Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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Take Off Your Shoes

September 17, 2021

Nicole Howe


Whenever I ventured outside as a kid, I used to love stretching my arms up straight above my head, then narrowing my focus until just two things remained in my field of vision: my hands and the clouds beyond them. With everything else removed, I would imagine that instead of standing on the earth looking up, I was actually dangling off the earth looking down.

Have you ever done this? If not, may I suggest going outside and trying it right now.

It is a terrifying – and exhilarating – sensation.  And one I loved to repeat over and over again. Even at a young age, I was captivated by how instantly my sense of control and stability could flip to a desperate reliance on the gift of gravity. After all, that was the only thing standing between me and an endless fall into the abyss. The mastery I felt over my surroundings suddenly turned into an acute awareness of being held, and the sky struck me with a kind of holy terror.

I had almost forgotten that little liturgy of mine, but today it makes its way to the forefront of my mind again. I’d been given the rare gift of an empty house, so I meander outside to relax for a bit on my back deck. The back deck is one of my favorite places on earth. We inherited it when we bought our house five years ago, and after knocking out an obtrusive railing, replacing a slew of rotten boards, and slathering on a fresh coat of antique black deck paint, it looks cared for just enough – the kind of care that doesn’t completely cover over the messy charm of time and life.

The weather has been unbearably muggy lately, but today a nice breeze cuts through the stickiness. I exhale into the stillness, and let my eyes peruse the undisturbed view. I love my back deck for many reasons, but the view is surely on the top on the list. We live in the Midwest – there are no mountains or hills to look at – just a wide-open grassy yard, marked out by a lush tree line bordering the back, a wooden playset, and an extra swing hanging from a mulberry tree. And then there’s the neighborhood pond off in the distance, with a fountain that reminds me of rain. It’s such an unapologetically Midwest backyard, and I love that about it.

Suddenly, the memory of my childhood ritual comes awake in my mind. And it strikes me that I have no desire to raise my hands and pretend I am dangling from the earth. And I wonder why.

Because I already feel like I’m dangling off the earth these days.

And that I just might float away from myself forever.

I let the thought linger as my eyes move across the landscape of my yard. Instead of raising my hands to the heavens, I feel a strong urge to plunge them into the coolness of deep soil. To lie in the grass and wrestle against the tickle of the blades. To ponder the two giant dragonflies that keep dropping into my view (are they dragonflies or hummingbirds?). To clasp my hands around the hot metal of my chair and thank God for what today feels like and looks like and sounds like, even when it’s a billion degrees.

I’m not a run-in the-yard-barefoot kind of girl. But today the urge is strong, so I try to name it.

I need to connect to that which holds me.

I think about those words for a while. They feel true. Right now, I long to feel grounded. To know I’m held, and to feel it with my body. I want to touch it and taste it and smell it.

I don’t just want to know gravity, I want to experience it.

After several moments, I let go of my chair and wander back into the house. My eyes eventually land on a painting my daughter made with her fourth-grade class. It’s a picture of birds perched along a tree branch, created by kid-sized thumbprints of oil paint. It’s probably one of my favorite art pieces in my whole house. The caption reads:

“To our children, we give two things:

One is roots, the other is wings.”

 I’ve always felt the saying bordered on being too sentimental, but today the words strike me fresh. Roots and Wings. Yes. There’s something about how earth and sky both work together to make us whole.

I know I am meant to fly. We all are. And aren’t we all haunted by this knowing? We feel the shadowy outline of the wings along our backs, and we crave the open sky. We long for the wildness and freedom and expansion of the heavens. We are pricked with longing by invitations to greatness, possibility, vastness.

Like children, we ache to shake ourselves loose from the veil of the familiar, to fling our hands up to the heavens and feel the exhilaration of sheer immensity. We crave transcendence.


Like children, we are all peering out from beneath the hem of our mother’s skirt, wondering if it’s safe to let go.

I want to connect to that which holds me.

We crave transcendence, and we also hold in our hearts a longing for closeness, safety, consistency. We long to feel the solidity of the ground beneath us. To get to the bottom of things to that which cannot be shaken. We want what’s familiar, certain, unsurprising. We ache for home.

 We love the sky for its wildness as much as for its rhythmic rising and setting sun.

One is roots, the other is wings.

I ponder the painting, and the little thumbprint blobs of oil that somehow came together to make something beautiful. I think about those fourth-grade children, pressing their tiny fingers to the canvas in faith – before they had any idea what it would mean.

And something begins to come into focus.

I’ve forgotten what gravity feels like.

To craft a painting one thumbprint at a time.

The holy terror of open sky has become only terror.

And I’m clasping the hot metal of my chair, because I’ve lost touch with what it means to be held.

And naming this feels like being put back together. Mended.


The disciples forgot too. They started arguing amongst themselves who would become the greatest. And in their pursuit of greatness, they stepped right over goodness. In their desire for transcendence, they forgot they were little ones clutching their mother’s skirt.

 And Jesus rebuked them with the image of a child.

“For it is one who is least among you all who is the greatest.”

I think about all of this, and I let the tears come.

And I am struck anew with the truth: God meets us on the ground. He never asks us to climb the clouds to heaven. He brought heaven down to earth. He showed up in dust and dirt. He walked barefoot through towns. He stooped low to wash feet. He talked about seed and gardens and bread and wine. He ate and drank with sinners.

And He is still showing up here now, whispering:

Take your shoes off, the ground is holy, too.


I will fly. But He chose dirt as the meeting place of earth and heaven. He is there with me in the soil, in the grass, in the note I send a friend, in the meal I make for my family, in the beauty I create. In my humanness. In my frailty. In my terror. He is with me when I am dangling from the earth and certain that it’s all going to give way. When I fear the despair might swallow me whole.

And He is with me when I clutch the hot metal of my chair and remember to thank Him for this day.

Jesus is that which holds me. Pressing my thumb to the canvas, one day at a time. Before I even know what it all means.

And the more I cultivate an awareness of this truth, the freer I will be to raise my hands to the sky and welcome the holy terror of it.

I will be like the afflicted woman who, dragging herself along the ground, clasped the hem of His robe and knew she would touch heaven. And maybe then I will understand: We do not find our way to the open sky by ourselves.

We are carried there.

The featured image is courtesy of Julie Jablonski and used with her kind permission for Cultivating.


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  1. Emily says:

    Thank you for this. I appreciate the reminder that we are rooted and grounded, yet made to fly–but not by ourselves.

  2. Betsy says:

    I made a bee line for this as soon as I read the title. It is a lovely piece which speaks truth into my almost 67 year old life. Thank you, Nicole & Cultivating. I am taking deep breaths and thanking God for leading me here tonight!

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