by Sylvia McDonald
It was a crisp fall morning when I set out to join 20 other geology students on a field trip into the ravines which surrounded the college, our overall purpose involving the study of soil erosion. Hardly your average college student, I am a 33-year-old, single mom who earns her living sitting behind a desk all day. Unwilling to accept that this is where I will spend the remainder of my life and itchy for a more stimulating and meaningful livelihood, I cram my already overfilled schedule with often tedious hours of reading and studying in preparation for my next college exam. As far as physical challenge goes, I'm prone to climb nothing more daunting than an aerobics step twice a week. For these reasons and others, this was not my idea of a relaxing Saturday afternoon.
Still I was determined to go. For one thing, I seriously needed the extra credit. I have spent literally 16 years struggling through college -- here a night class, there a night class -- in between my son's first few years of life and various jobs that I worked to keep our household budget out of the red. It seems impossible, but I'm still plodding along with no more than a sophomore standing under my belt. Nevertheless, by isolating my focus down to one class a semester, I have managed to maintain the one shining mark of pride that has kept me going, the one thing that I could unequivocally brag about: my 4.0. Managed, that is, until my geology class.
Seriously, I don't know what's going on here. This was going to be an easy class, a "break" from my field of choice that would give me a little breathing room and a little variety. I never dreamed that a general education class would leave me with such an overwhelming work load in terms of study, nor did I have any idea that it was in this class that I would earn my lowest test score since high school, a dreaded C minus. Yes, this is a passing grade. But for someone who has invested a great deal of her self-esteem in her identity as an exceptional student and all around overachiever, a C minus is a tragic reality to face. The shock of this, and the fact that I didn't do much better on the next two tests (two more C's), is what motivated me out of my warm, snugly bed on a Saturday morning and into my poorly fitting winter boots. Boots which, I would soon learn, were anything but made for climbing. I had banked on an easy A, and instead I was given humble pie. Ah, the unpredictable organics of learning life's lessons!
I received an even bigger shock when I stood above the first ravine and examined the steep, slippery slope that stretched some 30 feet below. I was going to climb down this? I turned to my partner in crime, and we began to comment on the fact that our age was indeed a benefit here, since as young girls we would have been too afraid of falling and looking stupid or getting mud in our hair to even make the attempt.
My partner In crime is Margaret, an earthy sophisticated criminology student in her 40s who has set her future sights on a law degree. For now, she is a sophomore like me sitting in classrooms full of 18- and 20-year-olds and grubbing for the grade that she hopes will get her into the finer law school of her choice. Unlike me, Margaret has endured marriage for 20 plus years, and when she speaks of her husband (which she rarely does), I sense a sadness that is deeper and wider than the ravine we are about to tackle. Still, ours is a budding new relationship, and we have yet to scale those intimate depths together, preferring instead to sit in class sharing M&Ms and cracking double entendres about our hunky young professor. The deeper sharing will come with time, and today I am content to have a close friend with whom I can scramble up and down the rocky terrain that lies just ahead.
We start down, and I lose sight of Margaret almost immediately. I'm too busy looking down, watching my feet, taking cautious baby steps, and becoming painfully aware of the fact that those around me are ambling down with confidence. A young woman, blonde with a small frame and ivory skin, urges me to "use the sides of my feet" as she brushes by on her way down. This is a piece of advice that I will hear over and over today from a number of different geology students, a rudimentary climbing skill that I will immediately forget again and again and again.
In my defense, let me say that most of these young adults were geology majors with three and a half years of climbing ravines under their belts. In my defense, let me say that Margaret and I and a few more students who were there in pursuit of extra credit were the only beginning climbers. Let me remind myself again that everyone must start somewhere. And in terms of climbing, I began that morning, like all beginners, at ground zero. This is ironic in light of the fact that I was also beginning the study of geology at ground zero. Although I remember an earth science class in seventh grade and a social studies teacher that same year who was content to let us spend our entire class period coloring maps with art pencils, I really have no past experience in the study of geology. It might have occurred to me at this moment, as I was attempting my first and therefore quite difficult climb down, that I had found a subject of study that I couldn't perform well right off the bat, something that I wasn't naturally good at. I could have even decided then and there to cut myself some slack, to allow myself some leeway both in the ravine and in the lecture hall, to give myself permission to be a beginner. I could have, but it was still quite early in the morning, this was only the first of eight hills, and although I was a little intimidated, I was not yet sufficiently humbled.
