As kids it seems we tumbled to the ground on a regular basis, the knees on our jeans mended with these iron-on patches that never quite matched the denim. Such repairs weren't a sign that our parents were thrifty and wouldn't buy us new pants, it was an unspoken badge of courage that we could wear out our pants faster than our Mom could take us to the store. Score one for the team!
We grow up and seem determined never to fall again. But we do
I was walking along, heading back to the truck from a farm field where we'd all been scouting out a spot to put up a deer blind for bow season. I don't hunt for sport. I hunt for food, the venison donated to those in the community who need meat and provisions, taking older deer that probably won't survive the winter, given the overpopulation of deer in parts of the upper Midwest, leaving the younger ones to learn and grow.
We were moving pretty quickly and I was rambling on about something or other and the last thing I remember seeing was a crack of the yellow sky and I went down. I hit the ground, inhaling the scent of Tinks and dirt, the sky falling away."Are you OK?" from our friend Mark, leaning over me in concern. I'd managed to catch my foot on a piece of corn infrastructure and went down, face first, not even time to put my arms out. Think farmland mammogram.
"No problem", I said as I got back up, not wanting to let on that it was all I could do not to cry. I laughed and brushed the dirt off my nose and continued on as if I'd meant to do that.
What else do you do? Falling is never easy. Sometimes you have to practice. Like learning to ride a bike.The wobbly start on training wheels, then finally free form freedom, and the inevitable resultant crash.
When I was in my 20's falling got a little more serious. I liked to head up tall mountains on my time off. Understand now, I played no part in any overly difficult assents, anything requiring any serious mountaineering skill. Technical hikes at best. I did my excursions with a ragtag bunch of hikers and outdoors people rounded up from the local airport where I flight instructed. We were young, and we were fearless still, for some reason drawn to each other and drawn upward. The treks were amateur, but we looked on them as daringly anarchistic ripostes to the militaristic expeditions we'd all read about. Fueled with youth and trusting the God that hopefully looks after children and idiots, we simply roped ourselves together and headed uphill.
In some sense, all things wish to ascend, evolution to a higher form, people of God, towards a higher spirit. Ancient civilizations honored the high places because they sensed they were the homes of the Gods. For us, it was just an awareness of a promise, of something we couldn't explain, a chance if just for a few hours to be above all the decisions we were facing, poised on the edge of adulthood. So we hiked and if we found a steep face of rock in our way to the next trail, we climbed, and in rising up to the home of the ancient spirits, there was more than a metaphor; there was a means of discovery.
It was on of these climbs that we met an older gentleman, an ordained minister, one who shared his faith more by deed than by the spoken word and who joined us for a day or two. Frank believed that all things came from grace. But grace comes from hard work as well as trust, and trust is learned on the mountains. One morning at 8,000 feet on the side of Mt. Rainier he produced a Bible and a small flask of whiskey. Cutting off a chuck of week-old bread with a vintage hunting knife he conducted the most moving Mass I ever expect to attend. He left behind the knife and a memory of what articulate grace in the face of stone-hard reality really means, an important picture for a group of young adults.
We all went our separate ways after that trip, though we still talked regularly. But as we got older it seemed we bragged more of successes and shared less the stories of failed adventure. Was it because we were just loathed to admit it, or was it we were trying less, settling down into quiet suburban lives of mowing the lawn every week and doing what made others happy, not what made us happy. If we mentioned climbing or going up and hanging upsidedown in an airplane, G forces be damned, the spouses would say, no, that's dangerous, stay home and cut the lawn. So we did, we mowed, we carpooled and we gave up on those days when the distance between security and death was only a measure of feet.
I was no different, ending up on a small farm, married. I'd watch the cattle be born, and then we'd feed them, watching them live their lives in tame oppression, never roaming far. Sometimes after a strong storm, a whole section of fence would go down. but the cattle would stay in, content to be where it was familiar and food was plentiful. We'd watch them grow fatter and softer and tamer until one day it came time to cull. And we'd judge and point and with a dispassionate nod of the head, some of them would head off in the truck, never to return.
There are many good things about that life. There was steadiness to it, living each day on an even flat plane of daily chores. But there was something to be said for those repeated motions that reminded us of what our fathers toiled for. Nature was the biggest unknown. There were years we cut hay between squalls. There were floods and drought, illness and blood. There were days of cold desolation, miles from the nearest convenience, and other days where Cardinals flew around me, hovering in the air about my shoulders like a colorful sweater as I worked in the garden
But my life now has more balance. I've shed the cattle but not the love of the farm or the land, for a subdivision life lost it's appeal pretty quickly. I still occasionally get to rappel in somewhere where I can bring home knee scrapes that would make the neighbor kids proud. I have fields when I need them, and friends who are never hesitant to pick up a firearm and head out with me for the adventure that will always live in us.
Sometimes you will fall. But don't let it stop you. Dust yourself off and climb up that mountain and wake to dawn scented with promise, the stars immortal in the sky. What is ahead is unknown, you can treat it with fear, dreading that feeling as the ground falls away, the tiny rocks clammering down like the first throw of dirt on a pine box. Or you can treat it as a perceived feast, like a wafer on the tongue. A leap of faith for all you believe in, a willful jump into a place free of time and regret, where all the names and the faces of those you love surround you, as below you, the wild things that call to you, run on ahead of soundless guns.
It's your choice. Stay in the safety of the jeep or get out and wrestle the giant Anaconda. There are no guarantees. Just as in climbing, the negligible distance between your hand and the wall may be inches. Those are inches that seem like miles as your eyes look at the chasm and sense the impending slide down into despair or death if you give up. But there are other sorts of distances, other sorts of helplessness that lead to worse things than death.
I'm not sure why I thought of all of these things. Perhaps its the work of the last few weeks. Perhaps it was the thought of the placid cattle wandering off to their own doom, as I lined myself up with other bovines to board a plane to see my 99-year-old Dad before Christmas. I don't always know when I will return, and always, if I will return. I have many answers about how life ends, but my own will be a mystery. When I last view that yellow sliver of sky, I expect it to be a complete surprise.
In the meantime, I'll listen and I learn, following the compass of the heart's hard turning, and the brain's slow learning, what paths to take and why. And I'll watch out for that ninja corn.