When I was a boy, I was scared of heights. I would get this swirling, heavy feeling in my stomach when up high, and I knew, just knew, that I was going to fall.
So I would force myself to climb trees. As high as I could, ignoring the fast beating of my heart, the dryness of my mouth, the shaking of my hands and arms. Climbing quickly so I wouldn’t think to much about what I was doing – but not climbing carelessly, however. I was focused on the branches, testing their weight, making sure each move was the right move . . . more than that, the necessary move. I would climb higher than I wanted. Each time I wanted to stop, I would force myself to go one more branch, just one more branch. Until I could really go no further without the branches bending with my weight.
Then I would stop. Try to calm my racing heart and force myself to look down at the ground so vision-swimmingly far away, so definitely-going-to-hurt if I made a mistake. I would feel the wind, the blue air that seemed sharper to my lungs as I gulped it down, still shaking, still facing down my anxiety and fear. Even if I never quite stopped being scared, I knew, high up in my trees, that I had beat the fear, that I had accomplished something. On some level, I think that looking down at this point was always easier because I had the knowledge that I had put myself this far up and, more importantly, I knew how to get back down to the ground.
The climb down was easy because I knew how to do it, each move on the way up had been etched into my mind because of the fear and concentration, so getting down was easy, almost automatic. By the time I was back on the ground, fear had turned to excitement, nervousness to a sense of achievement.
I feel, lately, that I am climbing a very very very high tree and can no longer see the ground. Nearly every day of living here in NYC, I am faced with an assault on my senses that, while not creating fear per se, effects my body in much the same way as the fear of heights did as a child. I feel this heavy, swirling motion in my stomach as the sound of trucks blare past my window in the morning–especially the ones with air breaks that make the most god-awful, ugly sounds as they slow down–or pressed body to body with strangers in the subway. I try not to shake when the scream of the subways splits into my head, past any attempt to iPod it out. I feel this constant anxiety eating away at me because of the sheer weight and presence of steel, concrete, and people in this city.
Because NYC isn’t a tree, and because my life doesn’t have the simple shape of a tree, I can’t seem to find a moment of grace, that moment when I had climbed as high as I could and knew that the next step was the easy part of climbing back down. Here, I feel like I just keep climbing and climbing. Without the ground, I no longer know how to get down, hell, I don’t even really know in what direction I’m moving–and my moves are now either too cautious or too hurried, leading to either unnecessary and tiring strain, or the possibility of slipping, or of pulling myself onto a branch that cannot hold my weight.
So I keep climbing up, palms slick with sweat, blood pounding in my head, heart racing, stomach churning, muscles quaking.
Wondering when I might reach the apex, find a moment to breath it all in (the air sharp and clear and electric in my lungs), and when I might hear the sounds of the breeze and of birds as they calm my too-fast heart. Wondering when I might look down, and see the ground again and know, just know that I can make it back safely.