Conversations with children

IMG_0444.JPG“Did you name it?” he asks me.

We’re taking about the snowman I made the day before when it snowed down in the ski village where I’m staying, and the front yard of the lodge was covered in a cold, fluffy, magical white blanket. 

“You know, I didn’t think of that,” I say. “I should have named it.”

“You’ll have to next time you make one,” he says, and I’m pleased that he has assumed I will make another at some point. “And did yours have a nose?”

“It did,” I say. “I made it out of a stone. But I didn’t give him eyes or a mouth because I couldn’t find enough stones.”

“Next time you should poke a hole for the eyes and draw a mouth on with your finger. And use a carrot for the nose. What about arms?”

“Yes, I used two small sticks,” I say.

IMG_0446.JPGHe is about five. I have just met him because he’s doing a group skiing lesson on the slope I’m also skiing, and the instructors send some of the kids up with other adults on the chair lift. This little boy happened to come into the line next to me. He has on a giant helmet, and the chin strap is between his lips and his nose, rather than under his chin. He’s playing with it with his lips and little mittened hands as we talk. He’s swinging his legs and tiny skis as we roll along, many metres above the slope.

“Did you give him gloves?” 

“No, I didn’t think of that. Next time I’ll have to.”

“Yes, in case it gets cold,” he says, and grins at me. 

“And maybe a scarf and hat,” I say. He smiles.

IMG_0447.JPGI’ve spent a lot of time having conversations with children this week. Answering the questions they seem to have about everything; talking about the important things in their lives, like puppies and finding animals in the snow and playing tricks on ski instructors and whether or not they like their teacher and what the book “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” is about. They’ve asked me a little about mine—about whether I live with my parents, have a dog, am allowed to drink beer. These conversations have been quiet and patient and curious. Full of questions. From both parties. And each time it’s struck me how wonderful it is to be this open to another person without trying to prove anything about yourself or an issue you have an opinion about; curious about them and their experience of life, willing to share something of yourself with them, even if just for a few minutes. 

IMG_0445.JPGWe reach the top of the chairlift and ski off, him to the left to join his group, me to the right to join my family. 

“Bye!” he yells out to me, waving. 

“Have fun,” I yell, and wave back. 

“Thank you.”

And he is gone, disappearing into his group lesson, a sea of little skis and big helmets.

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Pausing

20140728-195347-71627070.jpgIt’s been a long time since I wrote here. 

This afternoon, still heavy with the virus that’s pestered me for two and a half weeks now—never quite enough to make me rest completely, but never quite loosening its woolly grip on my brain—I sat in the backyard and watched the garden. I watched the garden that I’ve built these last three months from what was basically a patch of grass. The kale and broccoli are nearly knee-height now, the garlic not far behind. The various beans and peas have climbed up to hip height, and all the leafy greens are beginning to look less like seedlings. I’d just mown the grass and it smelled like a Sunday afternoon.

And it occurred to me all of a sudden that I’ve been here instead of doing any of the writing I usually do for myself. I’ve been building and digging and watching and hoping and imagining. I’ve been letting myself settle into this place, to the new house, to the new research, to what feels like a new stage of my life. 

20140728-195348-71628304.jpgIt fascinates me, the way that life moves on without me even realising and without me really being ready for the shift. Watching myself try to catch up is interesting too. It’s funny how I so often think that to catch up I have to walk faster, maybe even run. What I’m beginning to realise is that the best thing to do is exactly the opposite: slow down, maybe even stop.

I’ve ended up in a place I never really expected to be. Even though I’m not sure what it was that I expected instead. I’ve ended up in a place where my household bakes bread every weekend, where the neighbour shares his sourdough starter with us. Where other neighbours bring over bags of lemons and pieces of furniture and lace curtains.  Where after just three months in the house, I know the names of half the people on the street. I’ve ended up in a place where I’ve lost count of the different plant varieties I’ve put in the ground in the backyard, where I’m teaching and writing about yoga, where I’m researching a topic that I’ve realised in retrospect I’ve been inadvertently preparing for since the compost bins and septic tanks of my childhood. 

20140728-195349-71629295.jpgWhere I’m about to undertake a major creative project that’s not exactly writing. Something that’s more making and recording and a little bit performative. This, especially this, I never expected. 

