On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely … When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place’, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’ (Luke 14:1, 7-11)
There I sat on the hill, hands folded in my lap, eyes closed, and I started to relax. But then I made a cardinal mistake: I started to think about how holy I was acting, in the face of teenage contempt and shirking; how grown-up, spiritually, emotionally. And this pleased me.
And it was bad.
It was like, ‘Batter up!’
First the dogs arrived, three of them, from out of nowhere, barking at Lily [her dog] and me until their owner stepped into the clearing and commanded them to be quiet. I smiled and waved, but closed my eyes so that she could see that I was in holiness mode. ‘It’s windy!’ she cried. I opened my eyes. She had a walking stick, and looked like a shepherd, of bad dogs.
‘What’s your dog’s name?’ she shouted. I told her. ‘What kind of dog is she? Where’d she get those ears? Here, Lily! Here, girl!’ The woman sounded like someone from the shouting Loud family, on the old Saturday Night Live.
I hung my head and smiled to myself.
‘I forgot your name!’ she shouted. I told her, and she waved and headed down the hillside. I closed my eyes, breathed in calm, and grass; and then, the pièce de résistance: the smell of dog [poop] filled my nose, sharp as ammonia, and foul.
God, I thought self-righteously: This woman brings her barking dogs into this open space, and they [poop] all over everything, and she doesn’t clean up after them. I stood to move away, but when I looked down at the grass, there was nothing there. Then I looked at the sole of my shoe.
My entire childhood passed before my eyes—kids holding their noses in schoolyards, parents commanding us all out of the car, demanding that we check our feet. Nothing isolated you so instantly as having stinky heat-lines wafting visibly off your foot, like in the cartoons … You’d be instantly stuck in a game of [Snakes] and Ladders, feeling beautiful and proud one moment, people holding their noses the next.
I got up and pawed the offending shoe against the wet grass, then sat down on the concrete piling and looked at my shoe. There was an enormous amount of doggage embedded in its elaborate treads.
Muttering, I searched for a stick in the grass, and once I found one, started picking out the [poop], but it was pebbly, and stuck. Trying to dislodge it was like picking burnt batter out of a waffle iron.
It took forever. Then a light drizzle started up again. I kept at the sneaker, and two things happened: First, the project turned out to be strangely satisfying—I’m really good at this sort of work. And second, after a while I found myself in a state of joy. I was focused, and it was beautiful up there, and the [poop] was nearly entirely out of my shoe. That’s a lot. I don’t know why God won’t just spritz away our hardships and frustration. I don’t know why the most we can hope for on some days is to end up a little less crazy than before, less down on ourselves. I don’t know why we have to become so vulnerable before we can connect with God, and even sometimes with ourselves … I guess we’re simply not meant to understand some things.