So – I could not remember what we used to call the stickers that would punish our feet as we ran barefoot through the backyards of our neighborhood (even though Dad would always tell us to put something on our feet if we left our own well-cared for yard! Silly Dad, why would he say … Ouch! Stickers!) – except we didn’t call them “stickers” – there was a much more elegant name, that I couldn’t remember. I decided to text my siblings, to help jog my memory. The first answer was “stickers.” Not helpful… one sister even offered, “goatheads,” which didn’t even make sense, although they do exist (still… goatheads?). Finally, we settled on “sandburs” or “grassburs” which was better than briars or brambles or prickles – or stickers. We then spent a good half hour recounting the pain of those stinkers.
It was about a half hour after that, that the word popped up in my brain: cockleburs! That was the word I had been searching for! Now, to be honest, what we would step on were probably more likely sandburs or grassburs, and cockleburs were better named for those seed pods that would stick on a dog’s fur or pants legs as we ran through a deep grass or the woods. Yet, cockleburs are what stuck in my mind (and our feet) from childhood.
The worst of it was when we would run – barefoot – at full speed through a grassy area, and unknowingly hit a cocklebur patch and go three or four steps in before realizing the pain pouring out of the soles of our feet! It was a pulsating, throbbing, scream-invoking pain, and the only thing you could do at that point was to sit down in the patch itself, at which time you ended up with stickers on your bottom, or your bare legs, and certainly on the palms of your hands as you headed toward the earth, hoping to pull them out of your feet. The other option, of course, was to further sacrifice your ability to walk by walking on the sides of your feet, backing out of the patch, which then inserted more burrs into more square area of your feet… finally, as you found a safe place, the emergency surgery required pulled the nasty little daggers out of toes, heels and worst of all, insteps/arches, which were always tender. In doing so, of course, you would end up stabbing your fingers and thumbs, and perhaps even leaving the points of tiny swords stuck in your feet. After the miserable operation was complete, if the pain had subsided, and bleeding wasn’t too bad, we would resume the run – again, barefoot – until we hit another patch, and the joyful experience of childhood would start all over again…
But those stinking cockleburs! Lying in wait, hidden among the gentle grass, with their little armies of spear-pointing cockleburs-in-arms, stifling their vicious little cocklebur laughs as they heard the sounds of happy children running toward them… they ranked right up there with mosquitoes, wasps and fire ants as our sworn enemies. And the hotter the summer got and the drier the grass became, the more lethal and brittle the cockleburs grew, biding their time in hopes of tender toes and shrieks of sudden awareness that we had gone the wrong way.
Today is the first day of my retired life. Right at midnight last night, I was awakened by an incessant beeping, and I finally realized that the “retirement countdown calculator” that my sons have given me more than a year ago, which I would frequently refer to when asked how long I had left, had finally counted down to zero, and there, in the middle of the night, I was wished a tiny electronic congratulations – until I figure out how to shut the crazy thing off, and went back to bed.
But as I start my fourth life, amidst all the possibilities and freedom that I am experiencing (I just deleted my church email account from all my devices!), my mind is still drawn to think of cockleburs. Sure, my stock market pension fund ended up overcoming the Spring of CoVid-19, and things look good in that department, but in a real sense, I have taken off my shoes, and it’s hard to listen to Dad, even from heaven, telling me to be sure to put something else on my feet if I decide to leave our yard. Barefoot feels so good, so free, wiggling my toes in the grass of retirement!
Yet, I know that somewhere out there, they are waiting for me – again, after all these years, quietly snickering in hopes that I will make the mistake of stepping off the known, safe path, and right into the newest incarnation of cocklebur. The trouble is, however, that this is the time to leave those pathways, and indeed step into the unsure, uncertain yards of my now-later years. The old choices strangely still remain: will I turn toward safety or surprise? Will I tiptoe, or just run boldly into my future? Will I behave myself, and keep those shoes on, or take the marvelous, scary risk and run pell-mell into the open field before me? These are the first-day questions that deserve, if not an answer, at least some consideration.
My first answer is to say that it’s time to run into retirement! It’s time to let the sunshine or the rain pour down on me, to see what I have not seen before – and after so many years, to let go of what might hold me back from truly enjoying and cherishing this life. Of course, I make this commitment with my feet and my soul as yet un-prickled by those new cockleburs! But I remember, and need to always remember, that when I was young, I never let the fear of cockleburs keep me from the joy of living and playing – and running barefoot. It’s ok to live with the possibility of danger – we are going to live with that anyway – but it’s not ok to stand still, wearing heavy boots in the middle of summer, when field and lawns and cockleburs are waiting to be conquered, and even enjoyed for the part of life they are.
Meet you in the sticker patch.
Word for today: kakorrhaphiophobia the fear of failure (or cockleburs…) it of course is Greek, with “phobia” – fear of kakorrhaphio “a contrivance of ill, or mischievousness.”
After 43 years of ministry, Randy Cross lived his "fourth life" and shared about retirement, living boldly and intentionally in our world. To be sure, there was some North Dakota thrown in.