The River of No

I told a story out loud last night. Which, I know, isn't that much of a big deal. Except I had to memorize it and there were a lot of people there listening intently and I'm at that age now where I forget things easily, and I was worried, right up the moment I stood up at the microphone, that my mind would go completely blank and I would panic and want to flee.

Yesterday, May 1, was an incredibly beautiful day. It was a day for new beginnings, for sure. In the morning we celebrated a bunch of things in church, but mostly that I made it through my first year as a preacher. I got to hold that delicious baby, Matthew, and Mark told a funny story about his truck running away from him and into the pond behind their house. Margaret did the scripture reading in a way that was so captivating that no one could stop talking about it afterwards and Marion and Lee were back after Lee's long stretch of sickness. There were lots of kids making noise, which I LOVE and really, really great music and Ben and Paul made the trek over from Saratoga, like they did last year, on my first Sunday. Rosalie brought daffodils and there was a bunch of great food. I issued a challenge to everyone to sit somewhere other than their usual place, which almost everyone did, so when I looked out from my perch at the pulpit, everything was new. It was old and beautiful, but also new and fresh.

When I was a kid, in elementary school, we had this thing called Gym Night. I love the simplicity of that. It wasn't a spectacular event, there weren't flyers or posters or email and no one's parents had to sign up for anything. In the weeks leading up to Gym Night, if you decided you wanted to participate, you picked which events you wanted to do and practiced some and then on the night, we all kind of did this gym stuff for our parents, who were sitting in the bleachers. One year I decided to sign up for the thing that terrified me the most: rope climbing. This was back in the days before our litigious society took all of the fun out of school athletics. The rope we had to climb was really long, and the idea was that you just shimmied up the thing, touched the ceiling, and lowered yourself back down. No safety equipment, no spotters; a mat underneath in case you fell, but I doubt that was going to prevent a trip to the emergency room -- that goddamned rope probably went 40 feet in the air. I'm not a climber and I'm not great with heights. Still, somehow I thought it would be a good idea to subject myself to my terrors in front of most of the school and lots of parents.

On the night of the event, the thing happened that I knew was going to happen: I completely panicked. All of us rope climbers sat on the floor in a line, watching, along with everyone else in the room, while each kid scooted up the rope and then lowered back down to the floor. I remember Timmy Joyce, in particular. That kid had the gift of climb; he was like a monkey, he shot up and down so fast, which was extra awful that night because I was sitting behind him and I knew I would never make it to the top. I could run and do push-ups and play four-square all day, but I had no business pretending I could climb a rope ten times my height. 

Timmy took his turn, and then I let the kid behind me go and then I let the next kid behind me go, until I had let every kid go and I was out of kids. It became obvious that it wasn't going to be a rope climbing night for me, so the gym teacher did the clapping indication thing, everyone clapped and I tried my best to become invisible as we walked off to either our next event or our parents. Everyone was nice and told me it was no big deal, but I felt like a complete loser. That rope and what happened that night, in my head and heart and stomach, the feelings of public humiliation, of not having enough courage to even try, have never left me.

I thought about the rope while I was waiting for my turn last night, lined-up in the front row with the other storytellers.

This time, when my turn came, I got up and I stood in front of a crowded room of people sitting and watching me, and I told a story about a kid named Charlie, who had a hardscrabble life: no family, no cozy home, no teeth, lots of cancer. How I met him in the hospital where I was a chaplain and how he didn't want anything to do with me because I was a god person and how, after watching Charlie on the cancer floor for a while, I didn't care that he didn't want to know me, I crossed the River of No one day and went into his room and we became friends. I told the people listening how I was in the room on the day they took the life support tubes out of Charlie's body, how I rubbed his feet and sang to him while he fought like hell to stay alive. I asked the people there to please wake up grateful tomorrow because Charlie didn't have that option: the tomorrow option. It was a good story and I only lost my thoughts once. I made it through and people clapped and afterwards some nice folks even thanked me. 

I climbed all the way up to the top of the rope last night and made it back down again, to solid ground. I didn't panic, I didn't fall, I didn't walk away; I walked across the threshold of fear, like I did last year when I stood at the pulpit on my first day as the preacher at the Pawlet Community Church, and I made it to the other side. 

I told the story of Charlie because, in the short time I knew him, he taught me a powerful lesson; that life is not to be taken for granted. You can be 19 and have nothing and still get cancer that kills you even before you've had the chance to really live. Life is totally weird and mysterious that way. I know what Charlie would say if he were still here to say it: cross the river; climb the rope. Timmy Joyce died in a boating accident when he was a teenager; cancer stole Charlie away from us. So you should climb and cross and keep climbing and keep crossing. Not only because you can, because you have the option, but because you will be a different person when you get to the other side, you will have a whole new view of this wild and wondrous world.