I dreamed that I stood on the ledge of a tall building, 40 floors up. I stepped casually off the ledge and fell, remaining upright, hands by my side, as though I were just standing on a street corner. Looking down, I saw the ground approaching and told myself, “Relax your legs. Be supple.” I hit the ground and did a forward roll and walked away unscathed.
On the radio I heard La Plata County Senior Services advertise a class called “Watch Your Step” for the elderly (over 60) to teach us how to avoid falling. By contrast, in aikido we practice falling on purpose. I don’t know how many times we fall during a class—maybe 50?—I should count. A couple hours of falling down and getting up turns into real exercise.
The Senior Services class for us geezers says it is “helping adults over 60 to age with dignity and purpose”.
The word “dignity” brings up a memory. I am sitting at a dinner table. My parents and I have come from out of town to visit my mother’s parents. My grandfather has suffered a sad turn of fortune. A few years earlier while out hunting, looking down the sights of his rifle, he saw his vision cloud into a blur. Convinced that he was going blind, he experienced a mental breakdown that extracted a great toll on him, body and soul. (His vision problem turned out to be a cataract, which even in those days could have been corrected with surgery). In a matter of days my grandfather transformed from a vibrant, robust man into a broken one. Suddenly plagued with vertigo and hearing problems, he now wore inch-thick spectacles and laid his frail body down for frequent naps.
At the dinner table I observed my mother and grandmother talking about him as though he were a child, as though he were not even present. At one point, my grandfather looked around the table at each of us and said, “I want to ask a question.” He paused, and then asked, “How can I regain my dignity?”
I looked at him and thought—but did not say—“You can’t.”
At that moment I decided I was done with dignity.
But purpose—now there’s a worthwhile pursuit. LPCSS can teach the elderly to age with purpose. And aikido can teach us to fall on purpose.
I’ve heard many stories of falls from aikidoka (aikido practitioners): falling from a bicycle, slipping off a ladder, or stumbling down stairs—then walking away undamaged.
A couple years ago, Adele and I arrived at a fundraiser for Wolfwood, a nonprofit outside of Durango that rescues and cares for wolves and wolfdogs. Steve, a yondan (fourth degree black belt) just a few years younger than me, had gotten there before us. He sipped a glass of wine while he told us how he had gone out to meet Oakley, the “Ambassador Wolf” who was brought along for the occasion, acting as greeter in a big portable cage in a field beside the restaurant staging the event. Walking over to meet Oakley, Steve had stepped into a hidden pothole covered with grass and did a forward roll. He stood up uninjured. He had, unfortunately, spilled his wine. (Of all the world’s martial artists, perhaps only Jackie Chan would be capable of pulling off such a maneuver and ending up with a full glass).
Last winter Jenny, a nidan (second degree black belt and fellow blogger), told us of walking across the Walmart parking lot after returning an item. The pavement was icy, covered with a thin layer of new snow. She was just a few feet from her car when she stepped on a particularly slippery spot and her feet shot out from under her. She went into a back roll and ended up standing, uninjured. Looking around to see if there were any security cameras, her first thought was that perhaps she could purchase a copy of the tape.
I suspect that every aikido dojo is replete with stories of mishaps that could have been limb-or-life-threatening to the untrained, but ended up being acrobatic and pretty cool. (I imagine Jenny getting up after her back roll on the ice, saying, “Hey, I meant to do that.”)
Three days after my dream of purposely stepping off a ledge and falling forty stories, I slid off my roof.
Last winter we had an insane amount of snow. It buried our clothes line, turned our bedroom into a snow cave, and tunneled our long driveway into a narrow passage between eleven-foot walls of ice. Snow banked into a mini-glacier on our roof where the slopes come together. One afternoon, when the sun was warm enough to encourage a slight drip off the eaves, we noticed a small brown water stain on our utility room ceiling. Fortunately, it turned out that the leak was right above our attic access, and I was able to replace the access door with a piece of fiberboard in which I drilled a 3/4” diameter hole. The intermittent drip fell straight through the hole into pans on the floor, much to the amusement of Simba and Theo, our resident cats.
In late spring, after all the snow had melted, I went up onto the metal roof to figure out what I needed to do to repair the leak. I consider myself to be pretty safety-conscious (no matter how much the facts contradict my belief). I bought some giant sandals that strap over my boots and have Velcro bottoms to which I attached roof-gripping foam soles. I bought a harness that belts around my waist and a carabiner to connect the harness to an ascender, a device that slides up the rope, gripping it automatically, giving me support until I manually slide the teeth out of the way.
The conundrum was that I needed the rope for safety on the roof, but I seemed to need to get on the roof to set up the rope. I went out on my second story balcony, tied one end of the rope to the metal post, tied the other end to a rubber mallet, and proceeded to make several mallet tosses, but I couldn’t quite clear the peak. Finally, I went to the other side of the house, put on my roof-gripping over-the-boot sandals, and climbed the ladder carrying a rake. The sandals worked very well. I walked easily up the roof and should have just walked down the other side to grab the rope and mallet, but I had brought a rake with me, and I was going to use it, dagnab it! I sat down on the crest of the roof and leaned forward, reaching with the rake to grab the mallet. It was just a few inches too far, so I eased down the roof a little, sitting on my butt. The slide started slowly. At first I felt that of course I can stop. Just need a little friction, set those foam soles down… But then I was sliding a little faster, gradually picking up more and more speed. I saw the porch railing approaching. I tried to grab it with the rake, but missed. And then I was sailing off into thin air.
I found myself on the ground. I had landed on my feet, sat down and rolled back and was now reclining on a soft, cushiony plant, right between two boulders. I took a moment to assess. There seemed to be a painful scratch on my left forearm and a slight bruise on my right butt cheek, but besides that, I felt fine. I thought back to the moment that I left the roof and went sailing and realized that I had been totally without thought and completely relaxed, just flying through the air.
All those years of koho tento undo (from standing, go down on a knee, sit, roll back, roll forward onto one knee, stand up, change legs, repeat ad infinitum) had paid off a million-fold.
And then the thoughts came flooding in. First there was a prayer of thanks. I was alive and intact. Then an attempt to review what had happened. A James Joyce quote floated up from somewhere: “Not to fall was too hard, too hard”. (Although I think he was probably talking about humanity’s fall from grace. Paradise must get pretty boring after a while.)
Senior Services tells the elderly to “Watch Your Step”, a good recommendation for all ages. (These days we call it “mindfulness”). Teaching the old folks to avoid falling—and stay off the roof—is a good approach.
If you need to avoid falling, by all means, do.
But I prefer a different tack, if possible. Practice falling. Not to fall is too hard. Take the fall for those who can’t. For those of us who can, I say, Fall! Fall often! Fall with grace! Fall with purpose! Fall in love until you can fall no more!
That’s my advice.
(Featured image Don’t Jump by Flalenz)