I am prone to inattention—which does not combine well with another of my tendencies, moving too fast.
One morning last week I was walking across our campus, on a paved path, when suddenly I wasn’t. Instead, I was face down, sprawled out on the path. Beyond the unpleasant surprise, there was an element of slapstick to the moment. I’ve been preoccupied with the idea of gravity lately. It’s entirely possible I missed a crack in the pavement, lost my balance, and fell, all because gravity was on my mind. There’s nothing else to explain why I fell.
I am prone to inattention—which does not combine well with another of my tendencies, moving too fast. That combination does result in the odd awkward collision. But as an adult, upright is my normal state of being.
As a kid, it was a different story. That recent fall—with the attendant bloodied knuckles, scraped palm, and bruised knee—takes me right back to childhood. As a kid, falling was commonplace. I have the scars to prove it: indented crosshatching below one knee (railroad trestle); outline of a tooth in lower lip (icy hill plus flying saucer); gash on right elbow (makeshift skateboard). I attribute those frequent mishaps to an excess of energy, combined with a deficiency of coordination and a healthy dose of myopia.
I don’t remember those falls causing any sense of shock or betrayal; only momentary disappointment and maybe a delay to our playing to scrounge up a band aide. No big deal. And always best to evade parental attention (with its imminent risk to shut down the diversion-at-hand, and also and to call down the wrath of an irritated parent).
Falling will become usual again, I suspect, with age. My mother has taken a few falls in her middle nineties. She’s banged and bruised herself, frightening us, though the blessing is that she hardly seems to remember falling. The causes, I’ve learned, include slower reflexes, changes in vision, loss of muscle, reduced sensitivity of nerves.
The decades spanning childhood and old age, then, might be considered my years of navigating through space—of resisting gravity—with any amount of poise and predictability. Yet one more grace I seldom have the wit to appreciate. This is what’s been on my mind.
Does gravity push or pull? I’ve hardly keyed in the question before I am pulled right into the debate, playing out, courtesy of the University of Cambridge, in the forum of The Naked Scientist.
No one really knows what gravity is, let alone if it pushes us down, or draws us upward. Every supposition leads only to another question, despite the brightest minds engaging the mysteries of gravity. The debate transcends mortality, with bloggers invoking Newton, Einstein, and Tesla. An ageless debate. Yet watch a child on a trampoline and the starkest implications leap into focus. We push off, and are drawn back earthward. We know gravity for the sway of our bodies, for our inability to withstand its force, beyond the arc that traces our wilful and boisterous acts of resistance.
And what of age? Does age push or pull? Suck us earthward, or propel us outward?
This question, too, eludes us, remaining in the realm of mystery, though we do seem worry more about aging, dedicating more energy to resisting its inevitable force. Grappling with age is a lonelier endeavour, too. Summon the image of that child on the trampoline, and you know that you have moved, one small moment at a time, toward mortality.
No one really knows what gravity is, let alone if it pushes us down, or draws us upward.
I’ve never been a skater, but that was not going to hold me back.
In the week after Christmas five years ago, we rented an oversized van and stuffed it full of ski and hockey gear, snacks and beer, and six of us (2 parents, 3 kids + boyfriend of the oldest) and set off for Apex, a small resort a few hours south of home, in the interior of BC. Courtesy of a one-time bonus, we had purchased a stack of ski passes and rented a swank slope-side condo, complete with all the comforts of home plus a few (big screen, ice-maker).
It was a near-perfect adventure. Aside from the boyfriend’s bout of food poisoning (one too many prawn?), and a near crisis when, despite that massive screen, the TV offerings didn’t include any sports’ networks, it was uninterrupted fun. A pub solved one problem, bringing us passable pub food plus access to both World Juniors and the Canucks game, and with an alcove providing viewing for the youngest, a minor then who would also have been most devastated to miss any game. For our own activity (the whole point, after all), the kids played on the outside rink across from our condo, and in every combination, we variously skied, boarded and skated.
I’ve never been a skater, but that was not going to hold me back. The whole point was to indulge, and that rare chance to see who were away from the constraints of the familiar. From the rink extended this dazzlingly long looping figure eight of a track. How could I resist? On the evening of our second day I borrowed my daughter’s skates and made my way around the loops with my husband, a masterful skater, as ballast. For short stretches I did quite fine, but rounding to the base of the figure 8—unbalanced by rough ice—I grabbed at his hand, managing to steady myself and also nearly detaching his thumb from its joint.
My expectation of myself as a skater were sufficiently low to escape harm. Skiing, however, was the challenge I had anticipated with some trepidation. Skiing was my sport growing up, and though it had been thirty years since I’d actually skied, there were memories of competence to live up to. It was some comfort that my expectations, and those memories, were private. We live near another small resort where our kids have grown up skiing with their dad, but for whatever series of small decisions which take on the look of choice, I had left Alpine for Nordic. Our kids have never known me to ski. They found the very idea of it entertaining.
It didn’t take long to discover that shorter skis are pretty cool for manoeuvrability, but that—despite three decades of technological advance—ski boots tethered by alpine bindings are as impossible to walk in as they ever were. In that respect, the family was at least equally disabled as we slogged together toward the lift. At the top of the trails I was pleased—and relieved—to recognize, within moments, that solidly intermediate ability I had cultivated in the seventies.
