Out of the Zone


The rickety wooden staircase leads to nowhere. But that isn’t the problem. Not really. There are only three stairs, and while they are made of little more than splintering 2-by-4s thrown together with a few rusty nails, they look solid enough to hold a person, or even two. And I know they are stable — I’d seen my husband and two of my kids walk down them only minutes before.

So I know they don’t really lead to nowhere. But when all that’s between the last creaky step and the firm ground 72 feet below is a beautiful but flimsy canopy of bright-green leaves, it is challenging to think rationally.

At least for me.

No, the wooden staircase to nowhere is not the problem. The problem is I don’t like being too high up. I never have. Most of the time I like to feel my two feet — or hands, or knees, or some part of me — fixed to the earth. I like to take deep breaths, and close my eyes and feel steady. It’s where I’m most comfortable, most myself.

I don’t go on rollercoasters and I hate the flying swing at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and if I find myself at the top of the Empire State Building or walking across the Golden Gate Bridge (because how can you visit New York City or San Francisco and not do either of those things), I never go too close to the edge.

Of course, I do have to leave the safety of my solid and unmoving comfort zone, usually to take a flight or to swim in the bay. My heart races a little and my fingers tingle and the blood rushes in my ears for a few seconds, but I can feel the airplane seat beneath me or the salty water around me, and I breathe and close my eyes and my heart slows and I can keep going.

And yet here I am. Some 6 dozen feet above the earth, standing on the edge of a wobbly staircase, with really nothing between me and the safe ground below because even though those lovely green leaves are full of light and energy, they will do little more than gently wave as I fly past them. I’m about to leap so far out of my comfort zone I wonder if I’ll ever return. And I’m terrified.

I am in a harness, I try to reassure myself, and I am safely strapped to a zipline with multiple cables. I carefully watched as the guide strapped me in, checked and then checked again. My head tells me over and over that I cannot fall through the forest, that I can only soar above the treetops and land safely on the platform on the other side. Most of the trees I will fly over are close to 1,000 years old.

Two of my kids are waiting for me at the other end of this zipline. It’s 250 yards long, the longest on this treetop tour. Two are waiting for me to take the leap. I don’t want to do it. My heart is pounding, my ears are roaring, and all I can think of is the nothingness I will feel around me as I zoom down the line.

“Mom, are you OK? It’s your turn,” my daughter looks at me with worry in her green-gray eyes. She knows I’m scared. I think she is too, a little. But her eyes are bright, more green than gray, and she looks happy and alive. With my encouragement, my kids venture out of their comfortable spaces all the time, and always without regret. They try out for teams and plays, they go snowboarding and waterskiing, they learn Torah, they try new foods, they go to sleep-away camp… I can do this.

I propel myself forward off the edge of the step and into the rushing warm air. For 20 seconds all I can see and smell are thousands of gorgeous trees, their leaves waving encouragingly. I smile and reach my arms out wide. I close my eyes and breathe. It’s magical here, high above my comfort zone.

This essay first appeared on Jweekly.com.

Tall Trees, Mosquitos, Ga-ga… Magic

Dust everywhere. Incessant mosquitos that attack any exposed stretch of flesh, with a bloodthirsty affection for the neck and ankles. The dark night is chillingly cold, except near the warmly leaping flames where it’s suddenly and uncomfortably too hot. The bathroom is many, many, many miles away, on the other side of terrain treacherously strewn with gigantic tree roots and fallen logs hiding in plain dark sight. Easier, safer to hold it in.

(Actually, the bathroom is less than 200 meters from the campfire and there is only one potentially, not-really-dangerous exposed tree root. But everything is amplified in the dark).

Tall, tall pine and redwood trees stretch their lean, leafy necks right up to the moon. The inky black sky and its twinkly blanket of stars keep everything hushed. Whispered. Even the guitar’s lazy strums and the low, rumbly voices talking about everything and nothing float quietly in the night. Sometimes splashes of laughter musically disturb the drifting melodies, and tumble gently into the crackling orange fire.

The mystery of sleep-away camp: where you feel so uncomfortable, and so exquisitely happy all at once. Where the icy wind stretches its long skinny fingers into your sleeping bag, but you curl yourself up even tighter and those fingers tip-toe away, stealth like a ninja. An owl hoots in the trees above, the frogs are loud and the crickets are louder, and the last thing you see before you fall soundly asleep is the bright full moon peering down at you through its frondy redwood veil.

Camp is a magical place. It’s dirty and rustic and very, very dark at night. Hot and buggy during the day, everything is a bit (or a lot) of a schlep, and no matter how prepared you are, you’re never prepared enough. You smell vilely and chemically like insect repellant, sunscreen and sweat, always thirsty or hungry or both. Your neck itches and your eyes stream and no matter how dirty you think you are, you are definitely going to get even dirtier.

That’s right… magical.

Because somehow all the dirt, and mosquito bites, and attacking allergies that make you sneeze 700 times in a row are left in the doorless cabin as the bell sounds for breakfast: cheesy eggs, English muffins  and raisin bran with organic milk. None of those taste half as delicious at home. The fear of heights is checked on the ground as you’re hoisted to the very top of the world (or at least to the top of the gigantic pine trees), and that paralyzing panic leaves your gut with the butterflies as you release the clip and swing like a monkey through the trees, whooping and shrieking with pure, exhilarated glee.

My proud monkey moment!

My monkey moment!

There’s candle-making and Herbal 911. Brew potions for lip balm and lotion, learn beekeeping and blacksmithing and how to create fire. Maybe you zip-line at 90 feet or 80 feet or not at all, throw knives, train to be a ninja, tie-dye, yoga, read in a hammock, do nothing… or play Ga-ga.

Ga-ga was invented in Israel and is similar to dodgeball. But somehow less malicious. And less ridiculous. Played in an octagonal pit, It combines dodging, striking, running and jumping and the object is to hit the other players with a ball below the knee while avoiding being hit. (Did I say less ridiculous? Maybe not). The most inclusive, non-discriminatory, contained game I’ve ever seen – also one of the most exciting.

It epitomizes the magic of camp.

Even ninjas play Ga-ga

Even ninjas play Ga-ga

It’s every rule you learned as a child come to real life: no cheating, no hurt feelings, no injuries. Nobody left out. No arguments. Girls. Boys. Grown-ups. Kids. Ages 5-55. Counselors and campers. That Ga-ga pit is rarely empty. And everybody is smiling.

And while these are certainly the types of interactions we strive for on the playground, in the workplace, at home, in life, this is not what makes Ga-ga and Camp so magical for me.

What’s magical is the feeling of “together” – we are here together, in it together, dirty together, creating, freezing, eating, singing, itching, playing, swinging, being together. And not only are we together, but also I “got” you and I know you got me.

The Ga-ga pit was the nucleus of the family camp this past weekend. There must’ve been 40 players – mostly kids – in it at any given time. They cheered each other on. Encouraged. Looked out for the littles, and taught the older ones the rules. They were both fair and competitive, and not one player felt neglected, sidelined, less good than another.


I swung from trees, dyed T-shirts, baked bread outside and almost shaved the skin off my fingers striking a fire with steel and flint. I did something new with each one of my kids (except ninja training – really, no interest) and watched a lot of Ga-ga. The mosquitos gnawed at my neck, my throat was always dry and my hands were constantly stained with tie-dye and very, very grimy. In between games I arched my whole back in a half-moon to catch a glimpse of the very tallest tree scraping the bluest sky.

Camp Augusta, CA May 18, 2014

Camp Augusta, CA May 18, 2014

Yep. Magic.