Dear Near Stranger on the Other Side of the Country,
I’ve been on a Steve Martin kick since we talked the other night. The whole next day, I listened to Bright Star at least three times through. I ordered a ukulele as soon as we ended our call. I’m trying to convince Kevin to get a trumpet so we can really do that duet justice. But, then, it’s probably for the best if he doesn’t because then I’d just demand he play La Vie en Rose without ceasing.
Did I tell you that I got a job at a climbing gym? Or rather, I had a job at a climbing gym. Maybe, one day, when this is all over, I can update this letter to be in the present tense, no qualifiers. But, in the meantime, for three whole weeks, I worked at a climbing gym.
I’m not a climber. It feels like I’m pulling off some sort of con: I’m potentially the only person they’ve ever hired with a crippling fear of heights. You know the funny thing about the hiring process is they don’t actually ever ask you if you’ve climbed before. They don’t actually ask if you like climbing. I mean, I have and I do, they just never asked me to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how comfortable I feel demoing a fall on the wall (less than a two, higher than a negative one).
I think that’s my secret skill, though, my fear. There’s this commonality that seems to run throughout any job that requires working in proximity to risk. The same strain of it that I’ve seen run through whitewater guides is in climbers, in ski bums, in ranch hands breaking horses: they take the risk enough times, over and over again, until they become numb to it. They forget what it’s like to have that knee-knocking, steal-your-breath sort of fear that comes with new beginnings or, maybe, I’m convinced some of them never even had it to begin with. They’re all bluster and bravado and their confidence pushes you through the wave train and up the mountain and over the ledge.
But I’m always afraid. I’ve got a list of fears I keep on my phone that I update as constantly as checking the weather—which is to say not as often as Instagram but still at least twice a day. I’m afraid I won’t be good enough. I’m afraid I’m doing it wrong. I’m afraid of leaving my house. I’m afraid this will be forever. I’m afraid my dad is going to get sick again and I won’t be able to hop on a plane and fly home to hold his hand like the last time he landed up in the hospital. So maybe it’s not the same things I used to be afraid of--like the dark and paddling and the future--but I’ve still got new and inventive things that paralyze me each day. Sometimes, especially lately, I feel like all I’m made of is fear.
And I’m afraid of heights. I am intimately familiar with what it feels like to be standing at the foot of a climbing wall and not be able to drown out all of the what ifs. What if I fall? What if I can’t make it? What if I CAN? How do I get down?
So, when the customer I’m belaying seem a little hesitant to take that first step, I offer it to them like the secret that it is: I’m afraid of heights.They always laugh. I think, maybe, I don’t look like a person who’s afraid. I think, maybe, by virtue of being there in the first place in a staff shirt, the assumption is that I am immune to the fear of scaling a wall. I’m insistent. “Comically terrified” is an oft used phrase. That’s the thing about sharing secrets: they’re vulnerable and, now, so am I. Suddenly, they’re inclined to listen to me.
You don’t have to make it to the top, I remind them. They are always surprised by this advice. I think the assumption is that they’re paying me to tell them to get to the top. Life is linear. You go up and then you come back down in more or less a straight line and climbing is much the same.
But I’ve learned that, I’ll either reach the top or I won’t. Topping out is irrelevant; whether I inspect it personally by laying my own calluses on top of the final handhold doesn’t change its existence. Sometimes, the goal is to try a handhold that scares me, a pinch or a crimp, something a little spicy. To be more aware of my feet. To reach for something that feels outrageous, try an undercling, let go of the wall, trust.
Did I tell you I used to be terrified of paddling? Even now, years later, I still hold my breath every time I hop onto a board or into a kayak, convinced that maybe this is finally the paddle that kills me. I like to find the stuff I’m really scared of, then do it over and over again, digging at my fear with all the enthusiasm and finesse of a kid trying to tunnel to China with a spoon. It worked with paddling, it worked with airplanes and traveling. It’s still a work in progress with climbing but I think we’ll get there.
I promise as soon as all this is over, I’m on the first flight out to Seattle. I got one of my very favorite tattoos in Seattle and all this time in quarantine has given me ample opportunity to start planning another. Let's get some ink and eat every meal at Biscuit Bitch.
Take care, friend,
P.S. I'll never forgive you if you convince me to become a skier so STOP MAKING IT LOOK SO FUN