“Don’t Be Careful With My Body”: Some Thoughts on Flying

I should be reading, or sleeping, showering, brushing my very teeth or meditating, but I’m not. My child should be sleeping, but (or rather and) he’s not. It’s 12:24 EST and nothing is progressing as it ought. My child has abandoned his sleeping post, under the guise of I hafta to go to the bathroom, Mama, and is now telling me from what will be a nonproductive visit to the loo about how fantastic Heidi, his father’s girlfriend is, owing to the fact that she believes in ice cream for bruckfast, Mama! 

How Auntie Mame of her, I offer.

I do not know what that means, Mama.

Go to sleep, loveyloo, I call after him.

Can I have ice cream for bruckfast when I wake up? he asks.

No, sweetie, I say.

I don’t want oatmeal, he says, I don’t want oatmeal, but I do want to put the cinnamon in it.

Sort of a metaphor, isn’t it.

I don’t think you know what you want, I said, but you don’t have to decide now. Now, it’s time to sleep. 

Okay, mama, he concede, and I kissed him good night, and listened from the next room as I read for pleasure and thought about a day, a few years back, when a team I worked with climbed some ropes.

*

It is now morning, and the boy did in fact, eat his oatmeal (all it takes to lift an embargo is a little cinnamon and, okay, fine, a small handful of blueberries). At some point, kid’s going to discover that there are sweeteners other than fruit, honey or maple syrup or what have you, that may be added to oatmeal, if one desires a sweeter porridge, and at that point, life as I know it will never be the same. For now, it’s all I can do to keep the kid on plain yogurt, as he’s learned that yogurt comes fruited and flavored and sweetened.

But today, he ate his oatmeal, while I labored, cleaning up various messes he or we or I had made—the oatmeal pot, the cinnamon spill, the package of dental floss that had come untethered in the bathroom, owing to my child’s curiosity about what would happen should he unspool it. And I meditated on this high ropes course, from all those years ago.

* 

Don’t be careful with my body, K said as I reached my arms across her torso, just grab me and it made me think. I was supposed to catch her, as she was having trouble landing on the “raft”, crossing to safety. And I did. Having swung across the “ravine” myself just moments before, without trouble, I realized: I had no challenge on any of the physical components of the day, no difficulty balancing on rope, climbing high walls, wedging between wires, no real anxiety about being suspended 50 feet in the air—but I was in a harness—a contraption dubbed the human slingshot.

Now, I am not one for these sorts of adventures, you understand. I have no desire to fly, strongly prefer my feet firm, on hard earth, to swinging around amid the trees, and by tethers. As you’d expect, I have very little inclination toward these types of activities. And yet, I knew: if we were going to do this, I really had to do it. I had to go big, with vigor and enthusiasm and humor and uncharacteristic grace. Not for myself, you understand, but for the team.

Remember, our instructor yelled, you only have to go up as high as you want.

Oh, I shouted toward the ground, if I’m going up, I’m going all the way. Take me to the top. 

Are there any children in proximity? I shouted to our instructor, as I looked at my colleagues pulling my rope back, below my feet. 

Not for acres, he called back, as they hoisted me up from the ground and toward the sky.

 I might swear! I said.

Swear all you want, he said.

Ready to fly, I said, as I was instructed.

Fly on! my team called up from the ground.

I released my clip and felt myself swing backward, immediately and with great force. I thought I’d scream, or swear, or otherwise lose it, at least a little, and that would set the tone for everyone who followed. But as I shot through the sky, I didn’t say anything at all.

Are you okay, Adina? the instructor yelled, I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone so quiet up there. Adina?

I nodded and waved down to him, smiled and flashed a set of upward-pointing thumbs.

Jesus, he said when I landed, eventually, on the hard dirt, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so quiet up there. I thought you might have had a heart attack.

I’m sorry, I said, I didn’t mean to worry you. 

And that was true. 

What was going on for you up there? he asked. You looked so serious!

I was just thinking, I said.

And that was true, too.

