I first heard that Voice when I was five. I was trying to climb the monkey bars in the little park my Mum took me to. A big kid kept making fun of me:
“You can’t climb that thing! Look at those little skinny arms. You can barely reach the next bar. You are going to fall and smash your face. And I am going to laugh when you do.”
I almost let go of the bar and walked away. That's when I first heard that voice. The voice was soft, warm, kind. It was strong though, it was filled with all the conviction I didn’t have. Even though it was said in a whisper, the voice was full of strength, hope, the power to believe I could.
“You want to climb. Your body wants to climb. Your spirit wants to climb. Listen to them…not him.”
I climbed. I had to push off the lower bar with my little legs in order to get my hand far enough up to barely grab the next bar with my hand. I hung there, legs dangling, close to falling. A tear started up…the Bully was right. I can’t climb.
I heard the voice again, this time closer to my ear:
“Look at that! You jumped up high enough to grab the bar…now swing your body a little so your other hand can get on the bar too.”
When both hands were on the bar, it was easy to pull myself up. I found a way to swing my leg up too. A few minutes later and I sat on top of the Monkey Bars. I was tired, thrilled, a bit chuffed with myself. I looked down at the Bully sitting more than 12 feet below me. My five year old self thought it was a hundred feet down.
I don’t know why I said it, but I did.
“Hey, come on up. You can see the whole playground from up here!”
The Bully just made a sad face and walked away.
Then I realized something. He was afraid to climb! I was going to listen to someone who wouldn’t even try.
That is when I heard that voice again:
“Most of your life will be like this. People who didn’t try, are too scared, or failed and stopped after just one attempt at something, will tell you it is impossible. You aren’t good enough. You are too old. Too young. A girl. Too stupid. Too poor. A dreamer. A boy. They will use anything as an excuse to stop you from being you.
When you want to climb. Climb. That’s all there is to it.”
I didn’t hear that voice again until I was nineteen.
We had gone together since eight grade, her and I. Six long loving lovely years. All my firsts were with her. My first date. My first dance. My first kiss. My first trust in someone else. My first love. My first lover. The first time I thought of someone else more than I did of myself.
Now. It was over. It only took one semester at college to end six years of discovery. I didn’t even lose her to another guy. I lost her to a career. She found her true love in Science. One lousy quantum mechanics Class and she was hooked. I lost her to Academia, not to a taller, cuter, richer guy. No. Not at all. I lost her to Research and the goal of a Ph.D.
Relationships just took her away from her work. She didn’t have time for two loves…and she did the kind thing. She dropped me without any hope.
I sat on the bench outside her Residence Hall. Tears streaming down my face. I didn’t say anything ugly to her. At least I had that much control. I thanked her for all the years together. I told her she would get her Ph.D and someday I would read her book. That made her smile. She kissed my cheek lightly.
“Thanks. I knew you would understand.”
And that…was that. I don’t remember walking down her hallway to the elevator. I don’t remember going out of the lobby and signing out with the House Mother. I don’t even remember crying the whole way.
The first thing I remember was hearing the voice as I sat on the bench making a small puddle of could have beens, should have beens, and broken dreams.
I knew that voice. It was the same one I heard when I was five. Same tone. Same strength. Same power of hope and possibility. Different words.
I don’t know if I actually said: “What?” out loud. I must have. Because the voice answered my question.
“Monkey Bars. Two sets. Hers. Yours. She is climbing the difficult hoops that Academia presents to someone trying for a Ph.D. You helped her up to the first bar by believing in her. You told her she would get her Ph.D. You would read her books someday. Those words stuck.
She let you go. She said you would find someone else. You know how smart she is. You should listen. Your Monkey Bars are hidden behind your past. You need to climb out of the past. That is over. But you learned some things. You know how to listen now. You know that being kind to the folks you love is the high road. You know that sometimes you have to hold on…and sometimes…well, you have to let go.
She did you a favor with a clean cut. One that will heal better than a torn, ragged, bleeding wounded heart filled with false hopes. She told you why someone else will find you interesting, caring, and fun. She let you know you are special. So special that someone will find their match in you.
When you do. She will be so proud of you.”
The Voice was right. She was right. All it took was time.
I was thirty one years old. I had never married. I decided to travel while I was young…unattached…and healthy enough to try things. I stood at the top of a mast I was rigging for a friend. For just a moment, I thought back to sitting on top of the Monkey bars when I was a kid. I laughed at the image I got of my younger self seeing me perched more than seventy feet off the water, gently swaying with the waves, as I replaced the electronics.
My friend Susie was deathly afraid of heights. Yet she sailed the open ocean all by herself. I had made a few passages with her. Each time admiring her seamanship, her skills at reading both the weather and the seas. She could climb the mast if need be. But here, safe in a Marina…well, there was no need. I could do it. Gladly.
Down below I saw a pretty brunette girl come aboard Susie’s yacht. Cleverly named: The Susie Q. Susie made her money by programming Quantum Computers…most folks never knew what the “Q" in the boats name stood for. They just thought it was a cliche. They probably only saw a tanned strong short woman with intense green eyes. I bet most missed the brain behind those eyes that paid for the boat with its intelligence.
I used to date her long ago.
The brunette looked up at me and waved. I waved back. I went back to work. A few minutes later I felt the mast sway a bit to one side. I looked down. It was the brunette. She was climbing the mast with the ease of a trained trapeze artist. She had a tool belt, safety harness, and a small pack on her back.
She smiled up at me as she got closer. I watched her climb, she moved with complete confidence and an efficiency that hinted at a history of rock climbing. When she was just a few feet below me she yelled up at me:
“Susie said you would have to make two trips to get both the radar and the signal lights up here. (She tapped her pack) I brought the radar with me. And the replacement light. I figure that should save you time. Oh, and my name is Terri!”
To this day, I can’t tell you why I said what I said. Nor can I tell you what it meant to me when I heard her answer. It should be obvious. This is what I said:
“My name is Kevin. Where in the world did you learn to climb like that?”
Terri laughed. I loved that laugh. So open. So honest. So humble.
“Oh, when I was five, some jerk told me I couldn’t climb the Monkey Bars because I was too small…and a girl. I was so mad I climbed right to the top before I could get scared. I looked back down at him and said: “Come on up, big boy!” He ran away. I have been climbing things ever since.“
The look on my face must have said it all.
“Are you okay? You look like you saw God, or the Future or something.”
I heard that Voice for the last time. The one I had heard twice before. This time it was filled with a gentle wash of laughter, amazement, and certainty.
“Yes. She is the one. The Monkey Bars in your future you will tackle together.”
“I’m fine. Let me tell you a story about when I was five.“
Later, Susie told us to stay up as late as we wanted. She was going below. Just before she turned to go through the hatch she smiled at us both.
“The Aft stateroom is free. If you get too tired of talking, you can both bunk there.”
She winked at me.
The same way I had winked at her when she got her PH.D.
Terri just said: “Thanks Susie.”
We named our boat (A 45 foot Leopard Catamaran) the : “Monkey Bar."