Monday, September 6, 2010

What Comfort Zone?

We all have our little fears and foibles. I sometimes like to think I’m nearly perfect, but I’ve realized that part of growing up is acknowledging our own weaknesses. I found out, while still in high school, that I am claustrophobic. I was at a school carnival when someone suggested we try out the cardboard box maze the junior class had made. It was actually made out of everyday cardboard boxes, so we had to get down on our hands and knees to crawl through it. About halfway through I panicked. I was in this small crawl-through box, there were people in front of and behind me and I had no where to go, so I took the only option – I went up – right through the top of the boxes, ruining that section of the maze. I also have a fear of heights. I cannot remember the first time I realized this fear, but I do remember an experience when my husband was in Korea picking up our first daughter and I thought I’d surprise him by hanging a new curtain in the alcove above our front door. I climbed up the ladder, got onto the little shelf and, again, panicked! I managed to quickly hang the curtain and make my way back down the ladder, but my entire body shook for a full ten minutes afterwards.

Having learned that I’m not actually perfect, I’ve tried to avoid heights and closed in spaces. I’ve still had a few episodes that have taken me by surprise (ask Drew about California Screamin’ when I bolted out of my seat just before the ride began and he later told me, “I was so embarrassed! I tried to look like I didn’t know that crazy white woman.”), but for the most part, I just accept that heights and small spaces are better left to acrobats and miners.

Today my husband and I visited St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. We’ve been there before, but it was so awe-inspiring, we wanted to see it again. As we stood underneath the main dome looking up, we realized there were people on a walkway, high up at the base of the dome. You have to understand the dimensions of this beautiful building to get a feel for how high up this is – up near the base of the dome there is a piece of art (there’s art everywhere), but in this piece, a man in is holding a pencil and the pencil is actually six feet long! So you can imagine just how high up this walkway is. My husband immediately pulls out his guidebook and looks up information on the walkway. It turns out visitors are allowed to climb up there, so off we went to find the stairway.

We found the entrance to the stairway and found out that you can either walk up all 500+ stairs or pay a little extra to take an elevator and then walk up only 300+ stairs. Given that I’m still recovering from foot surgery we opted for the elevator. When we reached the top we were surprised to find that there were only a few stairs to climb to get to the dome walkway. It was amazing! I admit that I stayed against the wall and just peeked over and that I didn’t stay for very long, but it was still amazing and I was quite proud of myself for having gone at all. Then, while I waited on the exit stairs for my husband to finish viewing the basilica from this bird’s eye view, I noticed a little door with a sign that read, “Ingresso Cupola” and further went on to say something about discouraging the old, the sick and those with cardiopathic problems from climbing the 321 stairs. I showed the sign to my husband when he finally exited the walkway. We were both confused because we thought we were at the top. Then my husband realized that the 300+ additional steps we thought we’d have to climb to get to the walkway were actually the steps to get us to the cupola – we could climb to the top of the dome and be outside! Woo-hoo or something like that. My husband was very excited, but all I could think about was being even higher. However, I’d already shown my bravery by walking around the walkway; I wasn’t about to wimp out now, so up we went.

Since I’m recovering from foot surgery, I knew I’d be slow going up and down, so when my husband asked if I wanted him to wait for me or if he could just go on, I said, “Just go ahead. You’ll want to spend more time at the top than I will anyway.” Bad decision! About ten steps after this bold statement, the straight stairway turned into a closed-in spiral staircase of the very, very small variety! I couldn’t turn around (there’s one stairway up and one down), so I kept on climbing, telling myself that it would be okay – it wasn’t. I began to panic as the walls closed in on me and I kept climbing upwards. I started to hyperventilate (not good when climbing stairs) and I called up to Brian to wait for me. I found him a few steps later waiting for me by a small window cut into the wall. I sat down on the ledge of the window and breathed the fresh air coming through as I tried to quiet the turmoil going on within me. We eventually made it to the top with Brian leading the way, holding my hand and talking me through it, but I was soaked with sweat (from both the heat and the panic) by the time we got to the top and I spent my time on the cupola plastered against the wall trying to regain my sense of sanity.

The trip down wasn’t as bad (worse on my foot, but easier on my brain) but I was thrilled to walk through the final door out to the terrace where we’d gotten off the elevator. This was an experience that was so far outside my comfort zone I couldn’t even fathom what my brain was doing to me, but I was proud of myself for being able to suck up the fear and follow through (and forever indebted to my husband for his unwavering strength). I know I have a fear of heights and closed in spaces and, for today, I conquered them. Well, conquered is probably too strong a word – for today, I didn’t give in to my fears.

Am I glad I went? You bet! Would I do it again? Never!!!! After all, part of growing up is learning to acknowledge your fears and foibles and, in this case, accept them rather than try to conquer them.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Lighting a Candle


I’m not Catholic, in fact I’m not particularly religious; at least not in the conventional sense. However, European churches leave me in awe and with a sense of that which I don’t understand. (See my blog entry from March 26, 2008, European Vacation, Day 3: A Religious Experience) Today my husband and I visited the Basilica of St. Mary of Health in Venice. I wanted to go to this church because of a story I’d read about it in the book A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena de Blasi. We arrived at the church late in the afternoon -- a long walk through Venice’s streets, but located almost directly across the Grand Canal from our hotel. There were musicians playing and singers performing on the steps of the church when we arrived. After listening for a few minutes, I motioned to my husband that I was going to go inside. I was afraid that the church doors might soon be closing since it was getting late. I walked around the inside of the church, again in awe not only because of this sense I get from these European churches, but also because of what I’d read in de Blasi’s book about an annual celebration held in this church. As I approached the exit to the church, there was a place set aside to light a candle. The candle costs 1 Euro – you supply your own prayer.

I know someone who is currently dying. She has ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease. I wrote about her last fall (September 26, 2009, ALS) and now, less than a year later, her prognosis is not good. Today, in the Basilica of St. Mary of Health, I paid my 1 Euro and lit a candle for this woman. I know that physical health is not a possibility for her, but my prayer was that she knows mental and spiritual health. I stepped away from the altar and had to find the tissues in my purse (and then I put on my sunglasses).

This church was built as a “deal” with God in the 1600s in an attempt to stop the plague. Today, in 2010, no deals were being made, I was just making a simple gesture of hope, but I was filled with emotions of grief, gratitude and, surprisingly, peace.