To be perfectly honest, it’s all been a bit overwhelming. Success and failure each have their own set of challenges, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the two, especially if I’m trying to run in all the different directions to keep up with it all. 

So here I am, I thought to myself in the garden this afternoon. Just breathing. Just watching the sun go down. Just feeling grateful.

And it’s been a long time since I simply sat here.

Wandering, place and muscle memory

20140417-214025.jpgWe are walking down streets we don’t know, ambling, listening, looking, taking it in, and talking, always talking. The sun is out and I have to take off my cardigan as I warm up from the walk, but then put it back on again as the sun disappears behind a cloud.

There is a tiny homemade market in a little park, the stalls set out on picnic blankets. There is a little old woman sitting on a park bench with her granny trolley, squinting at us. A string trio dancing around on a street corner, and further up the road a brass trio in an open arcade. A woman out the front of a men’s suit shop, spruiking its wares, referring to the plain suits as “staplers you have in the cupboard for years”.

The sun comes out again, disappears again; I remove my cardigan and put it on again.

We have been walking for more than an hour when we decide to catch the tram to get where we’re going on time. We catch it to the end of the line and start walking again, but abandon the journey about ten minutes in, realising we’re not going to make it in time after all. The tram takes us back to the open arcade, and we wander through a market, where a sign tells us that, yes, in case we were wondering, one of the stalls sells organic chia. A man talks in short bursts into a fuzzy microphone about the vegetables he’s selling. A few doors down there is a gourmet grocer and deli, and further down still, a bakery where we eat tidbits off pretty little plates before we begin walking again.

Back in the quiet streets, we take several wrong turns, some on purpose, to explore, others by accident. We walk down cobbled back alleys and peer into gardens. We listen to the breeze through the trees, and get acquainted with neighbourhood cats.

We are looking at houses, but, in doing so, also exploring a possible new stomping ground, a possible new life. Walking streets that we might later frequent, guessing (probably incorrectly) at short cuts we might take. We walk steadily for three hours.

Life is strange in transition; the softer autumn light and cooler air seem apt. And the walking, the slow, continued movement, the tiring feet and legs—these things help a sense of the place settle in a little, become somehow a muscle memory as well as a mental one.

Walking and talking: on bicycles, training wheels, motorbikes and change

20140320-204423.jpgA little girl on her bike rides slowly around the park several times with her father walking by her side. Her bike is pink, it has training wheels that take turns in taking her weight as the bike wobbles from side to side, and pink shimmery streamers flowing from its handlebars. Her helmet, pink with blue flowers, is fastened firmly on her head.

“I think I’ve seen you riding on your motorbike to work,” she is telling her father. “With your helmet.”

I do not hear his reply from my spot lying on the grass with a book; they are too far away. But I hear more on their next round of the park, five or ten minutes later. 

“A motorbike isn’t exercise, is it?” she says. 

“No,” says her father. “The motor does all the work.”

And then they are gone again.

I wonder if they have been talking about motorbikes this whole time. Perhaps she has been asking him all sorts of detailed questions about his motorbike. Perhaps she will continue this fascination as she grows up. I imagine her as an adult, riding a motorbike. 

Watching them move slowly around the park, I remember the period when I first started school, when my Dad would walk me there from home each morning. I don’t remember our conversations, but I do remember how much I valued that time. I remember how I’d have to walk a few steps, then run a few to keep up with his pace. Just me and Dad, possibly talking about motorbikes. Or tractors. Or school. Or my favourite doll, Jessica.

I still walk and talk with my Dad sometimes. I do so with other members of my family too, and with good friends. There’s something in the walking. So many of those conversations I’ve had while walking, at least past the age of about ten, I still remember parts of; their significance somehow etched into my memory through their link to the physical act of walking. Perhaps too I’ve walked and talked when I’ve needed to talk things out—or when my walking companion has. The conversations so often have led to shifts in my thinking that have in some way shaped how I’ve moved forward with my life.

Things are changing in my life just now. Lots of things. In ways that are significant, though perhaps not big. I don’t know yet, really, because they’re still happening and I haven’t had a chance to reflect on how they fit into the greater pattern of my life. I need to take more walks. 

