Well-traveled, these paths are.
Though it seems we never walk them the same way twice. Or perhaps it is everything else that changes; the trees and the weather, the season, the burdens we carry, the tiredness of our feet; while the path – the path is the same, beaten smooth by the journey of shared experience, the journey of practice.
I do wonder, sometimes, if there is something that helps us, like travelers in the night who slip through without our notice. Is it possible? Can a path become familiar just by our allowing it to exist between us? Openness and vulnerability and challenge seem to have grown feet once spoken, and now run constantly before us, beating smooth paths through new wildernesses we have not yet crossed. We do not even know we will need to. But somehow, when we arrive, there is already a path, like a familiar gift in an frighteningly unknown land.
Then there are the paths we have walked thousands of times. Paths of faith and calling, work and dreams, marriage and motherhood, desire and joy. Every season the surroundings look different, and we walk differently – at times skipping in celebration, at times barely a crawl. Sometimes we have to meet each other halfway, an arm to lean on and finish the journey. But every time, there is comfort in the path. When all else looks new, to look down and know that I have walked this before, and I know where it leads. No matter how dark it is, I am not lost.
Sometimes we have not chosen the path so much as found ourselves on it. Recently, we have wearily eroded the path of loss, slowly and with tears. Loss of family, loss of children, loss of dreams. We did not set out to walk this way, but journey long enough and we all knew it would come. We did not want this path to feel well-traveled, but it does, and there is a sweet mercy in that, if severe.
That is a strange path, loss, as sometimes with doubt, or depression, or deep brokenness. Those paths are strikingly solitary, but somehow shared all the same. We can’t join each other on it: it seems to incessantly curve, wide enough just for one, jungle thick on its edges. But we have traced those dark, narrow, curves, and this path is the hardest to forget. So as another walks it we are there, tracing parallel tracks in the darkness, close enough to be present, if just beyond sight. Close enough that we both know we are not alone. Someone else has walked this way, if only to know the path for those who will come behind.
It takes work at times. Storms down trees across the paths and divert streams to wash them away. New seasons and new jobs and new relationships and new lives come up like spring growth, transforming a landscape. Familiar landmarks seem to have disappeared and everything looks new. The path will quickly become unknown if we do not walk it. We will cut away the fallen trees, follow the stream bed’s new curves, and in it all, pay attention. Notice and learn and proclaim the beauty of the new bud, the vista that a fallen tree has revealed. We will study the path with our time, with our questions and our love, until it becomes well-traveled again. (Though sometimes we will remember that old oak tree, and pull back the vines that now hide it, just to remind each other that it is still there, with deeply sunk roots the brightly-colored peony will never obtain. And we will remind each other that “change will come as surely as the seasons, and twice as quick.”)
I cannot fully describe the comfort of well-traveled paths. It is like coming home while still journeying, which is quite a rare gift indeed. It is a life-giving knowledge, perhaps at times even a life-saving one. It is to start the unknown journey, the unknown conversation, the unknown question, without fear, because those who have taken the time to travel with me well whisper the greatest gift of relationship: you. are. known.
And so, with grace our feet, we travel on.