The Great, Sublime Precariousness

I have written before–here and elsewhere–about fear of heights and the sublime, so I won’t go on at too great a length. But, in the spirit of this blog’s origins, I’ll say something about what I’m thinking today. Driving across the bridge over the North Saskatchewan this afternoon on my way to the college where I teach, I felt the precariousness I always feel at any height at all–whether bridge, or mountain peak, or tenth-floor balcony–and thought of a practice I’d developed a few years ago, while at the Writing Studio at The Banff Centre. It emerged while I was hiking solo one day along a precarious little trail. That day, I felt my usual unease at the precipice below me, but then (as most people must usually do) simply considered my sturdy hiking boots in combination with my reasonable experience at choosing where to plant them and decided to think, instead of thinking about falling, about steadiness. So for a few weeks, I practiced steadiness–worked on cultivating a mind that believes in its own steadiness, a body that–even when confronted with a great height–believes in the not-falling, too.

You have to understand that my drive to work across this bridge is uncommonly beautiful. The small campus of the college where I teach is classically charming. From the bridge, the view across is old brick buildings at the top of a steep hill covered in deciduous trees that descend, in every colour an Alberta fall has to offer, to the river. The river is equally beautiful in both directions, but the suggested speed of traffic on the bridge is 80 km/hr. To drive across the bridge is an experiment in balancing traffic safety with one’s own intractable need to ingest certain daily quantities of transfiguring wild beauty.

Today, perhaps because the river valley is slowly turning a dull yellow brown, getting bare with departure, I felt with particular acuity the urgency of attending to the beauty as I passed it. And into my mind returned this word from the mountains, “steadiness.” You’ll have to understand that I am capable, if my wayward imagination is in the ascendant, of feeling genuine alarm crossing bridges. In the brief seconds I had today to contemplate the beauty of the river, the terror of the falling, and the urgency of looking, this word steadiness managed to sweep everything into a single exiting contemplation.

I sped down. Steadiness, yes. But not if it’s achieved by dulling the imagination to the great, sublime precariousness. We need our steadiness most in the presence of what alarms us. To be sure-footed is not to be certain, but to set one’s boot on the path, and to do it again. To live with–to weight equally, and thereby to balance–the possibilities of falling and of not-falling.


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