*

Everyone was challenged by the course, a little or a lot, and in various ways. R was not a fan of nature, so getting him out there to begin with was a coup. P had no balance, and accidentally grabbed my vagina, which I think was worse for him than it was for me, although it was certainly not an experience I had hoped for. L struggled with directions, giving and receiving. K had a bad ankle, and had to opt out of the low ropes entirely. B was jet lagged, having just returned from international travel the night before, and terrified of heights. M reported having the upper body strength of a “wet noodle”, and couldn’t lift herself, never mind anyone else.

For my own part, I did fine at each discrete task, which surprised me. I am reasonably strong and have decent balance and not so much in the way of fear about physical challenges, although, again, I prefer the ground to the rope or high wire, but I am also completely physically awkward and almost entirely devoid of hand-eye coordination, and therefore worried I’d break something owing to my own incompetence. But I managed to do complete my tasks easily and well and without fanfare.

The thing I struggled with was all of the contact. One of the things, I suppose, about these  exercises, the work of outdoor education, really, is that you have to trust your team members, emotionally, but you also have to be willing to depend on them physically, to safely enter their space, to grip hands across taut wire, to use your body as a bridge, to use the weight of your body to counterbalance theirs, to lean back and believe these strangers will catch your back, break your fall, help you land. It sounds strange, perhaps, but it led me to begin thinking about the physicality of trust, what it conjures and implies and demands. 

And I don’t like asking for help, this is something I know about myself, very seldom need help, almost never require it, and certainly, it was with an awareness of that fact that I approached these physical challenges. But (or rather and) I also do not like to touch non-intimates and at some point today I was in terrifying proximity to each of these six colleagues, I’d been stopped, frisked, crashed into, smashed against, hugged, handheld, spooned, inadvertently rubbed down, accidentally vaginally pressed, and otherwise landed upon, and it was just a tremendous amount of frankly unnecessary physical contact. I was first to go, most of the time, first person on the rope, first on the human slingshot, at the team’s request, President goes first, and maybe it doesn’t mean anything, maybe I dig for metaphor where none exists, but on each apparatus, I made it across easily, and by myself. Only when I got to where I was going, did I realize: there is someone behind me, and I’m supposed to be holding that someone’s arm or torso or hand, leveraging them across a border, anchoring or encouraging or guiding.

And then, invariably: I turn, to do the thing one is supposed to do in these exercises, which is help the folk who came up behind. Lifting as you climb, and that sort of thing. And that’s how I came to have all of these people, all over me, crashing and smashing and gripping and falling upon, and I don’t like it, I don’t like it, it is so much cleaner to maintain these boundaries, to keep clear lines, to assert the borders of one’s physical space without letting other people enter, without taking on the responsibility of others and their imbalances, imperfections, weak ankles and lack of upper body strength, fear of flying, need to hold on, inability to let go, lest they fall over. Which is hard, especially when these limitations are so incongruous with my own. I am a fan of containment, myself, which is so much easier, and in fact, more pleasant, than the alternative. 

And I know: this is not our long-term reality. It is an exercise designed to bring us all out of our comfort zones, for the sake of this particular kind of growth, and these exercises are all behind us, now, and there will be no high ropes, in the office, at least not literally, and I’m not going to have to catch anyone, except metaphorically, am not going to be so close to any of these people I might be mistaken for their cinnamon peeler, or what have you. I’m not saying that it’s going to be easy. I’m sure it will be full of its own set of challenges.

And there will always be challenges, figuring out what to do, how to proceed, which course of action to follow, in the context of my current role, as a teacher, a writer, a parent, a friend, a parent, a job seeker, an oatmeal maker an sometimes a cinnamon peeler. What good is it to be the lime burner’s daughter? Where will I go next? When will I finish this syllabus? How will I respond to the latest onslaught of emails? Who will hear my stories? Why is life so amazing? What did I learn today? Unlike K, I want people to be careful with my body, and in most cases, I’d like this care to manifest itself by a policy of non-contact, the practice of containment. I am not a hugger, or a risk taker, or a high ropes artist. I don’t like flying, although my track record is good, which is to say: I inevitably land. The landings can be perilous, graceful, glorious, frightening. Sometimes hard, mostly figurative, occasionally fantastic. But always beautiful, even when they’re terrifying.

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