Failure to Ascend: Trapped in the Staircase

Still she haunts me phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies,
Never seen by waking eyes.

– “Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky” from Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

During my senior year of college in 2010, I  had a dream that I was standing in the middle of a giant dome building with white walls and bright natural lighting. Voices were chattering all around me, emanating from the rooms that surrounded the perimeter of the doom. Somehow I knew that all of these voices and each room represented parts of myself. For a long time I tried to just sit and absorb it all at once but it was too much. My boyfriend at the time, Simon, came up behind me and grasped my hand. He whispered, “Why don’t you just go into one of them?” And so, I did. It was a door on the right, I think. There was a giant tome on the desk, like an unabridged dictionary. And it was open to a page. At the top of the page, the word “Ascension” was scribed in big letters.

Dru the calligraphy artist really liked this story. When we road the train back to his neighborhood home, he wrote the word “Ascension” on my arm in calligraphy letters. He brought up the etymological properties of the word and designed the script of the calligraphy to accentuate its double-edged sword nature, which is that the concept involves a loss of something upon emerging — Falling to rise, so to speak.

It was my second day at work and I had an increasingly exhilarating rush of feeling extremely high on life. On the train into the loop in the morning, I read Uncommon Happiness with great zeal. Reading the words and feeling their meaning felt like being satiated while eating a delicious and hearty meal. Before I got off the train, I spoke with the two men across from me. One was a middle-aged Indian man and the other was an older Ukrainian man. I asked them about where they were from, shared some of my travel stories and ambitions, and shared a genuine moment of listening with strangers. Because it was raining, I hailed a cab on a whim. My heart felt so open, and so I asked my cab driver if he liked being a cab driver, suggesting that I think it might be a fun gig. The driver confessed that he had just finished a Masters and licensure in Psychotherapy and was just working as a cabbie to save up some extra money while finding his way. We had a great conversation about the status of psychology in American culture.

In the elevator, I notice a woman wearing a lace dress that looks fresh from my own wardrobe. I complimented this woman and we have a brief chat about style. What I failed to realize is that this woman was getting off the elevator on my floor (she was interviewing with my boss that day. I realized this soon after the elevator doors closed. It landed next on floor 26, which is two stories above my floor. Thinking it obvious that I would just take the stairs down to 24, I ran to the staircase, opened the door, and…slam!

The door closed behind me.I checked the knob, it was locked. Ran up a flight, locked. Ran down a flight, locked. I was stuck. Luckily, there was a red emergency phone! Oh, nope. As though only existing to tease and mock desperate stair-climbers who had innocently mistaken the convenience and safety of the stairs, the red emergency phone was nothing but a nonfunctional piece of plastic. It did not work at all. I figured I could just call my boss and ask him to open the door. First call, no answer. My phone no loses its reception. I start knocking on the door really hard. I can hear people walk by. I run up a flight, knock a bunch. I knock so hard it hurts my knuckles. Run down a flight, knock some more. I hear the shuffling of footsteps again. “Help! Please?!” I yell, thinking I might be saved, that someone will take pity on me. Someone has just walked past. “Please help!” I say again. More footsteps, shuffling. And I begin to panic. I don’t know what to do or where I can get out. Googling my way to a solution of what to do when caught in stairs comes to mind, and then I realize the absurdity of this…while remembering that my phone does not have any reception.

Worth noting is that I was trapped on the  26th floor. I went down to the 24th to try to get in and could not, then up to the 25th and the same. I am 26 years old currently, and am turning 27 on November 27th.

I felt that it was a metaphor. I was trapped in a staircase, literally beginning to ascend but trapped in some in-between that prevented access to the next big thing.

At this point, I began to feel helpless. A tear rolls down my cheek. I keep knocking, keep pleading. My hand is really hurting now. I hear someone walking above me jingling a key in the stairwell. I say, “Hello! Oh, thank god! Please! Oh, please! I…uhh…I am trapped! I can’t get out.” I see her now, a woman with glasses. She looks down at me, totally mercilessly.”Please, please help me get out!” I say. She puts the key into the lock of the door above me, and starts to open it. “Oh, no! Wait. Let me get my stuff.” I say. I hurriedly grab my stuff, panicked that she will leave without me and leave me in the stairway. She just barely waits, and I catch the door just before it closes behind her.

I am crying softly now, and holding back more. When I exit the door, I look out to see a room full of businessmen in chairs. Only a few even look over, totally emotionless and unsympathetic, and the rest just keep on working, ignoring me. The ones who do look, stare with a cruel passivity, as though to say, “Why were you interrupting my work with your nonsense and noise?”And in that moment  I really felt like the troll in the staircase.

That is a tough but important lesson. Sometimes people can be so cruel and cold. No one helped. No one even cared. And when I mentioned it to a few people, they just said ,”Oh, I know. I know not to take the staircase” as though it was some right of passage.

All I could do was take care of myself and soothe myself. I thought of my belief in the human spirit, and how fierce and resilient I felt it to be. Throughout my life, I have clung to the belief that given love, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, acceptance, and open-hearted empathic listening, anyone could see eye-to-eye. Sometimes that is simply not true, though. Accepting the suffering of another person is tough, and moreover confronting the unknown. My mother always told me that people make fun of things that they do not understand, an adage gave me a lot of strength in junior high and high school. These businessmen could not accept an confront such weakness and desperation with something so disruptive to their workflow.

So, I had to realize: There are times in my life when I will feel weak, vulnerable, and desperate, wanting help, and there will be times when no one will be there to help. And in those instances, all I can do is really love and care for myself.

Back in 2010, my friend Teng had told me that Gandhi could not have defeated the Nazis. It upset me so much that I threw a fit and stopped talking to him for years. Recently we reconnected, and we reflected on this. And it is true: Some people are beyond seeing the humanity in themselves, and then by extension in others (or perhaps the other way around).

And yet, I still believe, despite everything, that there is hope for humanity. I still believe in the strength and integrity of the human spirit. I have taken so much shit in my life. I am privy to it now. While enduring some relatively harmless taunting at the end of my first week of work, I just thought, “This is not my first rodeo.” The difference is that it is not acceptable anymore, and that I now know how to stand up for myself. For the first time, I can allow myself to say “no more” because I have had enough. It’s time for me to just reign free being myself and stop giving others permission to tear me down along the way.

Still struggling to regain my composure, I was still riled up when I arrived at my desk. I explained to everyone, but I was so filled with anger because no one gave me any sympathy for what had been a pretty traumatic experience. It is inconceivable to me that no one would help. So I tried sitting down and relaxing but my mind was racing. I wanted to rant to everyone about it.

So then I had to grab a cord for my computer to connect to a monitor. I was digging through boxes and trying to untangle a long cord. And I thought, “Wow, what a metaphor!” Now I am untangling all these knots that I have created within me.

Artwork: Marcel Ducamp, “Nude Descending a Staircase”

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