10 Feet by 10 Feet: A Story

There once was a traveler on a long and pressing journey.

Night fell, and he lost his way in the dark of a thick forest.

On the verge of despair, he saw a light flickering in the distance. Making his way toward the light, he found a hut in a small clearing.

When he knocked at the door, an old yogi answered and said, “What is it, my friend?”

“I’ve lost my way,” said the traveler, “it is a moonless night and the path I am following is hard to see.”

“Come in and pass the night with me. Although my hut is humble, it is warm and I have food to share,” answered the yogi.

“Thank you,” said the traveler, “but I must arrive at my destination by morning. Can you help me?”

The yogi went into his hut momentarily and came back to the door smiling. “I cannot go with you, but take this lantern. It will illumine your way.”

Looking forlorn, the traveler held the lantern aloft and said, “But I cannot find my way with this lantern. Its light shines only ten feet ahead, and I have a journey of many miles to complete.”

The yogi replied, “Walk ten feet, and you will be able to see another ten. And when you have walked ten more feet, yet another ten will be illumined. So ten feet by ten feet, you will reach your destination.”

~Swami Kripalu

We Are the Lantern Keepers: A Reflection

I want to talk about the light but first I must talk about the Darkness.

No, not the Dark

Not the fertile cosmic waters of Pure Possibility that stretch out before us. Where we cast our nets into the future and hope to one day gather up the bounty of our visions.

Not the fallow yet fecund fields where we let our dreams rest before they can finally take root, so we can one day harvest them like bright blossoms to fling out to the world.

No, not the Dark but the Darkness. 

The black thing underneath our bed that makes us shiver and pull our light in a little closer.

The infertile void, a soulless place that makes us exile our magic to keep it protected.

The hungry ghost of a hollow world that hides slavering in the corners of our culture, quietly taking up residence in our society, haunting us—body, heart, mind, and soul.

The Darkness comes early.

It comes and threatens our Light—wanting to eat it whole and then lick its fingers at the pleasure of our consumption.

It comes in many shapes and many guises.

It comes on feet both cacophonous and quiet.

Sometimes it creeps in early—into the womb—through the quiet whooshing of the blood of our gestation—borne of the unhealed grief and loss of our ancestors.

Sometimes it comes later—behind the mask of a friendly face turned ugly, grasping and clutching at our radiance, trying to steal it for its own insatiable hunger.

It can take it all in one moment leaving us as a vestigial shadow of our former luminescence.

Or it can try to slowly steal our light, ray by glorious ray, quietly sipping on our sunshine until we wake up dull one day.

If we’re lucky, it never comes at all but I’ve never met anyone that lucky.

Some say the Darkness is the Devil and some say the Darkness is born of our original sin.

But Jesus beat the Devil and he believed the only sin was when we failed to stay true to our original nature—the nature of love. When we deny our divinity… When we embrace the Darkness, thus separating ourselves completely from our Light… When we hold onto the belief that we are born tainted, those are actually the first steps towards sin itself.

Darkness is not an absence of Light.  It is, in fact, an absence of Love. 

This is important for later, so don’t forget it. 

I’m not sure how old I was when I first began to lose access to my light—to hide it because the world began to feel unable or unwilling to hold the vastness of my brilliance and my shine.

I’m sure there are so many moments I can’t remember, but it most likely started when I was born a girl in a world that was built for men.

Born with a confidence and curiosity that was a threat to their mediocrity.

Born with an unwillingness to be relegated to a life of unquestioning servitude, beholden to banal ideas and oppressive systems.

Born with an unwillingness to be objectified as a meek and eager plaything.

But the moments came and they were plenty.

I remember a moment as a young girl, leaving our local Five and Dime, and a man stopped me on my way out the door, calling me by my name. He asked me what I bought at the store. Did I know him? I didn’t recognize him but somehow he seemed to know me. I scowled at him and replied “I don’t know you, how do you know my name?” He reached forward then and intimately touched my belt buckle that had my name there in cursive. Jessica. His closeness scared me, his overfamiliarity shocked me, so I shouted to leave me alone and I ran home, the sweetness of my treats forgotten by the sour message of this encounter. Men are not safe. Beware.

I can think of dozens of moments just like this: Seemingly unremarkable moments where the Darkness crept in and stole just a bit of my confidence, just a sip of my certainty, one small ray of my sunshine, leaving me colder and more skeptical as a result. Forcing me to hammer in another small but impenetrable piece of armor to keep the light of my soul safe from the sorrow of a sorry world.

