"You never know how much you really believe in anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound so long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn't you then first discover how much you really trusted it?"
- CS Lewis
"A Grief Observed"
At the advice of a dear friend I recently read a copy of "A Grief Observed" by CS Lewis in which he shares his process with grief over the loss of his beloved wife Joy Davidman. In the quote above he is refering to how such events can truely test the faith we have in our belief systems.
I could not help but see the connections between his words and the following personal experience...
A bit of background...During my high school years I experienced the loss of several immediate family members and to be honest I had no idea what to do with the flux of overwhelming emotions. Lets face it, most kids in high school want to fit in. With all that was going on in my head and heart I felt as if I were some character Dr Seuss drew up on a bad day. It has always been easy for me to be creative and so I would dive into writing or drawing to help me navigate my way through the inner storm. Every now and then though, I would choose to do something so out of character that in looking back, I question my rationality. Blueberry Hill was one of those times.
The Great Blueberry Hill Ice Climb
It was 1982 and I was a senior in high school, the summit of yet another stage of educational achievement. A time of discovering and defining our identities as we formed alliances with our passions and like minded people. Despite my thinking I was invincible there was an awareness of the depths of change we were all about to encounter.
It was winter break in New England. The sharp blue skies and virgin snow were calling me to go outside despite the frigid temperatures. As it happened the same muse called upon two friends of mine who took it upon themselves to simultaneously show up at my door. How we all decided to go ice climbing I cannot recall. I had never been before and am not particularly fond of climbing, heights or ice and yet I had this powerfully curious drive to have the experience.
After discussing plans, I donned layers of clothes and grabbed the only piece of gear I had which was a 35 mm camera equipted with a macro lense and fresh roll of film. We then went over to Andrews for the rest of the gear before heading to our destination. I had not really thought about the details of what I agreed to participate in. By the time we arrived my excitement was swirling. As my friends got things set up, my mind began to catch up to the reality of my impulse and anxiety began to arise.
Holy crap. This was more serious than I thought, steeper than I thought, higher than I thought, colder and windier than I thought...what the hell was I thinking? I could feel my body begin to shudder. Then the mind banter began. "I could die. I could get hurt. I could get stuck up there until spring thaw. If I did get stuck how would anyone be able to help me?"
Thoughts of death had been a daily obstacle for me back then as I witnessed loved ones battle terminal diseases. I thought, "So this is a small taste of contemplating ones end that they must be feeling." Unlike them, I had the choice to back out and nearly did but for the fact that I did not want to expose my vulnerabilities. Im not sure where it came from but there was a sense of my needing to be there and stay the course. I also felt a sense of responsibility towards my friends, tho I was unclear if they realized my lack of experience or mounting fears.
It was decided that I would climb second so as to have someone both above and below to help if needed. Up goes Rick. I watch. I try my best to absorb hand and foot placement, rope technique, body positions, landmarks. Head bent to watch, my neck aches. The higher he ascends the shorter my breath becomes and the faster and harder my heart beats. I can feel my shoulders tighten and my head begin to sweat under my wool hat despite the cold. He is up. My time has come...shit.
The sun is blinding as I grip the rope and first step, second step, third. All I can manage to do is focus on a small area right in front of my face so as not to get a full picture of where I was. As I reached the midway point this technique no longer served to quiet my overwhelming fears. I stop, emotionally frozen, and close my eyes.
"What have you gotten yourself into Des? More importantly how are you going to get yourself out?Well, lets see, my limited choices were...I could cry. I could wait for rescue. I could go down though that was just as intimidating and certainly not as rewarding as compared to how I would feel if I got to the top." Quickly realizing this was the extent of my options I chose to continue up.
About this time my predicament became obvious to my friends. I cannot recall their words of encouragement but I do remember how they made me feel. It was not that my fears subsided, but rather I began to feel capable of banishing the feeling of being soap on a rope and trusting that the three of us could get me to safety. As this feeling grew so did my determination to continue.
