The log was 30 feet up in the air, a sort of telephone pole of a balance beam. I was supposed to walk from one end to the other, holding onto nothing. The rest of the group had done it. Ten minutes had passed, and I was still frozen on the business end.
Thirty feet was not a height that would kill me, especially in a safety harness. But from the way I stood paralyzed after a series of false starts, you’d think I was walking a tightrope over a rift in the earth down to its fiery magma core.
“Just take the first three steps,” the guide called up. “You just have to make yourself start. It’s like writing the first three words of a novel.”
“No. It really isn’t,” I called down, trying to be darkly funny, but the bitter was seeping through. So were the tears.
My two younger sisters, with whom I’d traveled to this Tucson resort to celebrate a Big Birthday, had both just done it successfully. And when they reached the end, they’d each tagged the far pole and walked back, backwards. That was the victory lap, a victory I’d assumed would be mine, too. After all, I like physical challenges, I like being out of my comfort zone. What I hadn’t figured on was how much I wouldn’t like it when I couldn’t use my hands—which our guide Louis explained later was the ultimate sticking point for those who have an issue with being in control.
There were other things I didn’t like and wanted to do differently. I wanted to grasp the safety harness rising from my shoulders. No, Louis said. I wanted to kick off my shoes and walk barefoot; in my mind, the idea of my agile bare feet gripping the curved log would be like a prehensile tail. No, Louis said. The group members down below had been calling out encouragement and advice — momentum was key, they said, just get that first step going and then another, and don’t stop. But 10 minutes was an uncomfortably long time to cheer and watch someone short circuiting. And they had put away the cameras and fallen silent.
I’d like to blame it on the high desert view, the dizzying vista of scrub brush and low hills, even the light breeze pushing my hair into my eyes from under the helmet. But the truth is, I’m not afraid of heights. I was a tree-climber, a top of the jungle-gym kind of kid. Yet each time I ventured a first step, bouncing lightly on the forward foot to fool myself into some sprightly momentum, I was seized with a certainty that it was not the RIGHT first step. It was not the PERFECTLY BALANCED first step I needed to head out safely and successfully. It was a slightly-off step, a misaligned step, deadly and cursed.
Of course there was, and is, no PERFECT first step, only the first step that keeps on going. I think I realized this even then, frozen on that log, and recognized that there was something at work other than a fear of falling or dying.
After I finally did it — because I did do it, dammit, then walked all the way back, backwards — I went back to the casita, furious tears under my sunglasses, to write it out. It was all so transparent once I caught myself writing about the event as a failure, even though I had done it. I’d never actually had the terror of being in physical danger; I knew intellectually I wasn’t. What I’d had was a potent anxiety about my own resistance, and then not being able to do it as gracefully and bravely as others (including of course my sisters). And the further along I went in my frozen state, the more mortified I became that I was not only not as successful, but I was making a spectacle of myself.
I thought back on what the guide and the others had said about the first step, how walking the log was no more physically difficult than walking a line in the sand — that it was all about taking that first step, and keeping up a smooth momentum. One foot in front of the other, no second-guessing or paralysis.
And though I had barked at the guide that it wasn’t the same as writing novel, I’m not so sure there wasn’t a lesson wedged in there like a splinter coming home in my heel. For writing, for anything. Whether it comes at the beginning, middle, or even near the end of a project, there can be a sudden stalling. For whatever reason you lose momentum and then confidence, and you pick up your head and see nothing but terrifying unchanging vista forever. There’s no roadmap. And swirling around all that exposed inertia is the breeze of other people’s progress, and success. It’s like the bleak-pages section of “Oh The Places You’ll Go.”
I can’t think of a time I was ever as viscerally upset and angry with myself. It was awful. And yet it was all in my head, which turns out to be the most trip-you-up tightropey place of all.