A prank phone call when I was 5 where the caller told me he knew where I lived and was going to come to my house to get me. My feet heavy with fear, I ran to my mother’s arms and in terror, I screamed, begging her to stop him from coming for me. I would never answer the phone again after that.

When my oldest friend, Jenny, called me on the phone in second grade—a phone I would no longer answer—to tell me I wasn’t invited to her birthday party because she didn’t like me anymore and didn’t want me there. I knew there was a reason I didn’t answer the phone. I knew there was a reason why I couldn’t trust my friends.

That day in 6th grade when my friend, Kim, cornered me in the girls’ bathroom to tell me I wasn’t that special and to get over myself, just because I got on the cheerleading team and she hadn’t. It doesn’t matter how kind you are, someone will always hate you just because you exist.

That time when I was 14, sitting with my father at his kitchen table. As I reached for something more to eat, he asked me if I had considered going on a diet because I wasn’t fat but I wasn’t exactly thin. That’s the day my eating disorder began.

Moments left unspoken in the shadows, unexamined, unprocessed. Small traumas that built up in the storehouse of my body, confirming or reaffirming the stories that our culture wants us to believe. The stories that keep us small and compliant. These small griefs that grew hard and cold in my heart. Sip, sip, sipping at my sunshine, draining the day from my life.

And of course there are the big moments, too. We all have our own versions of them. 

Deaths and illnesses. Losses, violations, and betrayals.

Moments that sneak up on us or moments we don’t allow ourselves to see coming at all.

Moments that seem to change the trajectory of our lives completely—seem to swallow us whole, consume our joy, and then spit out our meager remains, leaving us gasping for light.

Moments that threaten to pull us under and drown us all for the mere hubris of being human.

Moments of Darkness that seem to snatch our light completely and leave us wondering if there is a God or something—anything—bigger than ourselves that can offer us grace and mercy to save us from this blackness.

But this is not a story of Darkness and how it seems to grow with each violation, each separation, each unmet expectation. How it seems to press in like a fog, clouding our vision and leaving us staring into a void, lost in the emptiness of its endless hunger.

No. This is a story of Light. Or rather it’s a story of the opposite of Darkness. Which, if you remember, isn’t light but is, in fact, Love.

The kind of love that sees us and supports when we can’t see ourselves.

Love that sits with us without expectation and listens without agenda.

Love that soothes our soul like a balm, offering tenderness to all our scorched parts.

Love that burbles up in us like laughter when the effervescence of life has gone flat.

Love that offers us a place at the table and a lantern to help guide us through Darkness.

Love that walks with us until we find our way again, even when we’re sure we’re lost forever.

Love that holds our faith for us knowing that we’ll always find our way home.

Love like when I was high school and my mother was sick and I felt the Darkness pressing in on me. I remember standing in front of the gym, crying, not wanting to go into the school assembly, when my Vice Principal, Jean Langdon, saw me and asked if I wanted to go back to her office to talk. And I did. And that day, she saved me just a little bit from losing my light. She offered me a lantern to guide me back to myself, 10 feet by 10 feet. She tended to my little flickering soul light that day and many days after. Loving the young woman I was becoming, supporting me on that journey through the Darkness.

And love like when I was 19 and I met my mentor, Lee, who even at 12 years my senior, thought I was smart and interesting and wise well beyond my years. She listened to me and counseled me and helped me feel normal even when my life and experiences up to that point were as far from normal as I’d ever known. She offered me a lantern to guide me back to myself, 10 feet by 10 feet, even when the Darkness felt overwhelming and immense. Her love and friendship has helped guide me and continues to do so even 28 years later.

If we’re lucky, we all have stories of people like Jean or Lee, or the countless other kind souls who’ve helped me on my journey. If you’re lucky, you have stories of people who’ve helped you through the Darkness—who has offered you the kind of love that helps remember you, that helps you remember yourself. A love that helps reunite you with your light. Darkness cannot stand up to that kind of Love. It cannot dim a Light that is fueled by that kind of remembrance, that kind of clear-eyed,  clear-seeing and clear-knowing. Darkness cannot stand up to a world filled with light keepers and soul tenders, a world that cares for one another and offers kindness and compassion when it feels like there is none to give.

