When I was a kid, there were these unconquerable monkey bars on the playground. They loomed large, sunlight glinting off smooth silver metal, a backdrop of playground equipment stretched wide across the schoolyard behind.
At recess each day, I watched friend after friend swing across them, tongues out, legs swaying, arms pumping with muscle and skill. I most often stood off to the side, watching with feigned disinterest and concealed awe. Then I’d dash off for a game of tag, or another turn on the burning hot metal slide. I had tons of fun on that playground, but I really wanted to cross those monkey bars.
This was the 80s, so they were just your plain metal monkey bars, nothing connected to a play structure, not colorful, safe, hard plastic, no metal clad in rubber to protect against blisters. The ground of course, was dirt, not mulch, and certainly not the soft spongy rubber ground of playgrounds today. Each end had a ladder of maybe five or six rungs, and probably ten or fifteen across. Crossing those bars felt as impossible as swimming across an ocean.
Sometimes I’d climb up, lean out and grab the first rung and pretend to be a princess in a tower or a pirate on the bow of a ship. Sometimes I’d actually go out on the first rung (the nerve it took!) and then jump down, landing on my feet, knees bent, before running away in a game of chase, as if I’d planned it that way all along. Testing myself always proved that I couldn’t do it. I was weak, with no upper body strength and way too much fear to keep me from even trying. I shouldn’t even bother, I mostly thought. But still, those monkey bars nagged at me, like a dog with a bone.
One day, finally, I decided: this time I would do it. It was after school, not as crowded as during recess, though there were kids around. I dropped my book bag in the dirt under one the shade trees and made my way to the bars. I got to the top of the ladder, took a big breath, and threw myself with the gusto of Mary Lou Retton onto the first bar (It was the 80s, she was an amazing gymnast, and she was strong. I would channel Mary Lou.)
And then I was doing it! I was swinging. I went from bar to bar, arms aching like fire was coursing through my muscles, breath coming ragged and hard. No one was around to film or video me – this was the 80s, after all – but I bet I had a look of concentration and at least a halfway smile. I. Was. Doing. It.
And then I fell.
Make no mistake, it wasn’t the normal jump off the bars because I was scared or because I was weak, where I’d land on my feet and run away. This was the fall from a real, serious attempt, from total concentration and swinging motion. I landed on my butt, my tailbone striking the packed dirt with a thud that I felt all the way in my throat and teeth.
I didn’t move, and I was unable to take a breath. Cue panic! A friend ran over to help me up, but I waved her off, motioning to my mouth and chest. I couldn’t breathe! I could not take a breath! Was I going to die? But in only a few seconds, my breaths were even again, and I was back on my feet, and running around with my friend.
I hadn’t made it all the way across, but I’d gotten way further than I’d ever before tried. The moment of falling had been terrifying and disheartening, but once the panic of not breathing ebbed, the strength I had managed filled me with a sort of pride I didn’t dare say out loud. I mean, I’d done more than I ever had, maybe even more than I believed I could, but I still hadn’t made it. What kind of person is proud to make it halfway? The pride mingled with a sort of self-defeating feeling that I didn’t quite understand. I didn’t try the monkey bars again that day.
But the wind has been knocked out of me several times since then. That’s the way of life, right? When something bad happens, it momentarily stops us from breathing, it stops our world from turning. It knocks the breath out of us, and makes us so terrified in the moment, that we don’t think we will make it to the next.
It happens in moments of grief and despair when emotions and pain are so overwhelming we aren’t sure we will recover or survive.
When my son first had seizures, every single one would stop me in that moment, that second by second anguish of feeling like I couldn’t breathe, of we will not get up from this. But we did. When he got his second diagnosis, and his third, when his learning troubles skyrocketed . . . I couldn’t breathe through any of it. Survival was a minute by minute thing. But I got up. I took the next breath. What else do you do?
Parenting, especially, is such an unknown. Every day it’s swinging out and hoping you make the right choices. You grasp for the next rung without even seeing, sometimes, where it is. As my kids get older, I cringe to realize that many days now, it’s watching them take the risk, and hoping they don’t fall.
Sometimes they do, just like me. Just like all of us. So I help them up, and urge them, even with sometimes silent reluctance, to try again. I cheer when they make it, I encourage when they don’t.
I have to remind myself to do the same for me.
Writing is always like this. It’s the exhilaration of swinging, the thought of I’m actually doing this that keeps me starting and swinging and, yeah, sometimes falling.
In work, in parenting, in life, in writing and publishing, it’s all those monkey bars. It’s looking from afar at first, it’s sizing up the next attempt. It’s measuring, it’s planning, it’s wondering if I can. But then eventually, it’s climbing the ladder, and going out on that first rung, and using every ounce of strength I have to try to get across. Sometimes I make it. Many times I don’t.
I fall a lot. A whole lot. But I’ve learned how to land and I’ve learn that getting the wind knocked out of me isn’t the worst thing, even when it's the really, really hard thing, the impossible thing. I’ve learned that I will get up again, that of course I will survive, even when it hurts. Even when the hurt is really bad. So I keep climbing, I keep swinging, and I celebrate the times I make it across and I learn from the times I don’t.