For a moment, there is air beneath me; then I’m caught by the rope tied to my harness. My belayer, holding the other end, calls up, “Good fall!”
My heart pounds, but my fear of falling is already fading. A new challenge awaits—a different kind of fear. I have to try again until I successfully climb beyond the place where I fell, past each bolt to the anchors at the top of the route. My goal was to climb the whole route in one try. Having literally fallen short of that, my task narrows to trying to finish without stopping to rest or falling again. It’s a daunting prospect. What if I don’t even make it as far as I did last time, let alone to the top?
My fingertips are raw, the top layers of skin scraped away by the roughness of the rock. I’m frustrated by my hands, unable to hold on despite their calluses; by my feet, for slipping; by the way I positioned my body and threw myself off balance. Below, my belayer asks what went wrong. I explain the foot slip, the mistake in my movement. I’m grateful to her, not just for catching me—my life is literally in her hands every time I fall—but also for her encouragement before, during, and after every attempt. She trusts that I’m strong enough to finish this route; I trust that she is paying attention, that she will feed out the right amount of slack in the rope and be patient even through a long belay.
This trust in another person is one antidote to my fear. But I also have to trust my own body. By virtue of good genes and good luck, I’m fully able-bodied, but I’ve still spent much of my life thinking of my body as a stranger or an adversary. As an unathletic and uncoordinated kid, I conceived of my “self” as separate from my physical abilities—I was brainy, not brawny, my identity divorced from my inevitable failure in any community soccer league or high school gym class. And it’s true that all our bodies sometimes fail us. Our feet slip. Our balance is imperfect. We fight against exhaustion and lethargy; against cravings for foods we know we should avoid; against signs of age and use: wrinkles, stretch marks, scars. In this interminable period of virtual communication and constant enclosure in our homes, we might consider being embodied a liability—another night of restless snacking, another video call facing our unflattering on-screen reflections, tripping over roommates, family members, or pets in too-small apartments. To keep each other safe from viral infection, we sacrifice physical reminders of love. In their absence, our bodies can feel like dead weights we drag around. Even when we don’t hate them, we often mistrust them, making assumptions about what they can or should do, wishing they were different.