A few days ago my mom took my son to the Grand Canyon. She sent me a photo of him sitting on the edge with his feet dangling over. I felt like she was even braver to take that photo than he was to sit that way. If I’d been there, I couldn’t have watched him sit so close to the edge. I would have needed to turn around and clutch my stomach. I would have gotten serious vertigo. He’s the most precious thing in the world to me. Seeing him sitting there would have made me feel dizzy for hours. The photo made me a little dizzy, too.
When I was a child, I suffered recurring nightmares. They always involved falling endlessly. I got them when I had a high fever. They repeated for a few years at a time. They’d end with me falling forever and ever through the air, down and down, as if there were no ground.
In one dream, space aliens came to my window. One would come in each time, through the glass and up next to my bed, holding a map. It was a cartoonish map, with a big red X on it. The X represented a deer the alien wanted to hunt and kill and eat. The alien wanted me to take it to the deer. In the dream, I would jump out of bed and run for the stairs to get down to the family room where my parents were watching TV. I would invariably trip as I went down that first step, but I would fall and fall and fall. I would fall so long I did dream-tricks. I somersaulted and did the backstroke. Eventually, I would fall asleep in the dream only to wake up, for real this time, shaking and covered in sweat.
In another, my family was on a vacation in Colorado. My dad was driving us in a jeep up to Yankee Basin (elevation 13,500 feet.) This was something he loved to do. The roads up to this pace is hardly a road at all, and there are drop-offs thousands of feet down. In this dream, a man is racing my father to the top. When I was young, my father had a temper in the car, and in this dream it flared.
Somehow our jeep went off the edge and started falling but it never stopped falling. It fell and fell. I shared a bag of potato chips with my sister, drank some of my mom’s Dr. Pepper and read a book as it fell. I was afraid in my dream.
Of course I was, but in the dream my father told us not to worry. He told us it would be okay. Eventually my sister fell asleep in the dream, looking very baby-like and at peace. Then my mom, and then I did. When I woke up, I was really awake, shaking and covered in sweat.
That is when I learned how difficult it is to explain a nightmare to someone else. Real for you might not be real for another.
I am afraid of heights. I am even afraid to look up at tall things. I don’t mean to be afraid, but my stomach flips over and I sometimes even get vertigo for hours after being brave enough to climb a ladder or look up at one of the old growth Douglas firs that populate the forest where I live. I do it anyway, because I don’t want my fears to define me.
I have learned I am not afraid of any part of flying in a plane except for landing. I have learned that from flying over the Pacific Ocean to go to Asia and from flying in a 1950s Cessna with a daredevil bush pilot. I love going up and being propelled through the air.
Just as I am not afraid of the act of going up, I am not afraid of being up, and I am not afraid of tripping or slipping and falling. I am not afraid of being hurt. I am afraid of the space in between beginning to go down and being down. I am afraid of not knowing, of air and how it can’t hold you, and yet needing it to survive. It’s those moments between initial descent and landing on the ground that horrify me.
When my dog barks, I am not startled. I am not afraid of whatever it is she is barking at. I feel discomforted by not seeing what it is she is barking at. For this reason, I have always run to the door or a window the minute she starts. When I need to concentrate, I lock her indoors so she won’t disrupt me with her alertness.
I never learned to dive headfirst into a pool because of this fear of what is in between the start and the end. It has taken me a lifetime to dive headfirst into life, but I know how to do this now, except for with people.
We can never really know people, and so I spend much of my time keeping them at arm’s length during discussions. I am not afraid of what I think, or what they think of what I think. I get nervous during the speaking part of the interaction. Not knowing for sure what I am going to say, no matter how carefully I might have rehearsed it scares me.
Learning does too. I get so nervous learning that I dropped out of college. I could not force myself to attend classes I didn’t really want to take, because the space between having a question and finding the answer is a space in which I find myself feeling like I am falling. Learning alone does not feel that way to me. Learning alone is more like a walk than a dive. There is no pressure to fill the space of not knowing with something I don’t yet have, which is knowledge. There are no tests for autodidacts.
Writing is my clearest path to saying what I really think. It’s just me and a keyboard, or me and a pen. That space between having an idea and seeing it spelled out? That is one space of unknowing with which I am comfortable.
I had a difficult pregnancy. Even if I hadn’t had second trimester bleeding and resulting month of bed rest, it would have been difficult. Even if I hadn’t had pneumonia or hadn’t gained 80 pounds, it would have been difficult. I didn’t know what would come out of me.
Even when I learned I was having a boy, I didn’t know his name. Even when I learned his name, I didn’t know if he would be okay or what color his eyes would be. When I had pneumonia, I had a falling dream. I only had it one time. In my dream, there was a massive flood. We lived near the beach then, and so it must have been ocean water. I nearly died in the ocean once after a boating accident. I remembered this in my dream and began climbing onto the roof, holding my baby and screaming for help. I couldn’t see my baby in my dream. I could only feel and hear him telling me it would be okay.
He sounded like my father sounded in the jeep dream.
Then, I dream-dropped him. Instead of falling, he floated like the princess in Mario Brothers. He moved across the street and landed on the roof of another house. Someone was there to help him, and in my dream I waited for the dream-waters to subside. When they did, I got him back. I woke up, shaking and sweating, because even floating means dependence on air, that thing you can’t see but must possess or else you will die.
When my son called me from my mom’s house later that night after seeing the Grand Canyon, he told me he not only dangled his legs over it but spit into it, too. My son does not seem to have inherited my fear of the void. Thoughtlessly, I said I was glad he didn’t fall. He said he was glad too, because if he did we wouldn’t be talking on the phone.
I remain afraid of the thing that comes between the start and the end, but that does not stop me from climbing.
Sometimes, I even jump. That choice sometimes makes me feel like I have vertigo for days, but I have no choice other than to endure and even pursue the bottomless vertigo of being alive. If you listen closely, it’s only fear. It is the source of all my anxiety, which sometimes disables me, but I try to push through it every chance I get. You need fear to survive, to be alive at all. It’s often only something you don’t know or can’t control.