Where eagles don't dare

By Anne Lamott
Published September 23, 1996 3:07PM (EDT)

So there we were,me and my boy Sam, two days before his seventh birthday. We were in an exquisitely beautiful valley in the Midwest, several thousand feet up, where I was teaching at a writing conference. As the story opens, we were taking an early morning walk with a famous and much-loved writer, who has a new baby, and who wishes to remain anonymous. Let's call him Will. Now Will and I have taught together at a number of conferences, and I have gotten used to people falling at his feet. This has actually happened a few times. But I am old and tough, and my ego is so healthy and I am in general so spiritually evolved that it is simply not a problem for me at all, NOT AT ALL, NOT EVEN ONE TINY FUCKING BIT.

For instance, right after Sam was born, Will and I were teaching at a conference, and everyone was falling at Will's feet, because his new book had just been published. I was being very spiritually evolved about it; also, feeling left out. Then one night I got to give a reading, just me, just my tiny princess self, and there was a great turn-out, and I got to read from my new book. I noticed an old woman sitting in the front row with a huge bouquet of expensive flowers and she was staring at me intently, in a love-struck way, the whole time I read, and I kept smiling gently back at her. When I finished, she bounded up to the podium and looked at me with so much love that her eyes actually watered; and she hemmed and shuffled for a moment, and then thrust the flowers at me and said, "Will you give these to WILL?"

This is a true story.

But it happened seven years ago. So now Will and I and our two kids were walking along in a valley that was so beautiful and majestic that it made you feel strangely patriotic. We noticed half a dozen paragliders floating down off the jagged high mountain above us. Sam became extremely excited, because a friend of ours routinely paraglides off the cliffs near Santa Cruz and has been promising him for a while now that he will be old enough to paraglide in a tandem harness when he is just a bit bigger: and of course, here he was about to turn SEVEN. So we all stopped and looked skyward, in postures of reverence and awe. Partly we were blown away by the beauty of the mountain and the sky, and partly our mouths were hanging open because these fabulous silk winged creatures -- wings of aqua, lavender, rose, apricot, red -- were hanging in the sky above us, like a little sky-gang led by Icarus himself.

After a minute, when it became clear that they were going to land a few hundred feet away, Sam begged us to run with him to their landing spot, so he could talk to them. So we did.

This is what happened: one of the men who landed at our feet a moment later took one look at Will, and he said, "Are you WILL? Oh, my GOD! This is incredible!" and they got into a long animated discussion about Will's wonderful novels; Sam stared up into the pilot's face like Jesus or Jim Carrey had just landed at our feet, and eventually Will introduced Sam and me to the pilot. The pilot said, and I quote, "Oh! I know who you are -- my girlfriend really liked your book." He took a stab at the title; and it did not bother me -- not a tiny bit --that he did not get one single word right. Then he gave us his business card. He was a paragliding instructor and in fact a tandem specialist. He said he would love to take all of us on complimentary tandem paragliding rides, two mornings later, on Sam's birthday.

Sam said, "Great!" Will declined. I declined. I'm not at all well enough to step off a mountain wearing wings. To tell you the truth, I don't even do all that well in planes. I ask flight attendants things like, "Excuse me -- is this plane in trouble?" Or, "Are you sure this plane is going fast enough?" If there is ever any real trouble on any plane I'm on, religion or not I am going to be the Shelley Winters character all the way down.

I do not have any illusion that I would make a good candidate for paragliding. That much I'm clear on. What confuses me, however, is how much freedom I'm supposed to give Sam. I'm confused about the fine line between good parenting, and being overly-protective -- and let's not even get into the seven-year-old girl who solo-piloted that doomed plane this spring. I get lost on the easy test questions -- like whether I should let Sam ride his two-wheeler for several blocks without me, when I secretly want to run alongside him like a dog. He wants to walk to a friend's house, I want him to stay inside and draw while I sit on the front porch with a shotgun across my lap like Granny Clampett.

