We are over 800 feet beneath the surface of the earth.
While the weather in late March – always a good month for South Central Texas – has been exceptionally gorgeous, cool, and sunny, down here in the underworld it is dark, wet, humid, even stifling. It is also full of magic.
Wonders enough to widen the eyes and (mostly) close the mouths of about 50 fourth graders. And these kids are hard to impress. Surrounded as they are by incredible media and visuals, it takes a lot to get them to stand agape in wonder. But the Cavern has what it takes and then some.
There they are. Taking in the Stalagmites and Stalactites, the flow stones that look like curtains or (to my eyes) sea ribbons, the shimmering limestone formations all gone to sparkling druzy, and the dark smudges on the ceiling giving proof that once upon a time, five thousand years ago, there was a bat colony in residence. The children take all of this in with a whisper and a giggle and a whoa.
Our guide brings us together in one of the larger rooms of the cavern and she explains that we are about to hit the most strenuous part of the climb.
We have gone down and now it is time to begin our ascent. I silently roll my eyes. Please. I can hold a plank for three minutes (more or less, often less) without breaking much of a sweat. I think I can handle a little incline without issue.
Except that it is not a little incline.
It is beyond decent, a swooping steep trail that I could easily come across in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico, except it is here, about 10 minutes away from where I grew up and I have to climb it now.
Halfway through, the tops of my thighs and backs of my calves are screaming at me. Once we reach the top and the path levels out, it takes a full ten minutes for my breath to regulate and my heart rate to return to normal.
I know that the incline is objectively steep but there is something else at play here I feel. Something about climbing that path, in the dark, 800 feet under the ground with the sound of water dripping constantly all around me, the dank humidity frizzing out my hair and covering my skin with a sheer sheen of moisture – a something that makes the climb harder than it would have been if I had been up on the earth’s surface, under the sun, wind at my back.
As I grasped the humidity slicked railing, I found myself thinking, as one often does, about the Goddesses of old who are known first and foremost for the descents they made. Inanna, Ishtar, Persephone. There were Gods too: Orpheus, Jesus harrowing Hell.
We’ve heard the stories. But do we really know them?
The figures taking footstep after footstep down into the darkness. Their stories, it occurs to me, are all about the going down…we don’t hear so much about the coming back up, with Jesus being an exception that proves the rule.
Struggling to catch my breath, I laugh quietly to myself. No wonder!
Going down is frightening enough, scary at the very least, terrifying…especially for someone like Inanna who is going to literally embrace Death.
But the ascent? What I have remembered today is that coming back up is the real test. Returning is harder than leaving. Walking now on a perfectly flat and graded trail, we near the mouth of the cave and walk into the light. I look at the children in front of me.
My oldest son, his best friends, a group of girls laughing and rolling their eyes, a group of boys asking where lunch is because they are hungry – always, the teachers watching over everyone and organizing us so that no one is left behind in the dark.
It occurs to me that we have collectively come up from the Underworld in more than one way. Two years ago we all came down here, the descent so immediate that many missed it until they were already in the dark with the shimmering crystals and pools of water.
We walked a trail of death, isolation, restriction, loneliness, and despair…each in our own way but also all together. We are coming up now, ascending. We are seeing what no longer holds, what no longer stands, what can no longer be accepted.
It is hard work this ascent, hard work letting go of what is no longer needed, so that we can make room for what is now ready. We have few models and few stories for what happens next, but I think that is as it should be.
It is part of the work, part of the effort and part of the privilege to return, to come back, essentially changed in some ways and ready to imagine a new story into being, together.