Fear is probably the root cause of all things that stop us from reaching goals. Inaction is another…but it often stems from fear. Fear creates barriers of perceived safety, but by always obeying those barriers, we’ll never get past to the higher levels of life that we want.
We had the most beautiful, charming, perfect climbing tree in the side yard of my childhood home. This tree was a very tall evergreen, that grew next to our house – it was huge, the tree. You got to the lower branches by climbing up a wooden compost box. In the spring, the box and tree was surrounded by a sea of daffodils I always loved to cut, marveling that the stems always made little squeaky noises when I snipped them. We mostly had oak trees in our yard and neighborhood, which you could climb – but not as well as you could this tree, which rose up well beyond any other tree in the surrounding neighborhood.
Tall and full, and a perfect shady spot within the branches on hot summer days. It was a favorite spot with the neighborhood kids, too. I spent many an hour in that tree reading and/or munching on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, listening to the wind hissing through the needles and watching all the different bugs climb up it, going about their little lives. I also loved popping the sap bubbles in the skin of the bark – the bigger, the better. The stickier you were when you came down from the tree, the better.
For some reason, I always thought of the tree as “Edward” in my head, despite the fact he was actually a “Douglas”, our state tree, actually.
I could never quite get myself to climb up past a certain point, as it was where the wind would grab the tree and make it rock back and forth; even my more daring friends in the neighborhood – like the boys – didn’t like going up much higher, either, for the same reason…Edward was a very tall tree, and he was very peaceful — but it didn’t quell the fear that snaked into me at that invisible line.
But I always felt angry with myself for being scared. My fear was that I’d fall – except I knew I wouldn’t because the branches were so dense. It was also very wavy – even on days when there was almost no wind on the ground. But I’d always get to the one spot and feel like I absolutely could not go any higher.
Then, one day, one pretty, summer day with a turquoise sky puffed here and there with cotton ball clouds, I sat at that same place trying to will myself to go higher. I felt like a baby, a wuss. Like I was a total and complete chicken. It didn’t matter that nobody else had. We always taunted each other about that, but nobody seemed willing to go much higher.
I’d spent much of the afternoon woven into the branches, reading. Probably a Nancy Drew mystery or, at least some book I’d gotten from the library (I was perhaps 11 or, at the most 12). I felt the top of the tree beckoning me as it always did, and I sat, staring up through the branches, looking at the sunshine sparkling down through the needles.
I always had the sense that Edward was making a promise he wouldn’t drop me…but I still stayed afraid of the height and the possibility I might fall, somehow missing all the branches and plummeting straight to the ground. Of course that wouldn’t happen…but there was a first time for everything.
But that afternoon as I stared upwards, I started thinking that maybe – just maybe – I could do it.
So I stood and climbed up a few more feet. The wind picked up and Edward rocked back and forth, creaking and whispering. My breath caught, but I climbed up a few more branches.
I got up maybe another five feet and looked down; the compost box looked very far away and small in my distorted perspective mind; to me, in that moment, it was no bigger than a child’s toy boxcar for an electric train. The wind pushed at the tree again, and again Edward creaked and whispered. I climbed a little higher, noticing the branches were getting smaller. Would they support my weight? Of course they would. But…but what if they didn’t? What if I actually misjudged them?
I looked up; swaying back and forth it almost looked like Edward was waving at the clear sun above, which danced over the iridescence of the bark and caught the crystallized, dried sap. Ants and bugs crawled along, like people hurrying down a busy city street, minds focused on their individual tasks. It was like that, I thought – a little city. The tree was full of compartments and tiny burrows which acted like little apartments and homes, in the branches and trunk – all the way from the top to well down into the earth and roots.
I’d seen bird’s nests, too, which were often above the “safety line”. I always left them alone, but there were a few springs when they were low enough where we could, from a safe side of the tree, peer into a nest and watch the little eggs and babies, much like we got to do when a robin built a nest in the bush outside of my brother’s window.
A larger gust of wind blew past, causing louder creaking and shushing from Edward’s branches.
As if Edward was testing me, coaxing me. Fear twinged in me, making my stomach go cold and my heart leap into my throat, rapping at it as if on fast-forward.
Maybe, I thought, this was high enough. I was already higher than I’d gone before…so maybe I could go in steps?
Big puff of breeze, big creaking, big hissing of the wind through the branches and needles. I don’t know if Edward was encouraging or chastising – or both.
No, I thought, I’m not a baby anymore. I can do this.
I climbed a little higher, my path a bit harder to navigate as the branches were narrower and thicker. My hands and the bottoms of my bare feet were dotted and smeared with sap, as were my legs and clothes. I had taken my time climbing, and the sun had arced further to the right, warm on my face, scented with pine and freshness.
The bending and swaying was far more pronounced by now, and I was well past the “safety line”. I looked over to my left at the sound of voices, and saw friends playing in the street (we lived on a triad of cul-de-sacs). They were far below, and I willed them to look up and see me, but they didn’t. Even if they had looked up, I would have been hidden by the branches.
