Friday, February 14, 2020

Where The Fig Tree Hangs Heavy

Between the ages of nine and 12, I lived with my family in a suburb of Athens, Greece. One summer weekend we got away with some family friends to the coast to spend a sunny day on a favorite sand and shell beach nestled in the curve of a horseshoe of rocky cliffs forming a protected bay. We particularly liked this beach because the waves were gentle and the water was shallow enough that one could wade a good way out without having to reach for the bottom. We had previously discovered that there was good snorkeling along one of the rocky rises, while there was a deep pool up against the other making it an ideal place for diving from the rocks.

But what really made this a favorite beach was that on a previous visit we had discovered a "secret" path leading up through the rocks, one that required a great deal of scrambling and imagination to follow. Even better, it was one that the adults were entirely uninterested in (or perhaps incapable of) pursuing. What made it so magical is that after climbing some ways, we came to a flat area that held a patch of soil. At the end of that was a natural rock archway that we perceived instantly as a small doorway, our size, one that silently invited us, perhaps against our better judgement. We wiggled through to find a single, thriving fig tree, heavy with ripe fruit. It was like the opening chapter of a Hardy Boys novel or the tales of Narnia.

After getting our fill of swimming and diving, the older kids, there were four of us, left our parents on the beach to mind the younger children, intending to re-discover the magic path, the magic doorway, the magic tree. We struggled up the rocks as before, then through the opening in the rocks, where we found the tree. It was later in the season, however, and the fruit was on the ground which was abuzz with flies. This scene did nothing to decrease the feeling that I was in a story, even as the other kids expressed their disgust. We decided to see if this path held any more secrets when one of us discovered that it seemed to continue beyond the tree. Looking back, I'm not sure we were following a path at all, but at the time we could see it clearly.

After some light bouldering, we realized that we had emerged on the other side of the cliff. Above, we could hear the sound of cars passing on the roadway. Below, far below, was the churn of waves as they crashed against the rocks. We stopped to consider. Our imaginary path had dwindled out. Should we climb up to the road and walk back that way or just turn around to return the way we'd come? After several minutes, we decided that we could, in fact, see a path forward, albeit just barely. Indeed, the path was a very narrow ledge, not much wider than our feet. We could see that it opened up to more easy clambering a short way beyond, but first we would have to manage the ledge. Holding on to the rock face with my fingertips I edged my way toward the other side. About halfway across, I made the mistake of looking down into the devil's punchbowl of waves and rocks that would certainly be the end of me were I to fall. I saw my own death in that moment.

I honestly don't recall making our way back to the beach, but obviously we did. I think we failed to get up to the road, then returned the way we had come, although via an alternative to the narrow ledge. Upon our return, we chattered to the adults about the climb, the doorway, and the tree. We told them of our failure to make it to the road and our return, but none of us mentioned the ledge. I don't know if my brother or our friends had the experience I did. In fact, I tend to think that they simply didn't look down at that moment the way I had done and had therefore remained blissfully ignorant of how close to death they had been. Whatever the case, none of us mentioned how high we had climbed or how close to the edge we had been.

Stupid? The person I am now might judge it that way, just as we knew at the time that had the adults known, they would have scolded us. The person I was then, however, held no judgement. It was simply something I had done, something I'd experienced as part of pursuing something. What? Adventure, curiosity, magic? Yes to all of that. Importantly, this experience brought me close to death in a way that has stuck with me to this day. I didn't need scolding or fear-mongering or cautions to tell me what that moment meant. I had looked death in the face, as a boy, calmly, a chapter in the saga of my life, and emerged unscathed. To this day, I find myself returning to this memory in critical moments. It helps me with perspective. It reminds that if one is to pursue adventure, curiosity and magic, one must accept death as a companion, not a friend exactly, but perhaps sometimes as an ally, seeing him, knowing him, then continue forward nevertheless to where the fig tree hangs heavy with fruit.

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