“It’s not the inherent danger of the stunt that makes you freeze,” Critter says. “You just forgot why you climbed onto the trapeze. Stop and listen; if your whole body says you want to do this, get out there and do your Ringling thing.” – Critter, on how to persist through anxiety.
I am sitting on my bed with my laptop on my knees. There’s a cup of vanilla rooibos tea steaming on my dresser, and it’s making the place smell like raisin bread. It’s peaceful, quiet, and perfect for writing. But I’m stuck.
I blink at my screen, squinting and trying to focus. But the bright backlight is taunting me through the smudgy display surface. There’s also a fine spray of toothpaste dried on my glasses, and an aqua-musical of floaters doing pinwheels in my corneal jelly. I might as well be peering through a frosted glass brick. I can’t see shit. I sigh loudly through my nose.
“Fuck,” I mutter. “Maybe I should just roll over and go to sleep.”
“No way in hell you’re napping,” comes a voice from below the far side of the bed. “You’ve got shit to do.”
With less grace than a cat (but more than a dog), my imaginary raccoon pokes her face above the edge of the mattress and clambers up beside me.
“Hey, Critter,” I sigh.
“What’s up?” she asks, leaning over to peek at my screen. “Why aren’t you tappety-tapping your way through another thrilling tale of low self-esteem?”
I look at my made-up muse, then look back at my laptop, and frown.
“I’m stuck,” I say.
“What’s got you in its jaws?” Critter asks.
“Muck,” I say. “Some serious gloop. My brain feels like it’s been tarred and filled with that heinous fluff that poplars crap out in May.”
Critter nods her head knowingly.
“Ah,” she says. “A classic case of gunk-head, or as we call it, the cerebral piles. Raccoons get that sometimes.”
I raise a curious eyebrow.
“Sure!” Critter continues. “We get mentally constipated, too. But it doesn’t get us down. We just stick a finger in there and dig it out.” She makes a circular motion with one of her dainty black digits.
“Jesus Christ, Critter!” I groan, covering my eyes. “I’m never going to get that image out of my head.”
My raccoon chuckles.
“It all comes out in the end,” she says with a smirk. “You just need to get those cognitive bowels moving,” she says. “Now tell me, why can’t you work?”
I open my eyes to scowl at my disgusting guide. Then I dig both hands into the short mop of hair at the back of my head and scrub my scalp with my fingers. Finally, I drop my hands onto my thighs and sigh.
“I don’t know, Critter,” I mumble. “I’m just super foggy. I can’t concentrate on what I want to say.”
Critter tilts her head.
“What DO you want to say?” she asks.
I reach back up to my hair and bury my right hand, pulling and twisting sections as though it will stimulate thought.
What AM I trying to say? I ask myself I can hardly remember.
I look down at my notebook beside me, where I’ve sketched a rat’s nest of braindumps for three pieces that need writing. The first is a letter to my daughter’s school, the second is my blog post for the week, and the third is a short story that has me equal parts delighted and terrified.
These pieces are straining against the inside of my skull with thoughts and intentions that need to come out. But I can’t put them into words.
All I can think about is what a crappy job I’m going to do of them. I kind of liked my last post about anxiety and artistic nudity. I’m 100% sure the next thing I write won’t be as good. I’m fighting hard against the urge just to leave these next three failures unwritten.
I’m useless right now, I think. If I try to force it, the pieces will be god-awful.
I look down again at my two pages of scrawled planning. It’s broken up into chunks with circles, underlines, and arrows darting this way and that. The whole thing is a bloody mess, and it’s failing to ignite any inspiration or confidence. I do NOT want to do this right now.
I shake my head and frown.
Critter reaches over and rotates the notebook so she can have a look. I watch her eyes track the bumble-bee’s path from one thought to another, wondering what she makes of it. When she’s done, she turns the notebook back to me and looks me in the eye.
“You’re scared.” she states.
“Huh?” I say. “I’m not scared today. Just fogged-up” I lift an elbow and pinch the fabric near my armpit to test for moisture.
“See?” I report. “All dry.”
