I, on the other hand, had to think about every move, wedging the crampons attached to my boots firmly into the frozen waterfall, repeatedly swinging the picks until I was certain they were secure enough to hold my weight as I slowly clambered up the knobby surface.
When he reached my level he hollered, “Take!” to his belayer before leaning back into his harness.
“Turn around,” he said. “Look at where you are.”
I took a deep breath.
I’m not a climber. I am not a thrill seeker. Not at all a risk-taker. In fact, I’m a worrier. I have spent my life in constant battle with a mind that can quickly and irrationally compose a variety of horrific scenarios for any situation, to assume the worst, and to tumble those thoughts in an endless cycle of “what ifs.” A mind that works well for the art of writing, but not so great for the art of living.
I come from a long line of champion “worriers,” some of whom restricted their lives to activities they found tolerable, never getting on a plane or boat, while others disappeared into addiction as a way of managing. I realized that if I was going to live life as fully as possible, I was going to have to do it intentionally. I was going to have to learn how to co-exist with anxiety.
I grew up in a family that did things. We camped and skied. We owned a sailboat and spent our summers on the fickle waters of Lake Superior. When I was a teen, my parents, two sisters and I climbed aboard our boat and set off on a fourteen-month voyage to explore the world by water. We travelled from Lake Superior to the Caribbean and back, and I brought home a passion for adventure.
A little over ten years ago, a friend of mine died unexpectedly. Life, I was reminded, waited for no one.
Anxiety came along.
It whispered to me about buses twisted and scorched at the base of the Andes, about poisonous insects, thieves and illness. I replied by hiking the Inca Trail, where I watched Machu Picchu emerge from the mist (and where I did share a tent with a tarantula – but that’s another story). Anxiety and I wandered the witches’ market in Bolivia and joined my children dancing in the rain at a ruined Jesuit Mission in Argentina. And when we were robbed in Ecuador, I discovered that the realization of it was much less traumatic than the hours I had already spent listening to anxiety suggest its possibility.
When we paddled the Boundary Waters and lakes of Quetico Park in Ontario, anxiety kept me up at night negotiating with the wind. But I chose to live with that fear rather than miss watching the sunrise from the rocky point with a cappuccino, freshly brewed over an open fire, warming my hands, the loons haunting our campsite.
Courage, as Twain said, is not the absence of fear, but acting in spite of it.
It took courage to step into the world of adult fiction when fear told me there were so many ways to fail. Why would I open myself up to the pain of rejection? To what would be an obvious acknowledgement of my lack of ability to craft with language? To public criticism? I stepped in anyway. And while I’ve held the published book in my hands, anxiety still whispers… imposter.
Once anxiety had the audacity to climb into my mouth and try to steal my words. I managed to find enough to finish the interview I was doing, and discovered in the process that I did not die.
It is not easy.
And neither is hanging 22 metres up a wall of ice. But there I was, my mouth desert dry, my heart pounding, my knees (my oh-so-bruised knees) wobbly. And my son saying, “Look at where you are.”
“Take!” I called, and feeling my weight captured by the harness, I let go with one hand and turned around.
It was a grey, overcast March day. I could hear the trickle of water running behind the wall of ice, reminding me that winter’s spell was weakening. Woodsmoke drifted up from the campfire below where the rest of the group, appearing ant-like from my vantage, warmed themselves between climbs, roasting sausages and sipping mugs of tea. I could see the isolated route of Highway 11 snaking along the eastern shore of Lake Nipigon as it wound through the boreal forest of winter-bare birch, pine and fir. I could see Orient Bay in the distance, the water trapped beneath a layer of white.
Sometimes, courage means saying yes when your sons ask you to go ice climbing. Sometimes if’s simply getting out of bed and putting a few words on paper. I'm not quite sure which is more terrifying.
Look. I'm here. I can do this.