A few weeks ago, my family attended an Earth Day celebration at the City Park. There were environmentally-friendly vendors and information booths, live music, and a long line at the shaved ice hut. But the centerpiece of the event was the nineteen-foot tall two-person Ferris wheel designed by local artisan Steven White. His yellow “Over the Top” project is completely human-powered, and took White three hundred hours to build.
My girls, of course, wanted to ride it, so we queued up in the line. Each turn before us took a bit of time as riders had to climb up the ladders to the swinging seats and then be perfectly balanced with weights. But there was something mesmerizing about watching the slightly awestruck passengers circle around and around that tempered our impatience.
Just as we approached the front of the line, there was a mix up in our pairing and it ended up that my oldest daughter needed me to be her partner. I hadn’t considered taking a turn, but I’d been watching Emma shore up her courage as we waited, and I knew it was important that she ride. In the past year, she’d hit a developmental bump that often led her to choose safety over the opportunity to try something new. She needed to get off the ground.
As the riders before us disembarked, I saw her swallow the temptation to bail out. Instead she said, “Let’s go really fast, Mom.”
I’d been so busy propping up Emma’s courage that I hadn’t thought much about the fact that I, myself, was going to be on the opposite end of this experience. Half-way up the ladder my stomach did a flip-flop. Heights terrify me. When I have a nightmare, it is about being stranded somewhere high–a tree limb, a rope bridge over a deep gorge, a trapeze. I felt a wave of panic. The ten-foot climb up the ladder hadn’t appeared to be a big deal from the ground, but suddenly, it seemed pretty much impossible. I took a step down.
Just then, even though she couldn’t see me, Emma called out from the opposite ladder, “We can do this, right, Mom?”
I looked around at the crowd of people who’d gathered to watch. If I climbed down, Emma would have to also. We’d have to find another rider and she might even lose her turn, or worse, her courage. I closed my eyes, and took a deep breath.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do one thing each day that scares you.”
Surely Roosevelt was envisioning something more challenging than riding a ferris wheel, yet at that moment, my terror of heights seemed pretty significant. I wiped my sweaty palms on my shirt and climbed up the ladder, carefully maneuvering myself into the swinging chair, because I, like Emma, was often tempted to avoid that which was scary and new, and needed an experience that would stretch my courage.
I’d like to say that I started to feel more brave at that point, but I didn’t. My hands shook as I fastened the safely belt around my hips. To calm myself, I focused on the instructions given to me by White’s assistant. “Pull the handles towards you as you raise your knees. The more you pull, the faster you go.
“Got it?” he asked as he removed the ladder. My seat swung forward and slowly dropped towards the ground. With all my strength I pulled on the handles and was gently lifted skyward. At the top, I suppressed an urge to scream, but blurted out cowardly, “I’m afraid of heights!”
At that point, there wasn’t much that could be done about that fact, so I trained all my effort on pulling the handles and making the large wheel turn. And around and around we went, with more and more speed, until I heard White say from the ground, “This is one of the fastest rides today. They’re in perfect sync.”
His comment woke me from my tunnel vision. I loosened my grip on the handles and simply let myself feel the sensation of effortlessly flying high above the park. My stomach was still unsettled, the panic at a low simmer, but as my daughter and I circled in a quietly perfect sync, I felt my fear slowly unfurl behind me, and in its place wings of courage grow.
(Video by Skandar Productions, inyoface.us 760-920-2446.)
Many people rode White’s Ferris wheel that day, most without a hint of fear, but for Emma and me, taking a flight over the top was a significant step in facing that which scared us. Our flight has become a touchstone of courage. Since Earth Day, Emma is facing life with a new boldness, and I have developed a mighty sense of invincibility.
Roosevelt wrote, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
From White and his beautiful yellow contraption, I learned that fear is good. Moving forward towards that which is scary can lead us to a better place, and these small duels with fear can help prepare us for larger challenges that inevitably lie ahead.
Go ahead. Try it for yourself. Do something that scares you. Sing in front of strangers. Introduce yourself to someone you don’t know. Sign up for that class. Submit your poem. Take a ride on a human-powered Ferris wheel.
Feel your wings of courage grow.
For more information about Steven White check out his website. There you can view his breathtakingly beautiful furniture, and learn more about his “Over the Top” project.
(Video from Steven White’s website.)