Walking the Edge of the Precipice
Only a few inches separated me from wide open air and a long, long way to the bottom of the canyon. No railing, no nothing. The void to my right, I kept leaning and veering to the rougher left shoulder of the path, which added to my feeling of the world being off kilter, to my doubting my sense of balance.
At first I had been fine, gazing out over the beautiful, Arizona canyon from behind a guardrail, taking photos with a tight grip on my iPhone lest I lose it forever over the edge. I was proud to be here with my lovely, adventurous daughter, to be the one brave and hearty enough to accompany her on the one-mile hike called the Island Trail at Walnut Canyon near Flagstaff to visit the ancient cliff dwellings of the Sinagua people. Even though I had just learned from the friendly park ranger that I now qualify for the senior pass, I was confident that I could handle the 736 stair steps down and then back up, given enough pauses and huffing and puffing under my facemask. What I had not fully understood when we started down the railed stairs was that the entire walk would be on a narrow path along the edge of a very steep and very high cliff. And I had failed to remember my own fear of heights.
This was not the first time my daughter, Nadine, had led me on a fear-inducing adventure. In Florence, Italy, she had been determined to climb to the top of Giotto’s bell tower at the famous Duomo cathedral, and I had been game to accompany her. Again, at first I had been fine. Eventually, it wasn’t the number of stairs in the 278-foot tower that defeated me, it was my innate fear of falling. Once we started looking down on the red dome of the cathedral, some inner mechanism in my gut said, STOP! DANGER! GO BACK! At that point, only two flights down from the rooftop observatory, I told Nadine to go the rest of the way without me. No longer able to stand where I could see out the windows, I had to sit down on the floor of the narrow landing on the winding stairway, smiling wanly and waving away concerned looks from strangers as they passed me, and wait for her return.
That walk was a bit like the year 2020. It turned out to be a year we never could have imagined, full of terrors and angst, dangers and hardships.
Now I had that same feeling. We reached a bench, a little farther from the edge, and I gratefully sat down. My intrepid daughter went and stood on the very edge, beyond the marked path, and I had to quickly look away, as I do when getting poked with a needle at the doctor’s office. I couldn’t watch someone I loved so close to disaster. It froze my heart. It reminded me of the time, 23 years ago, when we had visited the Grand Canyon, and I had seen my then 14-year old son sitting on the very edge of the Grand Canyon. This, after having read a park sign that told how many people died each year in park accidents, and that most of them were males between the ages of 16-25. I had smiled at him and even snapped a photo, not wanting to startle him. But as soon as he was back a safe distance from the edge, I had hooked an arm fiercely around his skinny neck and hissed into his ear, “Don’t you EVER go that close to the edge again! Do You… Hear… Me??”
I knew that the tower incident had been totally irrational. There was no practical way for me to fall out of one of the narrow, waist-high windows in an enclosed tower. And was a tower that had stood for well over 600 years really going to suddenly fall over? But now we were literally walking a precipice with nothing to protect us. All it would take was a careless step, a stumble, a dizzy spell, a surprise encounter, and over we would go. (I was inwardly horrified and terrified that some people were bringing young children on this hike!)
“You go on,” I told my daughter. “I think I’m going to go back now.” But no, she said, we’re almost there! We’re almost to the cliff dwellings! So, OK, I decide to buck up, to “screw my courage to the sticking place,” and venture farther into the abyss. I practiced taking deep, calming breaths and focusing on the path right in front of me, trying to pretend that it spread out as even ground for an acre in each direction. And sure enough, we soon came upon the wonder of the ancient cliff pueblos. “Can you imagine living here?” my daughter asked in happy awe. “Never in a million years,” I replied. I could not imagine choosing to make a home in that place, having babies learn to walk there, climbing ladders down to the bottom of the canyon and hauling back up the water necessary for survival. No way.
What struck me as I lay awake in bed early the next morning was that that walk was a bit like the year 2020. It turned out to be a year we never could have imagined, full of terrors and angst, dangers and hardships. Many people actually have been lost over the edge, and those who remain are left to walk the precipice, bereft and grieving. All kinds of feelings have risen to the surface: not only fear, but anger and outrage, exhaustion, depression, a kind of claustrophobia, irritability, and isolation.
So what does this mean, as we look back on this supremely difficult year and look forward to 2021, only a few days away? We’re still out there on that narrow canyon path. The danger is still very real. There is definitely hope around the corner, but it looks like we will have to continue navigating carefully in 2021, and there are certainly no guarantees that this will all suddenly be over, as it was when I made it safely, however out of breath, back to the ranger’s station at the top of Walnut Canyon.
But it is still a time for gratitude for the loved ones we have here with us, even if we can’t be physically with them this Christmas. It is still a time to be grateful for this beautiful earth, for the “Christmas star” we gazed upon a few days ago, for nature that continues on, oblivious to our political and social upheavals and outrages. What else can we do but pause and be quiet for a few moments, breathe deep, go inward, and whisper thanks? And pray for courage and resolve to step forward into the next year, facing what comes, appreciating the beauty that stares us in the face, and pressing forward one step at a time?
Next post: GROWTH (8/10, Blessing of the Trees)