Critter shakes her head and looks at me kindly.
“Fear doesn’t always look like sweating and shaking and chattering your teeth,” she says. “When it goes underground, fear can look like anything.”
“Then how do you know it’s fear?” I ask.
“Because it shows up as a compelling reason to hold yourself back from what you want,” she answers.
I look across the room to the curtained window and consider this.
Is that what’s happening here? I wonder. Am I lost in this brainfog because I’m afraid to get working?
Then for no obvious reason, a memory from last summer materializes in front of me.
I am standing in line at an adult gymnastics gym, waiting for my turn to try an exercise. I’m in a class called Ninja Warrior (after a TV gameshow, I’m told, though I haven’t seen it). The workout is designed to prepare you for an obstacle course race like Tough Mudder.
I’m not a member at this gym, and I’m definitely not registered for Tough Mudder. As a struggling writer with two little ones at home, I don’t have the time, money, or focus right now to commit to Ninja Toughening.
What I am is an out-of-shape mom who snatched up a Groupon to sample this weird workout, because it reminds me of the fun I used to have before kids.
That’s why I’m standing in line a dozen-or-so people much fitter than me, with my face stretched taut in a smile I can’t control.
This is going to be fun! I squeak inwardly. Look at me having fun!
My classmates and I are arrayed in front of a long trampoline. Above it is a set of gigantic monkey bars. They are about ten feet or so above the bouncing surface, and the rungs are about four feet apart.
Our challenge is to start bouncing, and get enough height to reach a bar. Then, the coach demonstrates how we will take a few swings and fling ourselves through the air to catch the next rung.
I watch the others; some skip the exercise altogether, citing bad shoulders; some get partway there (able to bounce up to the first rung, but not catching the second). Some master the whole maneuver with the effortless grace of a circus-trained primate.
I watch those who make it through the stunt, and I want to do it, too.
But I’m scared. There is a film playing in the back of my head where I see myself miss the second rung and fall backwards. I whiplash my neck into the trampoline, or land with my neck horrifically bent, my head crushed beneath my own shoulder. It’s not a pretty scene. My stomach twists.
In front of my real eyes, my classmates are doing fine. No one else is falling backward. The coach is letting people who seem vertically or athletically challenged climb up onto a boxhorse to reach the first rung.
One after another, the students either shake their heads and step out of line, or climb onto the trampoline and take a crack at the outrageous move.
Everyone who tries either catches that next rung, or misses and lands on their feet. I see that no one is getting hurt. This could be doable.
That’s when I realize how BADLY I want to do this. The part of my mind that is not screaming, “Danger, Will Robinson!” is projecting what success will feel like. And it’s delicous.
I imagine myself nailing the stunt: I feel my legs swing, my hands release the first bar, and my belly swoop with a great tug of gravity.
Just as my flight begins to arc downward, I catch the next bar, and swing through smoothly. I can feel success sing in my shoulders, hips and spine… a delicious lengthening that opens physical space and unimagined possibilities between each vertebra.
I stand there in line, watching this imagined scene and feeling a grounding surge of awareness centred on in my belly button. I feel miraculously alive.
I want it. I want to grab that fucking bar. I want it so bad.
I rub my hands together, gathering heat. They are cold and damp. I look down at them and see a sparkle of salt crystals in the whorls and creases of my palm. I shake my head. The fearful vision returns of the back of my skull whip-cracking onto the trampoline. I close my eyes and push it away.
“This won’t do,” I mutter to myself, frowning. I wipe my soggy paws on my useless, non-absorbent lycra tights and scan the room for a bucket of chalk.
Success! There it is behind me, a 5-gallon pail pushed against the wall at the next station. I whisper my thanks to the gods of grip enhancement and dart out of line to partake of the protective mineral.
There is a whole brick of it sitting atop a mass of loose white powder. I grab the hunk between my hands and work it vigorously like a bar of soap.
It’s overkill. I open my palms to check the effect, and they look like doughnuts caked in powdered sugar. I rub them together to release the excess back into the bucket. It clumps like soggy sand.
