A series of small elevators takes me up the Gloria in Excelsis Tower of the National Cathedral, where balconies overlook the highest views in Washington, D.C. To one side is Sugarloaf Mountain; to the other is the Washington Monument. People kiss in the Bishop’s Garden below and I dangle my arms above them. I peer over the stone balcony while several women behind me ring the bells in patterns I don’t understand. They tell me there’s a six-month learning curve before I could play.
From the ceiling, ten ropes hang above a circular platform on which the ringers stand. The ceiling protects our hearing; above it are the bells. The rest of the ringing chamber is filled with odd end things—a chalkboard for writing out methods, a miniature model bell, novelty clocks, and a drawer filled with copies of Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Nine Tailors, a British novel that features stolen emeralds and the world of change ringing.
Change ringing is an intellectual sport. It involves a set of ringers, one per bell, taking turns to together perform a series of memorized patterns. The result isn’t melodic, like carillon bells, but something far more transfixing, like a pulsing code, the slow collapse of a bridge, marbles being dropped down the face of K2. Ringers mark weddings, funerals, federal holidays, and crises, or sometimes do what’s called a “peal attempt,” which involves ringing thousands of possible permutations on a set of bells, and can take hours without pause.
I heard about change ringing from a friend, whose parents met and fell in love at a tower in college. They’ve been ringing together for decades. The friend described change ringing as “religious adjacent”—historically, those who didn’t care for Sunday mass would ascend the tower to ring and drink. Contemporary ringers come from varying professions but often have backgrounds in math or music. Famous ringers include Sir John Betjeman, poet and defender of Victorian architecture; Jon Shanklin, discoverer of the hole in the ozone; Kate Barker, economist; John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress; Paul Revere, silversmith.
My curiosity in the bells was immediate and inextinguishable, as though I’d found a possible sound that could make up for all my silences.
To get started on handling skills, I attend a beginning intensive practice. There are four other newcomers, and we appear quiet and giddy. We hold packed lunches like kids.
After pairing off with ringing instructors, we each stand at a rope. We learn two motions—the handstroke and the backstroke, which together complete a whole pull of the bell. It’s an unfamiliar movement, a body brainteaser. I’m calm and confident until the rope begins to bounce unpredictably, like something come alive. I maintain my grip, pretending not to panic, until I get rope burn. I let go. The ringing instructor shouts. Feeling hot, as I always do when I’ve done something wrong, I look at my pink hands. The instructor catches hold and explains a scenario in which the rope, uncontrolled, could whip around the room like a snake, lashing and snapping. This memory sticks with me for the next few months. When I forget the things that hold me in place, my error fuels the fright.
There are stories of inexperienced ringers getting knocked out of towers, the rope launching them into the air, lacerations, near hangings. A sign in the bell chamber reads: A STANDING BELL IS LIKE A LOADED GUN. IT ONLY TAKES ONE JERK TO KILL YOU. The lightest bell at the National Cathedral is 608 pounds, and the heaviest is 3,588. I look at an illustration of a ringer getting struck by lightning. I remember the extreme heights in Black Narcissus, the bell tower in Vertigo. My boyfriend sends me a tweet: “Robert de Honiton, died 1301. On New Year’s Eve he went up into the tower of St. Michael’s to help ring the bells and fell through a trapdoor.”
The first few months require a bit of coaxing. I ascend the tower feeling like a magnet in reverse.
Despite this, I am drawn to the magnificence of the bells. I believe that if I can learn how to ring, then I can stand up to other terrifying things, like depression and restlessness—but that if I can’t, then those things will somehow remain.
At practice, I can’t see the bell, but I feel where it is through the tension of the rope. I try to pull the rope in consistent, full strokes and then trust that what should happen, will. If I don’t cooperate, the bell always wins. I watch the experienced ringers, how they seem at peace, nodding to each other, murmuring, joking. Fumbling and straining, I get a soreness in my armpits throughout the week, in muscles I didn’t know I had.
A ringer suggests we take the stairs after practice, which I’ve never done. It is winter, the sun is down, and the stairs are a single-file spiral corkscrew that goes on for stories. I am surrounded by the stone innards of a dark empty tower. I sit on the steps for a moment, dizzy, the other ringer far below.
A variation of an analogy my mother used to tell me:
Fear is a three-thousand-pound bell. Three kinds of people ring it.
The first knows she will be fine, because she has rung the bell before, and knows that it can be done. She lives by truth.
The second has never rung the bell before, but sees the first person ring it and holds on to truth’s example. She lives by faith.
The third has rung the bell before and failed, and looks to the past, always expecting the same to occur. She lives by experience.
One Tuesday evening I am emboldened. We’re practicing “raising,” a skill I have not yet attempted. To “raise the bell” involves bringing it from a downward position to a mouth-upward position, where it rests on a wooden support, and from which you can ring. First, the rope is coiled in your hand, then you slowly gain momentum by pulling and gradually letting out rope for the bell to swing higher like a pendulum.
I step out of the elevator into the tower and approach one of the ropes before an instructor asks me to. I say I’m ready, though inside I’m rattled. It takes forever, and I need assistance, but I raise the bell. I leave elated, snow falling outside the Metro; I buy a single square of chocolate from the market and eat it slowly on the way home.
I’ve stepped out of an airplane and felt completely calm, but playing a Rachmaninoff prelude for an audience has made my entire body shake. I like corners, small enclosures, privacy curtains. Years ago I began writing small stories. I wrote them smaller and smaller. A brief story doesn’t overstay. In this way, I never disappeared completely.
Perhaps it’s easy to live by experience, to expect the worst to happen based on the past. Fear propels a hiker out of the way of a boulder rolling down the path but becomes detrimental when the hiker thinks of the boulder long past its appearance, even once the hiker is back home, staring anxiously out the window at the grassy hill and expecting the boulder to find them. Doom is not a boulder, the bells, or another person. Doom is something inside me. What’s worth believing in is that—despite past failure and the inescapable guarantee of future failure—life can still be full of usefulness and joy.
I begin to handle the ropes with a clear head. I learn how to ring with others, and control exactly when the bell is rung. The fear flashes back, but with a softer hold, easier to shake.
Eventually COVID-19 closes the Cathedral, so we have our practices online. We go over ringing apps, theory, virtual towers, learning methods at home. We watch parts of documentaries on a shared screen. I click, instead of pull, a rope to sound a weightless bell. Everything I’ve ever been afraid of about the bells is gone, reduced to twinkling sounds on a screen that I hold in my hand.
I was drawn to the magnificence of the bells, and online the magnificence of the bells was hard to find. Much like everything else—friendships, work, desire—the thing itself was replaced with an elusive outline, mathematical and ghostly, and I became afraid of it again. This time, it wasn’t easy to shake. Now I wait for the day to ascend the corkscrew staircase, and ring the heaviest bell in the tower.
A storm approached one evening when we were still meeting in the tower. I could see it all the way in Virginia, creeping steadily like a gray cloak. Wind whipped through the windows, and in smaller towers, you could feel the chamber sway. I watched as the storm got closer and closer. A fellow ringer told me it happened all the time, nothing to worry about. How it was, to be wrapped up by a thick churning sky, loud and booming, and riding on a promise to emerge unharmed. Someone eating a pastry in the Bishop’s Garden ran for cover. Briefly, they looked up. My arms dangled, I waved out.
Nicolette Polek is the author of Imaginary Museums, published by Soft Skull Press earlier this year. Her stories can be found in New York Tyrant, Lit Hub, Electric Literature, Chicago Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a 2019 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award.