Cliff Jumping

“Fear is nothing more than our power, unowned; problems are just love, unfelt.” – Bill Bauman


When I was a kid, we used to drive out to Loyalhanna Lake on a hot summer afternoon, a gang of awkward teenage boys wrestling with hormones and budding male bravado.  The destination was a secret clearing along the manmade lake, where a giant maple anchored the cliff 30 feet above the water; the perfect branch for a swing leaned gracefully out over the water like a fisherman making the perfect cast.

We were here to show everyone how tough we were, how manly, how we weren’t afraid of jumping off a cliff; a suburban rite of passage, since vision quests are extinct but the need to graduate to manhood isn’t.  And there was the required manly talk, voices raised, chests thumped; the talk of those who didn’t jump out far enough from the cliff or held on too long to the rope swing and ended up a mess on the rocks far below.  Of course this was just to ratchet up the fear factor, which it did very effectively.

And the truth is, I was scared shitless – it was 30 feet up!  And what if I did hit the rocks, or hit the water face first, or got caught on something underwater and didn’t make it back to the surface?  But these fears couldn’t be voiced, not in front of friends.  There was no way I would have jumped on my own, but peer pressure to a teenager is a force beyond fear, and the fear of seeming small in front of my friends sent me sailing into the abyss, hurtling towards the water.

There are four portions of a jump – the freefall, hitting the water, being underwater, and finally emerging from under the water, hopefully still intact.  The free fall portion is initially thrilling, pure adrenaline, usually accompanied by a Tarzan scream, the voice crack betraying the false bravado.  But then you see the water rushing up at you fast, and the fears well up just as quick, and the terror of thinking about hitting the water is worse than actually hitting it.  If done properly, feet first, the impact is not bad, but is quickly replaced by the complete overwhelmingness of being surrounded by the cold water.  The fear of drowning and not being able to get back to the surface plunges you instantly into fight or flight instinct, and there is a mad scramble for the surface.  And finally, there is the relief of taking that first gulp of air, replaced quickly by the exhilaration of having conquered a fear; whoops of accomplishment and relief.  And all of these emotions in just a few seconds…

My life feels like a series of cliff jumps now.  Too many cliff jumps, and some of these from dizzying heights.  Sometimes it seems like they are just coming at me too fast, sometimes as soon as I climb out of the water from the previous jump, and most times it feels that I’m not jumping, but am being forcibly pushed.  And you still can’t let on that you’re scared, except to the closest confidants.

And the emotions, just piled into each other like a high speed train wreck, just too fast to stop, too fast to enjoy or even process. Joy and exhilaration are just too brief, often sideswiped out of the blue by fear and terror, mostly about things that haven’t even happened yet.  Most of the cars in this pile up are simply overwhelmingness, the feeling of being underwater, the place where the pressure is the worst and doesn’t seem to end, where things are truly the darkest and where rest and relief are pummeled into oblivion.  And there are moments of real happiness and aliveness, and they are to be cherished, and they are cherished now more than ever – but they are almost always instantly plowed into by the next train car, whatever it is…

But somehow after every jump I’ve made it back to the surface, maybe even with a little relief and comfort and joy, however brief.  I know from previous jumps that I will most likely survive, but each jump still has to go through the train wreck of emotions – there is no way around it, only through it – and it is tiring, it is draining.  I just wish the jumps would stop for a while; let’s spend some time lounging on the beach, or relaxing in a boat floating on the calm tensile surface, enjoying the warmth without the thrills.  Let’s just slow this down, can we?

But dragged out of the water and back to the top of the next cliff seems to be the norm now.  The worst are the cliffs that you’ve already done, but for some reason you have to revisit, like the lack of sleep that has returned for me.  Just seems unfair, I’ve already done this, what didn’t I learn the first time?  Or the cliffs of others screaming out for your help, but you are too caught up in your own freefalls to lend any support.  And the bitter cliff of disappointment and joy missed will wallop you like a double body blow, sending you tumbling in freefall towards the water from heights not seen in a long while, made that much worse because you thought you were due for some time basking in the sun.

I sometimes just want to return to the mundane that I didn’t appreciate when I had it; maybe now I will appreciate it, and maybe that’s part of the lesson.  And certainly the pace of the jumps will slow down, right?  Getting through the holidays, I hope, may provide some respite, hopefully not replaced with other challenges.

Or perhaps this cliff jumping must simply be mastered, too.  Look at the graceful high divers breaking the water tension with nary a ripple from 30 meters; surely they were just as terrified as I was on their first jump.  Perhaps with the right support, mentors, love and faith, these jumps will become manageable, maybe even enjoyable.  And maybe soon I’ll learn to break the surface gracefully, too, instead of kicking and flailing and screaming like I so often do now…


For A Christmas Dancer

“And can it be that in a world so full and busy the loss of one creature makes a void so wide and deep that nothing but the width and depth of eternity can fill it up?” — Charles Dickens

Picture 244

Well there is no way around this, there is only through it…Christmas…

Debbie loved Christmas.  She loved planning for it, would start before Halloween; she loved decorating and baking and shopping for it, getting the tree up and the house ready and getting the kids excited.  Debbie smiled all year, but at this time of year it took on an even brighter glow.

I can’t say I shared in Deb’s Christmas enthusiasm, certainly not starting in October, but by Christmas Eve, after getting home from work, usually a few hours earlier than normal and with a few days relief from duty on tap, I’d finally let the Christmas spirit in.  Although the house had been decorated for weeks, it often felt like I was seeing it for the first time on Christmas Eve – I’d actually have the time to appreciate the extra effort put in to the stockings hung with care above the fireplace, the smell of cookies and other goodies baking, the beautiful tree that took two days to decorate, each ornament carefully placed to let those who bought the special decorations know how much she appreciated it (and also to keep them from becoming Boo’s Christmas presents!), and to feel the love that Deb planted throughout the house.

