like, her silent stance embracing me in acceptance.
She asked my name. I told her and asked hers in turn. We began a conversation of the highest realm, of her walk by the pond, of her father, of her mother at home, of the geese on the pond. It was then I noticed she clutched something in her right hand — a bouquet of tattered and mottled goose feathers.
These were special, she told me, showing me the unique designs of each and then sharing what she would do with these when she returned home — dust her doll furniture, tickle her brother, tuck them in her hair and pretend she was an Indian princess. Her body was a ballerina’s as she spoke, tiptoeing around her father’s legs, lowering her eyes and then lifting them to meet mine.
Words spent, she cocked her head and grinned. She tugged at her father’s leg and he bent close to her small face as she whispered in his ear.
“Fine,” he said. “That’s a wonderful idea.”
She paused shyly, then extended her arm and hand, straight into my space, straight into my heart.
“For you,” she said.
I could not speak. What could I say to this gift from this stranger-child, a gift she had gathered with joy and love?
“Thank you,” I whispered. “Would you like to take one home with you? Pick the one you’d like. It will be our special feather.”
She nodded and after a few seconds of deliberation, chose one. Then, holding her father’s hand she said good-bye and walked away.
For days after when I walked in the park I would look for Sara Maria, hoping to see her again so that I might truly thank her. But I never did. I finally decided that this was the way it was meant to be. She was there for me at one moment in time when I needed her.
I let them float on undirected breezes, knowing that my journey had to be a letting go, a trust that wherever I am is good, secure and protected because of a higher power at my side.
Each feather became a prayer.