02 March 2012

thoughts from :: really high up.

photo by luci laffitte

they tell you to make the most of your leap day. and so I did. but I'm glad I didn't actually leap. because I would have had a long way to go.

most anyone can go on a tour of the capitol. it's actually something I would recommend to DC first-timers. especially if you like a good statue (there's two for every state in the building) or are particularly interested in checks and balances and that sort of thing. but what most people don't know about is that, if you try really hard and have an inside connection (or are not too lazy to contact your congress-person), you can actually get a tour of the capitol dome. so this week, on the most auspicious of non-holidays, my super cool friends and I got to go on a super cool, top-secret dome tour at the capitol building. okay, maybe it's not top-secret. but sometimes I like to feel like one of those top-secret agents running around this little town. especially when convincing myself that walking up about a million stairs and over 200 feet in the air is something that I actually want to do.

some fun facts about the dome: the capitol dome is over 280 feet high. when inside and looking up at the striking fresco (called the apotheosis of washington in case you were dying to know.) you are looking about 180 feet up. the statue of liberty could fit inside the captiol dome. with room to spare.

one fun fact about carrie: not a big fan of heights. not a big fan at all, friends.

it was not until about 10 minutes before our tour actually started that I realized that the fun facts about the dome and the fun facts about carrie were not at all compatible. but it was too late for that. so up I went. the stairs were narrow and the ceiling was low (we were climbing up the side of a big arch after all) and the descent was almost straight up. plus there was some sort of remodeling going on so in some areas plywood was in the place of actual platforms. I was about 98% sure I was going to die. but up we went. we came to the first viewpoint area. only about 100 feet up. no big deal. I gripped the banister and tried not to look down. I admired the 36 windows in a perfect circle around the dome. I gazed up at the fresco, so much closer now, and so full of detail and color. but for the life of me, I did not look down. here is my really detailed picture of the banister. you can kind of make out all the people down there. I sort of (really) wished I was down there with them. but it wasn't over yet.
somehow I willed myself to follow the group back into the stairwell and up the stairs that were more like a ladder. inside I felt hot and claustrophobic. I was sure death was imminent. but as long as I didn't faint I was fine. I mean there was a congressman from kentucky (or was it kansas?) in there with us. I had to make a good impression on my fellow conservative constituents (haha). so I kept my wits about me and continued into the abyss. then we got to the second viewpoint and I about lost it. we were directly under the fresco that I had just been told was higher than the statue of liberty. I was almost touching the ceiling and below me were all the people who I would potentially crush when falling to my doom. it was all I could do to grip the banister as far away from the edge as possible. I focused on the fresco, which was absolutely stunning when so close to it (sure, anything is stunning when you are about to die). I focused on the intricate carvings and the 14-carat gold stars around the entire circumference of the dome. I focused on the words of the tour guide as she went on and on about the symbolism behind every part of the dome. I didn't get even one good photo. but I did manage to capture my fearless friend, SY, waving to the people 180 feet below. I sort of (really) wished I was waving back to her. safely. with two feet on solid ground. oh, but don't worry. there was still one more level to go.


we climbed back into the staircase and, despite my clammy hands and legs that felt like jello, ascended to the very top of the dome, directly under the statue of freedom. right before we went outside to the observatory deck (yes, outside), our tour guide really assuaged my fears: "oh, do be a bit careful. it's quite gusty out there and the rain may have made some areas a bit slick." thanks for the pep talk. I timidly set one foot unto to the platform outside, gripping the side of the open door. and I immediately felt better. my fear of heights went straight out into the gusty wind and was replaced with a strong sense of how truly unique this experience was. I could see for miles and miles in every direction. all the monuments. the pentagon. all of DC. it was amazing. and I didn't feel so claustrophobic anymore. I still was too shaken up to snap a photo, but that wonderful girl, luci, let me steal one of hers (that first one above is from her too.) so at least I have something to show for my leap day adventure.
photo by luci laffitte
just as I began to relax I realized that there was still the matter about getting back down. I almost asked if there was an elevator or something I could take. but like I said, I had to remain cool with the congressman from kentucky (or was it kansas?) hanging out nearby. so down we went. and I was about 99% sure I was going to die. but I didn't. and I have never been so happy to get back to a stuffy room full of statues and tourists in my life.

but here's the crazy thing. and here's why this post is not just a story about my near-death experience on leap day and actually has thoughts attached to it. I have done this all before. when I was in college, just a few short years ago, I climbed the dome of the berlin cathedral while in germany. that thing was pretty darn high up too. and I do not remember being even half as frightened as I was climbing those steps of the capitol dome. and it was at that moment, wondering when I had become such a scared loser that I realized I should also be wondering when I had become an adult. I look at things differently now. even though it's been less than 5 years since I climbed those steps at the berliner dom. now I asses risk at every turn. I know that bad things happen all the time. too much of the time. I know senseless acts of violence or suffering or just plain brokenness enter the world on a daily basis. and so I am more cautious. more responsible. more like an adult. and it's weird to think that my fearlessness is leaving me as I get older.

then again, maybe I am just becoming fearless in different ways. not in ways that are about heights or skiing too fast through the trees or not wearing sunscreen. but in ways that are about choosing to love fiercely in the midst of all that brokenness. choosing to trust in a time table that I don't fully understand. choosing to let go of all the expectations I have for a life that I don't even fully control. I can try my best to be fearless in those ways. I'll leave the heights to the young kids.

p.s. in the end I figured out that my congressman friend was actually from kansas, not kentucky. better luck with your political expertise next time, carrie.

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