Those short skis I’d rented were also rounded, resembling two small snowboards. With their blunted tips and my casual control, I would soon learn that one can, indeed, even get turned around and take part of a slope backwards.
Skiing was my sport growing up, and though it had been thirty years since I’d actually skied, there were memories of competence to live up to.
We always considered that whole summer one long, loving honeymoon as we were married that year, in June.
Five years have changed a lot, but memory only requires the nudge of words, reread from an old Christmas letter, to spin from vague to vivid.
I remember the pull of gravity drawing me down that slope, backwards. And it was a rush, once I’d resigned myself to this new development in skiing. It could have been remarkable, a fine stunt, had it only been intentional. That fleeting thought was followed by another: that my son might glance back and see me—and be impressed. The sensation of backing down Apex was surprising, yes, but also exhilarating… until some protuberance I didn’t see (a shortcoming of backward skiing), caught an edge and took me down.
Gravity, for that whole sweet day, had been my friendly foe. I had delighted in resisting its force on run after run, weaving my way down trails in the midst of family, carving turns by relying on arch and edge of ski, manipulated by flex and impulse the body coaxes from muscle, mind, and memory. Now, on our final run—body pleasantly spent, mind in resting mode—gravity assumed a dominant role. It had, till this particular moment, been propelling me down the slope upright, if momentarily backwards. No longer the playfully opposing force, gravity now flung me downward face first, pinning me to that slope.
Pushing against the frozen hill, I tried with all my muscle and wit to push off from the ground, but without twisting a troublesome left knee, straining weak wrists, or aggravating an already aching shoulder. With neither knees, wrists, nor shoulders, I had all the manoeuvrability of a sack of grain. Even less aplomb. Would I dare let go this last bit of resistance and slither down to the base, prone?
Gravity was at least a patient adversary. I took time to consider my choices: sacrifice a joint or two; slide down like a big coward; or stay put until hypothermia gently claimed me. This 3rd option was growing in appeal when a young man swooshed in alongside me, asking if I’d like a hand. He looked about 20, the age of my son who was likely in the lift line, starting to wonder where his mother could be. The young man at my side, though agile and confidently planted on the slope, seemed less at ease socially, perhaps unsure if he might have embarrassed me, or intruded. I did consider releasing him with some made up assurance that I was fine—just taking a break. But I relinquished the remainder of my pride and admitted that my knee was locked and I could use a pull upright. He responded by digging an edge in and extending an arm. I pulled myself up against his grip, hoping against hope the shoulder and wrist would bear their share of my weight, so I would not take gravity’s side and bring him down too. I’m sure I out-weighed him, certainly with all the dampness I’d absorbed while prone.
The vivid memory of that adventure of a Christmas past got a boost by its association to a more recent Christmastime adventure—yet another tussle with gravity.
It’s December and I’m on my familiar skinny skis, gliding around our lake, minutes from home. This time, I’m alone, taking refuge from a house brimming with family. It’s the same family, but three intervening years has taken the kids further from our trajectory, and coming together now becomes the novelty, the adventure. It’s hard to admit, even to myself, that while the pull of family draws me in to them, it also propels me out to my own solitary ways. Like gravity, I suppose, it’s sometimes difficult to determine what pushes and what pulls at us. For now, however, I’ve relinquished to my need to restore myself and get out alone. It’s been sweet and I’m ready, eager, to go back, happily making my way to where the car’s parked in the half light of late afternoon.
Along the far side of the lake the snow had been crusty and fast. But on the south side it’s still slushy from the afternoon sun. The skiing is trickier, inconsistent, and I’m growing tired. I slip on an icy patch and regain balance. Too late I realize there’s dampness seeping through to the tracks. The skis ice up, but the body still pitches forward in expectation of speed that’s not realized. The skis drag to a stop and I’m down, prone on the ice. My skis V out to either side, with my body prone between. I kick up my knees and swing the skis to one side.
From this position, for anyone even slightly more agile, it would take nothing to spring upright and be gone. Someone stronger might knock bindings from ski boots, making standing a far simpler endeavour. For me, I may as well be nailed to the surface of this familiar lake. My knees might take the wrenching motion and with an assist from elbow and then shoulder, I would likely have the capacity to heave myself up just fine. But I know the wretched vulnerability of these joints. Recovery can outlast seasons, taking down whole capacities. It’s no longer mere gravity I resist, but that other pull, of aging, and immeasurably harder still, aging with grace—for which, to me, working joints seem a minimal requirement.
In fact, the body came through and I am happy to report that I didn’t die there, on the shore of Heffley Lake, of hypothermia and lost dignity (though the thought passed through my mind). I did manage to right myself, arching upward by virtue of a reliance on my obliques, those underutilized abdominal muscles whose name I know from a fitness instructor who, small blessing I now realize it to be, has forced me to attend to them. Those muscles generated just enough momentum to propel me upward, freeing me from gravity’s grip. My left side will feel the strain for days, but muscles have more resilience than joints. The joints, spared from the rescue, kick in for the more ordinary effort of skiing homeward, back to family, where—until they distract me from this newfound awareness—I will rejoice in our being together, and in a private moment of satisfaction for persisting in the face of those ageless mysteries that push and pull at us.