I am standing on a precipice, breathless with exhaustion and gratitude and surprise. After years of wrong turns and bad equipment and Road Closed signs and avalanches and misreading the map, I have not expected to ever find my way to the top. I am not so much afraid of heights as I am confident that the climb will kill me. Why should I succeed, even when I have tried to foresee all the major dangers, planned a zillion escape routes, packed all the necessary provisions? On the summit, I think, So this is what it’s like to be on top.
II. Freiburg (Hope)
In January I am suddenly aware that this is the year I will turn thirty, which means I should start planning for the milestone now. I decide to attend a two-week writing program in Freiburg, Germany, not far from the fairy tale Black Forest. I don’t speak the language and the idea of eight hours in a plane makes my stomach churn, but I have never been to Germany and I know that this will be my last summer off from work because next year I will have a real job, and the program director is a fellow alumna of my MFA program. The universe seems to say, “You can climb this hill.”
During the spring of our first year of college, my roommate and I discover we can order safe-sex supplies for free from our college health clinic. Neither of us needs anything for the usual reasons; both of us are curious. When we retrieve the female condoms from our student post office boxes we are stumped. We wash off of the spermicide and slip the clear rubber circles around our wrists like friendship bracelets. She takes her off five years later, on her wedding day. Mine turns amber, the inside edges brittle and mottled with cracks, like fossilized mother of pearl. I wear it like a tattoo and forget that it is there, forget that I might have to explain, in delicate terms, what it is and what it means, if anyone asks. To my surprise, no one ever asks.
IV. Freiburg (Dream)
We hike through the Black Forest, pound our way up a hill that keeps climbing and climbing, and I think of the Hillary Step on Mt. Everest. The last push before the summit, the place where Sir Edmund Hillary did not falter. I think, If I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, if I just keep moving, my legs will keep me going. It’s what I learned after 130 employment rejections, after five years of piecing work together, after dozens and dozens of story rejections, after mile 20 of my first marathon, a feat had seemed easier than facing the same challenges of everyday life: in the spaces between the muscles and tendons and sinew in my knees and hips and ankles, there’s energy enough to keep moving.
What I remember most about my senior year of college is the feeling of regret. After four years of trying to find my place and my self I finally fit in, just in time to leave. I am convinced that this will be my life’s pattern: just as I get comfortable it is time to move on.
VI. Freiburg (Friends)
“You’re turning thirty?” she says. We’re falling behind the others, all of us wandering up the twisting cobblestone lane following the vague desire for one more ice cream cone before this trip is over.
“Yes,” I say. “I’m finally an adult.”
“Oh,” she laughs. “You’re already an adult.”
Midway through my thirtieth year on Earth it occurs to me that I do not need to plan so hard. “Everything will be fine,” a friend says, and it becomes my mantra.
VIII. Freiburg (Home)
The morning after I return from Freiburg, I wake just after three in the morning, my body convinced that it is mid-day and my mind racing, already, to pitch forward into the next chapter. I roll over and feel on my face a rough, not-quite-familiar thing. In the dark, my fingers trace the edges of the amber bracelet, no longer an endless circle and no longer on my wrist. I grip the broken rubber bracelet in my fist and think, I need to find another one. Before dawn, I get up and set the bracelet in the bottom drawer of the jewelry box on the dresser. Then I remember. I climbed this hill.