Umbilical cord, Unlikely, Unafraid
I blame Instagram.
I’m hanging 20 feet in the air, like a pair of sneakers thrown over a telephone line. A harness secured around my waist and legs keeps me from falling, allowing my head to loll and my feet to dangle.
This was not how I pictured our family vacation.
When we planned this European holiday, I imagined lazy walks in the park, a picnic spread on green grass, maybe a leisurely bike ride. Nowhere in my daydream did I conjure up an image of me, slightly smaller than a mama hippo, slacklining across a ravine.
One day, scrolling through social media, I saw a video of children carefully working their way across wooden bridges strung between a forest of lanky trees. My imagination, fired by their smiling faces, latched onto the idea. Forest climbing? It would be an adventure, a great bonding experience and something my daughters, Safyre at age 11 and Sabel at 7 years old, would remember for the rest of their lives.
The next day at work I Googled ‘tree climbing,’ until I found a website offering the activity in Amsterdam, our summer destination. We suffer from a lack of trees in Kuwait, a semi-arid desert at the northeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula where my family lives. Kuwait is hot, dry, and flat with only a few regal palms, standing sentry on the shoreline and stunted olive trees planted up and down the highways. We love living here. But our world is filled with sand, a muted rainbow of dust brown, beige, tan and taupe. Our only respite from the desert is a few weeks’ holiday in summer. By June, we ache for forests, for canopies of green.
So we booked the tree climbing as part of our summer holiday. We told the girls few details. I wanted them to experience the challenge of tree climbing without influencing their idea of it. I want them to view challenges – physical, mental, professional – as problems to be solved, experiences to revel in, not insurmountable obstacles. I want them to calculate risks, not run from them.
I also want to be the kind of mom who takes her children tree climbing. I might be plus size and worn down by the combined pressures of full time work, life abroad, and the draining symptoms of perimenopause. But I still want to mother effectively, to model a healthy, active lifestyle for my growing daughters.
“What is it exactly, mom?” my oldest inquires.
“What if I fall? Or don’t want to climb?” our younger daughter is more cautious, deliberative.
“No one is going to fall. They have a complete safety system. It’s going to be so much fun; you will love it!”
Sandy-haired Dutch youth help us suit up and take us through the safety guidelines. I strap on the full body harness, XXlarge size, slipping loops over my waist and around my legs and arms. My daughters laugh nervously through the instructions. I squirm, trying to reduce the discomfort caused by the harness digging into my waist and thighs, keeping a wide smile on my face to hide my growing anxiety from the girls. The harness and gear has made the idea of tree climbing suddenly, overwhelmingly concrete, and it hits me that it might be more of a physical challenge than I can handle.
We head off. The program is divided into nine courses, each broken into 10 to 12 obstacles, hung between trees. The lowest, for children 6 years and above, hovers a few feet in the trees. The toughest, reserved for adults and children 14+, is 50 feet in the sky and includes a bungee jump and a free fall.
The first obstacle is a wooden plank bridge, with several foot-wide planks spaced about a foot apart spanning the distance between the two trees. Hung from wires above, the bridge sways gently as we cross. I grit my teeth as I step onto the bridge. This is much harder than it looks on social media. Of course it is. How many times have I told myself: Don’t believe everything you see online? And yet here I am.
I step onto the bridge, my hands wrapping around the rough rope and my stomach roiling, and try not to look down as I slowly work my way across.
“Wow, that wasn’t so bad,” I think. “This is going to be fun.”
Safyre races ahead, urging me to hurry as she tackles the next obstacle, a series of suspended platforms dangling across another “tree bridge.”
“Mom, this is so much fun!” She’s laughing and smiling. I want to stop and take a photo, to document this moment. I’m so proud of her exuberance. I want to capture this exact image: Safyre leaning on the birch tree, her hair wild and poking out from beneath the helmet, her hand gripping the slider as she reaches out to attach it to the zipline. I want to post it on Instagram, to show the world how strong and capable she is, how daring and courageous.
But I’m busy trying to catch up. Also, it’s starting to dawn on me that I may be in trouble. At the start, I could tell the obstacles would be challenging, but now I realize they may also be graded, the easier ones first to build confidence, then growing more difficult as we go along.
At the first zipline, Safyre sails across, her laughter echoing to the canopy of leaves above us. I step up to the platform, lock the slider onto the zip line next to the already-secured carabiner, and after a moment’s hesitation, throw myself into the abyss.
I’m flying across open air, soaring toward the opposite tree.
The zip line is slung loose, so that you swing forward at a fast clip, and the momentum is meant to help you pull up as you hit the opposite platform. To achieve the pullup, however, you have to grab a red rope wrapped around the neck of the tree and left dangling for this purpose. The instructor failed to mention this red rope trick. Safyre, sailing before me, is young, lithe, and athletic and didn’t need the rope to land squarely on the opposite side.
