Learning from the Wild One

There is a black-and-white photo that sits in my office. The photo is of a favorite four-year-old. In it, she is outside. Even in black and white, I know the sky in the photo is brilliant blue. She is looking straight into the camera lens. Her lovely little face fills the frame, blonde strands of hair blowing wild in the wind. Her eyes are dancing, confident, carefree, and intent on her subject. Her puffy cheeks frame a mischievous, open-mouth smile. Small, white, baby teeth perfectly fill her feisty grin. You can tell she is having the time of her life. You can tell she believes in joie de vivre. The moment looks unforced, uncoerced and uninhibited. The photographer captured the essence of the little girl in that moment, and of who I hope she gets to be her whole life—exuberant, present, intent, joyful, secure, and just a little bit unrestrained and wild.

What a gift it is to be four years old and to know the world in such a way. The little girl is a first-born daughter, so she is already finding her way into the responsibilities of a role. Even with the best intentions of her parents, it is unavoidable. She manifests nurturing traits toward her younger sibling and other littles. She loves her momma and imitates her at every turn. She adores her father and strives to please him. Likewise, as an oldest child’s “first-to-go” insecurities manifest, she is also learning that life requires courage.

She is learning to be brave.

Still, I love the moment captured in the photo. I love it for her and for all of us who get to see it, maybe even to live vicariously through it. It is a helpful reminder that there can be joyful, wild abandon when life is anything but. When the moments of our days are constrained, forced, coerced, inhibited, or just plain black, white, and gray, such photos remind us that we, too, were once carefree, colorful, intent, joyful, and bold. They remind us that maybe, if we allow ourselves to be a little wild or slightly brazen, we might again experience that joie de vivre, the exuberant enjoyment of life. I can tell you that this post-middle-aged woman needs that reminder often.

And you know what? Recently the photo of this sweet little one did just that for me.

I have had the honor of working in a profession I love for many years. It has been rewarding and fulfilling and the privilege of a lifetime. And yet, the stresses of recent years have initiated fatigue, hinting that my work may soon be destined for someone else. It may well be time to pass the baton to the next in line. And maybe, just maybe, what is next in line for me is simply waiting for me to reach out and take hold.

I remember looking at the face of the little girl in the photo that day, witnessing her exuberance for life and being inspired by her bravery. In that moment, I felt God calling me into her bold, wild spirit and I said, “Yes.”

Over the weeks and months since, the unformed future has begun to take shape. At first, it was terrifying. Then as I bravely took each next step, a vision of what lay ahead began to emerge. The steps still terrified me, yet the girl in the photo kept inspiring my “yes.”

Today, I sign the papers that signal the end of one season. My next task is to sign the papers that launch the beginning of the next. I’ll be honest—it’s scary. Even while it seems God has worked this out in ways unimagined, the wildness of it is real. I have lived long enough to be afraid. I have also lived long enough to know I can trust the God who holds a wild, unknown future—even if it turns out differently from what I imagined.

Today, I can see my own face photoshopped onto that picture with the little girl. Our two faces couldn’t be more different—hers, young, unlined, unscarred, unblemished, untested; mine, sporting lines, scars, and blemishes from decades of living. Today, though, our eyes are the same—dancing, confident, unrestrained, and a little wild. Carefree is in there somewhere, but because I know things about life that she doesn’t yet, I’m still working on that one. She will teach me. It is good to learn from the wild ones.

Jill English is an avid encourager of people and a lover of words. She is most at home out-of-doors, especially if the out-of-doors involves a beach. Her most magical moments happen as ‘Mimi’ while spending time with her well-loved grandchildren and her adult kids. Jill spends her workdays helping others discern vocational call through theological education. Her favorite conversations involve connecting the sacred dots of everyday life and faith. Jill lives in Grand Rapids, MI with two small, elderly pups.