Dither Me This is a publication that presents current, old, spontaneous, or nonsensical musings for the reader to use as a writing prompt, discuss with a friend, lover, or to read and move on. Authors may present questions, creative processes, or thoughtful means to end the week; and while you may still be left staring at the walls, it is not without a new thought mulling the paint into iterative transformation. Thus we send waves into the electronic ether and see what is returned – extending a baton to the world, only a little afraid to let go.
6 – Risk
by Bernadette Murphy
I step hesitantly across the catwalk, trying not to glance down into the ice-coated gorge. My steps are wobbly, partly because of the mountaineering boots, but more so, terror. I’m offered a rope as we descend a narrow iron ladder to secure it to my climbing harness in case I become apprehensive about falling deep into this yawning cavern. Sweat drenches my woolen undershirt. The inch-long barbed crampons make balancing on the ladder rungs precarious. I hold with knotted fingers, avoid glancing at the jagged rock and ice below. I clomp and grapple and clench my way down.
I’m in Southwest Colorado at the fabled Ouray Ice Park, taking a novice all-women’s ice climbing clinic taught by a group called, “Chicks with Picks.” As someone who is terrified of heights, this may seem a foolhardy choice.
But it’s not. The truth is, I’m a ‘chick’ all right, but more of the ‘chicken’ variety. Heights, loud noises, crowds, traffic, and earthquakes make me woozy. I fret about aging, career impasses, my young adult children, global warming, my 401K, and the possibility of dementia. What makes me clammy with terror is never-ending — and ever growing.
For most of my life, fear has ruled me, multiplying like germs in a petri dish. What will happen if I lose my job? How will I manage as a single woman if my 25-year marriage ends? I know I have to fight back. So I try to cajole myself into taking contrary action.
We should avoid risk as we age, I was told. After all, in our 40’s it takes longer to heal a damaged knee learning to snowboard than in our 20’s. Pursuing a new academic direction later in life, in order to change careers or for the simple joy of learning, squanders time and resources. If we’re too ambitious with investments in our 50’s, we might not be able to recoup the loss before retirement. And those who leave long-term marriages in the hopes of living a more authentic experience are simply crazy – there’s too much to lose.
I believed all these directives until a few years ago when I found myself at a crossroads. My last remaining parent was dying, my kids were leaving home, and that long-term marriage was ending. When I looked into the mirror, I no longer saw the young woman I’d once been. Though she wasn’t exactly fearless, she had been full of optimism and courage in the face of the unknown – qualities I had lost.
I wanted her back but I didn’t know how.
Then, on a fluke, I took a motorcycle safety class as research for a book I was writing and surprised myself with the intensity of feeling that rose. Sitting astride that brawny machine brought into question everything I thought I knew about who I was and the options I faced. I was shocked and then awed to face down uncertainty on an iron beast that outweighed me four to one.
Two months later, the day after my father died, I went to my local Harley dealer and bought a matte black motorcycle; and thus began the process of demolishing that ‘safe and predictable’ life through a series of choices that made most scratch their heads. I left marriage, learned to rock climb and ski, rode my motorcycle across the country and back, moved to French Polynesia, took up SCUBA diving, and began to date – all in progressing middle age. I had a big, messy midlife crisis, visible to all around me and loud, too, thanks to motorcycle pipes. I became the cautionary tale of suburbia.
But I felt more alive than I had in years.
Friends were quick to caution me about all the ways risk can hurt and nullify what I’ve worked so hard to gain. But no one told me about the slow death that ensues if you don’t put your genuine, tender-at-the-bone self on the line. Our society propagates that risk is by definition something unwanted, to be eradicated whenever possible, especially in midlife. But that’s the exact time we need it most, when all our demographic markers have been set in place – mother, wife, professor, homeowner – when we think we can no longer surprise ourselves, when we believe we know how the story ends.
As a result of my risk taking, my libido sparked. I encouraged the phenomena of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis within my own brain, and my self-confidence skyrocketed. By deliberately engaging new situations, even as simple as taking a bicycle instead of my car to work, trying a new place to eat, or changing up my fitness regime, my happiness improved and I bolstered mental and physical health. Statistics may say that women are less likely to engage risk than their male counterparts, but I believe we benefit more from taking a chance.
I am slowly turning my emotional state away from what scares me towards what makes me feel most alive. That’s not to say that fear retracts its claws and leaves me in peace; I still have to wrestle it, but in doing so, I rediscover my eagerness, perseverance, and even a little taste of audacity.
Standing now, at the bottom of this ice-choked chasm, I realize I haven’t even begun the ostensibly scary part of today’s plan: reaching high to swing ice axe and kicking the front points of my crampons to climb. But the fact I made it this far makes me ecstatic. I took on an activity that, instead of panic, now feels euphoric. And the next time life hands me difficulties that feel insurmountable, I’ll remind myself how I once triumphed when asked to descend a frozen canyon.
And later today, after I survive the ice climbing challenge and self-inflicted wound above my right eye from where I will bash myself with the ice pick, I will peel off my helmet and sunglasses. I’ll look into the mirror. And there I will find my true self, the self I thought I lost, looking rough with a stain of blood and bruising along the eyebrow. There she is, stronger than she ever thought she could be, grinning.
Bernadette Murphy is the author of, Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life (Counterpoint Press, hardback May 2016, paperback May 2017). She has published three previous books of narrative nonfiction including the bestselling Zen and the Art of Knitting, is an Associate Professor in the Creative Writing Department of Antioch University Los Angeles, and a former weekly book critic for the Los Angeles Times. Her website is Bernadette-Murphy.com.
Related: Book Review – Harley and Me