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My lungs heaved as though filled with old ash as I made my way up the cliff, arms’ length by arms’ length. It’s a tradition at my school for the seniors to take a four-day excursion into the wilderness on the Outward Bound program. Day two: rock climbing. Most things, like ghouls or the dark or the patriarchy or the future, don’t scare me. However, in the early 2000’s (which doesn’t scare me either, although the newest fashions should), I nearly plummeted to my death on a rock wall at a birthday party when my belayer was paying more attention to boys climbing nearby than to my safety. As a result, I hate rock climbing, and I’d planned to skip the activity altogether. However, everyone else in my crew had gone, and they pressured me to follow suit. While I’m not the type to succumb readily to peer pressure, I soon found myself dangling from a granite ledge. Looking down, it seemed like the shot from Vertigo; the cliff rose while the ground stretched farther away. I hung from the Chimneys, a series of cliffs thousands of feet above a valley amidst the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. It was October. The treetops looked like fire.
I reached for the next ledge. I missed. I dangled from my belay cord. Reflexively, I blurted out the F word.
Failure. If I had come down, I would’ve failed no one but myself. The others had climbed before and blazed carelessly upward; they saw the trees and clouds embracing mountain peaks. I saw my legs shaking and begging to repel. But I wasn’t afraid of the height; I was afraid of the fall. I didn’t want to put myself out of my comfort zone only to watch my efforts fail. Sun blazed through branches of an adjacent pine and fell like an angel’s hand on the next ledge inches away. From that vantage point, I saw the carabiner marking the top of the course. Swinging my leg, I reached a sitting position atop that peak overlooking an ocean of flaming maples. The clouds rolled like waves; ironically, I felt peace comparable to that of summer sunsets on my local beach, but maybe even better, because nothing crashed. Not even I.
Once we’d all repelled back down the cliff, our group hiked down from the Chimneys on a trail scarcely one person wide. For about thirty minutes, we trudged through an area in which every tree resembled the cracked, black surface of a severely overcooked marshmallow. Our instructors said that this portion of the park had been intentionally burned to maintain the health of the soil and forest. The only plants that grew were bright yellow wildflowers. They were artists, phoenixes rising, who found the beauty in the turmoil and the destruction. I want to be those yellow flowers; I want to fix my problems, even if it hurts to do so, and I want to grow from them. When my arms ache and my fingertips chafe from climbers’ rope, I don’t want to be lowered down back into the fire. Life is a furnace that burns, and we are the kindling. We fail, we destroy what we care about, we cry as we confront our flaws, and we swing helplessly from belay cords screaming obscenities. But we also learn; we learn and we realize what matters and what needs fixing, and we fix it.
I tucked some wildflowers into my braids and marched intrepidly onward into the furnace. It was October. The treetops looked like fire.
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