When I was eight years old, I fell face first off a swing on the school playground. What I remember most about this incident was not the pain of picking gravel out of my face, after having scraped it against the rocky dirt below. Nor the embarrassment of having to be carried to the nurse’s office by Mr. Lind. Nor the fear I felt at how irritated my mother was going to be – having to call a neighbor to drive her to my school and pick me up just a few short hours after she’d been rid of me. What I remember was the feeling of my stomach lifting up into my chest as I reached the highest peak of my swinging. I remember the still air at the top, that split second between pumping up and swooping back down, perfect suspension. I would grip the chains, extend my arms so there are no bends in my elbow, holding my full weight in the palms of my hands, pointing my feet so my toes would almost touch the horizon, my hair flying behind me in the breeze. But then I’d need to pump again. I’d start vigorously bending my knees and that restful horizontal body was no longer weightless but pushing, pushing… my feet touching the sky. And then back the other direction, elbows in tight, knees bent to keep my speed and power up. Over and over until I could rest again and watch the tops of the trees go by. Freedom.
In between my blissful state and starting to pump again, I rested with the swing chains inside the crooks of my elbows. Slightly leaning forward, the sensation was different but no less pleasant – more exciting actually. I watched the ground pass beneath me, a recent rainfall had left a puddle in the dirt dugout formed by feet dragging to slow momentum. I could see my reflection briefly, back and forth. I kept trying to catch a longer glimpse – my face, the swing, the tree tops and the sky beyond. One more time. The reflection was mesmerizing, wanting to catch it was too. The next time I came upon it, I felt the same sensation as I did at the height of my swinging… slow motion, in suspension, holding still, and I saw my whole face. I was smiling, happy – or at least I think it was happiness. That’s what I see in my brain when I remember that split second right before my arms gave out behind me and I went face first into the puddle, my skin scraping me to a halt the way my feet would have done.
I still believe it was a risk worth taking, and the fall-out wasn’t that bad – a small scar on my left cheek that gets dark quickly when I sit in the sun. That is how I’ve always evaluated decisions, no risk, no reward. For example, when I was about four years old, I was invited to a neighborhood friend’s birthday party and I wanted to go badly but I had a horrible stomach bug. I was determined, though, so I put on my favorite white lace dress with those sweet ruffled bloomers underneath. I threw some plastic barrettes in my stringy hair, pulling it away from my face as my mother liked, and then approached her for permission. I was pretty sure I looked like an angel and put on a cheeky smile. My mother said she’d make a deal with me. I could go to the party if I was able to walk from my bedroom at the end of the hall to the kitchen without shitting myself.
I failed. And I’m pretty sure my mother made me help her clean up my shit. Still, worth the risk.
In the fifth grade, I was trying to impress Kevin McCann by climbing the fireman’s pole on the jungle gym then hanging by my knees on the cross bar. From my upside-down perspective, I saw his disinterest in me as he began walking away and protested by gesticulating wildly which resulted in me falling headfirst into the pavement. Concussion #1, not worth the risk. Plus, it was on my mother’s birthday, so she started to believe I had it out for her.
There have been countless times I have taken risks with my body, and I can happily say that most have been worth it. Here’s a short rambling list…
- The first time I went surfing, I was 21 and living at the beach in San Diego. Everyone around me seemed to be doing it, so I borrowed a board and with no further instruction other than to watch for sharks, headed to the water with my friends. I caught a half of a wave, then stood in what I thought was knee-deep water to smile and wave excitedly to my friends on the beach. A monster wave hit me from behind and I ended up scraping the floor of the Pacific with my face. Lesson here: Do Not Turn Your Back On The Ocean.
- When I was five years old, I was so excited to kiss my father goodnight that when he knelt down, I jumped up as hard and fast as I could – using my forehead to break his nose immediately. It was the first time I felt the pain of hurting someone unintentionally.
- At 17, we took one of only two real family vacations, driving down to stay in a motel on Virginia Beach. The next day, while most people seemed to be staying out of the ocean, I ran straight in and was promptly stung by a jellyfish. My only other memory of that trip is sitting in the motel room, a bag of dirty machine ice on my sting, sucking a popsicle and thinking how lame Virginia was, while the fan blew stifling hot air around, and my father blasted the television so everyone could hear the Iran-Contra hearings.
- I’ve had repeated incidences of poison ivy, despite knowing exactly what it looks like. Unfortunately, there was a load of it in our backyard, directly in my path to the tree I climbed almost daily. My mother never hid her frustration with my affinity for it, though she would let me lay on the cool kitchen floor and place wet teabags on my skin to loosen it. Occasionally I’d end up at the hospital with an antihistamine shot so the swelling in my face and neck wouldn’t stop my breathing.
- Countless sunburns. I didn’t start wearing sunblock consistently until I was in my 40’s. How do I not have skin cancer yet? I still love the feeling of the sun tightening my skin, especially after a swim.
- At least three bouts of serious dehydration – Yellowstone in 1993, Dublin Marathon in 2000, Burning Man in 2007… I’m probably due for one soon.
- When I was 11, I was playing on a jungle gym with my neighbor friend at her uncle’s house. I remember standing on the ladder, wanting to jump out and grab the monkey rings. I’d done it in the past, I could do it again. I leapt and one hand secured a ring but I’d grown since the last time I’d done this trick and my feet hit the ground hard, stopping my body. The momentum didn’t stop in my wrist, though, and it did a 180. Both the radius and ulna broke. At the hospital, after they set my arm, I had to use the bathroom but they didn’t want me to move so they brought me a bedpan. They left me alone to use it, then left me there for a while, butt exposed, me calling to anyone for help. Sure enough someone comes to the door – but it was my neighbor Tommy Nicholson. His father was in the hospital, too, he got the wrong room, and now he’d seen my ass. Humiliations galore, as Prince Humperdinck would say. Also, my parents were out of town for their anniversary and eventually we tracked down my sisters to come collect me. They smuggled me in a McDonald’s happy meal for which I’m still grateful.
- A few years later, we were at one of my father’s friend’s houses for a party. My Dad sang with a barbershop quartet and chorus all my life and we were always hanging out with these folks. There was bbqing, swimming, drinking, and singing. We were at Tony Pallidino’s house this time and his daughter Amy, a bit older than me, was showing me a new dance move where you swing your arms like a propeller then bend forward and touch the ground. Then you do the swinging of arms backwards into a backbend. I tried it and when I went into the backbend, the tips of my right fingers hit the ground instead of the palm of my hand and they went, well, backwards. I cried and showed my Dad who gave me some ice cubes and said they looked fine. The next morning, my fingers were the size of sausages, and unmovable. Both of my parents shared a grumble and brought me to the hospital where an xray showed I’d broken them all. I never did nail that dance move.
- I’ve had three other concussions, one snowboarding in Portland. One, embarrassingly, in a dressing room. I was trying something on and my hair was driving me crazy that day so I flicked my head back to get it out of my face and slammed my head against a picture frame. And one after totalling my fairly new boyfriend (now husband)’s car on our first family vacation.
- The only other thing to note might be that I had a baby, with no drugs or intervention, after 28+hr labor. Unfortunately, there is a ton of stigma now around how you did or didn’t have your baby, use drugs, have intervention, and while I’m not up here saying I did it better than anyone, I feel like its not even ok anymore to say I did it differently. But whatever. I, and my body, kicked ass that day and welcomed a human to earth. Yay me.
*a memoir in-progress
Writer Traveler Human Being