This morning I was reading a piece in The New York Times about three friends embarking on a 7-day kayaking trip in the wilds of Alaska*. On Day 1, within minutes of being dropped off, a whale spouts offshore, close enough for gleeful joy or absolute fear—depending upon your response to large mammals in close proximity to you in the wild.
Two of the three took the sighting as a good omen. The other, who had once been surrounded by dolphins while scuba diving, went into panic mode.
I put the article aside and came here to think about it.
Isn’t it interesting how one person’s phobia can be another’s absolute joy? And, beyond that, how you can experience an event that causes a phobia, but then, through mind over matter, reshape your response to that event.
You can see where this is going. It reminded me of my siblings and me growing up on the farm.During the hot, dry summers of Massachusetts, the heat was periodically broken by magnificent thunderstorms. We could see them approaching in the distance.
The thunder—the louder the better. Let it rock the sky. I loved to hear it roll across the landscape. The lightning—let it draw maps of madness, etching veins of light bright as the stars in response to the thunder. My sister, on the other hand, was terrified, and still is, of thunder and lightning. I don’t know what caused the differences in our responses. My father always told us a cockamamie tale of Rip Van Winkle and his pals bowling tenpins in the sky. I stood before the south window, watching the storm wipe across the valley. My sister fled to her room with a pillow squished around her head.
For years, after a fall from an extension ladder, I was terrified of heights. The ladder stood in the stairwell of my parents’ home under construction when I was thirteen.
“After the carpenters went home for the day, my sister and I sometimes carried boardgames up the hill from the farm. We liked playing Monopoly and Scrabble in the shell of our future bedroom. We sat on the floor, our backs to the open 2×4 walls, playing in the bright light of the west sun as it crept lower in the sky until it was time to go home for supper.
Without a flight of stairs, the only access to our second floor bedroom was up and down the rungs of an aluminum extension ladder from the basement. The ladder rose from the basement floor, past the first floor, and stretched up past the second floor to lean against the open stairwell. Our parents didn’t express any safety concerns. Nor did the carpenters. No one did. Until the day I fell out of the sky.
“Falling out of the sky.”
That’s what it felt like. I felt like Jack falling off the beanstalk. Like a squirrel missing a branch while leaping from one oak to another. Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. Or a saint slipping off a heavenly cloud. (Yes, I was still under Papal influence.)
It happened after school one day when I remembered I’d forgotten the Monopoly game up at the new house. It was close to supper time. I didn’t want to be late to the table so I sprinted up the hill and rushed into the cellar’s framed door opening. I hurried across the room and scaled twenty steps up the rungs of the ladder into the late afternoon light. When I reached the top of the ladder, I climbed out onto the plywood second floor and quickly gathered up the game board and its pieces, hastily stuffing the contents back in the box. I ran back across the room. What came next was a bit of carelessness.
As I stepped from the floor to the ladder with the Monopoly box tucked under my left arm, my foot slipped. I missed the rung completely. I hadn’t yet grabbed onto the rung above with my right hand so I had no safeguard, no back-up.
Stepping on air is something you don’t ever want to experience. In a nano-second I realized my critical error, but it was too late. I found myself moving in a slow motion free fall. I was tilting backwards, and reached out in a panic, desperately grasping for the rungs of the ladder. But my right hand was closing on air.
My left hand opened. The Monopoly game fell with me. If Isaac Newton hadn’t already done the experiment, I might have been onto something big.
My right hand kept grabbing. I was upside down. Then I was right side up again. Slowww motion. Circular. All the while, I was still in a panic, trying to grab onto the ladder to stop my fall as my hands neared the ladder again, but I was too far away. It was only a few inches, but it was too far away.
In the blink of an eye, the concrete floor was rising up to meet me. My shoulders hit first. Then the sound of a dull thud was followed by a slosh between my ears as my head smacked the concrete.
The Monopoly box was unhurt.”from The Girl with the Black and Blue Doll, Linda Summersea
From that moment on, I was afraid of heights. Leaning over the balcony in a theater. Riding in a glass elevator. Stepping across the room to the floor-to-ceiling glass at the top of the World Trade Center in New York.
When 9/11 happened, it didn’t make me afraid of flying, even though I was in New York that day, preparing to fly home, putting my suitcases in the trunk of the car, when a call came—telling me to turn on the television.
It took me a while to shake off my fear of heights. I can’t remember any defining moment. I just know that I have conquered it on ziplines in the jungle and swaying rope suspension bridges over rushing waters. I stand on a granite ledge at the top of a climb and feel the exhilaration.
Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes a bit of fear is a good thing. When I watched American climber Alex Honnold climb El Capitan in Free Solo, I held my breath and feared for his life. There are lessons to be learned from close calls.
Nevertheless, yesterday while working the chainsaw in the blackberry patch, I briefly considered the advantages of rappelling down the hill with the chainsaw to attack a greater area. Ha. Let me not get carried away with this fearlessness stuff.