Life is on the Edge
Over the last few weeks, I’ve walked. A lot. And when I say walked, I don’t mean around the block. I’ve walked in the Irish sense, as in climbing along bogs, streams, ancient roads, and more rocks than one can imagine. Oh yeah, and over and around a few million sheep.
I’ve walked here before, but this trip I’ve been by myself most of the time. After breakfast, I’ve donned the boots, added layers, wrapped in a rain jacket, and set out for discovery. I’ve seen amazing things, from beehive huts to ring forts to to oratories to ancient farmland walls thousands of years old. Plentiful antiquities overwhelm you after a while, and honestly, you start seeing them as a part of the landscape, not as addendums to it.
The same has happened to me on the edge. I’ve begun to see the edge as a part of life’s landscape between this world and the next.
As a child, heights didn’t bother. A vivid memory, I recall standing in John Portman’s paradigm shifting hotel in Atlanta when I was about 10 years old thinking it was the coolest thing ever. I was fine standing on the top floor peering down the atrium to the tiny people below. But age brought fear of falling, even recurring dreams of falling, and the desire for terra firma set in for good. Not too long ago, I remember being on the 28th floor of a friend’s flat in Atlanta, sitting out on the balcony practically clinging to the wall as if I were in a climbing gym. I think I was in fact placing my hand in the crag of the façade, like that made a difference.
So walking on the edge in Ireland without hesitation is new. Standing 1500 feet above the sea or 2500 feet up on Brandon looking at creation, at the sheer beauty of God’s good earth, has not been a problem this time.
It’s because I’ve been alone. Many times I’ve brought pilgrims to Ireland, and I’ve felt responsible for them. Or family. I’ve really felt responsible for them. This time, I’ve had no one to worry about. No one but myself. There, I admit it. Caretaking has been a quest around heights. But like all caretaking I’ve known, it’s just busy work insulating me from facing myself, facing my fear.
The discovery: I feared heights because I fear dying. Not death. Dying.
You don’t wonder if the side of a mountain could fall into the sea or the wind blow you off a cliff unless you are running from something. And believe me, hiking on the hills of Ireland with the sun coming out only to be followed by a downpour then sleet then wind then sun, all while sitting on a rock 1500 feet above the sea begs you to deal with your fears.
I deal with dying all the time. You might call it an occupational hazard, and for the most part, I’m fine with it. Well, with their dying. But my own crossing the bar, no, I don’t like that one. Resting in peace, that’s easier. But getting there, that part scars me to death . . .well, that might not be the best metaphor here.
You know that feeling when you’re completely at peace at the end of the day and you fall asleep so quickly you don’t even realize you got in the bed? You just pass into the stillness of rest. That happens when I’m in the moment and not thinking about all those things I need to do in some other moment — when I’m just present and give myself to God.
Heights have been similar this time around: I accepted the edge for what it is and nothing more. When you see the edge itself, you realize that you’re standing on solid ground, looking over it toward the spectacular. Being in that moment and only that moment, you stop worrying about falling and you stand where you are, able to see more clearly. The here and the now come so close to the there and what’s ahead that the two kiss one another, what the Irish call a “thin place.” The great irony is that by accepting the edge, you realize that you’re standing firmly next to it, just as firmly as if you were 1000 yards away back on the roadbed. But oh the difference when you accept where you are. Worlds collide.
When we get comfortable with death, mortality becomes a gift to see between worlds. The threshold. The space between. We discover that life is about honoring the thin places, keeping heaven and earth so close that their embrace, their kiss, is ever before us like the passion of the Lover and Beloved. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a challenge. Very little in our culture supports this gift, and hence, we mess heaven and earth up all the time, let alone the Love that exists between the Lover and Beloved. We stand back, keeping them far from one another, clinging to elusive things we think might be our crag and stronghold. To accept your finitude yet access the thin places is a counter-cultural in your face scream that brings stares, whispers, and jokes.
The jeers are worth it. Getting out there on the edge to encounter the thin places, you have no choice but to be yourself, your naked, unwrapped, uninhibited, unleashed, incredible soul God created, moved into being to dance.
So, get ye to a mountain. A rock. A cliff. Get in touch with yourself and the thin places.
Life is on the edge.