Hope that dries before the next sucker reaches in, I think scrunching my face at their imagined disgust.
Then I look up to check the progress of the line, and see that I’ve missed my turn. My classmates are going for a second round on the ape bars.
“Shit!” I squeak, and bound over the thickly matted floor to rejoin the back of the lineup.
The line moves much more quickly this time, and before I know it, it’s my turn. The instructor looks at me and tilts his head.
“You’ve done this before?” he asks in Russian-tinted English.
I shake my head, my eyes big like baseball.
“You start on boxhorse,” he decides. I nod gratefully, and climb up onto it.
The nearest bar is right over my head. I can reach it without jumping.
“Grab bar and hang,” he says. “I move the boxhorse.”
So I reach up and hang, lifting my feet while the coach slides the boxhorse out from under me.
“Swing now,” the coach says. “You swing legs up, then fly to next bar.”
I swing. Back and forth, once, then twice. This part is easy – it feels like fifteen years of playing at the park, and junior high gymnastics, and all of the playful thrill I have ever enjoyed in my body.
My legs are kicking plenty high. I know I have enough momentum to fly to the second rung. I can feel the rest of the class watching me, their arms crossed, chests heaving, catching their breath and preparing for another round.
They’re waiting, I think. I’m ready. GO!
On my third swing, I kick my legs forward, feel them swing up, then snap them down and whip my upper body into the empty space. I rush weightlessly between what I know I can do, and what I hope, and fear, and crave in my guts.
I feel myself flying forward. I know I released at the right moment, and my trajectory is true. I can feel my position in the emptiness; my head is ahead of my spine, my arms are ahead of my head, and everything is going to be fine.
It’s not until I feel the mallet-blow on my left wrist that I realize my eyes are closed. I had no idea that I overshot, and instead of reaching the next rung with the meat of my palms, I crash into that steel bar with the veins and tendons at the base of my hand.
My left arm hits first. The impact reverberates like a gong strike, booming into my elbow and the back of my teeth. The hand curls into a useless claw.
My right arm is slightly behind, and that wrist doesn’t hit as hard. The hand is still usable, and it swipes reflexively to grasp the bar as I start to drop. But only the tips of my fingers catch. It’s just enough of a snag to pull me off-center, my left side plunging faster than my right.
I spread my limbs like a star in an effort to right myself, but as I am in midair, it doesn’t accomplish much. I crash onto the trampoline, not with the back of my head, but with the side of my left foot and curled left claw.
The rest of my body follows in a heap. The gym falls silent. I look up and see a dozen faces frozen in concern.
“I’m okay!” I croak, as I push up to my knees. Then I shuffle to the edge of the trampoline and climb down.
The room breathes a sigh of relief. My heart hammers in my ears. Everyone turns back toward the front of the line. I take my place at the back.
I’m going to do this! I think. I stand in the line and watch the others take their third turn. They are accumulating confidence. I clench and release my fists at my sides, then press my hand into my sternum to slow the galloping beast in my chest.
It’s my turn again. I look up at the coach, and he considers me a moment.
“Boxhorse?” he asks.
“Yes, please,” I answer.
The scene repeats.
I reach up and hang. My stomach drops. I glue my eyes to the bar ahead of me, and begin to swing.
One, two, three times I pump my legs. On the third, I snap them back and fling myself forward. I am flying through the air, waiting for the slap of steel in my palm…
And am surprised by another resonant whack across my tender wrist.
My right hand catches, and then slips. Just like before.
I look down and prepare to meet the trampoline as it rushes up at me. I get my left forearm and knee under me. My body follows in a plop onto the stretchy black fabric, with slightly more control than the first time.
No one stops breathing this time. My face glows red as I climb off the matted edge of the bouncer and shuffle humbly back into the lineup.
“You cannot see the bar?” the coach asks.
“I think I’m closing my eyes,” I mumble, looking at the floor. My face feels so hot I’m sure it’s purple.
The coach shrugs and leaps effortlessly onto the trampoline like someone whose natural habitat is made of mats and springs and bars.