And the Christmas Eve party itself was always an exercise in Martha Stewart perfection – every menu item carefully planned and choreographed with the drinks and the festivities and the theme of pure joy.  And though the juggling act of keeping sixteen appetizers warm, all the drinks filled and the laughter and smiles non-stop would have left most exhausted and frazzled, this was the pinnacle of Deb’s love – this was her best dance, and she pulled it off with a grace and ease that would leave all applauding, a standing ovation every time.

Deb still found the energy to clean the entire house after the party in preparation for Santa’s arrival, and then we’d get the boys gifts’ together (this was usually the first time I even knew what they were getting) and she’d spend half an hour perfectly placing them under the tree while I nodded off.  And finally before going to bed in the wee hours, the plate of cookies had to have just enough crumbs and lip marks on the residual glass of milk to make believers out of even the most skeptical of boys.

Morning would come too early, but Deb was always just as excited as the boys.  And her payoff was just simply the smiles and excitement of two young boys romping through the most anticipated morning of the year, with all their wishes fulfilled perfectly.  It was truly a work of art; Christmas was Deb at her very best, a ballerina dancing a pirouette of pure joy.

Christmas will be different this year.  Christmas is not my dance; I will do my very best to make sure the boys have the best possible Christmas I can give them, and in the end it will be enough.  My boys have impressed me beyond my wildest imagination with their ability to handle the challenges they have been given, and they have lifted me up on angel’s wings too many times to count the last six months.  They won’t find perfection under the tree this Christmas morning, but they will certainly find all the love I can muster for them, and they will understand in time that it is good enough, though it will not be even remotely close to the splendor of Christmas’ past.

Christmas won’t be the same this year – it will never be the same again – and when the last present has been unwrapped there will still be a gaping hole in our celebration, in our hearts, a hole that no one, no thing, can ever fill…

I worry how the boys will deal with this.  I try to recall my Christmas’s after dad died, but I can’t, those memories have been lost.  I can still remember some Christmas’s from before dad died, though, when Santa was magic and still real; they are good memories, memories of waking up before dawn, of my sister riding her rocking horse in the glow of the Christmas tree, her hair flailing and her silhouette visible to the neighbors across the street still putting toys together for their own kids.

And I remember most that Santa brought me a train set every year, even though I didn’t ask for a train set, I didn’t want a train set; but dad did.  He loved trains, and wanted to share that love with his son.  So its funny, the gift dad got for himself is the one I remember the most out of all those years of presents; and for that I am now grateful, even if I wasn’t at the time.

I have only one gift that I want to give the boys. I want to convey to them this Christmas how much their mom loved them.  And I want them to keep that in their hearts always.

So I’ve asked the boys to write down a favorite memory of mom from Christmas, something that we can share, and reminisce about, something we can hold on to when it sinks in sometime, in the quiet part of the day, when it becomes too obvious that it is just us boys this Christmas.  I hope we will share these memories, and that we will laugh, and we will cry, and we will hold on to each other and to the memories of this beautiful woman, best friend, wife, the most loving mother a boy could ever ask for.  And then we will burn our gifts, and let the offering waft up to the heavens; I want this to be something we do every year.

I will share the stories of mom’s Christmas dance, of what the boys didn’t see; of the love and effort and caring that she put into even the tiniest of her Christmas preparations, of the thought that went in to each gift, and how she got blacklisted from Target for taking things back too many times even before Christmas, trying to get it just right.

I will share that Christmas represented mom giving her all, her unconditional love, to her beautiful boys.  A child doesn’t understand love, but cannot thrive without it.  My boys are doing so well, are such strong spirits and good souls, because Debbie loved them with all her heart, unconditionally, the way only a mother can.  She may be physically gone now, but that will always be Debbie’s gift to them, and to me, and it needs to live on in our hearts.

And I will share that Deb’s presents were wrapped in her hopes for everything that the boys could ever want, fulfilled.  Her decorations were put up far in advance to prepare their hearts to graciously receive gifts, and she steadfastly kept them on the right track in preparation for this day, for it’s gifts are worth the straight and narrow way, and the wait.  And her Christmas Eve party was her glorious way of sharing this love with all those she cared about.

But mostly this Christmas I will share with the boys the grace and beauty of mom dancing her most glorious dance, her Christmas dance, the dance of her love for her two boys, which she lived her life to learn, to share and to pass on…

For a Dancer – Jackson Brown

Keep a fire burning in your eye
Pay attention to the open sky
You never know what will be coming down
I don’t remember losing track of you
You were always dancing in and out of view
I must have thought you’d always be around
Always keeping things real by playing the clown
Now you’re nowhere to be found

I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear
That I can’t sing
I can’t help listening
And I can’t help feeling stupid standing ’round
Crying as they ease you down
‘Cause I know that you’d rather we were dancing
Dancing our sorrow away
(Right on dancing)
No matter what fate chooses to play
(There’s nothing you can do about it anyway)

Just do the steps that you’ve been shown
By everyone you’ve ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours
Another’s steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone

Keep a fire for the human race
Let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down
Perhaps a better world is drawing near
And just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around
(The world keeps turning around and around)
Go on and make a joyful sound

Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive
And the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive
But you’ll never know

Merry Christmas, Debbie…Love you, Always and Forever