In which I go barefoot
Time present and time pastAre both perhaps present in time future And time future contained in time past.
It is an absolute non-secret that I am a huge fan of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. It is also, for those who know me IRL, a non-secret that I like to go barefoot if I can. As a child, I would be barefoot as much as possible the in summer. On at least one summer holiday to the Isles of Scilly my poor mother had to spend a solid amount of time digging out thorns that had become completely embedded in the soles of my feet (while my Nan stood by to offer a snifter of brandy). Nowadays I start wearing flip-flops just about as soon as it’s warm enough to, and kick them off at every opportunity, especially in my own home.
The second Wild Lent activity I “took” with me to Lebanon and Jordan was the ‘Barefoot Walk’. The intro for this activity talks about the fact that for much of history humans walked barefoot, and refers to studies that show benefits of being barefoot for learning and sensing where you’re stepping. It’s a part of two themes, Into the Wilderness, and Finding Home - and while I do love the feeling of standing barefoot in the grass of my parents’ garden, or on the warmth of my back patio - I wanted to explore the Wilderness theme, away from home in the middle of Lent.
I started by just playing, a little bit, kicking off my flip-flops in the Roman Theatre in Amman to feel the marble of the seats and steps under my feet in the mid-morning warmth. Later the same day, I wandered barefoot along the Cardo of ancient Jerash, feeling the rise and fall of the street. Because Jerash is busier than the Amman theatre and the Cardo is the main street, I had to pay more attention to where I put my feet, noticing all the rink pulls and cigarette butts that have been dropped by tourists.
Later in the week, I was in Little Petra. I was wearing my flip-flops, because - well, I had my trainers in the car but I didn't want to put them on. Little Petra is stunning, FYI, and if you have the chance you should absolutely go there as well as to Petra. It is smaller, but also quieter and a little wilder, which I really really like.
Exploring Little Petra gives you the chance to do a bit of scrambling on rocks and ancient Nabatean steps. I took myself on a mini-adventure to try and find a roof fresco I had heard about. The guidebook had said basically, 'to the left of the temple you'll see some stairs - if you climb them you'll come to an upper floor room with a really beautiful ancient fresco on the ceiling.' So. I saw the temple in the photo above, and a flight of steps to the left of it, in the picture below. I wanted to see the fresco, but the steps were quite small and steep and smooth, and i didn't really fancy going up them in a pair of fairly worn flip flops. So I kicked them off and stuffed them in my rucksack and scrambled up the stairs, pausing briefly halfway up to realise that getting down was going to be scary biscuits before shrugging and carrying on. It turned out that I had the wrong temple and wrong steps - and found the right ones later - but I did get a rather lovely view, and a muscle straining scramble back down, along with a brief friendship with a nice couple from south-east London who stopped to catch me if I fell.
Walking barefoot in these ancient places is an incredible feeling. The stones are worn smooth from centuries of use by human transport and being swept by the elements (Jerash, for example, was buried in sand for years), they feel soft and - in the spring sun of Jordan - warm. They're also slippery, even in the dry. Going barefoot feels more secure than wearing flip-flops and sometimes than wearing trainers because you get a better feel for how stable you are on the rocks. I also feel more attuned to the history of the place I'm standing. Without a layer of rubber between me and the ground time feels that bit more fluid. I like this feeling. It makes me feel small within the scope of history, but not in a total perspective vortex kind of way: I can still find me, but I can have myself in some perspective.
As I stepped out onto the stage of Amman's little Odeon, alone in the theatre, I automatically remembered those opening lines from The Four Quartets and tried to feel where I was standing.
Wild Lent talks about how going barefoot exposes you to new feelings and a new sense of where you are in a place, and about the discomfort of walking barefoot in unknown terrain. But for me, being barefoot made me feel both exposed to the world around me (including the occasional confused stares of tourists) and grounded in it. At present I'm in a time when things in my life are changing, and there I was, standing in a place that meant something to me because of my past, able to be there because of my present, and not quite sure what the future will hold.
There's another pair of lines in the Four Quartets that I'd not really registered until I re-read it again that day.
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language And next year’s words await another voice.
For all time can feel like it's collapsing it can simultaneously feel like it is segmented into where I was, where I might be, and the somewhat unstable where I am. Standing barefoot, soles gripping the ground, lost in time but still in place, that felt not just ok, but safe.