In April 2001, the church youth group went on retreat at a nearby campground for some team building, bonding, and fun.
By eleventh grade we were embarking on a new program at our church, following Life Teen, which meant having more adult leader support in youth ministry. It wasn’t just one person in charge but more of a team effort. And there was music. Fantastic music.
We met every Sunday after Mass for something fun to break the ice and then learning and discussing the Catholic faith, but in a friendly environment. I really enjoyed having something consistent to participate in. I connected well with the adults, over time feeling like I could trust them.
Before this retreat I was involved with some part of the planning. I remember me and another girl helped to draft a skit for the weekend. A skit about how the first apostles were in the midst of their usual duties (fishing, collecting taxes) and Jesus invites them to follow him. And I somehow ended up joining her in acting out the skit. Perhaps it seemed less scary as a presenter since I was involved in the production side. I don’t know, but it was cool to do.
I remember another big thing was reciting my Columbine poem to the group that first night of the weekend. I don’t know why that came up, except that it was the actual two-year anniversary of the shooting. So that was cool and eerie to read at night. It was probably the first time I had shared a poem to that large of an audience. But I guess it seemed safer than to share to complete strangers, like it would have at the award ceremony for the poetry contest.
The big draw of this particular retreat was being able to challenge ourselves through a high ropes course. There were all kinds of obstacles that we could try. I was skeptical of trying a round of wall climbing. I had attempted it when I was younger during summer day camp, but didn’t get very far. And yet, I found myself trying it again. But alas, it still didn’t go well. I could only get a few feet off the ground. I just didn’t trust my body to propel upward on a small rock or foot hold, and it was uncomfortable to reach for various hand grips. Yes, I was harnessed, so there was no real danger of falling, but I just didn’t trust myself enough.
Other activities were challenging, and yet everyone else seemed to do them with ease. There didn’t seem to be a real sense of facing fears. Of course, if you’re plagued with self-doubt, it just makes everyone else’s efforts seem more magnified. They were probably just as scared, but I didn’t see any signs of fear.
I watched so many others finish something, that I wanted to have a sense of success, too. There was one thing that didn’t seem to require too much physically. Mostly nerve. It started with a ladder leaning against a telephone pole that was probably about 50 feet high (I don’t think that’s an exaggeration). I was fully harnessed and wore a helmet. I’m not entirely sure why wall climbing seemed impossible yet climbing a telephone pole was different, especially being someone who doesn’t like heights (I internally freak out on the Ferris Wheel). Maybe because the spacing of the foot grips changes with the wall climbing and you have to plan a path, whereas the pole climbing was consistent and straightforward? Who knows how you make those judgments.
But I went for it. I climbed the ladder and transitioned to the grips on the pole. I’m sure halfway up I questioned why I had volunteered to do this. But a few people below were cheering for me. That did help. I just didn’t risk looking down.
I kept going and at the top, it was awesome because there was a handrail waiting to help you climb on top of the pole.
Oh wait, there wasn’t.
Yeah, I didn’t really think through this part of the obstacle before I got started. At the top of the pole are the two remaining grips and then nearly a foot of space with nothing to grab onto. I guess you’re supposed to use the harness wire as leverage to pull yourself up so you are standing on the pole. Once standing on the pole, you’re expected to leap toward a bar hanging from a nearby tree, like a trapeze artist. But the bar is so far away I don’t see how anyone actually reaches it.
I couldn’t do that. I was frozen.
I’m all the way at the top. I can’t complete the obstacle. I can’t climb back down. I’m a very big “cat” stuck in a “tree.” Yes, I’m sure there is some panicking happening at this point along with some tears. Why did I do this?
The guy below managing my harness yells out an alternative: jump away from the pole. Into nothingness.
Many people later said they thought the way I finished the activity was more challenging that the intended jump. At least on top of the pole you have a much better chance of jumping into the openness so the harness can be tighted without risk of swinging and hitting anything on the way down. But from my spot, it would have been easy to not jump far enough, increasing the chances of hitting the pole.
But oh man what a relief to get both feet back on the ground. There were many more people gathered around in support by the time it was over. It felt really good to get a lot of hugs.
Later that night I was rewarded with a coveted trophy from the weekend. Several people earned a Spirit, Peace and Mercy award (yes, abbreviated SPAM). I was recognized for not giving up on the ropes course. That was a treasured unopened can of spam, decorated with glitter and spray painted gold. I seriously displayed that on my bedroom dresser for several years.
And because I was in that place where I wrote things out, I described the experience in a poem. For the most part, this poem makes sense. I know the reference to melting is meant to be like crossing a burning rope bridge where the path behind you is literally no longer an option. I just don’t get the leaves aspect. A burning pile of leaves? Where did that come from?
Oh wait, it’s the view from the pole! We were in the woods; there are leaves in the woods. Nice job, young Lindsay!
Ladders and Mountains
I faced a mountain today
And used a ladder in my conquest.
A ladder with dried sand on the first step
And the rest clean.
The one where only my feet could fit.
With each gradual increase taken,
The previous step became instantly useless.
As if dropped in a burning pile of leaves,
They cracked and melted.
I climbed higher and higher
Toward the birds and clouds.
My heart and mind sprang free.
Tiny tears snuck down my face
As I leapt off that ladder
And ran down the other side of the mountain
Toward the outstretched hands.