“Now,” he says to the athletic fellow next in line. “We bounce to each bar. You jump, you catch. You drop, you bounce to next bar. Bounce-catch, bounce-catch. Yes?”
He demonstrates, and the class murmurs understanding. One by one, everyone takes a turn. About half of the students are able to jump high enough to reach the bars. I am among those whose fingers strain into empty air on every bounce.
After my first time through, I watch my classmates more closely. The ones who make it up to grasp those bars are mostly men, but there are two women who can do it.
So, it’s not just a guy thing, I tell myself.
I compare the body size of the people who hit the mark. The women are both several inches taller than me, but two of the men are near my size.
So, it’s not just a height thing, I conclude.
My second round goes much like my first. Bounce, streeee-tch… miss. I experiment, holding my gaze and arms up just a second longer before I look down and coil up for the next bounce. It doesn’t give me any more height.
But as I pass the apex of my jump and begin to fall with my head still tilted upwards, a sickening spasm jolts through my stomach. I feel my center start to fall backwards.
With a horrified jerk, I snap my arms and head forwards, and manage to throw my body out of the perilous backward lean. I land folded, squatting with my hands on my knees and my ass in the air. I waver awkwardly as I still the bounce of black cloth and squeaky springs.
“Hehehe… almost had it,” I mutter, smiling sheepishly to no one as I climb off the trampoline.
I am still chuckling nervously as I step into line for the last round.
The next person to approach the apparatus is a tallish guy in his late twenties. He looks like he hasn’t been inside a gymnasium since it was required for graduation credits. He presses his lips together as he bounds heavily through his failed attempt: bounce-miss, bounce-miss, bounce-miss.
The coach watches him, frowning. Then he addresses the class.
“It is not knees bending,” he explains. “Knees locked. The feet are springing.” Then he demonstrates.
The coach is barely taller than my 5’2”. And probably several pounds lighter than my overburdened frame. But this little man launches himself off the trampoline again and again, his rebounds peaking at eye-level with the bars. His legs are straight, toes pointed. Face relaxed. Like it was the easiest thing in the world.
If he can do it, so can I, I tell myself. It’s technique, not brawn. Just gotta make it click.
On my third turn, I climb onto the trampoline and glare at it’s woven surface with determination. I swing my arms and begin to bounce.
I look up at the first rung and count my bounces: one, two…
I prepare to explode on bounce number three. I lock my knees and push downward with every muscle in my body. I’m going to MAKE that trampoline launch me to my mark.
But all I produce with this fierce blast of effort is a jet of hot urine in my underwear.
Time slows. I feel my eyes bulge and my jaw drop in surprise. My explosive spring collapses into a stunned float, and I arrest my bounce midway down the trampoline. For a heartbeat, I am frozen.
When I start to breathe again, I turn to look at the coach. But he’s not there. He has already led the rest of the class over to the next station.
I slither off the trampoline and skulk quietly off the floor. I find the bathroom and lock myself inside without turning on the lights. I’m surprised my hot cheeks aren’t producing a pink glow.
When I finally flick the lights on, they hesitate with the unmotivated flicker of old flourescent tubes. I look in the mirror and see myself in flashes. I am breathing hard. I am bent over, my hands gripping the sides of the sink. My mouth is open, expressionless.
As the flickering light finally snaps decisively on, I look into my own eyes and start to grin.
“Ho-lee shit,” I whisper. “I just pissed myself!” My eyes get wider and wider, and I swear they look slightly misaligned. I am wracked by competing urges to laugh and cry.
“I look like a lunatic,” I cackle quietly. “Dear fuck, I feel like one!”
I hear a murmur of voices from outside, and realize I’m talking to myself with my outside voice. I press my lips together and breathe hard through my nose, eyes still locked on their own reflection. My heart begins to slow.
I watch my body change as the adrenaline begins to fade. My shoulders start to ease away from my ears. My hunched neck begins to straighten. My death-gripping hands release the sink.
I stand up straight and take a deep breath. I feel it fill my belly. My weight settles into my hips, through my knees, and onto my feet. I become aware of the floor beneath me. I breathe again.
