I Climbed The Fire Island Lighthouse

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When I first thought that I might move away- before choosing a school or even applying to one, before the LSAT had been taken, back when everything was a question and I couldn’t seem to find the answers -I knew that I’d want to visit some of my favorite places in New York before heading off somewhere new.

The first such visit was the Fire Island Lighthouse.

My mom and I had been talking about making the mile-long hike from Field 5 at Robert Moses State Park to the lighthouse for a few summers now. We’ve talked and talked and talked. We’ve sat on the beach and looked at the shadow of the lighthouse in the distance and mentioned friends who’d walked on over to it. It’s remained a passing fancy for years now, and so, on May 19, we decided to finally do it.

It was a mild day- not too hot, not too cold, but there was a generous wind sweeping off the waves by the time we got down near the water. It had rained earlier in the morning, leaving huge puddles rippling across the parking lot (for the briefest of moments, we regretted our choice to wear flip flops). After carefully maneuvering the minefield of deceptively deep rainwater, we made it onto the boardwalk and began our hike toward the lighthouse.

As we walked, I was struck by a memory: me, somewhere between the ages of eight and ten, clinging to the steep stairwell toward the lighthouse observation deck. It was the day I discovered my fear of heights.

I thought of this as we approached the Fire Island Light Station, deciding to take a look inside at the historic Fresnel Lens. The lighthouse loomed out the window. I couldn’t look away, and as I studied it from the safety of the light station, I couldn’t shake that image of a little girl having what she didn’t know was her first-ever anxiety attack.

“I wonder if we can climb it,” my mom said.

“I did once,” I said, recalling the story.

“Do you want to do it today?”

The question hung there like an offering. I placated it with a maybe, and then an I think so, and inside I was screaming yes. I knew I wanted to do it. I knew I wanted to make the trek up those 182 stairs to the very top of the lighthouse. I wanted to stand on the observation deck just to prove that I could. I wanted to a conquer a fear for my younger self, because my older self is about to tackle something much scarier than Long Island tallest lighthouse.

This whole process of moving has been a lot of things, but terrifying most of all. Terrifying because it’s new. Terrifying because I don’t know what to expect. Terrifying because everything could go wrong at the drop of the hat, and I don’t know if I’ll know how to handle it. But I’m doing it- despite mental illness, despite fear, despite everything. I’m doing it because I want to. I’m doing it because I’m ready. And if I’m ready to move to a brand new city in a brand new state all on my own, then I’m ready to climb to the top of the damn lighthouse.

We bought our tickets, I turned in my backpack, and off we went.

The climb up was not as scary as I remembered. Perhaps it’s because I’m older and, therefore, everything around me felt proportionate to my twenty-five year-old limbs. My heart still jumped right up into my throat every time one of the creaky old steps trembled beneath me (did I mention that there were signs throughout the museum downstairs urging patrons to donate to the restoration of the very stairs that I was walking on? comforting is a word that does not come to mind).

The thick rope banisters cut into my palms, but I still held fast. I dragged my hands along them to keep myself steady. I paused at each window, for breath and for bravery - and occasionally to question whether or not I wanted to turn around. I didn’t.

When we got to the homestretch- two steep, narrow staircases that look more like ladders -my mom climbed up ahead of me. I watched her go, holding onto the ropes for dear life. The last time I had held those ropes my hands had been much smaller, but I had been just as afraid.

I took a breath, and then a step. And then another step. And then another. I hauled myself up those two flights and stumbled, euphoric, onto the lighthouse deck.

I had done it. I had conquered my childhood fear.

As we made our way around the sweeping circle of the deck, looking out over both the ocean and the bay, I was elated. I was proud. I was ecstatic, and I was in awe. I felt unstoppable.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m still scared of heights. They’re scary and I don’t like them. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is my perception of that fear. It’s not a barrier anymore - it’s a challenge. And isn’t that the way to look at fear? To let ourselves be challenged by it? Maybe. In this case, I think yes.

I walked away with a Fire Island Lighthouse tea towel for my kitchen and the knowledge that no matter what happens in Tallahassee, no matter how hard things get or how much I might want to come home, I can handle it. It’s a challenge, and I can conquer it, just like I conquered the lighthouse.

On another note, I felt new vigor for an old novel I wrote one National Novel Writing Month about an island-dwelling apocalypse survivor who lives in a lighthouse. So, two good things came out of one scary climb. Not too shabby, if I do say so myself.