Climbing the tree is so physically effortless at this point that I didn’t really think I would run into any problems with it. But thanks to a too-enthusiastic exercise program, apparently, along with a bit of bad luck, I have hurt my shoulder rather badly. Possibly a rotator cuff injury of some kind. By last Friday I realized that if I were going to climb the tree I would have to do it without using my right arm at all, so as not make worse whatever the injury was.
This turns out to be a good deal more difficult than one might think. It is an awkward business at best, and near the top it seems almost impossible, though I manage to make it up, my right arm dangling at my side. From the road I must look like some kind of injured bug, crawling laboriously up the tree. And this is in perfect climbing conditions: sunny, dry, and unusually warm for the season. It is wonderful to be up here against these odds, but as I stand surveying the world I begin to grapple with the fact that in rain, or dark, or snow, or even temperatures cold enough to require gloves, it will not be possible to make the climb.
I climb one-armed again on Saturday, on another perfect day. I enjoy the beauty of it, sunlight streaming through the tree and the bark warm against my hands, but inevitably, I find myself thinking about the possibility that I might have to stop climbing. About the frailty of flesh. About how fallible, how mortal, our bodies are.
On Sunday, we wake to a heavy, wet, greasy snow. In late morning I will be leaving for work, and returning well after dark. Out of sheer bloody-mindedness, I put on ski pants, coat, boots, hat and gloves and go out and stand at the foot of the tree, looking up at the prayer flags. The snow is falling thickly around me and I put an experimental hand on the ladder. It is very slippery. I start up it. The ladder is easy to manage with one arm. I manage to haul myself up onto the wall of the tree house and then into the branches. Gloves make it harder to grip them securely. Somehow, branch by slippery branch, I finagle my body up the tree with one arm, the other dangling at my side or folded against my stomach. It is hard to keep from twisting when I pull myself one-armed up onto a new branch. That second hand makes all the difference, even if it only stabilizes and guides. The footing is greasy and insecure, and occasionally a boot slips a bit on a branch.
I finally make it up to the prayer flags. The snow is falling densely now, gigantic flakes drifting sideways in curtains across the meadow and through the open structure of the tree. It is breathtakingly beautiful, and it’s exhilarating to be up there. But I am also aware that I have done something inexcusably foolish–that I am standing forty feet above the ground in a treacherously slippery tree with the use of only one hand. I grasp this viscerally. And that the journey down the tree will be even more dangerous. And, above all, that my stubbornness in climbing the tree was a greater expression of human frailty than is my injured body.
I make it down without mishap, living to climb another day. But I am forced to begin grappling with the possibility that this other day may not be any time soon. In the vast scheme of things, is this a big deal? No. When faced with the specter of so much else possibly going so wrong with the world over upcoming days and months and years, this is trivial. But still, it is a fount of meaning in my life, and it is, in its own way, a form of protest. An insistence on holding on to something beautiful in a world not always so.
Sometimes saying yes to one thing matters as much as saying no to another.
But tomorrow I may not be able to say yes, at least not in this way.