I sit on the toilet and pull down my pants to assess the damage.
Yup, those are some wet undies, I think. But then a thought occurs to me. Did it leak through my tights?
A quick check is inconclusive; the anemic bathroom light and strong dye on the black lycra conspire to hide what I’m sure is a large splotch of shame.
Note to self, I chuckle inwardly. Add incontinence pads to the gym bag.
It occurs to me that there are probably a lot of moms who have added bladder-control products to their athletic routine. Childbirth isn’t kind, y’all.
Then I remember that serious athletes probably do a shitload of kegel exercises after they have their babies so they can run and jump again without wetting their pants.
Finally, I realize it’s been a long time since I was anything close to a serious athlete. I don’t have time to rebuild my pelvic floor muscles before my Groupon runs out. And I don’t want my wimpy bladder to keep me from embracing this sweet slice of fun.
I AM having fun, right? I silently ask my reflection.
I look carefully into the mirror; the crinkles around my eyes and leftover flush on my cheeks whisper, “Fuck yes!”
Alright, I say to the mirror. We’ll be back, then. But for now, it’s time to go home and grab clean pants.
But I don’t go home. Like a total lunatic, when I exit the bathroom, I hang a right and head back out onto the floor.
The rest of the class is a margarita mix of lime-bright fear and smooth tequila satisfaction. We take running leaps to catch a trapeze, and time our release to go sailing over a thigh-high crash mat and land on the other side. I’m not half-bad at that one. It gives me the delicious flying sensation I was craving on the monkey bars.
Then we use cupped palms, straight arms, and straight legs to run up a sticky pole. My feet slip on that one about seven feet off the ground. It makes me gasp and I nearly pee some more, but I don’t fall.
My least favourite exercise is running up the curved wall. I have trouble moving my feet fast enough, and take a tumble on my way down.
Through all of this, no one says a word about my grade-school “accident.” No one splashes water on the front of their pants in solidarity, either, a la Billy Madison.
I’ll never know if my classmates noticed my wet pants, or what they thought about them. And I’m good with that.
Finally, the workout is almost over. The coach leads us off the main gym floor and points up a wooden staircase.
“The stunt tower,” he said. “Now, we practice falls.”
My heart flutters.
This is what brought me to this gym. The ad for the Groupon featured a picture of a dude summersaulting off this two-storey tower onto the exact same red and white crash bag I see below.
My face stretches back into that cheek-straining grin I wore an hour ago, when I was contemplating the monkey bars.
This is it, I think. I get to fly!
One by one, my classmates make their choice: they either descend the stairs to sit out this last feat, duck below the platform to jump off the lower level, or proceed straight ahead to leap off the top platform.
“You jump legs forward, land on back, arms to sides,” the coach shouts up at us from beside the crash bag. “Body like a cross.”
Wha?!? I think. Won’t we hit our heads on the platform?
I had been expecting something else; if not the front-flip from the ad photo, then maybe a forward leap and roll to our backs.
“Or,” the coach adds; “You face backwards and just fall back.”
Fucking NOPE! I say in my head. I need to see what’s happening.
Legs-forward it is.
My fearful movie screen flickers on again, showing a vision of me leaping out… but not far enough. I begin to lay back in the air, and hear a meaty thwack as my occipital bone cracks against lumber. A shiver runs from the arches of my feet up to the back of my scalp.
“No fucking way,” I mutter to myself. “That is NOT going to happen.”
“Huh?” asks the guy behind me.
“Uh, nothing,” I mutter. My cheeks get hot.
“Next!” shouts the coach, and I realize it’s me.
I gasp a breath in and step forward to the edge of the platform. I’m at the top of the tower. I am very relieved to see they’ve built a short railing on the side. I grab it with my right hand and squeeze it a few times.
“When you are ready,” the coach says. His face is neutral. “Take big breath. Straighten body in the air. Spread your arms when you land.”
I look down. The surface of the crash bag is shimmery… I briefly wonder if it’s made of silk, or nylon. And then suddenly, I jump.