I, however, fail to grasp the importance of the red rope. Instead of nailing the landing, I sail up to the platform and then slide back to the middle of the zipline. There I hang, 20 feet above the air, my legs dangling. From 13 feet away, my daughter laughs so hard she can’t talk. I yell “help, help,” but not too loudly. I don’t want to attract attention to myself.
Finally, after several climbers us have stacked up at the platform behind me, an instructor tosses up a rope and tows me to the opposite tree. I grab the red lifeline and struggle to pull myself up. My arms tremble with the effort. I hadn’t thought about the need for upper arm strength. I have none – and certainly not enough to heft 250lbs vertically. Only then does the instructor warn that I should grab the rope when the momentum of the zip line tosses me up toward the platform.
“Thanks!” I shout down. “Great advice!” I’m shaking from the exertion and fear has backed up in my throat, making it difficult to breathe.
“No worries. Do this the next time, you’ll be fine!”
“Next time?” I squeak.
“Come on, Mom. It will be fine,” my daughter works her way around the tree, moving into position to tackle the next obstacle.
Only then do I realize that each obstacle is a death trap disguised as a ‘confidence-building’ exercise.
At the entrance of each course, climbers slide the carabiner onto a thick metal cable, twisted and bolted all the way up the stairs to the first platform. This metal cable is wrapped around each tree and bolted sporadically throughout the entire course. There is no way to unhook until you reach the end.
Moreover, the people behind me cannot move forward until I do.
Forward is the only option.
This is as much a metaphor for life as I’ve ever known. Forward is the only way. It’s great to believe the Insta memes: real growth comes from embracing the unknown, from pushing out of our comfort zones. It is an entirely different thing to live this philosophy 20 feet in the air with my children watching. I am a model for my daughters. One day they will be women and my actions now will show them how to be strong, capable, and dauntless. To not be cowed by anything – neither men nor sky high challenges strung between trees. One day, maybe they will look back on this tree climbing and remember only fierce determination, not the image of me dangling 20 feet above the ground like a wet bra slung over a clothesline.
The moment of truth comes on obstacle #5. I’d cleared the two plank bridges, the zipline and the next obstacle, another string of floating foot bridges, each two feet long. Then I reach the nightmare.
It seems innocuous from above. Two trees, with a safety line above and strung just below a series of U shaped ropes. Each rope is covered at the curve of the U with heavy rubber, to provide traction for the feet. The U ropes hang, unconnected to each other, about two feet apart, so that I can fit only one foot on each U and must lunge to reach the next.
My right leg sinks in the first U, pulling it down into a long, narrow V. Then, gripping the safety line above, I put my full weight into the swinging rope and lunge for the next U. My legs are shaking, near collapse. I want to cry, to quit. But Safyre is standing at the far platform, watching me. It’s her, more than anything, that drives me forward.
Movement. I tell myself. I’ve got to keep moving. I can do this. Can I do this?
I reach again, lunging with my left leg into open space.
My knee almost buckles as I hoist my weight from right to left and prepare to reach for the next U-step.
I’m barely moving. The group behind me shouts words of encouragement as I lunge for the next U -step. I worry that my left leg will buckle or crack, its shaking so violently.
To get through the steps, I ask myself: What words start with U?
Ulysses. (I could never finish that book.)
Unlikely. (As in, it’s unlikely I will finish this course without breaking a bone or having a heart attack!)
Then I’m at the end. One more step. Safyre calls out, “You can do it, Mom! Keep going!”
“Unless,” I whisper as I finally step on the wooden platform where Safyre is beaming.
“Unbelievable!” I sigh and lean against the tree, sweat drenched, smiling.
The group behind me breaks into cheers and clapping. I made it!
Now only six more obstacles – including another zip line – to go.
A year later, we shelter-in-place at our apartment in Kuwait, on lockdown and hoping the pandemic that has upended the world ends soon. Usually we would be looking forward to our summer escape, but this year no travel. Instead we will weather the 55+C heat of June, July, and August in Kuwait and focus on surviving and staying healthy.
When the coronavirus crisis came to Kuwait in late February, I felt terrified of what might happen. Slowly, I’ve started living the situation day by day, navigating each new challenge as it arises and talking myself through the hardest parts. Whatever comes, there’s no going back and no point in being afraid. So I plant one foot in front of the other and trust in the momentum of forward motion, unafraid.
Jamie Etheridge is a full-time journalist, writer and mother living in Kuwait with her family. Her creative writing has been published in Inkwell Journal, Potomac Journal, Red River Review, Wild Word magazine, Wordhaus and is forthcoming in Running Wild Anthology #4 (summer 2020). She has previously published both an essay, Collecting the Halcyon Days and poetry, Goodbye Plum, in Mothers Always Write.