One of Mama's favorite stories to tell about me is from when she ran a daycare at home. There were always tons of other kids around. I was something of a ringleader and trouble maker, since I knew where all of the especially exciting areas of the yard were, like the Aqueduct of Doom. One day, a social worker was over doing some official observation type activity and Mama was sitting on the porch with her and talking while we played on the swing-set in the yard below. Our swing-set was one of those big wooden contraptions that had a bench swing and monkey bars and a fort and a slide. I had personally climbed over every inch of it.
That day I must have been bored with the normal attempt to swing over the bar or swing the bench hard enough to knock the whole thing over (which we never did accomplish). As Mama tells it, "I saw you bent over and dragging something, very intent on what you were doing and ignoring the other kids. I knew whatever it was would be bad, so I got up to stop you. The social worker put her hand on my arm and said,'Let's see what she's doing,' so I watched you for a minute. You started climbing the ladder for the slide, trying to drag whatever you had up behind you. I couldn't see what it was and I was getting nervous, so I headed over, the social worker protesting the whole time that this was fascinating and not to stop you. Good thing I didn't listen to her, because what you had was a big wheeler that you were hell bent on riding down the slide. I think you were four."
I've always been a fearless person when it comes to adventures. No, wait, that's not exactly right. Not fearless, not really. I still feel the fear, that heady rush of adrenaline that dilates your pupils and makes the blood pound in your ears and throat and makes your breath quicken. That flight-or-fight response is there. I just always choose fight.
The first clear memory I have of that intoxicating feeling is from when I was around 12 or 13 and camping in King's Canyon with Mama and Brian, my brother. There was a part of the nearby river nicknamed Party Rock and we went to investigate. Party Rock turned out to be a huge boulder that dropped straight down into a deep pool in the river. A bit of a crowd was hanging out and partying around the pool (hence the name) and taking turns daring each other to jump off the rock into the nearly freezing river below. After taking this all in, I remember that my brother and I just looked at each other, the challenge readable in our eyes, and raced for the top of the rock. At the top, we both paused to take in what we now faced: a twenty foot drop into icy cold water of unknown depth, but crystal clear enough to see the rocks that made up the riverbed. We shared another look, this time pure joy and anticipation on our faces, and leaped off the rock into the waiting river. The shock of the cold water burned my skin and then instantly froze it behind the burn. The breath was completely knocked out of me by the shock and my eyes flew open to take in the most amazing sight of my life. I could see clearly under the water. For someone who can barely see four inches past her own nose without glasses, the clear lines and bold colors of each rock and tiny pebble several feet away from me was beyond amazing. I didn't want to come back up to the surface, but the need for air drove me up and then the cold drove me out of the water. As the sun warmed my skin and feeling returned, I began to shiver. My brother looked at me questioningly; he had gotten out of the water as fast as possible. I simply said, "I could see," and began to climb up to the top of the rock again.
He followed me, grinning.
A recent comment thread on Imani's wall served to remind me that I did not have the most normal of childhoods, even though it seemed so while I lived it. I called Brian to share and remember and laugh over it with him. Our neighbors growing up were four boys who all owned BB and pellet guns. They lived in two story house with a pool and a trampoline. They also constructed a water slide made out of industrial sized PVC pipe. After I recounted to Brian how people were shocked that I lived through jumping off of a two-story roof onto a trampoline or into a pool or firing pellet guns or riding razor scooters down the pool slide, or any and all combinations thereof, he laughed and said, "Hell, that sounds like a weekend." The two of us have always had shared love of adventure and thrill-seeking. We were forever looking for the next challenge, the next rush of adrenaline.
One day when I was in college in Santa Barbara, I was walking on the pier with one of my roommates. I made an offhand comment that I was a little sad that it was winter and so cold, because I had a very strong urge to jump off the pier. My roommate laughed nervously and changed the subject. A few minutes later, my phone rang. It was Brian, which was highly unusual at the time. I answered, mentally preparing for bad news. I was confused for a moment by the laughing "Guess what I just did!" that greeted me.
"Well you obviously didn't break your leg again because you're laughing. Unless they already gave you drugs for it?"
"Hah! No, I didn't break anything this time."
"Well then what?"
"I just jumped off the Huntington Beach pier!"
I collapsed laughing, still standing on my own pier a few hundred miles north.
I have yet to jump off of anything of that great a height, or out of a plane, but I've always been a bit obsessed with heights. It's almost like I have the opposite of a fear of heights. Instead of cringing away from the edge and moving toward safety, my body seems to move closer to the edge of its own accord. I've heard "Sarah, get back from there!" more times than I can count. It's as though I just can't resist that breathless feeling of vertigo, that sense of nearness to danger. It draws me out, every time. I've even had it well up from within while standing at the top of a flight of stairs. I've leaned against the banister, feeling it creak in my hands and listened to the blood rush in my head as I pictured falling to the floor below.
Given that, it's no wonder that one of the places I actively sought out in Ireland was the Cliffs of Moher. Everywhere else I went in Ireland was mostly by wandering and going to places someone told me about that sounded fun. The two places I made a point to visit both involved heights (the other was the Blarney Stone). The Cliffs of Moher is one of the most photographed places in the world, and no wonder. Rising straight up out of the tumultuous Atlantic, the 700 foot (200m) high cliffs make the Cliffs of Insanity look tame. Often shrouded in mist, I was incredibly lucky to see them on a clear, bright day. The feeling I had of standing on the edge of the world is indescribable. I stood behind the low rock wall, meant to keep cows and drunks from bumbling off the cliff, completely transfixed by the sight.
Then a crow cawed near me and brought me back into my body.
My face hurt from smiling, but I couldn't stop. My heart pounding and my hands shaking,
I stepped over the wall. I felt as though I had crossed more than a physical boundary and time seemed to stop for a moment. Even the crying of the gulls and the pounding of the surf hundreds of feet below paused for just a second. Then sound returned and with it that familiar compulsion.
Closer. Closer. Closer.
I stepped forward, once, twice and leaned forward to look directly down the cliff face. My breath stopped and my heart pounded. It was enough to make even me move back. But that call was not satisfied.
I sat down on the ground to keep myself from stepping forward again. Then I knew what to do. I laid down on my stomach and inched toward the edge, my body shaking. I kept my eyes shut until my shoulders were at the edge of the cliff.
Then I opened my eyes.