I push hard. I hear wind in my ears as I lean back and tense my whole body as I wait to strike the bag. There isn’t even time for a full heartbeat.
Thwap! My stretched form punches into the bag. My butt has landed ahead of my shoulders, and the uneven momentum whips my head into the bag. It rings a little in my ears, but I’m fine.
I blink and stare at the ceiling while I catch my breath.
Holy fuck! I think. I did it! I FLEW!
“You’re alright?” the coach asks. I roll over, rise onto all fours, and turn to him with a thumbs up and a gigantic grin.
The coach nods.
“Stretch arms more,” he says. “Land evenly.”
“Got it,” I say, and slide off the edge of the enormous air pillow to take two more turns to sail off the tower before it’s officially time to go home.
Back in my bedroom, with my computer on my lap and Critter at my side, the gym scene fades in my mind. My cheeks are warm from remembered excitement.
Critter is sitting beside me, gaping at me. She has followed along with my thoughts.
“Wow,” she says. “You seriously peed yourself at the gym?”
I smile sheepishly and nod.
“That’s impressive,” she says.
“It was worth it,” I say.
Critter nods and grins.
“Honestly,” I admit, “I can’t figure out why that memory is sticking to me right now.”
Critter eyes me with her head slanted.
“I think you want to make a point to yourself about being scared,” she says.
“Like what?” I snigger. “If your bladder is weak then you gotta wear Depends?”
“You already learned that one,” she says, winking. “What have you not figured out yet?”
I breathe deeply and think about it.
“I guess what I remember most about that class was how scared I was, but how that uncontrollable craving to feel weightless kept me going,” I say.
Critter nods and strokes her chin.
“I think that day at the gym taught you the secret to conquering fear,” Critter says. “It’s desire.”
I consider this.
“It’s not the inherent danger of the stunt that makes you freeze,” Critter continues. “You just forgot why you climbed onto the trapeze. Stop and listen; if your whole body says you want this, get out there and do your Ringling thing. There’s a net, you’ll be fine.”
I raise my eyebrows.
“That’s weirdly apt,” I say. “As usual, you freaky little genius.”
Critter grins and I scratch the top of her head.
“You humans are unique in the way you cling to your fears,” she says lazily. “You really suck at predicting the future, but keep stubbornly trying.”
I nod and keep scratching her scruffy scalp.
“Amen, sister,” I mutter.
I smile as Critter’s eyes start to close, lulled by the comfort of my touch.
Then she cracks one eye open at me.
“So, you going to climb back on that boxhorse?” she asks. “Get back at your writing?”
I take a deep breath and close my eyes. I search inwardly for the desire to do these pieces.
“For the letter to my daughter’s school,” I say, “the desire comes from a problem that needs to be addressed. It’s going to be uncomfortable to bring it up, but there’s a chance it will make things better for everyone involved. I have no idea what kind of response I will get, but I’ve got to speak up.
For the blog post, the desire comes from my need be useful – to produce something for my readers that rewards them for sticking around.
For the short story – whew, that’s the one with the biggest fog of fear wrapped around it. But in the cold spaghetti of my guts, I can still make out the desire: I want to take a crack at telling another kind of story that is rattling its chains in my head.”
Critter raises an eyebrow.
“You’ve become my comfort zone,” I admit to my imaginary friend. “I am dying to step outside this situation where you always save the day and see what happens when I go wandering through my ideas on my own,”
“You can handle it,” she grins. “But you’d better come back and tell me all about it,”
“Promise,” I reply.
“There you go,” she says. “You found your reason for doing these terrifying things. Now, it doesn’t matter how scary or hard it gets. Just remember: your need is your north star. Keep it in view, and it will guide you home.”
I smile at Critter. She steps away from my stroke, then leans down and pats my hand.
“Just keep showing up on the trapeze platform,” she says. “With your pants as wet as necessary.”
Critter chuckles. Then, she gives me a smile that warms me head-to-toe and leaps off my bed to leave me to my tappety-tappings.
Both of us wish you a lifetime of “Holy fuck I just flew,” and “I peed myself and don’t even care,” kind of moments.