“Take a personal jubilee year… we are who we create ourselves to be. You are free to tell new stories about yourself, forced to be the you you wish to be.”
From Writing – The Sacred Art
It was probably a Sunday when, for the first and last time, I climbed a tree: A distressing episode that rolled out when I was 10 or so. It may have taken place in a state park in California, or was it Oregon, a campsite in any case. We visited so many places of natural wonder in those mid-century years: weekend excursions, weeks-long cross-country pilgrimages. Sundays for my father and brothers were most especially not a time to be indoors, let alone inside a sanctuary. They were times to get out and go, with increasing primitiveness: minimal equipment, exclusive of conveniences.
Mostly these outdoor adventures were tame enough. I collected rocks and shells and imagined myself Sacajawea, the Lewis and Clark expedition guide. Or I read Archie and Veronica comic books in the backseat of a stifling station wagon. But this was different. I was pushed way past my physical comfort zone into a realm of fright and humiliation.
My brothers, at least two of them, were there and somewhere nearby my parents, my father for sure. They were all witnesses — it turns out neutral to actively unhelpful ones — to what seemed at the time to be an eternity of embarrassment, partially of their creation. I was a pretty good little tent pitcher — those heavy canvas ones with stakes — campfire starter and tender, hiker, bike rider, and a decent swimmer (basic crawl and side stroke). In fact I learned to ride a 26-incher and cross a standard indoor pool before the boys. But tree climbing was a way wild card.
Going up a tree, some kind of deciduous Western species, was not something I had ever wanted to take on. My relationship with woods was just that, a plural one, the stands of Eastern Mid Atlantic pines and maples, and on the other coast redwoods and live oak. These woods, these forests were a context for a mostly interior life: places to be alone, away from a cramped, noisy, nosy, contentious family system. They were environments in which I could sing Broadway tunes to myself, scribble poems, amble — but never too far. The individual trees were not a source of particular interest and certainly not a recreational challenge.
What I remember still is this: Getting at least half way up to a thick enough branch and then being afraid, no terrified, to go back down. My brothers, instead of encouraging me or offering verbal instructions or physical support, taunted me, calling me sissy, “froggy” (the most hateful name my twin had invented for what he viewed as my big thighs and croaking voice, especially when pushed). My father at the very least did not tell them to stop their shelling, let alone to help me.
From what I can remember more than 50 years later is that my dad must have finally (how long this went on I will never know, probably much less time than it felt like) gone over and either brought me down himself or talked me down. What stayed with me was shame at such a public exposure of my clumsiness or cowardice or both. A lingering humiliation, but not a total defeat of my spirit.
The wiser older rebbe-crone in me sees that the lesson, the take away was/is not that I could have climbed back down on my own if only I had more confidence and less reactivity to my brothers’ customary cruelty, but that I survived this indignity and didn’t ever go back up a tree when I did not want to. I let go of mastering that which I had no desire to master, have chosen (mostly) my own tests and trials, and let this shaming and so many other childhood shamings fade away, at least to the point where I am not so chronically mortified that I can not function in so many other ways.