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Sometimes “once” just isn’t enough.

Last fall, during a socially distanced writing retreat in Oakwood Lakes State Park, my friend Ruby and I took a short night hike around a wooded peninsula. Without flashlights. Without even a sliver of moon to see by.

This past week, as the leaves began to turn red and gold once again, Ruby and I met up for another writing retreat. This time we camped beside a slough, or big pond, in Lake Herman State Park.

An easy trail around the slough ran right past our campsite. It constantly begged for attention. During our four-day stay, Ruby and I hiked that 1.3-mile trail a half-dozen times—twice at night, without flashlights.

(Don’t worry, Mom. No bears. No cliffs. No quicksand. Just a few gopher holes.)

Ruby and I adored our night hikes. Like last year, we found ourselves laughing in the dark, and learning from the dark.

The grassy loop around Herman Slough yielded a pack full of wisdom. Here’s a random list of insights, along with questions for reflection:

1. How we walk in daylight prepares us to walk in the night. If we try to practice gratitude, wonder, and compassion on our life-path every day, we may be steadier when darkness falls. And every bleak hour we experience, no matter how painful, will become an opportunity to deepen our practice.

Right now, in your life, are you walking through daylight, darkness, or somewhere between?

2. Once we learn to walk by natural light, such as moonlight, artificial light can feel intrusive. A bobbing flashlight or passing headlight can hurt our eyes, and blind us. The same is true of the different forms of light our spirits encounter in this world.

What provides “natural light” for your spirit? What forms of “artificial light” might you wish to avoid or eliminate?

3. Trekking poles can help us navigate the darkest dark. Their tips let us know the nature of the ground we walk upon. Their shafts alert us when we’ve wandered into the weeds. Their grips and straps grant a light yet firm handle on our experience.

I christened my poles “Curiosity” and “Trust.” What would you call yours?

4. A less travelled path isn’t as distinguishable in the dark as a beaten path, but it can be softer on the feet. Let’s not be afraid to take it.

How willing are you to walk where few have gone before (or where few might want you to go)?

5. The moon and stars are always above us, even when we can’t see them. They will show themselves in their own way, in their own time.

How full is your reservoir of patience?

6. When (not “if”) we get lost in the dark, a way forward will always present itself, so long as we cultivate calm. Anxiety clouds our vision. Equanimity clarifies and illuminates.

What helps you maintain or restore your sense of calmness?

7. At night, we may sometimes feel more lost in wide open spaces than we do in dense woods. Out in a meadow, the path that clearly connects here to over there can disappear. But, in those empty spaces, we can see the sky best. And maybe the sky sees us?

Do you tend to feel more comfortable in “wide open spaces” or in “dense woods?”

8. Mistakes, missteps, and hard falls may catch us by surprise, but they’re a natural part of the path, especially in the dead of night. As we go, let’s be careful, yes, but let’s not expect perfection. Humility and good humor are essential.

How tolerant are you of “mistakes, missteps, and falls?” How might you be gentler with yourself and others?

9. When hiking in the dark, it’s good to be mindful of the bottoms of our feet and how “grounded” we are. This is especially true if we’re hobbling across an acre of invisible tennis balls—er, walnut husks.

What circumstances throw you off balance? What might help you “keep your feet?”

10. For some awe-full things in this world, words are inadequate. For instance, what color is a body of water in the glorious dark of night, before Moon has risen? “Silver” is too bright. “Gray” is too dull. The presence of such things stuns us into silence. All we can do is stop and stare.

When was the last time you were awestruck?

Photo by Keenan Barber on Unsplash

Phyllis Cole-Dai

Phyllis Cole-Dai has authored or edited eleven books in multiple genres, including historical fiction, spiritual nonfiction and poetry. She lives in Brookings, South Dakota, USA.

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