Thursday, April 30, 2015

Burma Bridge

The girl sat on a tiny wooden platform thirty feet over our heads, her feet dangling in space, her hands gripping the edge as if she was in mortal peril.

Over the last forty minutes, she had barely moved.

A patient woman camp counselor crouched behind her, encouraging the girl gently. When there was a pause in the cheers and cajoles of the girls below, you could hear a few words of their conversation.

"...feel like I'm being pushed..."

"You're not being pushed. I'm not pushing you. You can do this. Put your hands on the rope and lean forward."

That's all the girl needed to do, move her hands from the sides of the platform, lean over the edge and drop into space. The zipline attached to the harness around her waist and legs would keep her safe as she flew through the morning air. Her entire troop had already done as much, screaming with joy as they swung away from us through a path cut through the forest.

The spring leaves in the trees around us were tiny slips of gold not yet able to cover the hard truth of the bare branches. The spring air was cool and fresh; the sky was clear. I walked on frost on the grass on the way to the fire circle to light our breakfast campfire that morning.

The girl had already braved a shaky ladder, pulled herself onto the "Catwalk," a telephone pole tilted at a forty-five degree angle and shuffled her way up that skinny wooden tightrope with only the help of a taut rope attached to the safety harness around her waist. But once she sat down on that platform, no wider than a coffee table, her mind had taken over her body and her fears had her paralyzed.

"Your challenge, your choice," was the mantra the counselors told us yesterday on the rock climbing tower as the girls strapped on these same safety harnesses and donned their helmets. A reassurance that the girls owned their experience and could elect to do as much or as little as they wanted. A counselor would always be on the end of the rope attached to each girl's harness, pulling them taut, keeping them safe.

But none of the counselors was talking about an escape route today. They were talking about how jumping was like "ripping off a band aid," best if done quick. They were calling out advice about not thinking. About how completely safe the rigging was, about how much fun she would have. They murmured to each other at one point about lunch, but the only edge that brought us closer to was the one of bumming out, so no more about that.

"Ten! Nine! Eight!" yelled the girl's troop from below.

"Girls, girls, that's enough. Let her do her own countdown!"

The sixth graders and junior high girls waiting below, including my own twelve year old and her troop, were patient, surprisingly patient, with this girl who had thrown a wrench in the works of this day, during the last hour before we were to go home after a camp overnight. Most of them had already tried and conquered the "Burma Bridge," a tightrope with waist-high ropes on either side to grip as they inched across. I watched with awe and some horror, whispering to my co-leader, "How is this fun? Nobody crosses bridges like that in Burma for fun!"

"I know!" said Emily. "They cross them so they won't die in the raging waters on their three hour walk to school!"

Now the bridge had been crossed and there was not much to do but wait and listen to the kind bearded counselor call out encouragement from down the path where he waited with his step ladder to take the girls down once they finished their flight.

"You can do it! Just lean forward! It will be so much fun!"

And we clapped and cheered some more.

I hadn't expected the high ropes course to be so emotionally moving. But it was beautiful to see the girls so encouraging and kind to the one trapped by her own fears. And so heart bursting to see my own daughter's face transform from yesterday's miserable and pale-as-a-sheet at the base of the rock climbing tower to a pink-cheeked grin of success after her Burma crossing today. And so awesome to hear that the next day, Monday morning, when the frightened girl who had held up everyone's fun asked Mia in class, "Are you mad at me?" my daughter gave her the only possible and a completely sincere answer, "No, of course not!"

Because the girl astonished us all with a sudden swift fall off the platform into the swinging flying exhilaration of the zip line. The line sang as she traveled its length, then bounced back, losing momentum, into a slow triumphant stop and the rescue of bearded guy with his step ladder.

We screamed, we cheered, we jumped up and down. I couldn't believe it, I couldn't believe it.

Here's to all of you facing fears of your own, and to me doing the same. Good luck with your leap of trust and please wish me the same.