With his story of the traveler in the dark forest and the yogi who offers him a lantern on his way, Swami Kripalu illustrates his belief that each of us is a pilgrim, a traveler, on a journey through this life. Inevitably, we will lose our way, lose sight of our path and will experience the Darkness, encounter moments of despair and confusion. While no one can complete our journey for us, we can offer a place of rest, a moment of respite, a seat at our table, or a lantern to light the way, to help to bridge what we knew of the past with what we don’t know of the future. We help guide an inevitable reunion with the kindness we have to offer.

This story has stuck with me for years. The image of a traveler in a dark wood, the uncertainty of his journey, the feeling of Darkness pressing in and slowing his passage, and then a kind stranger appearing in the night to offer a lantern for the unknown journey ahead and a gentle reminder that 10 feet by 10 feet, we can each make our way forward. Even in the liminal spaces, those in-between times,  if we just take it 10 feet by 10 feet we can make it through.

Our culture is not built for tending lights or caring for souls. Our nation is built on rugged individualism. It values hard work and productivity, profit more than people. It promotes pulling oneself up by the bootstraps even though we are a nation where far too many of us were never even given boots to start with. Our communities are abstract concepts, aspirational at best. We’ve been sold the lie of the nuclear family and told there must be something wrong with us if we don’t have one. And yet—AND YET—in spite of the Darkness of the world, or perhaps because of it, there are what I call these incredible “Lantern Keepers”—the “Lees” and the “Jeans” of the world. The kind yogis in the woods with their cozy huts and warm fires. The helpers with plenty of love in their hearts and a lantern to offer for the pressing journey ahead.

A few years ago, when the Darkness was once again threatening to swallow my light and I felt my path forward was uncertain, I shared Swami Kripalu’s short parable with my friend, Karen. I told her that I wanted to be the yogi in the woods, to offer respite or a light for those who needed it on their journey. That I felt it was my mission. My life’s work. And that I wanted to invite others to do the same.

She said, “So do it.”

“But I’m afraid,” I told her. “I’m afraid to share my light with others. I’m afraid in the process of sharing my light, that I’ll invite in the Darkness and lose myself to it like I’ve seen happen to far too many other spiritual leaders and teachers.”

“Honestly? I’m afraid of,” gulp, “becoming a narcissist,” I whispered.

She laughed a long, deep, throaty laugh and said “You, my dear, have nothing to worry about when it comes to that.”

She asked me then, to imagine myself on the shore of the Great Mystery, those inky black cosmic waters stretching out before me.

“Now just imagine yourself there, alone, and shine your light as bright as you want to shine it. Hold up your lantern in the Dark and just shine. Now look around and notice what happens. Notice that by shining your light, other lights begin to pop up around you. Small lights. Big lights. Lights that cast themselves far and lights that are small and flicker but grow steadier as they shine. Each of you, a light on the shore of the Great Mystery. Each of you shining as brightly as you want to. Not for each other but with each other. You don’t have to be the source of light for others, Jessica. That’s where they’ve gotten it wrong. No. You just have to be brave enough to shine.”

“Because,” she said, “light attracts light.”

And with that image, I truly, deeply—finally—got it.  I could actually see it. I could actually feel it.

Not me as an individual light shining like a beacon for others but we, as a collective light, shining with each other, creating a light so big that the Darkness cannot touch it.

And as I stand here now on the shore of the Great Mystery, staring out into the inky indigo of the Unknown, I can’t pretend to know what I’m doing or how to get from here to there. But I can humbly offer my light to the world, holding it up as a flickering invitation to anyone who needs help making it through the dark forest of night.

And over this past year, I have felt you gather here beside me, I have seen the bright luminescence of The Lantern Keepers standing here together on the shore. I have heard your voices, seen your faces, felt your hearts, known your souls.

There is no doubt that our work here will be hard. There will be days that we lose our vision, nights when we are left parched and panting in the desert of a seemingly desolate world, desperate for restoration. Our hearts will certainly be broken, our parts scattered.

But together, we will persist. With Lanterns held high, I know the strength and brilliance of our collective shining will help each of us and all of us make it through this dark night of our collective soul.

And together, we shall be A Mighty Kindness—10 feet by 10 feet, pushing back the Darkness of our times. Illuminating our way forward as one, until we become the dawn.

This original reflection was shared as part of a special community event on December 18, 2022 in our free kindness community—The House of Belonging.