Balance is no harder after all…
Now you’ve just got farther to fall
Those of you who hang on my every word and wait anxiously for my next episode of navel-gazing know that one of the many indignities of old age for me is a new-found fear of heights. To my great dismay, last summer I discovered that I (who have sat on roofs, rappelled off cliffs, and jumped from a perfectly good plane) now get nervous when I climb a 10-foot ladder to clean out the gutters on my very low and gently sloping roof.
This is not acceptable. Jumping out of that plane was probably one of the funnest things I ever did.
Yesterday morning (which started about 3 weeks ago, if my internal clock can be trusted) I went with my church’s youth group over to Mt. Yonah for a camping trip. Our youth minister, Brady, is one of those guys who can not only spout theology and philosophy in three languages (two of them stone-dead), but he also has more than a nodding acquaintance with the really fun sports—the ones that involve Frisbees and ropes.
I knew when we went up that I wanted to rappel with the kids. This fear of heights was bugging me, and this environment was both relatively safe and challenging. Even getting to and from the site was a little test involving a climb up a short face using cables that were anchored into the rock.
The standard operating procedure for volunteer leaders is that we help the kids do what they want to do, and if there is time, we take a turn. The perk of that is that if you’re talking a beginner up a cliff while you’re belaying, you get to hear the expert (in our case, Brady) give instructions over and over. You get to watch how it is done over and over. We had several girls with us who had never done anything like this, and when they overcome being nervous, afraid, and inexperienced and climb up a 40-foot cliff and rappel back down, you think, “Okay. Attagirl. If she can put on her big girl panties, so can I, right?” In fact, you feel bad if you don’t at least take the same risks that a terrified 13-year-old takes, because you never want to ask a kid to do something you wouldn’t do yourself.
As it turned out, though, I had to go back over to the approach climb to help some of the girls down. When I got back to the rappel site, I realized that all but one of the students had left, and Brady was packing up. On the one hand, I wasn’t completely devastated. I have tried rock climbing before, and as best I could tell, I have the upper body strength of a Tyrannosaurus rex. I also didn’t have any gloves, and as a professional pianist I’m supposed to be somewhat careful with my hands. (That’s my new excuse for not cooking, by the way. I don’t want to burn my hands.) On the other hand, (no pun intended,) I really love rappelling, and I did want to get back on the horse that had so recently thrown me and see if I could stare down my fear of heights.
I hadn’t discussed any of this with Brady, but when he asked me if I wanted to climb up with him and the one remaining student and walk down from the top, I said, “Sure!” The other adult there, Ron, graciously offered to take the rest of the gear down, gave me his harness, and up we went.
This is one of those times in my life when I did not thoroughly check on what I was getting myself into. That realization would come too late.
I had seen Brady climb up the rappelling cliff to set up the gear earlier. I saw the cables he used to climb almost straight up, and I saw where the cables angled off to a spot where the rock leveled off. Yes, I also saw that the face of Mt. Yonah went beyond that, but what he proposed somehow did not register in my brain.
Brady sent me up first so that he could be between me and the student, Lane. The first couple of legs were not the easiest thing I have ever done. I was glad that I was using the cables to climb instead of doing “real” rock climbing, but my feet and legs were inexperienced and my arms lacked strength. Somehow, I tapped into the reserves that I thought I was saving for lifting a car off a toddler and muscled through it. (My motivation, by the way, was mostly not to look stupid in front of Brady and Lane. I have known Lane since he was little and recently coached him for his first lead role. I love him a lot and really, really didn’t want to cry or die in front of him.) I got through a really tough section of smooth, steep rock and rewarded myself with a little rest so I could make it through the other half of the climb. I was pretty high up by then—maybe 30 feet?—so this was where I could really be proud of myself if I wasn’t afraid.
While I was catching my breath, I asked one of the other park visitors who was at the top of where we had rappelled earlier if that was the worst of the climb. He said, “That is one of the smoothest parts, but I think it gets pretty tough further on up.”
Wait. He wasn’t standing at the top of what we were climbing? What? WHAT?!
Forget the instruction to not look down. I was afraid to look UP. Holy mother of Pearl and help me Rhonda…now that I was up this far, I could see that those cables went straight up that entire cliff. I had only gone maybe a fifth of the way, and it was too late for me to turn around.
If you follow my gloating on Facebook, you know that I made it. (If you have the sense that the good Lord gave a billy goat, you know I wouldn’t be writing this if I had died up there. I would be too busy.) You know the end of the story, but I want to tell you the middle.
Yes, I prayed. I actually prayed that there would be no bad news for my mother or that I would not have to inconvenience any of those wonderful Medivac pilots.
Yes, I cussed. I warned Brady and Lane that I might have to employ a few of the biblical cuss words, and found it oddly comforting that they laughed both at the warning and when it came to pass. (I prefer to cuss in one unholy stream. It’s kind of like vomiting. If I just get them all out at once I feel much better.)
