Monday, August 25, 2014

Leaning Out

My nephew just graduated from college. I've talked to him a couple of times and one night, we messaged back and forth on Facebook for an hour about what he was going to do. Today, I'm writing him a letter to go along with a graduation gift check.

I'm terrible at writing in greeting cards. I don't know why. I either write something inane or I go on and on and end up having to sign my name in a tiny corner that's left. My handwriting starts out large enough and as I realize I'm running out of space, it gets tinier and tinier until it just fades away or is illegible. It's just like me. Once I get going, I don't know how to stop.

There should be courses in middle school about how to compose words for a greeting card. THAT would be valuable. How do you write something that's been written a thousand times before and that the greeting card company has already written better than you could ever write?  It's impossible! Plus, you're supposed to put in something that is between you and the person you're sending it to that makes it special.  Special.

A year and a half ago, my other nephew also graduated from college. Yet four months earlier, he had gotten angry at an opinion I expressed and hung up on me. He never managed to call me back to apologize about it. That greeting card should have said, "You hung up on me, so I'm sending you half as much for your graduation as I would have sent." I wanted to write to him about how people react to humility. I wanted to ask him to imagine a world in which only one opinion mattered. Even if it were his opinion, it would be a very lonely world. I wanted him to think about people he knew who treated him with arrogance and superiority. I wanted him to learn.

This card will be easier because I haven't argued with this nephew who just graduated, but there are things I want to tell him, things I want him to learn. He's not certain what kind of job he's going to try for. He doesn't feel confident going out into the world, traveling without a plan. He could go anywhere. He could do anything.

When I was twenty-two and had just graduated from college, I felt so absolutely free. At that point in my life, I was the happiest I had ever been. Even now, it only ranks third to the day I married Mike and the day I gave birth to Nick. I was free. I could go anywhere. I could do anything.

I didn't start to worry about the realities of making a living until I struggled with money after I got a job. I loved the freedom life offered me at my graduation. I was beginning, spreading my wings to fly. The rest of my life was a blank page that I got to fill in. The world was my playground.

I've only been rappelling once in my life. I remember standing at the top of the cliff with ropes tied around my waist and thighs. Other Scouts had gone before and a few were still waiting at the top with me. At my belly button, ropes came together in a complicated knot I still haven't mastered and from that, a single line held me. Mike had anchored it to a tree. He showed me how to let out my own line. My only anchor to this world was the grip I had on my own umbilical.

"Now, you're going to want to face me and lean backward over the cliff with your feet spread apart. You can let out your line as fast or as slowly as you want," he said with a grin.

At those words, a wave of adrenaline shot through me down to my fingertips and toes. I loved that feeling. I stepped closer to the edge and looked down over the cliff. The Scouts below me, the ones that had already gone, looked tiny from this distance. Even though it was just about three or four stories high, the drop looked enormous, enough to kill if I fell off untethered. The thrill shot through me again.

"Don't go over face forward. That would be bad," Mike said.  I'm sure I was chattering my uncertainty to him, but have no idea what I said. I just danced around for a while until Scouts below started to yell their encouragement.

"You can do it!" one shouted.

"It's great!"

"Just lean into the rope!" someone yelled.

"Try leaning into the rope away from the edge. It's like sitting down in a chair. Trust the line," Mike said. I tried it. He was right.

We are limited only by our own ideas, by our own fears, by our approach to that moment when we are asked to lean backward over a cliff. Will we trust that thin cord that links us to safety? Will the moment be filled with fear and exuberance or fear and reluctance?

Eventually, after the shouting died down, I looked at Mike. I put tightened the rope and felt my weight on it. It held. I could feel it. All I had to do was trust myself and that rope and fall backward over a cliff. I let the pressure loosen a bit, I took a deep breath, kept my eyes locked with Mike's, and I leaned back into the seat the ropes made for me.

There I was!

Scouts cheered. I hung out over the cliff. I could look down at them. I let out a little rope and hopped. I could hop from from side to side. It was glorious, even seeing my umbilical disappear up over the top of the cliff.

I was back down on solid ground before I knew it. My adrenaline soared through my veins but the ride was over. I wanted to go again.

Graduating is like that. You have to trust yourself. You have to lean backward and fall over that cliff into a new life and feel the glory of what you might allow yourself to do. You can go anywhere. You can do anything.

That's what I want to tell my nephew.

Thank you for listening, jb

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