The little girl and her father do a few more slow rounds of the park, and then they leave. I can hear her still chattering, though I cannot hear her words. I imagine them returning to the park when she rides without the training wheels for the first time, wonder what their conversation will be. And I wonder how and if that walk will alter her life. Will it be one of many?

Things that go crash in the night: a car accident

Crash in the nightThe initial shuddering crash — more like a crack, really, like thunder — as the car meets the telegraph pole wakes me. My heart is thumping and I’m expecting the roof to fall in. My bedroom is full of light.

It doesn’t take me long to work out what’s happened. Looking out my window, I can see there are people there helping. There is no urgency about them, so I gather no one is hurt. I am home alone. Alone in the not-so-dark wearing a flimsy nightie. The first night home alone of what will end up being just more than five weeks. I feel somehow vulnerable and useless.

And then the process of clearing up, which I watch on and off, guiltily, through a crack in the curtains in my bedroom. I cannot see much, without my contact lenses in. Just broad strokes, no detail. Police lights, redirecting of traffic. A tow truck with its flashing lights and loud engine sounds. The creak of broken metal. No ambulance.

I lay awake for hours and hours, trying to slow my breath, worrying about my reluctance to go outside, thinking I should have. Knowing that if it had been me in that car, I’d have needed someone to come and help me. Then reminding myself that I’d checked that someone else had gone to help, that there had been no ambulance. And then starting the process all over again. Eventually, I sleep; a sleep disturbed by dark dreams I can’t quite remember when I wake.

In the morning when I leave the house, there is debris from the crash scattered all across the footpath in front of my house, and all over my front porch. There are skid marks on the road. I wonder about the circumstances of the crash, wonder what happened before it, after it. And still I am disturbed by the tension between my feeling of intense vulnerability in the night and my desire to help, not sure the right feeling won out. This will continue to bother me for weeks, months.

Am I falling? On fear and failure and the shame of bodies

It’s not until my skis touch the ground at the top of the chair lift and it sinks in that I have to stand up and ski away from the lift that I realise how terrified I am. Down the tiny slope that leads away from the lift, I pick up more speed than I am ready for and do exactly what you’re not supposed to: crouch down. I fall. I haven’t got my gloves on yet, and I graze several of my fingers in the icy snow. It stings. But more than anything, I’m embarrassed. I haven’t even actually done any skiing yet and I’ve already fallen over.

20130829-180042.jpg The slope — a beginners’ slope — brings more frustration and shame. I am most definitely the least experienced skier in my lesson group. This is not surprising: I haven’t skied since I was a teenager, and I was a novice then. The teacher is trying to show us how to execute turns. I just fall over every time. We get just a third of the way down the slope, and I have fallen over about eight times. Then I slide backwards across the mountain, off the snow and into the grass. The whole lesson group is watching me. I cry. Just a little; the hot tears of frustration and shame. I remember this feeling about skiing from when I was five and ran into a fence in my ski lesson. I cannot do something that everybody else can. They have all watched me fail miserably.

This moment, where I have to ask the ski instructor just to give me a minute to collect myself, makes me think of my beginners’ yoga students. It reminds me that it’s possible they feel this shame and frustration when they can’t do something I’m asking them to; that it’s important I always remember to approach a student’s difficulty with the compassion the ski instructor is showing me now.

~

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about falling. For the last few weeks, I’ve started my day by rolling out of bed and standing on my head for a short while. In the lamplight of my bedroom, I rest my weight on my elbows, forearms and a fist I’ve made with my hands. The top of my head touches the floor lightly, and I walk my toes closer to my face so my torso is perpendicular to the floor, hips up in the air. I lift one leg, then the other. Often I wobble and my feet touch the wall behind my head. As I hold myself there, reaching my feet towards the ceiling, I play, slowly, with my balance. What happens if I tilt my pelvis so my lower back lengthens a little? What happens if I tilt it the other way? Some days I really notice the comparative weakness in my left shoulder, and my legs and feet sway a little from left to right. Some days I am steady, and this usually surprises me, because most days I’m wobbly. As I wobble around upside down, I ask myself: am I falling?

