By Meika Rouda
I don’t usually like to celebrate my birthday. I don’t know why it is such a big deal, it is just another day. And since I eat cake more often than I should and shop diligently online late at night when no one is watching, I don’t need extra calories or presents.
But this year, as I inch closer to my mid-forties, to mid-life, the top of the proverbial slide, I decided to be proactive and do something that would challenge me, empower me, make me feel a tiny bit transformed. What I wanted to feel is that I know myself well enough to trust myself.
So I am taking my girlfriends on a trapeze adventure.
As a kid I loved roller coasters and jumping off high dives at the swimming pool. But when I was thirty, I had a vertigo attack that still leaves my mouth dry and my heart racing. My husband and I were visiting Coba, one of the highest pyramids in Mexico. I scurried up the 130 tiny mayan steps like a bavarian mountain goat. And when I reached the top I turned around and looked out at the vista, the tree tops feeling miles below, swaying like a fluffy green mattress to jump on. The horizon line no where in sight. I felt like I was on a cloud, ready to fall through its misty net any moment. And like a strong aversion to a food one is allergic to, I became dizzy, nauseous and had to leave immediately. I crawled inside of the pyramid and squatted down, breathing heavily. My husband called out to me from the outer edge of the pyramid,”Come check this out.”
I looked over at him, his foot on the ledge of the pyramid, not worried at all about falling off, totally in control of his being. He was waving over to me but I was frozen.
“I can’t” I yelled at him. He was smiling at me and waving his arms but I stayed still.
“What’s wrong?” he yelled at me.
“I can’t move!”
He stared at me incredulously and then came over.
“Why can’t you move?”
” I don’t know, I am really dizzy. I feel like I am going to fall over, like I don’t know which way is up.” He started to laugh
“Really?” he said. Not believing me. This is not typical of me, I have a lot of fortitude. I can crawl in small spaces, don’t mind crowds and have an amazing ability to not panic even in situations that warrant them.
Once he saw the primal fear in my eyes, he took my arm and helped me crawl on my hands and knees to the tiny steep staircase that would bring me back to my senses, ground me. I took a deep breath and took one step at a time. At first sitting on each stair and moving down facing out, looking at the tops of the trees, the fluffy mattress. And then when that was too much to bear, I turned around and descended backwards, remaining on my hands and knees, crawling. My husband went in front of me, coaching me down, telling me what a great job I was doing. I stayed as far to one side of the staircase as I could so the other tourists could pass me, trotting down the staircase like they were on an elliptical machine at the gym, skipping stairs and chatting as they walked, like they didn’t notice they were a hundred feet in the air. What took me less than fifteen minutes to go up, took me over an hour to get down. I had to take breaks and breathe deeply, close my eyes and try to gain my balance. It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life and one I will never forget.
I had hoped that this was an isolated incident but I had other bouts with vertigo. Once in Hong Kong at the top of the Peak Tram, four thousand feet above sea level. And last summer on a vacation to Santa Monica where I took my kids on the ferris wheel at the Santa Monica pier and had to sit down in the passenger car when we reached the top, soaring high above the ocean, with miles of sky and water below us. My kids were standing up, non plussed, looking around as our car swayed like a feather, rocking back and forth as I waited helplessly inside hundreds of feet above the ocean. I looked at them peering over the edge at the water below and worried they would fall out and realized I might not be able to grab them because I was temporarily paralyzed. And I didn’t want them to know how fearful I felt. So I took deep breathes and sat down on the bottom of the car counting to keep me calm. 1,2,3,4,5,6 and on and on to 100, just to have something to focus on. And at the same time, trying to keep smiling for their benefit, “mommy is fine, I just like to sit on the floor of ferris wheels cars!” I think they believed me. I was very relieved when the ferris wheel started back up and we returned to the bottom, into the safe chaos of the pier. We went to the arcade instead of taking another ride.
When I heard about trapeze school in Sonoma about an hour from my house I thought, hum, this might be the ticket. Not only can I stare my fear in the eyes, I can also walk away a stronger person. And I need the strength. I have lofty ambitions this year, to finish a book and a short film and I don’t have a great record of finishing things. Starting things yes but finishing, not so much. So this voyage represents my own dive into a more creative life where I embark on finishing the projects I have been working on for so long it is embarrassing. Where I used to once chat about my book endlessly, I now no longer mention it, it is just there, stuck in limbo waiting to be completed. And my film has been trudging along so slowly, I sometimes forget I am even “working” on it. So if I can just do this flight, take this risk and succeed it can be the literal metaphor for my personal flight. I will earn my wings and hopefully soar.
Photo Credit: Laura Bittner