I arrived at the bottom free of sprained ankles and pleased with myself and quickly scrambled to join Margaret. We walked quietly for quite some time through a trench that was surrounded by acres of deciduous trees which had generously strewn their glorious fall raiment all around our feet in a blanket of amber, crimson, and gold. Tiny rivulets of stream bubbled here and there, filling my ears with a soft, flowing timbre of gentleness and peace that reminded me of the nature CDs that they play in the new age book store. All around me was the musty, rich, and sensual smell of the dark loose earth, and I found myself momentarily overwhelmed by the arousing beauty of these sensual delights. I spied a tiny brook rippling over smooth sandstone weathered in perfect step-like fashion, and I longed to lie next to it and feel the water on my face and the hard rock underneath my soft body. I wanted to be one with this little brook, this open place in the earth, I wanted to snuggle into the arms of the mother of us all.
I looked around me at my companions and decided that they would not understand, so I was left to remain silently overwhelmed. So overwhelmed, in fact, that I hardly heard a word of the first presentation. I felt a little guilty, looking anxiously all around me, drinking in the sight of this pristine wilderness tucked secretively between musky slopes intersected with drainage pipes. But, seriously, how could anyone in their right mind stand in this so sacred of spaces and talk about erosion? Yes, I know that preventing erosion is crucial, as are all pursuits which seek to preserve the temple that is our planet. I must admit however that I do not have the heart of a geologist, but the heart of a writer, a seeker of beauty, a lover of the pleasure that I can smell, taste, touch, and ogle at, and the scholarly details were completely lost on me.
After a short discourse that I barely heard, we started up the slope in route to the next ravine, and my heart begin to race at the sight of it. I was beginning to get a feeling for my own shortcomings, beginning to wish that I had worked harder on my body instead of reading all those books, beginning to consider that I do have borderline high blood pressure and I'm not really as young as the rest of these students and . . . To hell with it! I began my ascent recklessly, with as much speed as I could muster, hoping my sheer will would carry me up the trench.
Half way up I balked, grabbed a strong deeply rooted tree, and hung on for dear life. My tractionless soles were slipping in the mud, my ankles were screaming in pain, thanks to my loose poorly fitting unsecured boots, and the heavy weight of my body was dragging me down. I embraced the tree with the deepest gratitude, thinking that in a moment like this trees are God, and I exhaled with my stubborn determination and slung myself up and over it's sacred trunk. Breathing a sigh of relief, I continued up, overwhelmed with gratitude at what lay just behind the benevolent trunk.
Students. Lots of them. Forming a line to the top, they held their open palms and offered me and the others behind me a lift up. Accepting one hand, then another, and another, I practically flew up the rest of the embankment, propelled by generosity and good will in the form of this impromptu human chain. I stood at the top and grinned down on the rest of the stragglers who were experiencing the human chain. Wow! This was amazing. This kind of teamwork was something that I personally had never seen, had never experienced in my 33 years of living, certainly something I never experience in corporate America. Strangers helping strangers, lifting them above their burden, assuring their safety. For the second time that day, I felt overwhelmed, inspired, and motivated. Only this time it was not the splendor of nature, but the overwhelming kindness of my classmates that moved me so deeply I was speechless.
We moved on.
As I began down the second ravine, still marveling at the human chain experience, I hit a stone and begin to tumble head over heels. I was immediately taken up short by the strong arm of my professor who, unbeknownst to me, had been walking just behind and was able to step forward and prevent what might have been a rather painful tumble. I looked into his eyes with the fear and gratitude of the frightened little girl that I must have seemed to him in that moment. For the first time that semester. I saw his studious continence soften to something far more gentle and personal as he assured me, "It's OK to fall." I didn't know what to say. Is it OK, Professor, to screw up, to fail to reach the goal, to sacrifice a measure of false perfection for the true challenge of experience that is so tangible I can taste it in the sweat that's pouring down my face? Is it OK to be less than perfect? Are you telling me, after all this time, after all these years that I have struggled, that I could instead have taken someone's helping hand, that I don't always have to work so damned hard? If I dare to try something different, to learn something new, to challenge myself instead of always staying in the safety zone of my beloved psychology classes (or my beloved desk job) where I KNOW I will succeed, might a C minus be good enough? Perhaps, but are you telling me the truth, Professor? Would a C minus alone be good enough to earn your respect? Would a less traditional, less lucrative job be enough to earn the respect of my father?
