I was a cautious child.
Long after all my friends rode grown-up bicycles, I remained content with my close-to-the-ground, kick-operated, aqua scooter. My brief stint with middle school ski club is a blur of bunny hills and warming huts. The high dive? I was the kid who climbed up the ladder and down the ladder.
Before I was a year old, I managed to plummet from the middle of the basement staircase, onto the cement floor, landing right on my noggin. I had a concussion and went to the hospital—and was fine. I’m not sure if the early injury caused my trepidation, but I don’t have childhood memories of being upside down.
There were “gymnastics sessions” in Katy S’s basement. She showed me what she’d learned in her tumbling classes and then proceeded to try and “teach” me. We cranked up Belinda Carlisle while I mastered the somersault. Never did get my legs up over my head for those cartwheels. My teacher shook her head in disgrace.
Through high school I took “zero hour” gym, which meant you got to school earlier than everybody else but all you had to do was archery and badminton, darts and—I remember this—sometimes we sat and watched aerobics video tapes. This class also worked well with my fashion. I never broke a sweat, so, by the end of zero hour, when I shed my pristine gym clothes, I could avoid the nasty shower and climb directly back into my combat boots and multi-layered smock dresses.
I took real risks in creative writing. On Ms. Schaffer’s famous “haiku hike,” I decided to escape the group with one quiet cohort, Amber, to show her how I could cross the frozen creek…
Almost to the far bank, I broke through the ice. I felt my legs yanked, leftward. I clawed the snowy dirt to keep from being dragged under. Amber, still on the other side, shrieked and said she’d run for help.
Not long after Amber left, I pulled myself out and wandered, shivering, back to school. I put on a swing choir tuxedo and finished the rest of my classes proud—gleeful. My haiku:
On the haiku hike
fall in the frozen water
really fucking cold
In a yoga class a couple of years ago, the teacher spotted me while I did a headstand against a wall. She said in her daring, sexy accent, “How long has it been since you’ve gone upside down?”
Too long! said a voice in my head, the voice that tells me to write novels, run marathons, eat the chili-coated grasshopper. The counter voice in my head had some profanities for the ethereal, challenging Yogini.
Around that time, I had begun to flesh out a main character for the novel I’m writing. I like to get to know my characters, to feel what they do. Turns out, this gal can walk on her hands. So this winter the handstand has been my obsession.
I’ve decided to do this in the context of yoga—with a spotter, against a wall. My instructor advises I “honor [my] fear.” She also says that “If it becomes an obsession or an ego driven goal, then it is not good yoga.”
But—come on! I would love to get on with “stimulat[ing] the crown and third eye chakras and help[ing] to open the flow of divine energy in [my] body”!
Some days when I’m driving around in the car, butt firmly wedged in my Subaru seat, I imagine my legs flowing effortlessly up, my arms like steel bars, my body blossoming out of them in a straight, taut line.
As I write this, I sit with a bag of frozen lima beans on my head. Tonight in my yoga class, there were two in attendance, so we had the privilege of requesting certain poses. While my stomach seized in terror, I requested “handstands!” I aced the first one, with the aid of a gentle shove from my teacher. She said, “Do you want to try again?” I said, “Sure!” And in an instant I felt my elbow bend, and I heard my head smack! on the cork floor. The reason I fell is that I freaked, psychologically (is there any other way?). I cursed myself for requesting handstands. Clearly I was not ready. I laughed it off and wept silently through savasana. Dammit.
I realize, now, I’m interested in the literal upside down because I’m in love with the metaphor. A shift in perspective, an inversion of what is. This is how great minds solve problems—it’s where peacock feathers of ideas present themselves—outside of any safety zone in glorious, uncharted territory. I think a similar thing happens when I’m deep in writing fiction, or several miles into a long run, or when I’m teaching. Three questions come: How in the world did I get here? How can I maximize my time here? How will things be different when I’m through?
Actually, I hang out upside down a lot of the time.
As for handstands: I have not given up. With more kicks up toward a wall—a soft cushion beneath my head—probably that same bag of lima beans, eternally in the freezer—I’ll get there, and when I do, maybe I’ll discover it’s not so unfamiliar after all.
Alison Ruch writes and teaches in Corvallis, Oregon. For more, please visit alisonruch.com.
Editor Tanya L. Markul