From the sandbox/softball lot to the sideporch that was our family’s front door, Dad had scooped out clay and laid gray gravel, gravel that I tried not to touch on the traverse from space to space. Instead, I perched my little sneakers – bought almost exclusively at Roses – on the landscape timbers – things I would have just called “wood” then – and edged my way back to home, hopping from garden bed to garden bed all the way.
I didn’t then, nor do now, have the poise of gymnasts – arms out and wrists turned back yet a bit so that it looks like fingers curve toward the sun, the gentle grace of toe down first. (I so wanted to be Mary Lou Retton, and the awareness, even then, that I never would gave me tears many a night as I drifted to sleep.)
On the garden balance beam, I clunked along, wobbled really, from foot to foot, stepping back off and then back on again. Until getting “in” became more imperative – the cut of my mother’s voice as she spoke of dinner, the beginning of some blue-flicker TV show, the darkness grown too heavy for me to see my shoes. Then, when needed, I would run to home, gravel (metaphorically) flying all the way.
Or when we took our family vacations – always to historical sights (perhaps my parents’ were early Sarah Vowells) – I’d teeter on the edge of a fort’s barricades or along bouldered edges of a national park overlook. Never falling to the wrong side, but at risk of doing so. To their credit, my parents let me try.
It was on these thin beams that I learned balance. . . the way it is to walk the edge of a thing – just daring to crush the cold crop of broccoli but still above the mundane of the utilitarian gravity. The immense amount of control required to appear effortless when the threat of a slip lingers on both sides.
I learned here that to tense up means to fall, that the easiest way to do this balance is not to study my feet, but to look ahead, to where I need to go. I learned that I can pull everything back if I pause and concentrate, tightening up the core and tugging in my excess. I learned that sometimes I need to let it all fly as I zip to the end.
Writing, too, this lesson in the edge of control and uncontrol – the fineness of placement required to craft something fresh without flying off into a language that crushes, the need to reign in verbosity and introduction in order to stay alight, the way just the smallest flourish can be, well, the world of bird song and brimstone.
The edge – of risk and normal, control and freespin – as dark descends and the promise of story flickers behind my eyes.