My dog, Bailey, walks with me and a little ahead. She can often smell or sense things I cannot, so in those moments, she’ll take the lead, but otherwise she stays with me, side by side.
With me and a little ahead. It brings back a memory of when I was twenty, invited on retreat in Vermont by my friend, Peter, and I was walking in the woods alone. Growing up as one of four girls in a neighborhood full of kids, I had no memory of ever walking alone, and so on that day, I was loving it. Sunbeams shining down through the trees, a wide dirt path so I wouldn’t get lost, and a tricking stream by my side, it was perfect. I realized that God was like that stream; alive, active, bubbling, and also right with me and a little ahead. You might say it was my first adult, spiritual epiphany, the first time I came to find my own language around the nature of God, and it was exciting. I loved the idea that God was always moving but also remained next to me; fully able to perceive what was up ahead, yet never abandoning the place I currently occupied. I realized my life’s goal would be to somehow merge with that stream, become a part of it, floating in it and trusting God to carry me instead of walking my path on my own power. It seemed to me then like a lifelong pursuit, and one that no one ever quite finishes. It would be years before that memory even made sense to me in the context of my everyday life.
Today I found myself in a yoga class with a bunch of college kids. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that they could all have been my children, but I felt none of the embarrassment you might think. On the contrary, it seemed to me it was the kids who felt some level of discomfort, not with me certainly, but within themselves. You could see a vague unease in how they didn’t answer questions at the start of class, at how they held their bodies, clung to phones, kept their socks on. By the time class started, I practiced with my eyes closed and was blissfully barefoot though pedicure-free on my mat. It’s just easier to practice that way. But, oh, I remember being their age, certain that everyone is looking and judging the smallest word or action. I remember casting a downward gaze as I walked, never really making eye contact with people. In my bones, I remember the feeling that everyone around me was just a little bit better, certainly more worthy, and that I would have to work hard and not screw up to have any chance at belonging in a given group. I remember how ages eighteen and nineteen felt to me, and so I looked on all of these kids with a mother’s hope and quiet prayer for however they found themselves that day. We practiced together, and I offered what I hoped were encouraging smiles to anyone who looked my way. I’ve had a regular yoga practice for five years and many of the kids were just beginning, so when it came to more difficult poses, I did the same modifications they did though I could have stretched further. I didn’t want the slightest possibility that anyone would feel anything negative about themselves on account of me. I was with them, and a little ahead.
In life, we are often a little ahead or a little behind the people in our lives, but we can always be with them. When a friend recently lost her mother, I looked directly in her eyes, hugged her tight, and heard myself slowly say, “It’s unbearable, the worst thing in the world, but I promise you, you will be okay.” Someone had said something like that to me, and they were right, being present in my pain, but also saving me from despair in that moment. They were with me, and a little ahead. When friends lose parents, and it’s sadly so often now, I think of the Tig Notaro quote: “The world is broken into two groups; those who know what it’s like to lose your Mom and those who have no idea what’s coming.” Those of us who do can bear grace and understanding into those raw, hellish days for others on that terrible road, and we do.
But it’s not just the grieving times in which presence and a little bit of earned wisdom can make a difference. My friend, Lisa, was with me and a little ahead when I entered the precarious world of raising teenagers and thank God she was. Her honest, helpful advice meant the world to me and her presence helped me to know I was not alone. When I ran my half-marathon, I had the advice and support of friends who had done it before, and on the day truly felt Jesus running both with me and a little ahead. It made all the difference. On the other side of the coin, I’ve commiserated with and encouraged younger friends about how peer-focused, awful, and yet loving a fifth grade boy can be, and I’ve helped a worried Mom to see how a preschooler who doesn’t willingly participate in group activities may also one day be immune to a lot of teenage peer pressure. No, I’m not particularly wise, but in those cases, I’m just a little ahead.
Wherever you are on the road, you’re sometimes a little ahead and sometimes a little behind each of the people around you, and that’s by design. Whether we recognize the grace that’s given or extend the grace ourselves to be truly with another person on the road is what will tell the richness and purpose of our story in the end.