On my recent trip to Michigan City, where I grew up, and where memories of my youthful years now struggle for survival (thus the most recently posted poem), I stood under this oak tree, the one I fell out of when I was fourteen, and noticed that some branches were withered, leaves lacking-- it was in old age and apparently dying. The whole grove of oaks of which it was a part were all suffering too. It was spooky standing there with white hair, with arms more spindly than in past times, looking at a tree ever-so-much like some tree version of my own aging self.
I broke my wrist falling from that tree, but perhaps it was more like a death and rebirth. We had just returned from our family vacation trip to the Seattle World's Fair. I was strong, athletic. The tree had been a second home to me. For years I had swung among its branches like a little Tarzan. But I had been growing a lot. Getting slower, heavier. Ever since I had been a small child, I liked to swing on branches and jump out of trees and off garage and house roofs. Jumping did not scare me anymore than it scared squirrels (from whom I learned the craft). But as my mass increased it seemed to take bigger muscles, as well as the endurance of flesh-stripped hands, banged knees, twisted ankles, knots on the head. As I matured, it also began to take more mastery of fear to pull off the same stunts I used to do effortlessly, without thinking twice.
I fell from about 20 feet. It would not have frightened me to jump from that height even then. But that was about all I was ever able to do safely, even with the soft, soft, sand of the underlying dunes. In fact I was only a couple drops and swings away from where I usually launched myself from the tree for a landing. But while making an energetic swing, my foot grazed another branch below. That had never happened before! It pulled my grip loose from the branch I was swinging on, and as I my feet raised up in front of me--just as my back became parallel with the ground-- my grip broke and I sailed out feet-first into the blue, or seemingly, as all I could see was the top of the tree and the sky.
Fortunately I hit no other branches on the way down. I was frozen stiff in my stretched-out position, though slowly rotating so that the top of my head was turning toward the ground as my feet continued up. This is not a good way to plan how to land! There was a sense of time distortion, but none of this "complete life" stuff they talk of-- maybe I should have taken that as proof I would live? But no, I was terrified and trying desperately to get more time out of the few seconds I had to save myself. I still knew, like a diver, how deep I had gone, so that even before I hit the ground my stomach was churning, knowing I had plunged far into the red zone for falling upside down.
I could not rotate completely around, but was able to twist my neck to see the ground coming. I extended my left arm toward it, so that arm would make first contact. I would have to use the arm to land with, like landing on one strut of a landing gear. When my hand touched the ground, I locked the arm. The arm was a lever, for just an instant, letting me lift my head enough to finish my rotation, and I pancaked the ground flat on my stomach. The hand-stand attempt had put the full force of my fall into my wrist and arm just long enough, I think, that I was able to survive bodily impact with the ground. My wrist bones separated, but my neck was saved. I wanted to shout in triumph, but the wind was knocked out of me. Then the dirt and debris in my mouth almost suffocated me on my first gasp. But after a few minutes I knew I would be ok.
Miraculously, there were no broken ribs. No blood. A one-armed landing. Wow! I was proud that my last stunt (which I now hoped would be the very last stunt) had been so spectacular. I had done a complete 360 flat-out rotation in the sky without water, or a net below to break my fall. But I was grateful that the patch of soft earth I landed on had not contained a city sidewalk, a row of fence, or even an unlucky rock. That would have made a much different ending to the story. But on that day I got up and walked home, trying not to look at my twisted left hand.
After that fall, my knees became shaky on ladders, and I no longer allowed my squirrel brain direct access to my motor areas.
So, while in Michigan City, remembering things, I stood under this tree and communed a while, assuring us both that I would never let its importance fall out of me.
Then later I thought this: am I still spinning in that fall? Do we not we all live out the arc of our everyday lives, keeping our eyes fixed on the heavens, even as the earth moves up beneath us? Am I not turning now to look?