That was the crux of it, then, the deep-down need that motivated me out of bed that morning and every morning, the need for a man's approval. Whether it was my professor's approving of my work, my father's approving of my job, my husband's approving of my role as wife and mother, or yet another boyfriend's approving of whatever part of me I was focusing heavily on at the moment, I was chained to my hunger for male recognition.
I realized this as surely as I recognized the giddy excitement that washed over me in the moment that my professor swept me rapidly up with his strong grip. I almost laughed at myself, poised on the brink of at least an embarrassing tumble and at worst a sprained or broken ankle, totally distracted by the rush of hormones that must have flushed my face bright red. One thought dominated my mind, not the potential danger, not even the gratitude that a fellow human being had been there in a moment of need, but rather the adolescent gush of a high school girl that vibrated through my body in a breathy secret sigh, "He's so strong!"
As I regained my footing and the color begin to leave my face, I remembered an aging dog I once had who, several days before his death and riddled with painful arthritis, had jumped up from his bed and hobbled to the center of the room in haste when my cousin arrived with her female toy poodle. Good heavens, the things hormones will do!
I broke his grip and plunged ahead, thanking God as I often do that we human beings can't read each other's minds. I ambled down a few more feet, and once again got caught in a precarious position, perched and afraid to move one centimeter forward, stuck and dependent on someone or something to get me to the bottom. Of course, it was my professor. He wasn't far behind, and he rounded my crouched insecure self and once again lifted me with grace. I felt humbled. I knew in my mind that it was wrong to be dependent on a man (father, professor, husband . . . any man) -- knew that I had been fighting like mad for the last six years to break my dependency. I remembered how totally reliant I had been on my husband, how the first few months after I had left him I ran out of gas repeatedly because he had taken on the responsibility of putting gas in my car for the eight years that we had been married. I struggled with the black-and-white labels that I had assigned everything: Autonomy --Good; Dependency -- Bad. But there I was, knee deep in a 30-foot ravine, depending upon a man, depending upon strangers, depending upon anyone who would help me in or out. I felt a momentary surrender and abandon as I allowed my professor to lead me down the slope. I became momentarily docile, submissive, completely content to follow where he led. Then, safely at the bottom, I broke away and plunged indignantly ahead like a toddler, as if I were angry with him for being stronger and more experienced.
I sloshed through the water and pouted. I felt like a failure. Why couldn't I just do it? Why couldn't I be perfect? Why this class, this stupid class that I didn't have to be in? Why was it proving to be my downfall? When had I ever needed extra credit? Oh sure, I'd done extra credit in classes before, usually to bring my average to something outlandish like 102. Done it to be snotty I think, just to prove to myself and my professor (a man, no doubt) that I was indeed superior. To what? To whom? Why? All of those questions sloshed around slapping in my head as my feet kept time in my water-soaked boots.
Then I fell.
It was so unexpected, because I wasn't even climbing. I was walking flat footed, more or less, through the ravine bottom, and I slipped on something. My feet slid out from under me, and I fell on my butt, hard. As if that didn't draw enough attention, I punctuated my fall with a rather loud obscenity. Don't you just hate it when that happens? I jumped immediately up, sending rivulets of cold water in a cascade down my legs and shivering as my entire lower body turned to goose flesh. I apologized to the young man behind me who tried to hide his bemused smirk with a look of pseudo compassion. Then I continued forward.
I was cold. I was beaten. I felt stupid and embarrassed and was worried about the cleanliness of the water that I had just so unceremoniously sat in. I wanted to quit. I remembered that my Professor had said the class would be out "all day". I had replied, "Well, how long do we (those of us grubbing for extra credit) have to be there?" He had replied, "At least until 1 or 2 o'clock." I looked around for an arm with a watch. I wanted out of there. Of course, no one seemed to have one. Glumly I sulked ahead and ran smack dab into Margaret.
I didn't understand why we had split up this whole time, but she apparently was struggling as much as I. It was every man for himself, and we were lucky to have a moment together. I asked how she was. She said bruised. I told her I fell. She lamented with me, and we spent a moment pondering the disadvantage of female anatomy, that is you fall in something and you aren't protected from it! Then we talked about getting out of there, going home, and taking a warm bubble bath. When the students began their presentation, I sincerely tried to listen, but they used terminology that I wasn't familiar with, and I wasn't sure what they were talking about. I hoped my Professor wouldn't be too disappointed, but I was, after all, learning a great deal. It just didn't have anything to do with rocks.
