56: Walking on Air

56: Walking on Air

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

Walking on Air

By leaving your comfort zone behind and taking a leap of faith into something new, you find out who you are truly capable of becoming.

~Author Unknown

I look down from where I sit on the low wall around the flat roof. I can see my textbooks waiting for me on the grass under the oak tree just across the sidewalk. That tree was so big and shady when I sat under it, but now it seems so insignificant from up here. I am petrified. Why had I ever thought that I could handle this?

On my walk home to family housing after my last class on this beautiful autumn afternoon, I noted unusual activity at the Military Science Building. To attract attention to the university’s ROTC program, every afternoon this week they were offering the opportunity to learn to rappel down the daunting “cliff” of that stone structure, which is several stories high. My twenty-five-year marriage recently ended, so I hoped it would be diverting to spend a few minutes watching something new.

I sat cross-legged under the big oak and watched the experts on the ground rig a harness on one volunteer after another. They explained the technique before sending the tyros inside to climb the stairs and then reappear behind the parapet surrounding the flat roof. I watched for more than an hour. One after another, the learners on the roof were clipped to the lines, given another word or two of advice, and then helped over that low wall. And one after another, those novices came down that wall on those ropes, only a few “walking” carefully down, and only some landing in the bushes that by now showed evidence of a lot of traffic that week. Invariably, they wore big smiles as they stood to be un-rigged.

Despite my lifelong fear of heights, I was drawn to risk it, too. Everyone who tried it seemed to enjoy it. And if those young people could do it, so could this middle-aged student. I got in line.

There was no time to think about nerves while the instructor repeated to me what I had already heard him reciting over and over. The ropes and clips were strung around me to make a harness, which became almost a seat to suspend me from the belaying ropes. I went inside and found the flights of stairs and then the rungs on the wall to climb through the trapdoor to the roof. It almost seemed unreal that this unanticipated adventure was happening.

Before I knew it, I was first in line. And that is why I now sit here on the parapet. The view might be worth it, but my focus is strictly on regaining the ground — and that first step is a whopper!

“On rappel!” shouts the instructor beside me to the man holding the ends of the line on the ground below. “On belay!” shouts the anchor man in response, and my time has come. With my gloved left hand holding the rope in front of my face and the other gripping a rope held at the small of my back, I hesitate, inhaling another deep breath. That first move — to turn and face the solid stone with only wide-open space behind me and airy emptiness waiting beneath my feet — is almost more than I can force myself to take. Don’t pay attention to your primitive side. Use your head. This fear is not rational. You have seen all of those young people do this safely. Observe the evidence. It will work. Just do it. So, with one more big breath, I step against the wall in front of me, inching one foot and then the other, and then try a little hop and then a big hop, pushing away from the building. There’s time for one little swoop before my feet just miss a bush, and I am successfully back on the ground, smiling in elation.

Where are those stairs? I’ll go again!

Another time up the steps, the remembered thrill carries me over the wall more easily, and I make another successful return to good old terra firma. This time, in big swooping bounds, I spring away from the wall and move down the rope, to swing back against the wall much farther down, touch with my feet and push off smoothly again. Is it graceful? I can’t tell, but it feels elegant. It lasts only seconds. Those who rappel down real cliffs must be euphoric.

I am delighted that I have tackled this challenge and earned such a treat for myself. I retrieve my books from beside the tree and take them and my grin home. Both of my daughters have come in from school before me, and I am eager to tell them about the thrill of rappelling, but without mention of the courage I have verified is waiting in me when I need to tap it. I hold that knowledge to myself. While walking on air, I have spread my wings.

The next autumn, when the ROTC program again sets up to teach rappelling, I try it again, and it is still a thrill. I hurry home that late afternoon and convince one of my daughters, Karin, to come and watch, and maybe try it. Both she and I go over that parapet and come down, and the instructor takes her picture, beaming a proud, happy grin. She is thirteen years old, maybe the youngest volunteer they have found on campus. Am I the oldest? Certainly one of the older women, anyway. I say to the man who is rigging harness, “I’ll be back soon. I want to go ask someone else to try this.”

He replies, “Is it a red-headed daughter?”

In amazement, I say, “Yes! How did you know?”

Apparently, my nineteen-year-old daughter, Laurie, had come by earlier in the day and watched a little, and then took her turn, mentioning that she had to keep up with her mom. That must be a real nuisance — trying to follow after a mother who imagines she can walk on air, and then goes out and proves it!

~Jeneva Ford

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