Today was the winter festival at a local park. Last year when we went to this festival, our visit was cut short because Emily managed to find a hole in the pond ice with her leg, so we had to go home and get warm. This year, in contrast, the ice wasn't solid enough to trust, because it has been warm all week, culminating in a sunny day in the 50's for the Winter Festival. I joked about it being a Global Warming Festival instead.
Anyway, lately I've been working on a proposal for a new book, this one about women and girls playing outside, or perhaps about how we don't play outside enough. I've been thinking especially about fear - of the dark, of assault, of animals, or even of sullying our clothes. But I realized today that one of these fears is one I am more familiar with than many: fear of my own clumsiness.
I found myself following a gaggle of girls (OK, just four, two of my own and two friends), crossing the stream. Last in line, I realize too late that Emily, in the lead, is already three-fourths of the way up a climbable, but muddy and steep, hill face, while I might have thought we'd travel the boring but reliable stairs instead. Hazel is right behind Emily, and one of her friends is with her, racing to the top. I've climbed this before, though I wasn't planning to today, and so when the last of the girls was just ahead of me, I followed her up, encouraging her en route and feeling proud of myself to manage not only not to fall, but also to be right behind the child I was helping, stable enough, I hoped, to catch if need be.
At the top, I might have sighed with relief, had I not been struggling to keep up with the herd. The girls were bounding ahead, at first trying to outdistance a boy they encountered en route, then simply with the joy of having a trail to follow after weeks playing either indoors or hindered by snowpants.
We reached the woodland fort without incident - a spot probably built by local teenagers, on park land, but with a hammock, fire circle, and treestands demonstrating relative permanence compared to the many stick-teepees and huts scattered in other spots. The girls played for a few minutes before I suggested that their parents didn't expect us to be gone long, and we headed back, them bounding before me again with a speed and grace somewhere between deer and young bears. I don't care to think of what animal I resembled, but I was not bounding.
Twice, Emily tried to lead short cuts downhill, and I have no doubt Brian would have simply followed and encouraged her. First, I called her back to the trail because she was venturing down trail-less hillside; while I have no fear of getting lost in this park, I did not want to lead other people's children to the edge of any sheer drops, of which there are a few. The second time, Emily started downhill in the spot where we'd scrambled up, a spot where by any reason I should know we could get down: if you can climb up, you can always climb down backwards.
And I debated there, for a moment, almost letting Emily and Hazel and the more fearless friend down. They, certainly, would be fine, and I could walk with the less certain climber, down the stairs.
Somehow, though, between my own fears for myself and my own feelings of responsibility for the other girls, I balked at this. The girl who would have walked with me wanted the company of her friends; I was not confident in my own ability to lead her down as safely and fearlessly as we'd gone up. Though heights, per se, don't bother me, the idea of me climbing them does: I can't seem to trust my own climbing skills while simultaneously having to see the route I might fall.
So I forced the whole group down the stairs. Only Emily really complained, so it wasn't torture, and all the girls were off playing before I even reached the bridge back across the stream. It was, at some level, just the kind of boring judgment call which parents make all the time: safety or fun, pushed toward safety, once again.
But, hours later, I'm still thinking about it, with regret. I'd rather remember this afternoon proudly, with a memory of me helping the uncertain climber conquer her own fears instead of reinforcing them with my own. Could anything realistically have happened to us, besides mud or a few scrapes? And have I possibly infected all four of them with the seeds of my own self-doubt, dooming them all, in their 30's, to take a boring route with their own children when a more challenging climbing route was offered?
Next time, I'm going down the steep way.