Five of us crowded together on the bow of our beloved family sail boat. For a month every summer, our large family adventured along the wild coastline of British Columbia. We had our favorite spots we returned to every year. This was one of them.
My father steered the boat close in under the shadows of the towering cliffs. My four big brothers (ages 18, 16, 15, 12) stood watching for the familiar niche among the cliffs. Clinging to the forward stay, I stood on the boom behind them eager to get in on the search. I was seven.
The acrid smell of seagull dung wafted down from the ledges high above as the birds took to agitated flight, our tall masts threatening their nests. The roar of distant waterfalls thundered down from the steep walls that surrounded us. We had come to Princess Lousia Inlet ~ where 7,000 foot mountains made a swift descent in to the sea. A fjord hidden deep in the Coastal Range of British Columbia. Rugged rock faces striated with shades of gray, black,and browns were bisected by cracks and crevasses. In some of these, dripping water allowed mosses, ferns, even small trees to grow. A vertical garden, like a mural on a wall. Every year on our summer cruise we visited this particular spot in the Inlet where the vertical cliffs dropped straight down into the dark waters.The boys came to cliff jump.
I remember as a little girl, piling into the small fish boat with my brothers to fish off these cliffs. We used to hold onto those craggy walls and drop our cod jigs straight down, never finding bottom but feeling the lure bounce off the deep submerged cliffs. The jig would pause, fooling you into thinking you had at last reached the bottom, until it slipped off whatever small shelf it rested and continue downward. We never caught fish there, but just the creepiness of the dark walls stretching far below us, drew us back again.
My brothers loved to scale these walls and leap from them into the dark mysterious waters. There were a couple of niches along these cliffs where a crack was big enough to be climbable. An angled fissure that offered a tiny pathway to little shelves from which to leap. Sometimes 15 feet, sometimes 25 feet, the big boys might go 40 feet or higher. The cliffs here were so steep, that if you misstepped or your handhold crumbled, you would fall unhindered to the water. Somehow, I assured myself that they would not die in front of me.
Too young to jump, I sat in the dinghy as the official watcher. My mother didn’t like to witness this spectacle and would disappear below decks with my baby brother. But Dad would crack a beer and sit on the wheelhouse to cheer them on, fueling the fire of their competitiveness. He would encourage me to give it a try but there was no way! It was not so much the jumping that gave me pause, but the dark water underneath those shadowy walls.
Besides, what I loved to do was play with the echoes. The boys shouts and the BOOM when they hit the water bounced off the rock turning the cliffs into a cathedral of sound. Even better was at dusk, when all alone I would row the dinghy from our anchorage around the point and drift off the cliffs in perfect stillness. Cupping my hands around my mouth I would call out, “HELLOOOOOOOO!” and the towering rock would answer in a familiar young girl’s response. I imagined somewhere up there hiding among the crags, lived a wild girl just my age. She was my secret friend.
Later in life I would listen with equal fascination to other echoes bouncing back to me from the hard secret places of my childhood. These echoes I did not hear with my ears, but with my mind’s eye. Fleeting glimpses of momentary scenes that would dart across the field of my conscious. What was that? Like a small bird flitting among the bushes. Strangely these glimpses would send adrenaline coursing through my veins. The sudden urge to protect myself would sometimes cause me to swerve off the road down some obscure street, find a seemingly hidden place to park and curl up on the car seat in a tight trembling ball. Needless to say, this was more then a little un-nerving and inconvenient for a 40 year old mother of four. In that tight trembling ball of fear, arms covering my head for protection, I would be transported back to my four year old self. It only ever happened when I was alone.
These unraveling emotional tidal waves began in my life when I decided to seek freedom from a quiet eating disorder I was packing around with me.
When I began to give up the controlling, addictive pleasure of hunger pains, I began to hear distant echoes hidden in the rock hard places of my soul.
Something would happen in my present world, clear and loud as that seven year old girl shouting out greetings to the towering granite cliffs of Princess Lousia Inlet ~ and then an echo of experience would respond back. Perhaps a little sense of place would dash across the field of my memory and quickly jump out of sight.
What was that? As if slipping from one of those rocky ledges my brothers would leap from, all the terror of a free fall into those dark waters next to those black bottomless cliffs would sweep over me. Echoes from the soul.
For ten years I heard the muted echoes, caught glimpses of the fragmented pictures, wrestled with unidentifiable anxiety as the foggy haze of repressed trauma slowly cleared away. Like sending the fishing lures down those dark, submerged walls, I explored the murky depths of memories that had been mercifully repressed. And I did not surface with neat and tidy pictures to show or stories to tell. The dark waters offered up mostly visceral impressions. The kind that make you leap up for battle, drawing sword, heart racing, with a war cry on your lips. My greatest prize from diving into those waters was a new compassion for myself. Acknowledging the mysteries hidden, unshackled me from the heavy chains of shame and unexplained self loathing that threatened to pull me under.
The girl born into a family of men had to be tough. And I was a scrappy little kid who ran hard to keep up with my brothers. I followed them into life gaining a adventuresome and strong spirit. One or two became my greatest defenders, my advocates. What I didn’t know, was that at the hands of another, my voice had been silenced in one foul swoop, my early memories repressed, my capacity to feel stolen in a moment of broken trust and violence. My safe place was no longer among them. Part of me fled and hid, banished to the lonely wild places.
Like the seven year old who would row out to the cliffs at dusk to call out to the girl hiding among the crags, similar was the journey in search of my own wholeness. I sought to bring the child hiding back to me. First to find her hidden in the lonely places of my soul and then to convince her that if she leaped from those frightening heights ~ I would catch her.
*This post originally appeared on Red Tent Living in July 2014
Cindy Peterson is a native of the Pacific Northwest. Mother of four, Grandmother, wife and lover of God. Captivated by the redemptive work of God through story in the small group setting. Outdoors woman, athlete, gardener, photographer. She loves to run in the woods with her dogs. You can read more of Cindy’s writing here.