Month: June 2020

Climbing Up

            One of the instructors from the Project Adventure class, along with my friend and some of the other tree jumping crazies, also hiked in the Adirondack Mountains.  My friend invited me along.  There are bears in those mountains.  Did I mention my extreme fear of bears?  Especially bears hiding in the shadows in the woods?  Bears had stalked me since early childhood, hunting me at night in my dreams, chasing me as I ran, reaching for me with outstretched claws – before I wakened to a pounding heart.  I never told my parents or brothers or friends about the dream, felt stupid for being so afraid.  Then the real bears appeared, relocated to our woods from those same Adirondack Mountains.  The news filled with reports of sightings in backyards where children played.  Our mailman spotted one crossing just up the road.  I even heard my own mother’s chilling phone conversation with my aunt, relating her certainty that a bear was near as our dog herded us together and trembled at our feet in the blueberry lot.  My mother was terrified and therefore so was I.  We camped in those mountains.  On one trip we had watched the bears feed at the dump in front of us – until one came from behind and sent my mother screaming to the camper with me in tow.  Early one morning we found footprints in a campsite restroom that had not been there the night before.  And now I was going hiking with nothing but my backpack between me and a monster??  But despite all this, I said yes. 

            The others appeared relaxed and laughed their way through the woods as we ascended.  The rocky path demanded my careful attention to not end up on my butt.  I had walked good distances for years, but had never hiked up a mountain.  It was not easy.  But I found my way at the tail end of the group; always sure I was within sight.  The steady pace eased my apprehensions as we kept hiking.  Focus shifted away from fears and effort to the surrounding trees and rocks and wildlife.   We moved above the tree line to the bald bouldered top. Waves of green mountains flowed around me as far as I could see.  The open sky nestled into each crevice, like a blanket in a cradle, embracing precious flesh.  I turned and turned, trying to open a new window in my brain to allow it all in.  We rested and ate and laughed and sat in the silence of wonder.  Heading back down I was surprised at how much harder it was than the climb up!  Gravity had pulled my feet into the security of the solid earth on the way up, but now it threatened to grab my foot as it extended into mid air and hurtle me down onto the sharp rocks.  Step by slow step I retreated to the base, but carried the vista from above deep within me.  My thighs ached for days afterwards, but I had finally entered the woods, bears and all.  The tug of the beauty, peace and quiet there, would take me back again and again.

Stepping Out

            The harness was cinched snugly around my waist and each thigh.  The rope attached to the back was the only thing between me, crushed bones and blood.  I managed a quivering “On belay?” and received a strong confident “Belay on.”  It was time to jump, or at least step, off the log suspended between two trees a thousand feet above ground – or maybe it was closer to twelve feet.  This was supposedly challenge by choice.  But now there was no choice, no going back down the tree I had climbed to get here – that was made clear before going up.  Even terror and tears didn’t alter that rule. 

            I joined the Project Adventure class at a friend’s suggestion.  She said it was fun and thought I would like it.  I was looking for something different, a way to break away from the stress at home.  I signed up without really exploring what it involved.  I arrived at the park where it was held and met up with my friend, her friend, the instructors and a group of about 15 people.  Most had taken the course before, but a few of us were new.  We stood in a circle and played games to warm up and connect – like lining up according to month and day of birth, which required interacting with everyone to find out where my date fell in the pack.  Fast and fun, it didn’t allow time to feel awkward.  Then we moved towards the woods at the back of the park, to the low ropes course.  All challenges required teamwork in order to complete the task – a seldom used concept for independent me. We walked along wires positioned a foot off the ground, using each other as human tethers to prevent falling.  We crossed impossible looking obstacle courses constructed of rocks and logs.  Brainstorming, cooperating, trying, failing, then trying a different approach until we accomplished the goal together was not only fun, but created a sense of camaraderie I had not expected.  Each member of the team was important in the ultimate success – including me!

