Right now there are autumnal leaves on the ground. So why am I thinking about skiing? It has to do with getting on a scary ride at the fair, and trying to overcome my fears.
Every year (almost) I take one ski lesson, make several runs down the bunny slope, and then go to the “top” of one of the less-scary (aka, green) trails and ski down the side of the mountain with my family. For me, each year, this is an act of courage. As well as a sign of solidarity with my family. I want to do it once each year, just so I can be with them, and face up to something that scares me, too.
Each year, I get a little better. (Until I fall down, of course. Almost guaranteed to happen every year.)
As proof of this annual act, I have a series of photos of me posed part-way up a mountain, next to my daughter and husband. Just before we go down the slope together. Me making pizza wedges with my feet so I don’t go too fast or lose control. Sarah skiing in circles around me, laughing hysterically at my juvenile form, then swooping ahead and then swinging back again to cheer me on. Chris somewhere before or behind, usually shooting embarrassing videos.
Chris and Sarah, of course, are much more accomplished on skis than me. They go to the top of the trails. They enjoy black diamonds. They ski in Colorado with uncle Jeff sometimes, at much greater altitudes. Sarah will get on a snowboard, too, though I’m not sure she’d claim she’s as comfortable ‘boarding as skiing.
Now back to Topsfield County Fair. We made our annual jaunt there. Now that Sarah’s grown up, it’s usually just Chris and I, making the rounds of barns and rides for one sticky, deep-fried afternoon. (For years, it was me with other moms, our kids in strollers, stuck in the Kiddy Ride area.)
This year we went with our friends Mark and Lesley, who are visiting from Ipswich England as part of a Rotary Club cultural exchange. We wanted to share a quintessential American experience with them, and the County Fair embodies everything that is fun, campy and quirky about America.
C’mon, admit it! It’s the fair! Deep-fried food of every description. Cute child-made projects by Boy or Girl Scout troops and 4-H clubs, like collections of painted gourds decorated as Olympic teams or ghosts and witches for Halloween. The world’s largest pumpkin: 2,009 pounds! Clydesdales. Racing pigs. Farm machinery with big tires and bigger engines: pulling stuff. Goats, sheep, alpacas, cows, bunnies, guinea pigs, chickens, roosters, ducks, turkeys … and more. Bee-keeping house with honey, wax candles and live hives. Prize-winning flower arrangements, handmade quilts, jars of honey, and pies. The midway, with dart-throwing contests and every other sort of game in which you can lose a lot of money, plus lots of rides with bright lights and loud music.
Anyway, in past years, I’ve gone on rides at the fair with my family, for the same reason that I go skiing with them. To face a fear. To show solidarity.
Does it count as an act of courage, if you’re afraid to do something for sensible reasons, like the concern about gravity, steep slopes and fast downhill speeds, but you do it anyway? Does it count as an act of courage, if you’re afraid the whole time, but do it anyway?
This year I went on the Pharoah’s Fury with Chris and our friend Lesley. It is really a large boat on a swing, and it rocks higher and higher in both directions, while you face into the middle, so that eventually you are pivoted so high that you’re facing a 90 degree drop and staring down into the screaming faces of the people on the other end of the boat. And then it plummets down in the opposite direction, as it completes the swing to the other end of its pendulum motion, and you feel as if you’re falling.
Okay, this ride combines all my nightmares. You know … falling … heights … speedy drops … That sort of thing.
Meanwhile Chris and Lesley, to challenge themselves, let go of the bar and lift their hands to heighten the effect. They keep their eyes open. They’re laughing and whooping in excitement.
Me? Eyes closed. Hands clutch the bar. Moan. Complain. “I hate this. Why did I get on? I hate this. Aaagggghhh. Aaaaarrrrrrgggggggghhhhhhh!”
Screams. Squint, but open my eyes a few times, to experiment with peeking, because Chris and Lesley say it’s easier with your eyes open than squeezed shut. Stare down into the faces of the people on the other end of the ride. Stare DOWN at them, from my 90 degree vertical-drop position at the very other end of the ride. Aaaaaarrrrrgggghhhhhh. Looking isn’t helping. It’s worse!
I scream every time we start the plummet downward. My stomach falls after the rest of me, of course. It can’t keep up.
And I never let go of the bar. Even though Chris and Lesley say it’s more fun — easier — if you let go. Let go! Let go!
Yes, it’s the mantra that I say to myself about so many other parts of life. “Just let it go.”
On this ride, I don’t work up enough courage to let go of the safety bar and throw my hands up in the air. That’s one more step than I can manage.
What did I accomplish? Well, I got on the ride, and didn’t panic enough to get back off again. I said NO to an earlier ride, but I got on this one.
And by the end of the Pharoah’s Fury — which felt like it lasted 35 minutes, if you ask me — by the end of the ride, in between screams, I’m laughing. Laughing!
Okay, so maybe the stomach-drop sensation ride is FUN in a sick-scary sort of way. Me? Laughing?
To laugh, I’ve actually gone through the mental exercise of admitting that I’ve talked myself into a place of greater anxiety than this ride warrants. It’s almost ridiculous. But that’s why I won’t open my eyes or let go, because I’m so afraid.
So let’s ask this question again. What did I accomplish? Well, I opened my eyes. I peeked. It didn’t kill me, though it wasn’t any better. I won’t let go of the bar. Nope. But I can laugh between screams.
Does that count as courage?
Sure, it would be a better story if I’d released the bar, unclenched my hands, flung them into the air and completely immersed myself in the experience of my fear of heights, vertical drops, falling sensations and all of those things. If I’d faced it entirely, without any anxieties or reservations, and then walked off the ride … cured. A new person.
That isn’t quite the whole story. I got off the Pharoah’s Fury, wobbly, but smiling. As if, indeed, the weight of all those fried foods that we’d gobbled down earlier in the afternoon had been left behind. (Which they hadn’t. For the record, I didn’t puke.) As if I’d overcome some part of myself that was hunkered down in a dark corner, hands over eyes, back turned to the light, unwilling to uncurl and take a chance.
Yes, I held on tight. Yes, I complained, “I hate this.” Yes, I screamed. Yes, I kept my eyes closed most of the time. Yes, it’s true. I did those things.
But I also got on the ride. In the end seat, where the ride is the most extreme. I stayed in the seat. I opened my eyes a few times, to check it all out. Between screams and rounds of “I hate this,” I actually relaxed enough to laugh. To admit that it was fun to be scared. Glad I’d done it.
That’s a lot for this year. (Does that count as my going-to-the-mountain moment? Can I skip the ski slope?)
For me, going on Pharoah’s Fury is about like going to the top of a ski trail on skis. To go down a mountain with my family. Would I do it myself, for my own satisfaction? No. Would I do it to keep someone I love company, and try it, even if it’s not “my thing?” Yes.
Is that courage? I don’t know. But when I laughed, as the ride dropped into its swing toward earth, it felt like something new was happening inside. And I didn’t need a new pair of underwear when I got off the ride, by the way!