A string of a dozen four-year-olds paraded by the front of the coffee shop, chubby little hands grasping the rope connected by a teacher at each end. Some kids waved and smiled, one asked the teacher what we—the folks sitting at the open coffee shop window—were doing, but it was a little girl in the middle that caught my attention. She was in the center of the pack holding onto the rope just like all the other kids, but what made her stand out was that her eyes were closed. She had red, curly hair, and a tiny, knowing smile on her freckled face. She followed along, trusting the rope, trusting the teachers at either end, trusting the kids in front of and behind her. The pack moved slowly enough for me to see that she wasn’t peeking out from squinched eyes, she wasn’t glancing at the ground while trying to maintain the impression of trusting. In fact her eyes weren’t squeezed shut, they were simply closed. She looked…relaxed.
I couldn’t know the girl’s intentions. Maybe she was doing the thing I used to do as a kid when we were driving home from my grandparent’s house late at night. I’d lay down in the back seat of our jeep (dangerous, I know, but seat belts felt more ‘optional’ in the 70s), lids closed against the darkness, replaying my memory of what we were passing along the way. Every so often I’d open one eye to see if we were, in fact, in front of the Pinney Branch Library. Or the East YMCA. Or the Sentry Foods. And we were almost always exactly where I thought. But even when we weren’t, I felt safe. My mom in the front passenger seat, my dad shifting gears and steering. We were going from one warm, safe house to another. I was in good hands.
Or maybe the little girl was enjoying the combination of sunshine and chilly air on her face. Or maybe the kid in front of her was annoying, her preschool nemesis whose existence she needed to block out visually as often as possible. What I do know is that her steps were sure. She was certain. She trusted the rope, she trusted the kids in front of her, she trusted the teachers anchoring both ends.
I saw myself in that girl.
As we get older, we’re given the message that growing up means no more ropes, no more holding onto others for safety. Our culture values independence and venerates a narrow definition of success. I tried playing along, but it isn’t me. Yes, I have strong opinions and I need copious amounts of time alone for optimal sanity. But human connection is vital. It’s the anchor at the ends of my rope.
My anxiety was never higher than during the three years of law school when I felt isolated in a series of lecture halls full of other ambitious students. It’s not that we were overtly pitted against one another—mine wasn’t that kind of a school—but collaboration and mutual support were not woven into the curriculum. I valued the education and some of the genuine connections I made, but didn’t see a way for me to thrive in the field. I didn’t see how I could be myself, and I was exhausted by years of trying to be someone else.
So after graduation I forged a different path. I sought kindred spirits whose intelligence and work ethic were rivaled by their humanity and humility. Each place I landed in the social justice sphere brought me closer to what feels like my truest expression of myself. (I know, I can’t believe I said that, either.) Then, when I found writing, or writing found me, I discovered a community I didn’t quite know I was searching for. I found my way into a few small groups of people who will hand you a rope when you fall, people who will dig their heels into the fresh dirt and pull you up onto solid ground. People, mostly women, who also value community, who will push you to get your work on the page, even as they send their own strong words out into the world.
We can’t keep our eyes closed forever, but sometimes we need to let go—of our resistance to our own value, of our efforts to control the process, of someone else’s idea of what it looks like to be successful. Sometimes this letting go involves a holding on of a different sort. We need to wrap our fingers around the metaphorical rope, and move forward with the support of those we trust. So close your eyes for a moment. Feel the rough rope in your hands, and picture the people ahead of and behind you. Picture the anchors at either end. Now take one step. And another. And don’t worry—it’ll be your turn to open your eyes and lead someone else soon enough.