            We moved deeper into the woods.  Overhead were wires, platforms, and logs suspended between the trees.  The high ropes course.  The two instructors donned straps and helmets and hooks, then attached themselves to ropes.  Then they taught us the procedure, including the safety calls of “On belay?” (are you ready for me to risk my life jumping into thin air from the top of a tree?),  and “Belay on.” (yeah fool, go ahead!).  One instructor climbed a tall tree and jump from it as the other held a rope that safely guided his speedy descent.  Just like that.  No problem.  Then we all geared up.  I watched the others climb and jump as I waited for my turn.  I had never been afraid of heights so wasn’t worried about altitude.  But as my turn drew closer tears began to flow unexpectedly.  I began to sob – apologizing because I didn’t understand why I was crying.  Everyone casually reassured me that it was OK, but no one suggested I back out – and no one else was crying.  I tried to bury the sobs under laughter.  My turn arrived.  I slowly climbed the tree fitted with foot and hand holds, reached the spot where I needed to leave the security of the solid trunk, walk out onto the suspended log, and jump.  And that’s where I froze.  The only muscle moving was my heart.  It thumped so hard I thought it was going to take its own leap – out of my chest.  I wanted to retreat back down the tree but was reminded that was not a choice.  Tears dripped off my chin as I finally moved – one step out and then one step back, over and over again.  I feared the anger of those in line waiting for me to go, almost as much as I feared the jump itself.   My reluctant feet inched out to the middle of the log, but remained unable to trade solid wood for thin air.  No one laughed or made fun of my fear.   I glanced at the waiting faces but did not see the anger I expected.  The instructor kept repeating that it was OK, that I could wait until I was ready, that they had me safely in hand.  Finally, knees deeply bent and eyes closed, I took the longest step of my life.  The air in my lungs rushed past my vocal cords in a scream I hadn’t known was waiting.  I was lowered slowly and landed on my feet.  I sobbed and laughed as the others congratulated me and unhooked the rope. 

            I returned week after week.  Each time I cried and shook and hesitated as I inched forward, then closed my eyes, held my breath and jumped – escorted by a scream no matter how hard I tried to suppress it.  It never became easy.  But the instructor’s calm steady encouragement, along with cheers and back pats from my fellow jumpers, allowed me to step past my fear.  It would be years before I realized that the fear was the reason I continued.  I needed to feel the fear and jump anyway.  I needed to know I could overcome obstacles here on the course – and in my life.  I needed to let my doubting heart believe and trust – in myself, and in those who held me safely in their caring grip.

Wants and Needs

            Team sports were never a part of life in the woods.  The physical nature of the labor that both mom and dad took on each day, left little energy for activities unrelated to putting food on the table.  The private nature of our existence did not invite group, much less team, participation.  Neither my brothers nor I ever attended or played school sports.  Football and baseball did not occupy a spot on the TV viewing schedule.  The more solitary and productive ventures of hunting and fishing were the choices made to escape the daily grind – for the men.  Mom and I joined in the fishing on family camping trips, but her job taking care of a home and family seemed to flow from waking until sleep seven day a week.                                     

            Soccer was the first sport to enter the weekend schedule in the spring of our son Erik’s Kindergarten year.  His elementary school had a popular program that all students were encouraged to join.  A swarm of little bodies chased the ball from one end of the field to the other, with no distinction between positions beyond the goalies and everyone else!  That refinement would evolve later.   Ron helped with the coaching at first, but left that to those more familiar with the game as structure and strategy grew.  We all attended the games, standing along the sidelines of the grassy field shouting and cheering on Erik and his classmates.  The interactions with other parents were light and brief and focused on the kids.  I felt like we were a family there, together with a common focus.  T-ball at a local park was my next introduction to team play.  Kids from several different local areas joined into teams.  The small players learned to hit a ball off a tee and run from base to base, or race after a ball and try to tag a runner or throw it to someone else.  Sometimes they even just skipped off to play in the dirt in the outfield!  It was pure enjoyable chaos.  Again, we all went to games and acted like a family.  Ron loved baseball as a kid, so when the need for a coach was announced he immediately grabbed the opportunity.  It seemed like a good idea, the All-American game and his son as focuses for his time and energy.   As Erik grew and moved from T-ball to little league, additional coaching duties also grew to include preparing fields and attending meetings.  We started to drive separately so Ron could work before and after games.  Erik’s friend next door joined the team and rides were often shared so kids could go and come home while Ron stayed.  Then our daughter Tyra joined T-ball and eventually softball.  The sports life invaded every corner of time outside of work.  I started staying home with one kid while the other was at a game.   A meal with all of us present took great effort, and seemed to be no one’s priority but mine.  Ron had not grown up eating meals as a family.  I had grown up with the expectation that each family member would be seated at the table – present to eat the food my mother prepared.

