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Time Passes Like Water

Just to be clear, I’m not afraid of heights, nor am I claustrophobic. I’m not even afraid of the dark. But inside this twisted underground I am enveloped in an expansive atmospherelessness. I am neither hot nor cold, wet nor dry; I smell nothing. With my headlamp still off, I open my eyes but my vision doesn’t adjust; the blackness is absolute. I am presently so far from light I am reminded of Chiricahua night skies, where the heavens are perforated with history disguised as starlight. I am removed even from my own past.

In my twenties and thirties, still learning what I was capable of, I often muddled through tight spots alone, too proud or ashamed to ask for help. Sometimes it worked, like the time I took off my skis and walked down a Taos mountainside behind my friends rather than admit I didn’t know how to ski or ask someone to teach me. Or the day I spent hours lost in Budapest. I found my way back to my hotel without stopping once to ask for directions. I refused to admit I couldn’t find my way and didn’t speak Hungarian.

The passage of time like the passage of water reforms what was once undeniably solid. The river that carved this cave exploited the vulnerability of its limestone walls. The empty places are oblivious to the rock’s former resistance; the water leaves behind only the memory of what has been diminished.

I turn my headlamp back on. Its weak beam casts shadows on a far wall. A calmer, more sensible version of myself might have remembered what Plato wrote about caves. “The bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light.” The shadows in Plato’s cave were only a projection of one version of reality, cast to convince those stuck in the cave to seek the truth, to find what is real. My truth, here in Crystal Cave, is already real. I too am stuck, at the limits of my ability in this moment.

I close my eyes again. Sometimes the best way to see something is to stop staring at it. Steve has promised to return so I won’t have to navigate my exit alone, but I wasn’t counting on needing much more than a companion. Trying to climb back up that precarious path without help, now that I am aware of the precipice, means facing a fear as intense as this space is profound. Asking for assistance means admitting I’m not the self-sufficient, invincible woman I believe myself to be. I can’t decide which choice is easier.

Is this how it begins—asking for help for something I once could do alone? What’s next—watching my skills atrophy and drop off one by one? At what point will I become an invisible old woman? Am I there now? How did this happen? In my thirties, I climbed the thousand feet to the top of Camelback, my favorite Phoenix mountain, every Sunday morning, stopped for a minute at the summit, and hiked back down in an hour. I slipped down scree slopes just because it was the fastest way to the bottom. Is it time to say goodbye to the part of me who used to move with grace? Where did she go?

I realize that I am paralyzed with fear. The weight of it pins me to the floor.