There’s something magical about childhood outside in the Deep South.
Pines soar to glorious heights, scattering their needles like a carpet underneath them and then dropping pine cones as if to say, “Here, kid. Let me do you one better. Take this and chuck it right at that boy’s head.”
As soon as the grass turned green we were allowed to go barefoot.
I sat on the brown grass as early as March, staring at it, WILLING it to turn green.
Alas, my efforts were of no use and, even in the South, the grass waited until the proper time to return to life again.
One of the wonders of our neighborhood was the “ditch” that ran through it, carving a massive, winding crevice the length of the subdivision. Practically speaking, the purpose of the ditch was some sort of water irrigation system maybe? Flood prevention? Who knew, really? Who cared, really? For sure I didn’t. For the purposes of childhood, the ditch had endless possibilities.
My best guess as to the depth of this ditch is about 100 feet. This means, of course, that it was more likely about 20-25 feet deep. But my 8-year-old self insists on sticking with 100 feet, so let’s split it down the middle and go with about 30 feet.
And, here’s where it gets really dreamy… the sides from top to bottom were completely covered in kudzu.
Now, before you leave here to go look up the word “kudzu” let me do you a favor and go ahead and tell you all about it.
Kudzu is a crawling vine found all over the South. It is lush and green and in my mind, it’s beautiful and full of nostalgia. Side note: it is also a major nuisance to all the grownups.
As a child, I was quite sure heaven would be covered in kudzu.
Since the ditch was so conveniently clothed in kudzu beauty, it was quite easy for us kids to scale up and down the sides at will – and we did so liberally. The ditch would fill with water after storms, so we’d find something (anything would do – a board, a jug, a random piece of rusty tetanus-producing metal…anything, really), scale down the side, and float down the ditch through the big drainage pipe before climbing back up the kudzu, running up the street and doing the whole thing all over again.
Oh, man. Those were the days.
Another glorious element to the ditch was that the forest was largely still intact in the green belt that it carved through. There were huge trees throughout the neighborhood and many of them surrounded that ditch. Interestingly enough, though, when the ditch was carved out, whoever or whatever carved it only partially felled some of the larger trees as they went along and just left them where they fell. For us this meant that at several places throughout the neighborhood we had fallen trees that made natural “bridges” allowing us to cross over the ditch without having to climb down and then back up again.
And this is where things got really interesting.
Those trees that made our ditch bridges were old and very wide. One tree in particular was so big that it was quite comfortable on a hot summer day to walk across the trunk, find a cozy spot along the middle, stretch out in the shade of the giant tree and the forest all around us and just be.
But, you know, kids can “just be” for only so long and one day, while we were “just being”, laying across that tree bridge, one of us (okay, it was me) got this brilliant idea to do a bravery test.
“C’mon, y’all! Don’t be skeered!” (I was a Southern girl at the time, remember. And we’re talking DEEP South here.)
I assured them it was totally safe. You know, with the confidence that came with my 8-year-old credentials, and instructed them to just sit on the lowest part of the fallen tree (about ten feet from the bottom of the ditch) and then jump. Easy!
Shockingly, everyone thought that was a great idea.
Well, of course it was. Duh.
So we all did it and congratulated ourselves on our amazing bravery until…
I interrupted our celebration with, “Wait, though. The bravery test isn’t over yet.”
They were all like, huh?
And everyone looked up to see that the tree bridge had many levels.
And I had a plan to work through them all.
Now, if this were a really great story, it would follow that my friends joined with me (maybe after a necessary rousing speech of some sort on my part), and we accomplished the Bravery Test with great celebration and bravado together as a band of brothers and sisters with a common purpose.
But this was not to be.
Nope. They all bailed on me.
Instead, the bravery test just became really, really important to me.
On a particularly difficult day at home, I escaped by running to the tree bridge – often with my little brother on my heels – where I would climb up to the next level and sit there – sometimes for an hour or more – working up the courage to jump off.
You’d be surprised how high 12, 13, 14 feet can feel to an 8 or 9-year-old. It was scary.
But I’m not sure I was just needing courage for the jump.