Unfortunately, we have no front porch.

So what I needed to know up there in that beautiful valley was, if there is such a thing as a normal person, would the normal person feel that it was a good idea for a seven-year-old to paraglide in a tandem harness off a mountain l500 feet up.

Needless to say, there was no one around remotely fitting the description of a normal person: I was, after all, at a writing conference.
Sam desperately wanted to go. He begged me to let him do it. Will seemed to feel that if he did not have a newborn heir, he would be there on the mountain, stepping off into thin air, waiting for the moment when the air underneath fills the wings of the paraglider and lets one soar.
And I kept thinking that maybe it was meant to be: the paraglide pilot had, after all, landed virtually at our feet, and sort of knew who I was, and had offered Sam a spectacular present that would more than make up for the fact that Sam was a thousand miles away from home on his birthday.

Sam said, and I quote, "It has always been a dream of mine to fly." I said, "Hey, kid, who's writing your stuff?" I tried to figure out what to do. I would decide one thing -- to let him fly, to give Sam his freedom, his wings. I'd remind myself that I usually feel deeply and philosophically that Sam is not mine, or at any rate, he is not my chattel -- that he is God's, he belongs to God, but that for whatever reasons, he had been entrusted into my care -- entrusted, rather, into my clutches. Then I would decide that I was crazy, that the world is aquiver with menace as it is, and one does not need to add to this by flinging one's own child off a mountain, harness or not. I just couldn't decide what to do.

I went back and forth. It was like a one woman ping-pong game. I decided he could go. I decided he couldn't. I kept remembering the old line, that if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans. Then I finally decided to trust God, and to begin by seeking wiser counsel.

So the night before Sam's birthday, I sat down with two older people, a brilliant adventurous writer and his amazing wife. I told them about the pilot's offer. The wife said, "This is a very bad idea. You must not do it.
He is too small. He has a lifetime of adventures ahead of him." The husband said, "Hearing you say that, I feel more strongly than ever that Annie HAS to go ahead and let Sam do this. You have to give your children their freedom, even if you do so with your heart in your throat."

"No," said the wife. "This is a bad idea. He is too small. Don't do it."

Oh, sigh. I still didn't know what to do. So I finally sat down by myself, and prayed to know God's will. And I swear to you know Who, all of a sudden I remembered a conversation I had with a Protestant priest when I was two months pregnant with Sam, when I was planning to have an abortion because I was alone and did not have any money, and did not have any family money to fall back on. This priest thought I should have the abortion: he pointed out that there was no safety net underneath me at the time, that there was nothing between me and the streets or welfare.

What about God? I asked. What about God -- and my sobriety? Well, yes, said the priest. There's that. But still, I'd like you to try one exercise. Sit down and get quiet and pray for a moment, and then think about having the abortion: if you feel a deep secret relief, pay attention to that. If you feel deeply grieved at the thought of it, listen to that grief.

I did the exercise. I felt pierced with grief. I canceled the abortion.

So underneath the stars, in the night shadow of the very mountain off of which my boy was scheduled to leap the next morning, I got quiet, and prayed.
I thought about how I would feel if I let Sam jump: I felt terrified.
Then I thought about how I would feel if I called the paraglide pilot and canceled. I felt euphoric, like Zorba the Greek. I felt like getting everyone up so we could all dance the mazurka and clink steins full of root beer.
Five minutes later I called the pilot and I canceled.

So my little boy didn't get to fly, didn't get to hang in the air like a baby eagle. He was actually not too disappointed: maybe he was secretly relieved. That night we asked God to help us come up with a really exciting, really safe way for Sam to celebrate his birthday, and the next day, out of the blue, the son of some friends of Will's called. He asked Sam if he wanted to go inner-tubing that day, float down a sleepy little creek at the foot of the mountain.

Which in fact he did. So: thank you, God. Thank you, Will. And happy birthday, big boy, baby eagle, Sam.

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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