Practicing Parents

“When Headlong Might Save a Life”: Thoughts on Precipices (of Both the Literal and Metaphorical Kind)

~by Jill Clingan


There are moments that cry out to be fulfilled.
Like, telling someone you love them.
Or giving your money away, all of it.

Your heart is beating, isn’t it?
You’re not in chains, are you?

There is nothing more pathetic than caution
when headlong might save a life,
even, possibly, your own.

~ Mary Oliver

I picked up Mary Oliver’s latest book of poetry, Felicity, in a lovely little bookstore called Books N Things while I was on vacation last week in Maine.

There were many, many moments of beautiful, sacred peace on this trip.

Like drinking coffee one early morning by a river.

coffee river

Like walking along a forest-lined lane searching for mysterious and ethereal lady’s slippers.

lady's slippers

Like watching the sun paint brushstrokes of beauty across the sky and lake as day slipped into evening.

sunset lake

Like watching my daughter write poetry in the sand.

amelie poetry sand

Like walking to the pier in the evening fog.

pier fog

But one morning we stuffed egg salad sandwiches, clementines, water, and bug spray into my backpack and hiked up Sabattus mountain in Lovell, Maine. Our guide that morning was Ann. Ann had been my psychologist fifteen years ago in grad school. I had shown up at the counseling center one day, desperately stressed and, well, desperate. Ann patiently and wisely helped me untangle a mess of internal knots during those two years that I weekly trudged into her office. Then, after I graduated and through a series of circumstances, we cut those threads of our therapeutic relationship and became friends. Now, she was leading me up a mountain in Maine, and my family and I walked with her as she pointed out Indian Cucumber, sarsaparilla leaves, wild oats, and the elusive lady’s slippers.

But then, eventually, we reached the top of the mountain.
The view was beautiful; it truly was.

sabattus mountain view

But we were up really, really high. And I am really, really afraid of heights. And I am especially afraid of heights when it’s not just me standing in a spot where a lot of nothingness stretches between that rocky ledge and the sea-level earth—but it’s my kids standing there, too. My hands were sweating as I ate my egg salad sandwich. My legs tingled with fear every time I cautiously peeked over that precipice. There was a vast expanse of breathtaking, God-created beauty stretched out in front of me. And I was clutching the rock underneath me with breathtaking, God-awful fear.

Last night I was looking through our pictures of Maine, and when I came to this picture, I stopped.

ann jack mountain

This is my son, Jack, standing with Ann on that rocky ledge, and she is pointing out the snow on Mount Washington, the names of other mountains she had hiked, and other interesting bits of information I can’t remember right now because at the time all I could think about was
Jack is standing too close to the edge.
And what if he trips somehow.
And oh please, please, please come sit beside me a little further back from the nothingness.

But he stood there and listened and asked questions and remained perfectly, blessedly safe.

When I looked at that picture last night, I was reminded of days when I sat in Ann’s office and she had to encourage me—not off of a ledge—but to inch towards it. To taste not the sourness of fear but the sweetness of bravery.

And I thought again of the last lines of that Mary Oliver poem:

There is nothing more pathetic than caution
when headlong might save a life,
even, possibly, your own.

Spending a week with Ann reminded me of those lessons from fifteen years ago. Just being with her reminded me of the scary precipices I inched towards when I sat in her office week after week. She stood with me through those scary moments of staring out over metaphorical precipices just like she stood there with me—and my husband and kids—as we stared out over a literal one. She saved my life in many ways as she gently encouraged me to hurl headlong into mine.

And I want to remember now what I learned then: that moments of beautiful, sacred peace are good, but so are moments of beautiful, sacred (and scary) bravery. I want to remember that God created me to live a life of wide-eyed wonder and audacious courage. I want to remember that God created my children for that life, too. And I want to remember that
headlong might save a life
even, possibly [my] own.




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