When I was a kid, maybe 3rd grade, we lived for a brief while on the outskirts of Evansville, Indiana. I remember two scary things about that home.
One was a deserted house I had to walk past to get to the corner where the school bus stopped. It was the kind of empty place you’d imagine a witch might live in. The house wasn’t run down, just a little disheveled. The grass was seldom well-cut, nor was it overgrown. It was just an oddly quiet place. And I remember the eternity it took to walk past that house, not daring to slow down or look directly at a window, hoping this wasn’t the moment the witch would decide she was hungry and found her cupboard empty of cornflakes and there was that slender young third grader walking by . . .
The other thing that wasn’t scary at first was the treehouse high in a giant tree in our own front yard, near the road. It looked like a wonderful place to spend happy hours. I didn’t explore it in the first few days after we’d moved in; there were plenty of other things to do to unpack and reassemble my room furnishings.
I should mention that we moved a lot. By the time I was fourteen, I’d lived in fourteen houses. I really don’t remember a lot about them. I didn’t grow up with strong home-based memories, like most people I know did. Instead, we lived in a world of potential. What was next? Where would we be next year? My dad was a social worker, and moving up the employment ladder meant being willing to move to another city to take a better job. And once you got used to moving, it became really easy. You knew the drill. And had pared down unwanted stuff a few moves ago. I never knew of that concept called spring cleaning. We just cleaned when we moved.
Of course, I was always the new kid in school. I got good at making new friends. I learned that each place was different. The kids, the surroundings, how kids talked, who the teachers were. I thrived on the excitement of newness, of exploring new places.
The treehouse. A week or so after moving in, I decided to explore it, on a nice Saturday afternoon. After lunch, I walked up to the tree and looked up. A series of short boards nailed into the massive trunk led up to a square hole in the floor of a little house in the air.
Up I went, hand over hand, checking each board to make sure it was firmly in place. Solid all the way. I pulled myself into the small room.
The tree-house was well-built, a little room with a floor, roof, and side parapet. I had a 270 degree view. I spent a while looking out, up and down the road, across the mostly open fields on the other side of the road. After a while, I laid down, happy in my little cocoon, and daydreamed for a while, imagining the wonders of a life in my house in the sky. What adventures!
Then, time to go down. I looked down through the hole in the floor.
It was a long way down. The tree trunk shrank as it reached down, the laddered boards getting smaller and smaller in the distance, until they ran out near the ground. The blades grass looked miniature.
I had never experienced the sense of height. And solitary height, alone, with no one to scramble down first and challenge me to follow.
I hadn’t realized until then that I had a fear of heights. The worst cases for me involve man-made structures. I feel a bit better on a mountain cliff than a high apartment balcony, for instance. But even the cliff is unsettling, deep in my stomach and in my legs.
At its heart, it’s a fear born of imagination. I can imagine falling. I can imagine the construction falling apart, the cliff crumbling. Up in the treehouse, I could imagine my hands slipping if I lowered myself out the opening, if I missed finding the first board, if one board collapsed from my weight or faulty installation. I wasn’t a heavy kid, and the boards had been firm on the way up. But, what if . . . ?
It was my first exposure to several scary concepts. First, it’s easier to climb up something. Your hands are more skilled than your feet, and your head is right there with your hands, seeing what you’re grabbing. Going down was more blind faith. Which it turns out I have very little of.
Another realization was that elevation looks greater looking down. When you are standing looking up, your head is already some feet above the ground; the floor of the treehouse didn’t look that far away. But looking down from the treehouse, I saw every inch to the ground.
Thinking it through, trying to overcome instinctive fears, only increased my doubt. Intellectually (my brain reasoned) . . . just because the ladder boards had held to that day, and on my way up . . . didn’t guarantee they would hold up one more time. What if this was the end of their functionality?
There was no test, except to try them one more time. Putting my life at stake.
Now, as I think back, I wonder if this also reflects some part of what it means to be a writer? It is the writer’s dilemma. Curiosity gets you going. And you start each time with great optimism, thinking of the wonders of being high in that exalted air, of having the unfettered view from a place in the sky. You grab the easy ladder boards right in front of your face, and climb.
Up there, your happy imagination takes over, and leads you to all those places you’d never thought you would have encountered, your imagination excited, breathing the fresh rarefied atmosphere.
Then, the doubts begin to creep in. What are you doing? Why are you alone? There you are, up on a cliff of exploration, and suddenly, you wonder why you subjected yourself to this exposure, when you could have stayed with feet on the ground like all those other happy mortals passing on the distant road, so tiny, so safe.
In the treehouse, I decided to wait it out. Not a great solution, but safe for the time being. The afternoon passed. At suppertime, my mother called from the house. And a few minutes later, called again. Then came out into the yard, looking around, puzzled.
She eventually realized I was in the treehouse. I remember I asked her to help watch my feet, and she did as I finally went on my belly and lowered my feet out the hatch, and, after moment of panic, found their shaky grip on the top ladder board. It was easier after that, and I soon found myself back in the house, eating dinner and pretending I’d been fine and had enjoyed my hours in the air.
As a writer, I still find myself in that situation. Imagination gets me into interesting places, and it can also make the process unsettling, as I explore all the dark unknown corners of that imaginary situation. Exposed, I know I need to finish what I’ve started, but find myself afraid of some sort of failure, quivering inside with some feared lack of understanding of the mechanics of what I’ve tackled, daunted by the possibilities of an unruly bunch of words that end up holding me hostage for longer than they should, in a treehouse of imagination, in a box of invented story, not sure how to get down, or if I ever will.
Height and vision have its price. Those treehouses we climb to, again and again, are not safe places. But it’s where the stories grow more freely, where ground and gravity are temporarily forgotten.