When I was in 3rd grade, I lived on the military base in Ft. Lewis, Washington. Across the street from our house, an old fence enclosed an overgrown, grassy field. It was a rickety metal fence that had rusted in many spots.
My sister and I loved to climb on top of the fence and use it as a balance beam to see how far we could walk along the perimeter. I’d fall off every time in the same spot where the fence was bending and falling apart. Still, I tried. All year, I tried. I’d balance with my arms flapping as I tried to “walk the fence” and finish the challenge. Month after month, I moved along the course.
(This is what we did as children in the early 1980’s: we walked fences and set up impossible outdoor challenges. No adults. No supervision. If a parent had been there, I’m certain she would have screamed, “You crazy children! You’ll kill yourself! You’ll impale yourself on that fence!” But no. We were free and young and stupid. Oh, childhood!)
One autumn day, I went outside by myself to walk the top of the fence again. I was frustrated and remember just storming on top that fence–stomping really, not even trying to balance–and advancing closer and closer to the finish line. When I came to the treacherous spot that conquered me each time, I picked up speed and raced right on. I intended to fall hard and angrily, but instead, my momentum kept me upright.
And then–I was back to where I started. I had done it. I had completed the year-long challenge to walk the fence. It was over. It was both a victory and a defeat as I celebrated alone and walked back to my house. The fence changed in my mind. I didn’t have anything to do that next day after school because I’d reached the goal. I looked for other challenges like climbing trees and gymnastic feats, but nothing compared to the fence.
I remember the fence whenever I balance along curbs or fallen logs with my daughters. I remember how much I loved having a challenge and the sadness I felt when it was over. It was one of my first memories of understanding bittersweet.
Bittersweet–the pleasure with the sadness–accompanies so much of life, and today I remember when I first felt it. And I think of the bittersweet reality that these little ones are already older than I was when I walked the fence in 1982. It’s a different world, long gone.