Jumping Off Mountains
Cheryl Strayed – author of Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things – recalls the moment her children taught her the life lessons she first taught them.
(This is an edited transcript of a story told at ‘One last question: are words more important than actions?‘, as part of The Interrobang.)
When I contemplated the question of the relationship between words and actions, I thought about a recent experience I had with my kids. For the last two summers, I’ve gone to the little town of Chamonix, France. I teach a writing workshop there every summer, and it’s one of those little villages in the Alps with just a few city streets – and all around you are these beautiful, high snowy peaks. The first summer we went there, my kids were eight and nine. Chamonix in the winter is a skier’s paradise, but in the summer that are basically two things to do: hike, or go to the top of the mountain and jump off with nothing but a kite on your back.
You can guess which of these my children wanted to do. They immediately saw that the sky was full of these parasailers – they’re called parapentes in French – and they said, ‘We’re gonna do that!’ … and my husband and I said, ‘There’s absolutely no way that you’re doing this’. They’re eight and nine years old – they cannot go to the top of a mountain and jump off it! It’s just an unreasonable thing.
They kept this relentless campaign up the entire time we were there, for about three weeks. Every day they would say, ‘We need to do this, we need to this’, and every day my husband and I would say, ‘You absolutely cannot do this. You can do this when you’re eighteen; our job is to protect you’. They stayed with it. They were really so determined that they were going to do this thing. And my husband and I also stayed with it; we were determined that they wouldn’t. Finally, when my authority gave way, I realised the way out of this would be to tell them that even if I did say yes, that they wouldn’t be allowed to go, because of course the French would have a rule about children jumping off of mountains. There was a guy in the village hawking these parapente trips and I said to my son, ‘You’re too young to go, go ask him how old you have to be before you can jump off of a mountain’. I was sure that they would say a reasonable age, but of course, no. My kids walk up to the guy and they say, ‘How old you have to be to jump off a mountain?’ and he says, ‘Eight’. Which is, let’s face it, fucking insane. It has to be at least thirteen, right? But no.
So my husband and I searched our souls. I was teaching a class; I even took it to my students. I said, ‘A show of hands: if you were in my situation would you let your kid jump off the mountain?’ Nobody raised their hand. I had these images of one or both of my children dying, and me being on the front page of the New York Times as this terrible mother, so I said to my kids, ‘You just can’t’.
When I was still trying my campaign to convince my son, I said, ‘Listen, the thing is, even if I said “yes”, I just want you to know what this really means. It’s one thing to decide that you wanna jump off a mountain, but then you actually have to jump off the mountain. What this means is that you go to the top and the deal is that you are strapped to a Frenchman’ – which, let’s face it, doesn’t sound all bad – ‘but you’re in the front and your job as the person who’s paid for this ride is to run off the side of the mountain and leap into nothing but air and there you are, with just a Frenchman and a kite.’ And I explained this to my kids and I said, ‘So, even if we did say yes, you would at the last minute, back out. You wouldn’t have the nerve to do this. You would be afraid.’
Then my son looked at me and it was one of those moments – he was only nine, but when your kids are around that age, they start to transition from that place of being essentially your baby to being the humans that they really are inside, and they start to become the people that they’re going to be – and my son looked at me with such gravity and seriousness and he said, ‘Mom, I am afraid. If I’m going to be honest with you, I’m actually really afraid to do this. But I don’t want to be a person who doesn’t do things just because they scare me.’
‘I just want you to know what this really means. It’s one thing to decide that you wanna jump off a mountain, but then you actually have to jump off the mountain.’
And when he said that to me, I knew I was screwed. I knew that I had to let my kids do this. And I also knew that he was teaching me what I all of his life had taught him and his sister as well. I have always told my kids there are things that are going to dictate your decision and the course of your lives, but fear must not be one of them. This is something that has been a value that I have passed on in language and action all of their lives, and finally I was confronted with this thing that I had given to them, in these words that I’d given them. Essentially this story that I want my kids to tell themselves is exactly what my son said to me: ‘I am afraid, but I don’t want to be a person who is ruled by fear’.
So we paid the money, and we sent our children up a mountain with strange Frenchmen. We could not even go to the top with them because it’s so far the fuck up there that you can’t get down quickly enough to see your child dying in time. We are then made to walk through the town and stand in a grassy field … and wait. And we had to wait a long time – a half hour or forty-five minutes – looking at this blue sky and these snowy peaks. The peaks are so high that when our children jump off the mountain, you can’t see them jump. It’s some far place.
We could not even go to the top with them because it’s so far the fuck up there that you can’t get down quickly enough to see your child dying in time.
Then, after about twenty minutes there’s this little speck in the sky, and you think it might be the child who came out of your vagina! And they get closer, and they get closer, and pretty soon these two people were coming from the sky and they were calling down to us, ‘Mom! Dad!’ And they landed in this field, and they weren’t dead, and they both had this amazing … not just a look on their faces, but an entire new presence. And it was a presence that I recognised, and that I’m going to guess that all of you would recognise – and that is that feeling that you have that you can absolutely only get one way, and that is when you have done something that was hard and scary to do and you did it anyway.
To me, that way that they were in that field, and that thing that I recognised in them, is essentially the confluence of words and action. And in so many ways I thought of that story when I was reflecting on this question of whether words are more important than actions, which I want to say I reject. I don’t think that we can place these things in a dichotomy. They are not in opposition. Curiosity and surprise can sit not just side by side, but live together. We’re failing ourselves if we actually think that these two things can be separated. This is something that has come up for me so much also in my work as Dear Sugar; I’m essentially a professional receiver of questions in my role as an advice columnist. For so many people, essentially what’s wrong with them – and what leads to the writing of that letter of agony, that latter of sorrow, or that letter of secrecy or denial or fear or suffering – is all about the story that they’ve told themselves. The reason that that they’ve laid out to me in their letter that they are to blame for the miscarriage they had, or the reason they’ve laid out for themselves that they can’t write that first book that they feel burning inside of them, or the reason that they cannot risk loving someone because they fear heartbreak… all of those questions are presented to me, and for each one, the truest answer is that truth that I’ve found in my own life: that the only way we can change, and the one action that actually changes our lives, is to tell ourselves a different story.
Can I stop drinking? Can I leave somebody that makes me feel like I can’t live without them? The answers to those questions are, ‘Yes’, but they demand really big things from us on the level of language, and on the level of the inner voice that we all hear. I think that those two things, with one leading to the next, is essentially what we’re talking about when we talk about action. These are not two things that we carry separately, but together.
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