After much coaxing, with my nose inches from the face of the hill, I opened my eyes. Before me was a most unexpected world. Colored ice. January's sun penetrating it's depths. Blues, greens, yellows, shapes and shades of grays from black to white. In the midst of this fascination, it came to mind that I had brought my camera. That's it! My camera, a way of placing something I felt comfortable with and in control of between myself and the reality of my situation. With some careful maneuvering, I managed to set myself up. Content to have my vision limited by the viewfinder, I began to shoot.
My sequence became reach, shift, stop, photograph, repeat. I cannot say enough for the patience, strength and sheer willpower of my firends for helping to haul me up the second half. I remember feeling a bit guilty at my reliance on them though they never gave me a reason to feel as such. Eventually I reached the top as did Andrew. We sat together in reflective silence taking in the view, smiling, light hearted, filled with gratitude and content to just be. There is an unspoken bond that forms when you participate in activities where you have each others well being in your hands.
Fast forward two weeks...
It is the end of a school day and the winter sun is setting as I walk home from the bus stop. I like to see the sunset through the trees so I decided cut off the road and take the trail through the woods. It is so cold the snow squeeks under the weight of my boots and the air is sharp in my lungs. There is a raw sense of being fully alive in a world that is abundant and accessible, a feeling of being connected to something wise and powerful. I find it comforting.
I stretch a ten minute walk into twenty and so by the time I arrive in my yard I am in quite a good head and spirit. Unlocking the garage door, I squeeze past the bikes careful not to get my pack hung up on the handlebars. Through another door and I am embraced with the warmth of home.
As I step up into the kitchen, I am stopped dead in my happy tracks. Sitting down at the table and facing me is my mother. Covering the entire table before her were all thirty six of the photos I had shot from the climb. The climb I did not ask permission to go on and therefor did not reveal anything about. She worried, and with good reason, about my curious nature and how it sometimes over powered my sensibilities. It was just that past summer she pulled me off the roof one night when I decided to photograph heat lightning. I did not want her to worry nor did I want to be told that I could not go on the climb.
Here I was. Evidence carefully laid out before me. I tried to read the expression on her face as I calculated what I thought would be a fair consequence for my behavior. The interrogation went a bit like this...
Come here and sit down Desiree.
Did you take these photos?
Two weeks ago
Who were you with?
Andrew and Rick
What did you do there?
We climbed the ice to the top
Didn't you think that might be dangerous?
Yeah, I guess so. After I got there i guess I did.
Why did you do it then? And without asking?
I don't know, I just wanted to.
Weren't you scared?
Terrified actually. I got stuck.
What do you mean, you got stuck?
At about half way I didn't want to be there because I was afraid. Rick and Andrew kept talking to me. I started taking pictures so I didn't have to look around.
Did you notice what you were looking at when you shot these?
(Hmm is this a trick question? I figured the answer was obvious) Ice, lots of colored ice. It was kind of hard to pay close attention because I had to hold on to the rope too. I just did it to stay calm.
Come here and look at some of these photos, she directed. As I turned my attention to her request, something incrdible happened. From the photos emerged, faces, animals and scenes like some intricate cryptic tale. Some of the images were terrifying to interpret while others emitted a comforting presence. I did not know what to think about all of this. Was it some kind of message, premonition or guidence from something larger than myself? I realized the answer was mine to choose.
Mom had one of the images enlarged and hung it in the family room. There were times that I was not sure how I felt about it being there. Sometimes the images would haunt me, resting in my thoughts for weeks and all I wanted to do was take it down and put it in the closet.
There were other times though, when I would sit before it and gaze, taking in the sheer beauty and balance of its shapes and tones. Rekindled were my feelings from the top of the hill. I felt an intense and deeply humbled sense of gratitude for being able to have had the experience.
Residing within me, I somehow knew that the Universe had my back through the capable hands and caring hearts of my friends. There was something much larger at work that afternoon and I knew that no matter what obstacles I was facing, everything would be fine. I was going to be ok. All I had to do was let go of my fears and trust in this realization.
And so as CS Lewis stated, my "rope of faith" was challenged. Faith won.