The Abyss

Today the wonderful Lisa Lind posted that she faced down her life-long fear of heights by walking over a swaying, barely-there-feeling suspension bridge in New Zealand. She “ugly-cried the whole way across, to the point where I had to somehow stop myself from tearing up too much because well, seeing is important to life on these devil contraptions.”


I love this woman, scientist, witch with her brave dry wit. When I read that, I remembered that

I have this fear also, and that the way that I faced mine was with my voice.


I was on my first backpacking trip, in the Elwha rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula. I was 23, on a class trip, and had no idea what I was doing. It was only dumb luck that it was not my soaking wet down sleeping bag that made us all have to pack up and emergency evacuate. I would have brought down to a rainforest too. When an April snow threatened my classmate with hypothermia, it was all over.


The thing was, there was this log bridge. I’m talking a log. 20 feet long, crossing over a ravine. Eight foot fall onto boulders. No rails. The top about 18 inches wide, if that, crisscrossed with saw marks because that would make it safe.


On the way in, when we stopped for snack by the pretty ravine, I munched on the trail mix I was carrying in my ridiculous rookie 40 pound pack and looked at the trail headed that direction.


I asked my rugged, outdoorsy pals: “How do we get across the creek?”


“The log.”


“Ha, ha,” I said. I really didn’t believe them. When I found out they were serious I was ready to turn around. I had frozen on the side of a fucking hill from my fear of heights.


Did I mention no rails? Boulders like gnashing teeth below?


But there were 25 of us on this trip, and the dudes were all my friends. They told me I could do it while the rest of the class crossed, one by one and then waited on the other side of the river. 


25 people waiting for you to chicken out or witness you fall to your death by gnashing.


I decided better death than dishonor.


One of the guys carried my pack across and I walked across with my hands on the shoulders of another. This is an indication of my terror. My feminism was utterly conquered by my fear.


We found our campsites, made fires, I discovered the sublime pleasure that is Internaltional Foods Café Vienna with a healthy shot of Yukon Jack. And it rained, but we were in the rainforest and the moss made up for it.


But then it snowed. In April. Plus, aforementioned wet down sleeping bag. Our professors went from tent to tent, slapping the flaps. “Pack up, now.”


On the way out, it was everyone for themselves. We were not moving in a group. I packed my wet tent, wet clothes, it was freezing cold but all I could think of was the log, every step bringing me closer to crossing it by myself, with my swaying,wet, stupid-heavy pack.


I was so terrified. My chest was tight, breath close, peripheral vision closing in. So I started singing.


I am an old woman, named after my mother

My old man is another child that’s grown old.

If dreams were thunder, and lightning was desire,

This old house would have burned down a long time ago.


I sang Angel from Montgomery all through the woods, as the snow covered the moss and roots and the boulders, as the landscape changed.


I know that what that feeling means now. My landscape has changed in twenty five years but not that feeling: Chest tight, breath close, peripheral vision closing in. It is the feeling of not trusting myself. It is the feeling that Bluebeard’s wife had when she said yes, even though a part of her was screaming no.


I know that feeling when it creeps in. I’ve worked at it. It happens less, but it runs deep. It is what the patriarchy offers women over and over: shelter for silence. I know it that this is the dearl, but I no longer believe it. I know that the shelter is not shelter at all. And I am not being asked to be silent, but to disappear. And now, as then, singing is the thing that always breaks that fist around my throat.  


I love to sing. In another life, I want to be a torch singer in a dark bar, alone and vibratingly in love with the music even when there is a crowd.


In this life, I am not that. But, what I lack in tune I make up for in willingness. I go to Karaoke, I sing in front of groups with gusto, I believe in the power of using my voice in ways that feel scary, in times when I am scared because I know that the singing leads to the moment when I can step forward over the abyss.


When I got to the log, my professor was there waiting for me. So was my friend John, bright blue eyes and white blond hair and a hand out. “I’ll take your pack,” he said. “And I’ll come back for you.”


The little creek was now a raging river, filling the ravine with white foam and rushing steel water around hungry rocks. Three days of rain and snow in the mountains above us.


“No,” I said. “I can do it.”


My professor knelt down and rolled up my rain pants, which were dragging on the ground. Then he put his hands on my shoulders.


“Keep your eyes three feet in front of your feet. Start walking and don’t stop,” he said.


I did. I still am. And I'm still singing.