“Stories form bridges that other people might cross, to feel their way into another experience.” Dian Million, Therapeutic Nations: Healing in an Age of Indigenous Human Rights
I’d like you to come with me on a hike. It’s one of my favorites, crisscrossing high desert prairies, skirting a lake, and leading, eventually, to a cold rocky stream. I’m excited to show you my beloved mountain home, so water bottles in hand, let’s set out.
If we hike in Summer, dry grasses leave kernels on our pants and the trail coats our feet in dust. After walking past a prickly pear cactus next to a log bench, we arrive at a wooden bridge. You might laugh to see this bridge crossing dry ground. Being new to the area, you only see it for what it is in this moment: 20 or so wooden planks with nothing but a yarrow plant and a rabbit underneath. No mosquitoes or dragonflies buzz, no cattails or mosses grow. You might think it’s a waste of elusive park funds, this short bridge over scrub brush, and most of the year, that’s true.
But if you come with me in Spring, when snow melt leaves the mountains and flows down to my little green space, you’ll see with different eyes. In Spring, the smell of new growth follows us to the bridge. We see yellow butterflies dancing through the grass, sitting on heavy-headed stalks. If you step off the path you’ll lose one of your Tevas in the noxious mud. You see, those who live near the park know that mountain runoff doesn’t stay in well-defined boundaries. It creeps underground, across artificial borders, carrying life-giving moisture to nourish the cacti and yarrow long after our trail has dried. In Spring, you’ll understand the purpose of that bridge, and you’ll be grateful for it.
There are times when I rest on the log bench before crossing the bridge. I let the butterflies land next to me and I delight in the rabbit popping out now and then, a friendly reminder that the bridge serves more than I can see. As much as I would like to rinse my feet in our cool mountain stream, it would be silly for me to demand that it cross the bridge to me. Streams are fickle creatures and don’t care much for the needs of humans.
And if you’re tired and foot sore when we reach the bench, I don’t mind if you rest on the bench. I may choose to cross the bridge before you’re ready. I have strong mountain lungs and my feet and this path are old friends. I know you’ll be fine without me for awhile. We progress at our own pace, you and I, secure in our friendship. When you’re rested, cross the bridge and follow the trail. I’ll save a seat for you by the stream.
As I type this tonight, I’m thinking about bridges I’ve crossed in the past, at times reluctantly, and at other times, joyously. When I first hiked this path, I didn’t reach the stream. I saw the bridge, rolled my Chicago-raised eyes at the silliness of it, and turned back. The next time I hiked, I ate a sandwich on the bench. Children clattered across the bridge, laughing about the crawdads they would catch at the stream. That day, I extended my hike further than I intended so I could reach the creek. “Still,” I thought, “What a waste of money, building that bridge.”
All that summer I hiked, and after winter’s sleep, I looked forward to the trail I had begun to think of as mine. And I learned, during that muddy spring, why we need the bridge. Someone who knew more than me, someone with experience or foresight, built a bridge that most hikers, most of the year, didn’t need. For me, it only took one incredulous step into the boggy murk to teach me how vital that bridge had been all along. I think of how long it took me to recognize what other people around me had known for some time: the bridge would prove a savior in the right season.
I think of the time I spent sitting on the bench. It was pleasant there, and I felt no need to move toward a goal, not realizing how delightful mountain water feels after a dusty walk. Not seeing the full landscape, I never could have understood either the reward at the end or the role the bridge served in reaching that goal.
A bridge can be a metaphor for many things. Tonight, I think about my children. Each one of them is a misfit in the conservative society in which they were raised. Each one defies the box I, and other people, tried to put them in. Each of them, having broken through chains of judgment and grief, has stood on the opposite side of a bridge, urging me to cross, pleading with me to believe in the reward. No matter how reluctant I’ve been, or how much it hurt to leave the bench, when I’ve trusted their knowledge of the landscape, I’ve been blessed with a soothing mountain stream for trail-sore feet.
I admit that in the past, I’ve made the mistake of demanding that they cross back to my side of the bridge, the side where they found pain and exclusion. In my presumed right-ness, which was really just pride, I only succeeded in adding to their grief. I cannot sit on a bench and watch my children suffer next to me if a few steps across a couple of wooden planks would set us on a better path.
But it can be challenging to leave the security of the bench. It can be hard to admit that my preconceived notions of the usefulness of the bridge were wrong, and perhaps even dangerous. It hurts to think of the times I’ve refused to cross, insisting instead that my children come back to my side. Even knowing I meant well, those regrets seem overwhelming sometimes, and I wish I could back up, redo the trail, and take a different turn. But I’ve never regretted walking across a bridge when offered one. By leaving the security of the bench, I’ve seen new creations, found new comforts, and come to understand new glories.
In the thirteen years we’ve lived here, my little bridge has been destroyed several times. Once it was burned, the fire human-caused. Once it was washed away by torrential floods that covered the park and devastated whole communities. When the floods receded, it was months before anyone could get to the spot where the bridge had once been. Outsiders, unfamiliar with the trails, thought, like I had, that it was a waste of money needed elsewhere. So we waited. One year, almost two, until volunteers and donations built the bridge again.
No one will force you to cross the bridge, dear friend. And perhaps you could find another route to the stream. I’ve been all over this park, but I tend to stay on the trails, not interested in destroying our fragile green space by forging my own path. I hope you’ll trust me, though. I promise the water will feel good on those blisters, and I packed some chocolate we can share at the end. I’m happy you’re on the journey with me, because as much as I love this hike, it’s so much more enjoyable with you beside me.