As I sat there, staring up at the sky, I didn’t notice the old man approaching.
I was in my solitude, a little off the beaten track, at a place where I would come to sit and think. Or rather not think, for I had discovered that it was thinking, and especially overthinking, that was the cause of my anxiety.
That, and people.
For much of my life I had felt more connected to nature than people. Birds, trees, the mountains, the sea — especially the sea — all these provided me with comfort; while people, with a few exceptions, served to cause vexation and worry.
That day my little dog was at my side. And it was my dog, wagging her tail, that alerted me to the old man nearby. I was sitting in the damp grass, on a hillside overlooking a valley, with views of faraway hills.
“Hello?”, he asked, as if he knew he might be intruding.
“Hello” I answered.
“Your little dog saw me from some distance,” he said, “though it wasn't my intention to disturb you.”
He was standing a few yards in front of where I sat. He looked to be quite ancient, and was dressed in well worn, some might suggest tattered, clothes. Not that he appeared any more dishevelled than did I. I was wearing my tired, scruffy coat to walk the dog that day; it was muddy underfoot and I often had to carry the dog over rough wooden stiles that spanned the walls and hedgerows along the little used footpath. The front of my coat was covered in a patchwork of dried mud.
“I thought it might rain,” said the man, making polite conversation, “but I’m not so sure now.”
I looked back up at the sky. I hadn’t noticed that the sun had come out.
“Earlier there were dark clouds,” I said.
“May I join you for a short while?” the man asked. I nodded and my dog wagged her tail as the man carefully trampled the grass with his boots and then sat down, with some effort, next to me.
“Not often I see anyone up here,” he said.
“Oh I do come here quite a lot,” I answered, “it’s a good place to sit and think, or not think. For me anyway.”
The old man looked across the valley and then pointed at something in the distance; “a raven,” he said, “king of the birds. Look, it flies high on the wings of a thermal.”
We watched the bird for a few moments until it disappeared into the mist that hung over some trees in the valley.
“Don’t you wish you could soar like that?” he said. I did. Sometimes I imagined leaping from this very place and catching the thermal, climbing higher and higher, soaring like a bird, my spirit flying into the unknown. One day I thought I might do just that.
“Me too” he said, as if he had heard my thought.
He spoke quietly, “Our soul is escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers”. He flashed a smile at me, “Psalm 124” he said. “The snare is broken, and we have escaped”.
The old man was still looking at where the raven had been. “It’s that feeling you get when you dream of flying, isn’t it?”
I knew exactly what he meant, both literally and spiritually. That very morning I had discovered a bird trapped under some netting that a farmer had tied over a hedge. I took out my penknife and cut a hole in the net so that the fragile creature could escape. After a few moments the bird emerged and took flight, circling three times above my head as if celebrating its freedom. I felt empathy with the tiny soul and anger at the farmer for trapping the creature. That conflict of emotions had set in for the day, which is why I sought out my quiet solitary place to ponder and meditate.
The old man had not intruded, nor disturbed my contemplation, indeed sometimes a stranger happening by can be fortuitous.
I turned to the man, my little dog was pawing at his coat. “Sorry,” I said, “she thinks everyone wants to be her friend.”
“And why not?”, said the man smiling.
With that, he stood up and leapt high into the air.
I gasped at the sudden unexpected twist. What just happened?
The old man grabbed frantically at the air, about thirty or forty feet above me, as if he were trying to catch the breeze. He looked down at me, nodding and smiling. Then, like a balloon caught in the wind, he floated off into the sky.
My dog watched with me this surreal turn of events, wagging her tail and barking.
Then the old man was gone, disappeared into a cloud.
I carefully got up, my legs creaking and numb from sitting on the cold damp ground for too long.
I brushed the loose grass from my jeans and started off home, my little dog running alongside me.
‘The snare is broken, and we have escaped’.
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