Mostly, the answer is no. I sway a little, I adjust. I sway a little, I adjust. The balance takes focus. If I wander off in my mind, I lose it. I need to bring my feet down or they’ll fall down.

It’s the same on the ski slopes. That shifting of balance. The focus. Lean away from the slope, put your weight in the outside foot, or in the toes if you’re facing downhill. Lean the way you don’t want to fall.

It fascinates me: balance, falling. The fear. When I’m skiing, I’m afraid I’ll fall and get my skis caught up in one another and twist my ankle or knee or hip. I’m afraid I’ll wobble my already unstable hips out of alignment, because I know how easy it seems to be for me to do that just in regular life. I’m afraid of the pain, I guess. Which is a fairly reasonable fear, except that it so often means I focus on that when I should be noticing where my weight is, adjusting where necessary and thereby avoiding a fall.

Slowly, I get better at skiing. I fall less and less. And when I do fall, it’s mostly strategic, because I’m aware of the limits of my skills and would prefer to fall myself than plough down a small child. I get better at noticing the minute changes I need to make in the direction of my skis and the weight in my hips and legs to turn a certain way. I notice how much more difficult it is for me to get my left side to hold my weight than my right; how much more difficult again this is when I start to get tired. Or if I let my mind wander too much. Being present just in that moment is immensely useful for balance.

I am not, by any means, a good skier, but I do okay. And that’s enough.

For about the same amount of time that I’ve been doing headstands each morning, I’ve also been reading Illness, by Havi Carel. I will, at some point, write more here about this book and its ideas, because it’s having a profound effect on how I view my own chronic illness, and the periods of greater or lesser health within that, but for now I want only to mention one idea that returned to me as I alternately fell and skied down the slopes. Carel writes about how a serious illness — chronic or otherwise — can bring with it a sense that one’s body has failed them, betrayed them. That because of this failing in this one part of myself, I am somehow not enough. This is certainly how I’ve felt about my own body because of illness at various points. And I wonder if, on a different scale, that is part of what I was ashamed of when I kept falling and falling and falling that first time down the slope. Whether that is part of what any person might be ashamed of when they’re asked to do something with their physical body that proves difficult or impossible.

Because, to a certain degree, we are our physical bodies and their capabilities and limits. We are our illnesses, our falls, our tears of shame. We are also that steady headstand that comes along every now and then, that brilliantly executed turn on the skis.

Of course, we’re also not any of those things. We both are and are not our dys/functionality. This is something I have to remind myself on a regular basis. It’s all about perspective.

And so it is about perspective with falling. Perhaps when I’m standing on my head I am actually falling most of the time; it’s just that I catch myself. And when I’m skiing, I am, of course, actually falling down a hill the whole time, even if I’m not falling over. It’s a sort-of-controlled falling, or at least it’s a falling I’m sort-of-almost comfortable with most of the time.

~

20130829-180017.jpg Several days into our week away, on a day where the snow is too slushy to ski, my brother and I go for a long walk. We talk, among other things, about falling. About how falling is not so bad anyway. Yes, sometimes you hurt yourself when you fall over, but mostly the physical injury is minor; the injury to the ego is greater. It’s embarrassing. We talk about how facing a fear of falling can teach you so much. About how falling can teach you so much.

This is something I think about often with physical activity, that it so often brings up questions about self and identity and capability and worth. I can stand on my head, and that makes me feel capable and strong. But I am at best a novice skier, and that makes me feel small. There’s something to learn from each feeling, if I’m up to looking at it a little closer.

20130829-180004.jpg As my brother and I talk about being afraid of falling, he jumps up onto a pole running along the side of a road, and walks along it, balancing. He talks about the relationship between balance and falling and play. We trudge through snow in inappropriate shoes, and I am conscious of the risk of slipping, but we go ahead anyway. We discover a small creek, we climb on rocks, we peer at plants. At one point we come across a snowman someone built earlier in the day. I take pictures of moss and rocks, he throws snowballs at me. It reminds me of adventures we had as children. Adventure, triumph, play, fear of falling, failure, and shame are all so tied up in one another. Shining in the midday winter sun, the snow crunches under our feet, a wonder and a danger all at once.