            Ron’s time spent at the park grew and grew, and soon became his excuse to be away from home – and segue to drinking after.   Each time he left for the ball field I was never certain when he would return.  Tasks at home – like mowing the lawn or making repairs – were neglected.  A wall of resentment grew with each “I have to…..”  related to coaching.  I knew the “have to” was really “want to”.  He chose the baseball fields over me, over our home, and over our time together as a family.  I tried going to some of the games.  I really did want to see the kids play.  I sat alone while he joked and chatted with everyone.  The other parents all seemed to know each other, connected in a way I was not.  The discomfort was so great, for both Ron and I, that I stopped even trying.  In an argument one evening I asked why he chose to be at the field instead of home.  His response:  “They need me there.” felt like a slap in the face, a slap that woke me up –  it was a world where he felt needed and respected – much as I did at work.  Despite my desperate need for him to be home, to be my husband, he did not feel needed here.  Why would he?  I took care of everything that really needed to be taken care of.  He went to work and provided the income that paid the big bills.  After that, the choice between mowing the lawn or working with a team of kids that brought him joy, parents that appreciated his role as coach, in a game he loved, was no choice at all.   I was happy that he spent time with our kids as their coach, maybe even a bit jealous.  I understood the joy of making a difference in a children’s lives by offering your encouragement and skill.  But it didn’t stop there.  When was enough enough – both while on the field and after?  This was a battle I could not win.  I felt unattached and left behind.  As Ron’s world seemed to glow with purpose mine seemed shoved into the shadows of waiting, worry and bitterness.  It was time to find other sources of satisfaction.   Ron was not available.   Had he ever been? 

One Foot In Front of the Other

            The playground of the small elementary school nearby was a favored destination.  The school felt solid, secure and welcoming.  But following elementary school, the next levels in the large city school district grew into giant buildings that accommodated thousands. Our son approached school age.  My rural background combined with our son’s quiet nature led me towards a different choice, and we made a decision to move.   Ron wanted to look in a nearby suburban area with a reputation for its upper middle class population.  I checked out the school district and found it highly rated.  A small home came on the market not far from an elementary school we had both noted on our travels.  Ron was eager to become a resident of this highly touted area.  I was hesitant to move into a locale that felt socially out of my league.  Ron’s persistence, using the school as a persuasive argument, wore down my reserve.                                                                                                 The house never felt like my home, despite 20 years and major additions and renovations.  I never became comfortable in the neighborhood where doctors and lawyers had big homes just a couple of streets away. These were the parents of some of my children’s friends from school.  Our street was more modest in nature and neighbors were generally friendly.  Both kids made close friends on the street.  But my discomfort never ebbed.  I had worked hard to move up in the world, had a college degree, a professional job, a husband employed with the state, two children that participated in band, dance and little league and did well in school, and a three bedroom two and a half bath home in suburbia.  Why was I so uncomfortable?  Why did I feel like so much ‘less’ than everyone around me?   Engaging in school activities with my children – something I had missed growing up – was high on my list of parental expectations.  I tried to participate in both Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, but felt out of place with the other parents that seemed to know each other so well, played tennis together, socialized together, said hi and spoke briefly to my smiling face, but did not include me in the laughter and long conversations.  I stayed involved as long as the kids had an interest, but did little to help that interest grow.  Other attempts to be on committees or help with a play were made, but led to similar outcomes and compounded my feelings of inadequacy.   A constant fear of judgment on the state of our house – not nice enough or clean enough or something enough – ruled out an open door policy for visitors outside of the kids’ nearby friends that ran in and out.  Perfectionism – striving for that something better always hanging just out of reach – crept into my life.  An attempt to control something in a life where so many things felt out of control?                                                                                                                                                        The struggle with Ron’s drinking sent my body bolting for the door at times.  The kids kept me from closing it behind me.  Years and years of memories are blurred in denial, anger, promises, wanting to believe, disappointment, hope, and hopelessness.  Somehow, one foot continued to find its way in front of the other, but the cost of each step added up.  My blood pressure rose and became difficult to control, even with medication.  A strong family history of heart disease had always floated just out of sight.  It arrived in stark clarity when I ended up in the emergency room twice, with chest pains and difficulty breathing.  I was released each time with a clean bill of health, but no explanation of the cause.  ‘Anxiety’ had not yet been routinely recognized as the unseen root behind a multitude of health problems.