I remember practicing penny drops and dead man's drops on the bars at Harris Elementary School in the early '80s. Before mastering either, you started with the help of a friend. They would hold your hands and do the dramatic swing chant, "One, two, three..." and for the first couple of tries, you couldn't do it. "No, wait." Eventually though, you took the turn that finally gave you the freedom to penny drop alone.
I loved the sensation of swinging my body back and forth until I felt that perfect balance of speed and height. I would flip my legs, launching myself out away from the bar, and then quickly turn and plant my feet on the ground. Maybe I'd throw my arms up à la Nadia Comaneci accepting the crowd's roar at her perfect 10. There was always a rush to circle back and get in line to be back up there on the bar.
One Saturday I was by myself -- my best friend and I were on the outs. I'd walked to the school alone and was doing drop after drop, chasing breathless oblivion. I was perched on top of the bar when I took a deep breath and launched myself backward for a dead man's drop. I swung until I was perfectly perpendicular to the bar and then let my legs go. Something went wrong, I over-shot and instead of planting on my feet, I landed flat on my back.
I couldn't breathe and I hurt everywhere -- my head, my back, my tailbone, everything raged and tears sprang at the corners of my eyes. I berated myself for being so stupid. I made certain that I was alone and then allowed myself to stay there for a while. The monkey bars and a few ladders that connected to the structure cast shadows over my body. I stared up at the sky, watching the clouds float slowly by. The pieces of wood chips beneath me were cutting into my back. My chest was on fire as I tried to draw a breath.
It took raising my arms to get the air back into my lungs and it was a combination of disappointment and fury at myself that catapulted me back to standing. My pride stung every bit as much as my body. I'd like to say that I got back up on the bar, but I didn't. I doubted myself and wondered what ever possessed me to entertain such a risk. I'd been perfectly happy playing 500 with the boys at recess.
I walked home from the playground, across a concrete pedestrian bridge that spanned 30th Avenue, a four-lane road that went much too fast for a crosswalk. Normally, after climbing the 40-odd stairs I would dart the span, hopping over the cars that moved beneath. Something about the fall had dampened my spirit, like a dog with no tail to wag. I moped for a solid three blocks. I let my defeat steal the ability to see the blossoms on the crabapple trees, or smell the wild mint growing under the split rail fence and I did not to wave to the neighborhood kids.
I didn't go back to the playground on Sunday and I did not climb up on the bars on Monday or on Tuesday. On Wednesday I made my way over, but arranged myself so that it never quite got to be my turn. On Thursday when I did clamber up, my heart nearly leapt from my body, my legs were shaking and my palms were sweaty, but somehow, I managed to swing myself four or five times and then finally let go. The exhilaration wasn't the same, as I never truly shook free from the knowledge that I could fall.
Recently, I've found myself looking up at the sky, the wind fully knocked from my lungs and my heart especially tender. For a while I felt anger, just like I did so many years ago. I chided myself for trusting, swore at myself for doing something so risky, but then I thought about reaching. I thought back to the calluses I formed on my palms and the awful shrieking sound of rashes forming as the backs of my bare knees caught on the bar. I used to run my fingers over those calluses, contorting my torso so that I could see the streaks of purple and red on the backs of my legs. They were all badges of courage.
The thing about life, whether it's a professional endeavor or a personal leap of faith, is that you risk things. Sometimes it's your heart, sometimes it's your pride. When a moment comes that knocks the wind out of you, no matter how badly it hurts, you have to get back up. You have to find a way to believe again. How we respond, whether it's a willingness to take comfort in the arms of friends or the tenacity to just keep going or, even riskier, the willingness to believe again, we can't stay down.
For several years, The Bloggess has been advocating for people to stop taking depression lightly. News headlines were recently crowded with the news that Mindy McCready took her own life. Several weeks before her, it was Aaron Swartz of Reddit. I'll likely be licking my wounds for a while, but I hope that if you or someone you know is going through something that might seem at some moment to be too much, that you'll seek help or reach out to them. We are all challenged every day, there is nothing but good that can come from being by someone's side or having someone by yours.
It doesn't matter how big or how small a problem or a sadness is, there is always help.