I looked up again, and I was still a good ways from the top. By now I could see well into our backyard and even over the house behind us and to the street beyond. More wind, more creaking, more whispering, another jump and leap of heart and stomach, more tightening of my grip around Edward’s branches.
The afternoon was quite warm by then. Although there was a thicker number of branches, they were sparser in needles and miniature offshoot branches, and therefore not as much shade from the sun. But there was still quite a bit.
The day was also bending towards the warmer part of the afternoon, when things got sleepy and the cicadas started singing. I watched a dragonfly hum past and on its errand; birds sang in the trees, but they, too, were getting quieter as the warmth of the late summer afternoon worked itself into the nooks and crannies of the trees and flowers. It was still comfortable in the shade, but it was warmer and the type where it would be easy to slip into a doze out in the back yard, book tented on my chest.
And then I was there – as high as I really could go. I had gotten there without even really paying attention to the fact I had! I’d climbed all the way to the top, higher than anyone else in the neighborhood!
The tree swayed quite a bit, giving the impression it was almost like being on a trebuchet (well…not quite, of course). I saw my mother in our back yard, weeding, my little brother playing with his toys near by. Scattered over the lawn were plastic bowls and an inflatable pool, now only half-heartedly filled with air and water – remnants from a water fight the day before. A plane buzzed overhead and the cicadas sang.
I realized it wasn’t so bad – plus the view was magnificent. I sat, comfortably belted into a sturdy seated position by Edward’s upper branches, looking out over my queendom.
I could see for miles, it felt; the rolling hills of the Willamette valley rolled out before and around me; Corvallis sits nestled into the foothills of the Coast Range. Sunshine warm on my face, Edward creak-rock-whispering, I closed my eyes – and fell asleep.
I don’t know how long I slept, but when I awoke I was thirsty, so I climbed back down, becoming even more sap-laden than before. Sadly, about three or four years later, we found out that Edward had become infested with beetles to the point where they could not be exterminated. If left that way, they would spread to all the other pine trees in the area. Edward would also die a slow death. We had to make the choice to cut him down; the entire neighborhood mourned the loss. He was our friend for so many years—as he had been to a generation of children before us when the neighborhood was established in the 1960s and 70s.
I still miss that tree, and it makes me sad thinking about it now. I’ve never found another climbing tree that matched Edward, and I think of that afternoon often, because it seems like such a pinnacle moment of summer, childhood and triumph.
It’s also one I think of when I feel/hear myself thinking I can’t about something, and I realize that if a child who wasn’t terribly fond of heights (i.e. terrified) could climb to the top of the world (or so it felt) one summer afternoon despite that – right past a self-imposed, imaginary “safety-line”, I can as an adult, too.
In my mind’s eye, I can see Edward shining upwards, sunshine falling down over his needles as he climbed into the sky, wind whispering through his branches, picking up the scent of sap and summer, as if he still lives in his spot of home, watching over his neighborhood like an old guardian providing shelter and safety and shade for picnics and reading.
Maybe he does.
In a way, I suppose, he was the best kind of teacher of all. What Tom Brown Jr, a naturalist, refers to as a “coyote teacher”. One who provides just enough answers to create more curiosity and an environment for the student to learn on their own, while still providing support. Looking up through Edward’s branches I saw exactly that – answers to my questions of how on earth could I ever reach the top?! – but he left it up to me to find the path and my own determination. Which I did.
And I know that if I had fallen – he most definitely would have caught me, helped me up and shooed me back on my way up.
Fear is perception. Fear isn’t something you can get rid of as a character on NCIS asked Mark Harmon’s character, Gibbs, who was a former Marine Sniper. Gibbs looked at the young man, who was the assistant medical examiner, and said, “It’s not about getting rid of it. It’s what you do with it.”
Fear can either freeze us or propel us. I always think of the first astronauts sitting on those Mercury and Saturn rockets, not knowing what might happen. They had fear, but they turned it around and made peace it was there. Soldiers use it to keep themselves alert and aware. The only monsters under the bed are the ones we carry around in our imaginations.
Your fears exist because they’re misunderstood — at least most of them. When I work with my clients and we explore certain fears, the client will always, without an exception, learn something amazing from it. They receive power and strength.
What I learned in that moment with Edward was that how high I climb in life is up to me. It may get windier and bendier as I get up there…but oh, what a view!
Think of one fear you have. Pretend for a moment it has something valuable to teach you. That it’s a gift to you. Turn off the usual self-talk you have around it and just listen to the fear for a moment and ask it what it wants you to know. What do you hear? Is it surprising? Or is it perhaps something you knew about yourself on some level already, something awesome
I’d love to know what it is, if you’d like to share. Send me an email or leave a comment below or in the discussion forum if you’re comfortable doing so.
Questions? Comments? Email me at heather (at) smallchangelife (dot) org or drop by my Facebook page and leave me a message, or tweet me — @SmChangeLife.