This is How I Strengthen My Courage

“Courage is very important. Like a muscle, it is strengthened by use.”
Ruth Gordon

It’s Saturday. The sun is beaming down mid-afternoon to erase every excuse against yard work. This is the day, perhaps the final day, to clean up leaves and backyard detritus. This is the day to swap the old window screens for window panes and brace against the coming cold. This is the day to clean the gutters.

It is also Halloween. A day for facing fear head on. Embracing it even. My own dance with the devil will not come in a horror film or a haunted house. I need to face my own unhaunted house. Specifically, I need to get up on that roof.

I’ve been afraid of the roof for a long while. We’ve lived here for 10 years and I’ve been up there just a few times. Mostly with others, where I feel either emboldened enough to join in or foolish enough about sitting out. Today I face the roof alone. Mano-e-mano. It’s go time.

Many people are afraid of heights. There’s no shame in this. It's a legitimate fear because falling is really not helpful. In years past, I’ve leaned a ladder precariously along the stucco and climbed up below the gutter. I’ve arched my body outward like a sail, hoping not to catch the wind. I’ve reached my arm up and over my head to scoop the black-rot soup, packed with leaves and dirt, from the gutters and down into my Save-On-Foods bag. It is always cold. It always stinks. It always takes forever, having to climb down to move the ladder a few feet along the gutter every 5 minutes. I’m certain I’ve even dripped tar-black gutter sludge onto my own face during some accidentally acrobatic manoeuvre. This is the price I pay for my fear.

There is a better way to do this job, of course. The right way. Get up on the roof. Scoop from above. Do it quickly. Just get it done.

I grab the ladder and head to the front step. I prop it steady and begin my ascent. I am climbing now, making the precarious step from top rung to the first on-ramp; a little awning above the front door. From here it is just a grab and a pull and I’m on the roof.

I walk around a bit. The air is clear. Free. I head to the apex and walk along the middle like Philippe Petit between the Twin Towers. I feel that victorious. That bold. I walk to the edge and look over. I see my son and daughter and wave hello. This is a cool thing that dads do. They walk on roofs. Now I do too.

I can see my neighbour’s yards from here. One neighbour has an entire living room complete with sofas and a pool table. Another neighbour’s twin dogs give me a curious upward glance. 

Things begin to shrink up here on the roof, somehow freed from the weight of everyday life. Except for me. I feel myself expanding. Capable of more than I imagined. By the end, I’m dropping bags of gutter slime over the edge like bombs. The tree that threatens to lift our shingles is being torn apart, branch by branch, in the manliest pruning session I can imagine. At one point, near the end of the job, I dangle a leg. 

Before today, I couldn’t drag myself up here. One recent year I got high enough on the ladder but could not pass the threshold where I put my weight onto the roof. I retreated with some degree of shame.

So what has changed? Well, that is going to take some time to unpack. It has taken so many things to get here, onto the roof. To claim this little metaphoric victory. 

I’m conquering other fears these days, too. Not all of them. Not half of them. But some of them.

Ironically, I’m still afraid to reveal the whole story to you. Some of it I will save for those closest to me. Courage does not negate discretion.

I can tell you that it’s taking more than positive thinking and faith. Even faith in God, as healing as that faith can be. It’s taking more than a can-do attitude. These things are part of the solution and for perhaps all of it. But my journey is a bit more complicated.

I can tell you that paying attention to my body and my brain has helped a great deal. That my journey thus far has involved crippling anxieties and a hurricane of thoughts I cannot still. I can tell you that I am often my greatest foe, and I have been unable to claim victory on my own. I can tell you that I have friends in my corner. A family who loves me. A wife who wades through muck it would be easier to walk around, just to pull me out.

I can tell you that I work out regularly now. How that has helped regulate my body chemistry and keep me more focused and positive throughout the day. How important it is to get enough sleep. I can tell you, even, that a good doctor is walking me through all of this. That I know how to use a pill cutter now. 

That may be all of the courage I have today. That’s the height of this particular roof. 

The War of Art
By Steven Pressfield

I know I will climb higher still because I know that courage is a muscle, just like Ruth Gordon says. We work it each time we do something that scares us. I know that fear is Resistance, just like Steven Pressfield says. 

“Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.
Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That's why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there'd be no Resistance.”

Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles

This all has a great deal to do with art, of course. Because you are afraid of something too. Of the next project. Of the mask you must remove to show us a new facet or yourself. The soul, revealed sliver by sliver, is always asking for another connection born in vulnerability. The next move may be yours. 

Some of you brought work to the Bleeding Heart Art Space to show the public for the first time. That was an incredibly brave step. You worked your courage muscle. Your art is hanging in our gallery right now for OPEN WALLS. Well done.

You don’t need to be a daredevil, but find a way to work that courage muscle today. And then work it again tomorrow. Start small. The weights get bigger in time. Be patient, but be persistent. Be ruthless and gracious at once. 

The strange thing about all of this is that it wasn’t hard to climb up onto the roof today. 

If courage is a muscle I’ve been working, today I am flexing.

Earlier in the day my family and I are on a river valley walk. One more walk, long after I thought the season would permit. One more look at the band of glass winding through silvered trees. Everything hangs between the rich autumn palette and the hard winter monochrome. Everything is about to change. Is changing now, as we stand here. My family, loving one another imperfectly under the last October sun. My dog, bounding carefree down hills near 90 degrees and ten times the height of our house. All of this harmonizing into a single word. Ready. 

The view from the roof is breathtaking. 

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