We began our ascent. Margaret took off so fast, I couldn't catch her. I felt a little disappointed to have lost her, but made my way up cautiously as always. I had almost rounded the top and was glowing with pride when, yeah, you guessed it, I froze. This was maddening. It was like being a child again, so scared to move. I wanted to go home. I yelled for Margaret, but she was no where within earshot. A young, petite, blond girl appeared from nowhere and swung ahead of me, grabbing a tree and bracing herself between its trunk and an exposed root. She reached her graceful, feminine hand toward me and I hesitated. Why? I was completely ready to take the hand of my attractive professor, in spite of my inner critic, who let me know how incredibly wrong it was to count on a man. Why was I even less willing to count on this woman? I looked at her. She was small, tiny, petite, the size I'd always wanted to be. She was pretty, and I felt --- What? Afraid of her? Intimidated? Fat? Ashamed! That was it. I was ashamed to count on a petite, young girl. Ashamed that I, a broad, buxom, middle-aged woman who has given birth, for heaven's sake, couldn't pull my own weight. That was it. I wasn't pulling my own weight, and now I was going to throw it on her, this young woman who owed me nothing. I still hesitated.
She looked me in the eye and said, "Take my hand." I took her hand and tried to move forward immediately slipping in the mud. For fear of falling hard and rolling, I lunged forward and reached for her with my other hand, gripping her arm tightly. The guilt washed over me, the guilt of relying on someone. Depending. Trusting. Needing another person, a small young person when I should be able to do this on my own. I scrambled up beside her and looked into her eyes.
I practically whispered, "I'm sorry."
She was warm in her response, unaware of the depth of my discomfort. "It's OK," she gently reassured, "I'm perfectly stable." I gushed a sincere thank-you and moved quickly on.
Perfectly stable. I thought about this a lot. What does it mean to be perfectly stable? Able to reach out and help another human being, able to pull another up and not strain? I was overwhelmed again, an emotional basket case. Here in these ravines, this close to the earth, this far down into the still pristine wilderness undercut by drainage pipes, I was in the depths of my own emotion. While we moved up and down, I followed my own roller coaster. I began to realize for the first time in my life that real physical challenge breaks me down to my very essence, leaves me staring into the face of my shadow self, proves to me over and over again that I am none of the overblown ego that I use to buffer the world, and that I am, after all, myself: a single, vulnerable human being with nothing more to shield me than the drive and determination that keep one foot moving forward in front of the other. Like Whitman's noiseless, patient spider, I stand alone with nothing more than that which issues forth, the single filament that secures me -- my drive.
That was it, then. That was what I had come here today to learn. My drive. That was the key, the essence that set me apart, the one thing I've always had that makes me different. Not as perfect as I might want, or better, but different enough to move ahead and grab a tree or a hand or whatever it takes to get me to the top. My drive had kept me in school for 16 years without the immediate reward of a degree. My drive had kept me studying when I really wanted to watch television. My drive had enabled me to leave a dying marriage when my vulnerable, afraid, little-girl self had wanted to stay where it was safe. My drive didn't translate into perfection or glory, and it couldn't stop me from falling on my ass. But it could get me up out of the water and moving forward. And in that moment I realized that it would continue to do so. At that moment I determined to put one foot in front of the other and make it through the ravines and through this class, with or without my 4.0.
After all, what's a grade? A measure of what? Who studied the right material? Who thinks like the professor? Who had the most time to study? A measure of whose child, boss, spouse, etc., was the least demanding that week? After all, I'm an adult, and I've been on a multitude of job interviews, and not once has anyone ever yet asked me about my 4.0. But my drive is apparent in my string of successive moves up the ladder, in my increasing salary history, in my confident tone of reassurance that yes, of course I can do that. Just give me a chance to try.
I was rounding the top, feeling incredibly good about all this inner talk, when I bumped into my professor. He looked down at my still dripping legs and said, "Did you fall in?" I rolled my eyes and said, "Oh yeah. All the way and flat on my butt." He grinned mischievously at that. "Well," he said, "at least it wasn't too cold." Yeah, yeah that's his overeducated opinion!
Sylvia is a self-proclaimed writer, adventurer, thinker, and spiritual seeker who lives in Western Michigan. She shares her love with her 11-year-old son and 9-month-old Rat Terrier, as well as a strong and varied group of wise and supportive women. She seeks an ever expanding community and invites dialogue with others who are creating their own unique visions of life through outward expressions of their inner self.
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