Last week, at the Stronghold Camp and Retreat Center, the Central Midwest Chapter of Unitarian Universalist Ministers’ held our retreat. We had shared meals, worship, workshops and lots of unstructured connecting time in the gorgeously autumnal woods in a spot above the Rock River. Some of us signed up to do a high ropes course. (I was one of the some. And I signed up because it sounded scary.) At the appointed time, we gathered, walked down to the course with our guides and received our safety gear and instructions. And then, it was time to climb. The first part was a circular rope ladder about 30 feet high. And when I say circular, I mean that you got inside the ladder and climbed up; there were footholds all the way around.
Now, maybe you’re thinking, “oh, a rope ladder, no big deal” and for some, it was no big deal. I was NOT one of those some. The ladder moved (as it was made of rope) and although some were holding it at the bottom, it was not always steady. And it was a looong way up. Honestly, I knew there were going to be some challenges on this course, but I didn’t know how hard the ascent was going to be for me. The footholds seemed farther and farther apart as I went higher. And after a while, I thought to myself, “I am not going to make it up.” I contemplated what it would mean to go back down the ladder without reaching the top, and if that was an acceptable option. I decided it was. I really didn’t think I could get there. Still, the top was closer to the bottom. And I kept going. And then, somehow, there I was at the top.
These past few weeks have been a stretch of time when people have said to me, not infrequently, that the things happening in our world feel too hard to take in. I have, on occasion, felt the same way. There have been mornings where I’ve played my favorite brain games, switched over to check the headlines, and almost feel as if I need to put my head between my knees to steady myself. Sometimes the things that feel too hard to take in can seem far away and we can, momentarily, shut them out. But often the hard things are part of our every day lives, sometimes encountered, sometimes within our own hearts. It’s just the way life is, and the heaviness of it all ebbs and flows.
When I was 2/3rds or so up that endless rope ladder, there was part of me that knew I would have to figure out how to make my own way. And. There were friends below me, and friends above me. I was not alone. I was attached to a rope that would have caught me if I had fallen. Help or encouragement was at the ready if I only asked. In those moments, just knowing that was enough for me. And I have certainly had other moments when I did need help. Sometimes we need a little cheering on, sometimes we need advice, sometimes we just need company, sometimes we need more. It’s all okay.
These past few weeks, it seems like the world has been particularly vivid in its beauty. The sunrises are timed right now to occur while I’m on my morning walks. The trees are bursting with color. And I can’t help but think that sometimes nature shows off the most when we need it most. Or maybe that’s just the way our hearts and minds work. Up at the top of that high ropes platform, we were above the trees, so we could see an entire landscape of bright colors. It was a little exhilarating (or nerve-wracking) to be up so high in the sky amongst the occasional raindrops after the harrowing climb, and it was lovely.
There were other elements one could try up high that looked like walking tightropes or traversing swings. Some of us tried some of those. And some of us knew that just climbing up (and getting down) was enough to ask of ourselves. (I was in the latter some.) It took me a while to recover from the climb up and conquer my anxiety for the journey down. In the meantime, I cheered on others and soaked in the views and breathed deeply. Which maybe is a good way to think about navigating life these days—taking risks, knowing own own limits, helping one another, and tending to our spirits.
The last part of this adventure was a zipline, which required you to jump off the platform and sail through the trees down a 450 foot stretch. Somehow, someway, it was my turn and I let go, right off into the air. All I can say is this: it was spectacular. Spectacular. Who knew? What a gift.
I will not soon forget any of this experience: the incredibly difficult climb, the determination needed, the reassurance of the people around me, the differing paths of each of the participants, and glorious joy of the descent. Life brings us so many challenges and so many gifts; may we find what we need for each part of the journey.