Nov 01

On Ropes Courses & Platforms

Ropes course participant being harnessedI’ve been thinking about ropes courses lately. Not ropes courses in general, but the high ropes course that I’ve had occasion to do a couple of times with groups of incoming first-year students in 2010 and 2011. I like to think that I’m not afraid of many things, but I am afraid of heights. The idea of me completing either a 20 or a 40 foot ropes course is, on the face of it, patently absurd. And yet, it was part of the weekend. I could have made excuses, but it was important to me to try to overcome my fear. I knew that many of the young women on the trip were also afraid, and if they could try, so could I.

The deal with the ropes course is this: there were two options, the 20 foot option and the 40 foot option. The 20 ft option has the fact that it’s “only” twenty feet off the ground going for it. But the obstacles are more technical and challenging. The 40 ft course is higher but the obstacles are supposed to be easier. I can’t speak to the latter because I did not try the 40 ft course. 20 feet might not sound like a lot, but it was plenty (for me). Whichever course a participant chooses, she ends up at a small open platform 40 feet in the air (if you opt for the lower course, you climb up the side of a tower at the end of the final obstacle to reach the top of the platform). The image above is me on that platform. Seeing it again, I’m struck by two things: one, it doesn’t seem that high in the picture (thanks to the miracle of the zoom lens); two, that platform is *really* small! In my memory, it’s not that small. In any case, once you’re up there, one of the course monitors hooks your safety harness to a heavy steel cable. They tell you that this cable is responsible for catching and stopping fighter jets on aircraft carriers so you are perfectly safe. They tell you that all you have to do is scoot yourself off the edge of the platform and that after a few seconds of free fall, the cable will catch you, and you will swing out over the ground, eventually coming to a stop where other monitors will help you down when the swinging has slowed.

In theory, this sounds easy. Just let go. Jump. Or rather, scoot. But when you are up there, this thing that sounds so easy is anything but. And there’s a trick. Of course there’s a trick. The trick is this: the longer you sit there thinking about the jump, the harder the jump becomes.

I recently found myself sitting atop another platform, a figurative one this time. As it turns out, I’ve been sitting there for a long time. Years. I just didn’t realize it until a few weeks ago. And what’s a girl to do when she finds herself sitting atop a platform? The only thing she can: jump. Or rather scoot. I could paint this as a courageous launch. A triumphant leap. A glorious swan dive. But none of those things would be true. If anything, it sometimes feels like a timid scootch and sometimes like a spectacular belly flop.

Mostly, it feels like an extended free fall.

Extended perhaps because the longer one delays discomfort, the more discomfort compounds itself, not unlike interest on a credit card? It’s a theory . . .

All of this to say that I’ve recently ventured into the discomfort zone for the first time in a long while. I did so with deliberation despite the fear I felt. Because once you’re on the platform, you have to jump. Or at least, I have to jump. There is another option, which is to concede defeat and climb back down the tower. But I’ve never been one to concede to fear, and I’m not about to start now. In my better moments, I like to think that there’s something admirable about this, something brave. But mostly, I feel guilty about being up there for such a long time in the first place.

It’s surprising to me how difficult it can be to be uncomfortable. I knew this in the abstract, but I thought I had made my peace with discomfort. I mean, I moved across time zones, three of them, twice. Both times solo save for the assistance of my brother, who drove with me to Los Angeles and then back again to the east coast, this time to South Carolina. Both times moving towards a new chapter and so many elements of the unknown that it could be overwhelming to think about. And both times, the change was hard, but once I found my footing, I was fine, often better than fine.

Plus, I run. A lot. And one of the tricks to running longer distances is to accept discomfort. Not every step all the time (that, we call being injured, which I’ve also got some experience with), but as a regular occurrence that shows up and keeps pace from time to time. To run long distances, you have to learn to embrace the suck. And I think I’m pretty good at this when it comes to physical discomfort. As it turns out, I have some work to do with other kinds of discomfort.

So this fall looks nothing like it was supposed to. I expected it to be a struggle, but I expected those struggles to come from work, where I’ve taken on additional tasks to cover for a colleague while she’s enjoying some much deserved time away. As it turns out, that part has been relatively easy. The struggle has come from unexpected places, one of these more than the other. I had previously written about the shin splint that might compromise my attempt at marathon 4. Well, that happened. I haven’t run in almost a month except for a single mile at the end of the Spinx marathon. My shin is finally feeling normal again, and I’ve started to cross-train in an attempt to regain fitness before starting back to the run in the next week or so.

The less expected source is the dissolution of a long-term relationship, the end of which came at a strange confluence of factors: learning about several friends who’ve been going through break-ups of their own; the onset of another birthday, which seems to occasion introspection as I have more of them; and a literal wake-up call from an old friend. All of these things combined to galvanize the vague sense of discontentment that I’d been trying to ignore for a long time.

I write this in an attempt to process it. But not only to process, for I have a journal for processing that exists off the internet. More than just processing, this is an attempt to hold myself open, accountable and to offer an explanation in case I’ve seemed somewhat off of late. Finally, it’s an attempt at authenticity. To refuse the pressure which tells us that we must always seem happy and together and fine. To put out into the universe that things are challenging for me these days. These are challenges that I’m handling, sometimes better than others. I’ve lost weight. My sleep patterns have been in a state of disarray for the better part of a month. So far, I’ve managed to keep most of the metaphorical plates spinning, but I feel it catching up to me. My appetite is returning, and I’m sleeping better, not great but better. I’m also starting to feel the accumulation of fatigue and exhaustion. In the first weeks, I felt a relentless need to maintain forward motion. So, amongst other things, I refinished my porch. I had an almost frenetic energy about me that felt at times as if it were set on a hair-trigger. And at times, it was. My sense of balance and equilibrium are returning, but they’re not yet fully present.

All in all, it’s been a time of upheaval and change and disquiet. These are hard things. They were and are necessary things–I truly believe this–but they are hard things. I keep saying that it’s a work in progress. Both parts of this are true, and both parts are equally important. There has been progress. There will continue to be progress. But there is also a lot of work involved, and this work is not easy. I think of it as a kind of emotional heavy lifting. Not unlike physical heavy lifting, to engage the process is to get stronger, but gains in strength can only come from breaking the muscle fibers down and forcing them to repair and rebuild. There is soreness and stiffness involved, and sometimes these sneak up on you, catching you unaware: usually small, incidental movements that trigger a hidden piece that had been overlooked. The good news is that if you keep doing the work, the work gets easier. And it has. And it will.

And I’m really looking forward to the off-season.



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