If Not Now, When?

One of a miscellany of short observations from a trip to Scotland.

Is that footsteps? I stop moving, thereby quieting the noise from my feet, but my breathing won’t get with the program. I listen as intently as I can above my panting. Yes, I definitely hear someone approaching. From overhead. Damn.

I move to the extreme right edge of the step, turn sideways, suck in my gut, duck my head, and plaster myself against an appallingly inadequate few inches of stone wall. And then I wait. Ah, here they come — a couple emerges around the tight bend. Sighting me, they do the only sensible thing: they stop. But there is no help for it — the architect inexplicably chose not to include a passing lane or a pull-out. With apologetic smiles, they turn sideways too and begin to edge past me. As they squeeze past, we make enough body contact to affiance us in some cultures.

As my new intimates continue downwards, I unplaster myself from the inner wall of this spiral staircase. I’ve lost count of the number of steps I’ve already mounted, but I remember the total:  287.  It won’t get done by perching here on this postage stamp of stone, so I resume my climb.

I am climbing the Scott Monument, a gothic tower in downtown Edinburgh, for no better reason than that I did it when I was here in 1970. At 18, I was responding to a challenge from my father’s two spinster cousins, whose fiances did not come home from the Second World War. At 60, I am responding to an internally generated challenge. After all, how hard can it be?

It turns out it isn’t the climb itself that’s so tough — with intermediate platforms providing places to stop and look out over the city, the tower’s primary challenge is not cardiovascular. No, it is the converging walls of the tightening spiral and its effect on my slight claustrophobia that will be my primary memory from this ascent.

Hunched over to avoid banging my head, I finally emerge from the last staircase to find that rain-soaked Edinburgh is no more photogenic from a height of 200 feet than it is from street level. To get full value from my £3 entry fee, however, I feel that I must spend a certain amount of time at this altitude. As the open space normalizes my heart rate, it occurs to me that it’s a good thing the Big Guy gave this a pass. He would likely have gotten wedged in the second-last staircase.  It occurs to me, too, that it’s a good thing I revisited this scene from my youth on this trip. In another 42 years, it’s just possible it will be beyond me.

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4 Responses to If Not Now, When?

  1. Jim taylor says:

    I wonder how, and why, claustrophobia comes upon us. When I revisited my childhood school about ten years ago, I found a slot in the foundations that we kids used to squeeze through, to come out on the far side of the school. we thought nothing of it — snakes and spiders and all. Today, I couldn’t even stick my head into that space… What cultural/social/experiential factors changed me? Joan was not afraid of heights until she was in her fifties; suddenly, she could not look over the edge of a cliff… Again, what brought the change? The fear is not, I imagine, innate but learned, somehow.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Interesting. Like your change from schoolyard days, I, too, have no memory of claustrophobia associated with my first visit to the Scott Monument – and I would have been about the same size, if not quite the same shape. In addition to kids ‘growing out’ of allergies, I’ve heard of allergies coming on late in life and have read (or imagined?) that this might be linked to cumulative exposure. Eventually, the body says – Enough of that stuff! Maybe it’s the same with phobias and the mind.

  2. We don’t think ahead, mortality…schmortality… when we’re kids. Or, not enough experience of spider bites or falls or? The fun of it outweighs the risks? Peer pressure?

    Certainly there is cumulative exposure…I ate shrimp with abandon in California until I went to England in my late mid-20s. Ate prawns (surely not THAT different) and my face swelled up like an inflatable lifeboat (or so it felt). I spent 3 weeks with eyes that were puffy slits. It’s a wonder my throat didn’t close… haven’t had seafood of any kind since.

    Facing my fear? — nah… it could have me by the throat.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – There’s a reason why they say “Prudence dictates” – some things are just not subject to a vote, and allergies are one of them. Why Prudence gets to be the boss, I dunno… And just by the way, I saw you had commented so I signed on to respond. The first comment was this: “Praise is not pudding.” It actually took me a few seconds to be sure that wasn’t your comment, such is your reputation! Instead I thought – I wonder what she means by that?

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