And, yes, I sang a little bit of David Wilcox and Rich Mullins to myself as I went. If you haven’t heard Wilcox’s “Farther to Fall,” it’s a song that makes a lot of sense. There is an illogical connection between heights and falling. Just about anyone will walk the narrow edge of a two-by-four if it is six inches off the ground, but if you raise that two-by-four up so that it’s more than five feet off the ground, it’s daunting. As the song says, the balance isn’t harder, it’s just that you have farther to fall. (It’s not unlike the fear of deep water. If you can float on water that is 2 feet deep, you can float on water that is 200 feet deep.) So as I tackled most of that cliff, that was my mantra: I walked up it as if I was only five feet off the ground.
I said that’s how I tackled most of it. It worked until it really did get harder. The cliff was wet in places from the recent rains, and the cable was wet, too. The cables that were in the more vertical wet sections didn’t really drain or dry off. I had come across this on the “bunny slope” that brought us to the base of the rappel site, and found that if I could get a decent foothold while my hands were in a wet section, I could climb until I could get my hands on dry cable. The only way to figure it out was to look it over and try it.
Here’s where my second musical reinforcement kicked in (from a song recorded by Rich Mullins. The chorus of “Sometimes by Step” is often sung in churches, but it’s a shame that the verses are not usually sung. They are beautiful.)
And on this road to righteousness
Sometimes the climb can be so steep
I may falter in my steps
But never beyond Your reach
(David “Beaker” Strasser)
The sections of cable ranged from about 15 to 30 feet, depending on the shape of the rock in that section. I was clipped in with lobster clips on my harness. If I fell, I would probably not fall more than 20 feet. I might break bones. I might lose flesh. Yes, I could snap my spine or break my skull, but I wasn’t going to plummet to the parking lot. Brady would be able to get my broken carcass flown out of there.
I would like to say that I made it up that wet section with nothing more than my newfound courage. I didn’t. The first time I started up, I was able to back down before I slipped and fell. On the second attempt, I fell about 3 feet (but it felt like 8 feet.) The third time was not a charm; I got a little higher and fell a little further. That’s when Brady had to climb ahead of me (an awkward little dance, if you think about it) and help me up. He did this by running another strap down to me, and just having the extra strap to keep me from falling backward was enough to give me the strength to make it up on the fourth try instead of falling again. We did our little switcheroo dance once more so that he could help Lane if he needed it. (He didn’t. Show off.)
I was able to make it up to the very last section, which was so steep and exposed that Brady thought it was best to go first so he could figure out the holds and anchor in more straps.
At this point, I gave poor Lane’s 16-year-old heart its very first heart attack. When Brady got to the top and told us that it was the end of the line, I let out an involuntary scream of celebration. Lane was in front of me, so he thought I was screaming because I was about to plummet to my death or because I was being eaten by a buzzard or something. While I’m glad that he loves me enough to be that traumatized by the thought of my untimely death, I still felt bad for scaring him.
As much as I would like to say that I made it up the entire face on my own two feet, like that smart-alecky Lane did, I only finished because of Brady’s help. In that last little bit my legs just didn’t know enough about what they were doing. I was pulling for all I was worth, but I had no legs. I don’t know—If it had been a life-or-death situation, maybe I would have found a foothold, but it wasn’t, so I just yelled, “No legs! No legs!” and Brady yanked me up. I was totally okay with that.
After it was all done, I discovered that I had lost a lot of skin off my hands during my struggles. I won’t lie—my hands hurt. This week I will not be able to go bare-legged unless I want to explain the bruises. Just about every square inch of my body aches, even the places that aren’t supposed to have nerve endings.
Even so, I don’t know the last time I’ve ever done something that I needed to do more than I needed to make that climb. It wasn’t so much about conquering my fear or even about doing something hard. In the end it was like so much of my life lately. It was about taking a journey one step at a time. It was about finding out what I could really do and where I could trust myself and discovering that sometimes I am much stronger than I thought. It was about trying to find where my own hands and feet were enough. It was about figuring out where I needed Brady to help me or even have him pull me up.
But at the top it was about realizing that neither my strength or Brady’s expertise amounted to much at all. A glance at my ripped-up flesh is the only metaphor I need for this one. While the adrenaline is pumping, it seems like a lot. But really I am a finite creature, only strong enough to climb up a little piece of this broken world.
Lately, as I’ve watched the struggles of leaders I respect and admire, it bothers me that the reward for a life well lived is not retirement on the beach. Many of the people who have taught me and mentored me continue to struggle into the autumn of their lives. The journey gets more difficult and sometimes makes less sense. Aren’t things supposed to get easier and make more sense as we go along? The only answer I have right now is that it seems that as the climb gets steeper, we have to let go of our own strength and truly look to our creator to pull us up the rest of the way. To truly appreciate the glory of our lives, we must let the world grow dim.
 Grammar note 1: Sorry, but “funnest” is the word I really wanted to use here. I stand by that decision, mostly because I’m writing while I’m severely sleep deprived.
 Grammar note 2: If I had used a series of three really fun sports instead of just two, I would have employed the Oxford comma here. I am not suggesting that there is a really fun sport that involves Frisbees and ropes, although I might be suggesting that there should be such a sport. (Brady, are you listening?)