Many days I found myself running to the tree bridge fueled by some compulsion to discover if, on that particular day, I was brave enough to…
- go to school wearing someone else’s clothes that most certainly didn’t fit my body and endure the taunting hurled my way from the every school taunters that would surely come as a result
- find a way to comfort my mother when she was faced with yet another day of crushing disappointment in my father’s neglect and abandonment
- meet my father’s exacting standards for my performance in every area of my life
- say no to those who sought to prey upon me as I roamed aimlessly throughout the neighborhood and surrounding areas attempting to steer clear of home for as much of every day as possible
- carry the weight of responsibility I felt for the welfare of my family while feeling the helplessness of the limitations of childhood.
Somehow, sitting on that tree limb (higher and higher as time went by), with sweaty palms and racing heart, I found a way to work through the crushing fear and disappointment that life continued to rain down on my family while summoning up courage from within to bring myself to leap off the tree and fall to the sandy bottom of the ditch below.
Standing solidly after the fall, I could feel a new strength in me that allowed me to brush myself off and move forward with whatever was facing me.
I just felt…. brave.
But then, one day, I went too high.
That day I ran to the bridge to jump not because I was afraid, but because I was angry. I chose one of the highest jump points and planted myself there.
It’s funny. That day, like every other day, I remember feeling my sweaty palms and racing heart, but I don’t remember feeling fear. I just remember anger.
And then, I jumped.
I can’t say for sure how high the branch I chose was on that fateful day, but my best guess would be about 20 feet from the sandy bottom of the ditch.
It was for real too high.
When I landed, my chin connected with my knees as they buckled underneath me, so that my neck really took the force of the impact. It popped back, and I felt a hot rush go through my neck and into my head, then I saw a flash of white light before everything went black.
I was alone in the ditch, which was for the best, to be honest. No need to get anyone all riled up and cause alarm that might lead to my mother’s discovery of the tree bridge and my little bravery test antics, thereby destroying the future summer days of all the children in the neighborhood.
I also could never risk my reputation as the bravest soul and most solid jumper in the neighborhood.
That was for damn sure.
So, I managed to stumble home and soak my aching tweener joints in a hot bath.
No harm, no foul, right?
Unless you consider the artificial joint I now have in my neck as both harm AND foul.
Yeah, I thought so, too.
For the record, can I just say that this is a MAJOR reason why I never let my kids out of my sight when they were young?
For the love.
And here’s the real rub… after that jump, the problem was, I was still really angry.
And I don’t think it was because I didn’t land the jump.
I think it was because jumping was never going to resolve my anger.
My father was a 5’6″ scrawny man who somehow managed to tower over us emotionally and physically while charming the socks off of everyone else he met in town. He had this way about him that could warm you up in one minute and convince you he was going to change the world (ours included), and then devastate you within 24 hours leaving you hungry and abandoned in a hotel room with no money and no transportation with your mom and little brother while he drank himself into oblivion.
But it was nearly impossible to hold my anger in front of him.
First of all, he could be really charming. This is so attractive to a child who so desperately wants relationship with her father. One little spark of hope would often be enough to quench the anger within me for a time. It’s actually embarrassing to admit how long I let him drag me along on this ride.
Hope can beat us up if held for the impossible.
Second, I became a master at shoving those nasty emotions down deep and out of his sight. I remember the last day he made me cry. I was 10 when I vowed he would never make me cry again. Spoiler alert: This decision has cost thousands of dollars in therapy.
That tree bridge was for me a necessary conduit for the emotions I was afraid to feel…somehow giving me the release, the courage and the confidence I needed to face whatever came my way. But there came a day – that day – when my emotions just got too big for the tree bridge. There wasn’t a way anymore to physically prove to myself that I was capable of handling the cascade of feelings pouring over me.
That was a hard place to be. Honestly, I’m not sure how I managed it.
I didn’t, actually.
Because forty years and a broken body later, I have discovered that I still need a tree bridge to run to.
Just recently – in the last two years or so – God’s had me on this devastating little journey we’ll call “Bravery Test 2.0”.
On this journey I am learning that true courage lies not in the jump to prove I can do pain, but in being still with the pain I am already in.
And, even harder, to be still with Him and with other trusted intimates in the midst of that pain.
So my tree bridge these days looks much different than the ditch bridge.
Mainly, it looks like a whole lot of therapy.
And, you guys, this therapy tree bridge is a most worthy bravery test.
And if you know me, you know that is really saying something.