Karen Rivers

the vertigo of everything

Karen Rivers

There is the fact of it:  being afraid of heights.  Which is the most terrible descriptor because it isn't the height that is upsetting, it is the falling from it that is the problem.  

So then there is driving and mountain passes. On one side, a dizzying rock face going up and on the other a drop that you can feel because you have had dreams like that -- some kind of apnea, according to the internet -- where you've been in an elevator that has let go and your stomach has fallen less quickly than your body and you've woken up choking on yourself, a strange buzzing in your head that suggests that you weren't quite breathing during the event.  

That, you think, is what it would be like if, at the wrong moment, the kids began to punch each other in the back seat and you swung around too fast, pulling the wheel with you, and then there would be the free fall and your stomach in your throat and then you start to choke even though nothing has happened and you are still driving and actually the car seems pretty disinclined to lurch off the road.  

Afterwards, you remember it being beautiful although there are some callouses on your hands that suggest you were holding on quite tightly, that you were afraid.

There are things I want to write about that I've promised not to write about, things to do with divorce and ripple-effects and how people try and try and try to get it right, whatever "it" is, and still fall short.   It seems impossible, but is actually possible, to continue to fail even after you've thrown up your hands and signed documents that say, "This has failed and as we would like to cease failing, we concede to failure.  Now, it stops."

It doesn't stop.

There is something Buddhist that I read about how when you are angry and you have anger to throw at someone, it's like you are holding on tightly to hot coals and the only one who is burned is you, because, of course, the coal cooks your hand and sticks there and if you tried to throw it, likely you would throw off pieces of your own cooked flesh, too.  Which sounds unbearable.  (Some things are unbearable, as it turns out.)  

Then again, you think that is a pretty apt metaphor for anger.  

I have been throwing flesh.

I have been angry.

I am still angry.

It is possible that some aspects of this will make me angry forever and, worse than all that, I am angry that I am angry.

I don't know what the Buddhists would say about that.  I like to read only enough Buddhism to absorb the beautiful metaphors without having to do all the work of it.

Anyway, the latest result of the most recent bout of seared flesh is that I have developed ugly patches of scar tissue and bone.  The patches are crooked and messy, which is also a metaphor for love and life.  Love is one of those things that just seems simpler for other people.  

It's hard to say a thing without saying a thing.  I'm not actually protecting the innocent by doing this.  I am protecting myself.  Which is to say, I am protecting the guilty.

I'm practicing putting the coals out, using cool water and travel and experiences and time and art and things-that-are-beautiful, like the way a mountain reflects down into a lake, the image of itself being a precisely, exactingly better version of the thing itself. It's cooler on reflection.  It's buoyed up by all that water.  The fire doesn't have a chance to burn.

It's hard to not pick up the coals.  By which I mean that sometimes, when you aren't noticing, you look down and realize your hands are on fire and you think, "Damn it, why did that happen again?" And the only person who can understand about the coals and the burning is the one who snuck them into your palms when you were looking at the mountain and thinking, "I should move east and every day stare at this mountain as I drink my morning coffee and every afternoon climb higher up the mountain until eventually I'm at the top, looking down, and somewhere in the lake below, I'll be a better version of myself."

Also, houses are a lot cheaper in the mountains.


You were on the worst part of the road when traffic ground a stop.   People turned off their engines.  It was sunny.  The sky was a bowl of blue, inverted over the mountain pass.   The snow was melting so fast that rivers of brown sludgy water poured over your boots as you stood talking to the man in the next car, trying to look neither up nor down, both of which made you feel as though you might die.   "They said an hour," he said.  

Five hours later, you were still there but the man had gone.  He'd done a u-turn and gone to his home in the mountain's vast shadow.  Doing a u-turn felt impossible to you.  Besides, the hotel on the other side of the avalanche was significantly closer than anywhere else you had to go or be.

There wasn't a lake there, but still.  You could imagine one.  Mountains and lakes belong together.  If you're being honest, you felt slightly ripped off by the lack of lake.  Of course, maybe there was one, so far down you couldn't see it.  Maybe it was small.  Maybe it was hidden by the trees that clung in an incredibly unlikely way to the sheer face of stone and ice.

You ate a bag of Cheezies and drank a grape slushee, ensuring that from now on, grape-flavoured drinks will make you feel trepidatious.  You tried to not imagine that the snowy shoulder where the kids built a snowman was not just an illusion of snow suspended over mid-air, just waiting to sigh and release, thundering to the ground below, their shocked faces the last thing you'd see in the split second of their leaving.  

Eventually, boredom won out over fear and also the need to pee and the encroaching darkness and the fact that the hotel was still four hours away.  

The thing you have to keep in mind was that for the kids, the avalanche was the best day of their lives, throwing snowballs in their shirtsleeves, warm from the sun, damming the rivers of mud with rocks.  The snowman they dyed into rainbow colours using skittles they melted in their snow-wet hands.  For them, there was the absolute freedom of being trapped with nowhere to go.

Maybe now you can write it differently and change your memory from fear to something else.  After all, in this place, so high up, the sky felt not like it was above you, but like it was all around you, like you were swimming in the glassy calm lake of the sky.  Really, it was as though you had become your reflection, shimmering in the langorous warmth of the late afternoon sun, the trees throwing long shadows like lifelines towards your distant, cool, empty hands.