Some days I am barely aware of the pandemic. I feel selfish, out-of-perspective, and disproportional—yet honest—when I say that. Some days this global crisis doesn’t even enter my mind, which might implode any moment at the pressures of other, simultaneous, personal crises: Danger of divorce. The caustic estrangement of one son. The dawning impression that the other stopped eating, stopped sleeping and was depressed partly because of me.
The month of April marked the beginnings of balance. On April 1, 2020, I started slacklining.
My younger friends Rob and Rachel agreed to teach me. When I met them at the stand of pines at Memorial Park, Rachel was almost done anchoring the slackline—flat nylon webbing one inch wide, the kind used for climbing—between two pine trees.
Beginner tutorial videos recommended starting low, around two feet off the ground, but Rachel had set it up at chest height. It looked harder than I could handle. “That looks kinda high for my first time,” I hinted.
They didn’t get the hint. “Oh, it has to be that high because it’s slack. Any lower and it’ll touch the ground when we stand on it.”
You know how people can be so good at something that they don’t realize their abilities are far above normal? I said no more about the line being too high for me.
My son, whose report card showed all A’s and one B last semester, quit turning in school work. He quit eating, for the most part. One day, he drank not a drop of water. He slept for several hours during the day. I was so emotionally insular, so self-absorbed, that I didn’t recognize the obvious signs of his depression, though they were mirrored in myself. His depression was a lengthening dirge of discordant notes, intensity rising, but I waved it off and forced a diminuendo onto the worsening situation. If all the schools had been running as usual, I would have worried. But I thought it was just a normal reaction to the pandemic that closed the high school in mid-March. Weren’t all students depressed nowadays? This was nothing too unusual. It’s just what everyone else is going through.
My husband, though, was not only alert and perspicacious but creatively proactive, empathetic, intentional. He began taking daily one-hour hikes with our son, which always included conversation that broadened and deepened with every hike. Our son started eating more and sleeping less. I told my husband, “I think you saved his life. Thank you.”
I still feel inward—trapped, incapable, empathy—handicapped. Besides putting dinner on the table and doing his laundry, I don’t know how to help my son. But some things I know I can do.
With the slackline anchored and ready, Rob went first and offered instruction along the way: Put one foot on the line. The bottom foot should not start way out wide but as close to the line as possible, with the heel right under the hips. Stand up straight. Breathe (a reminder I needed, because stress suppresses the breathing reflex; in normal situations a person does not need to tell the body to breathe). It helps to exhale on the way up. Don’t look straight down at your feet, where you are, but keep your eyes at the end of the line, where you’re headed. Accept now that you’re going to fall—it’s just part of the learning process—but keep trying to get up anyway. The line will shake as soon as you try to stand on it, but you just have to try over and over until the stabilizing muscles in your leg eventually learn how to work. The goal for now is just to keep trying.
On my first day of slacklining, I never was able to take a step on the line. I never even stood on it with both feet for more than a split second. Fear was my first and only obstacle that first day, but I traversed the fear—albeit a full hour later. So, that first day was a success.
I used to have the house all to myself, all day. Then workplaces and schools closed their doors, and with husband and son suddenly at home, I lost the solitude I felt I couldn’t live without. I reeled. Something inside went off-kilter, tilted, skewed.
On my second day of slacklining I fell, and fell, and fell. Arms flailing and without control, I didn’t just fall but fell violently, thwacked and slapped hard by the taut line, leaving bruises along the entire length of both legs. But they were happy bruises. I never had so much fun falling. Why did I relish these falls? Funny how I desired and even pursued physical difficulties yet despaired over non-physical ones.
At the end of that two-hour period, my personal record went from barely getting both feet up, to taking one step. Another success.
I bought my own slackline the next day.
While my husband was working with our son, tending to him, building his appetite for food and life back up, we also started working on our marriage. The foundation was good, but we needed to demolish and rebuild several walls. Our new marriage therapist was an hour’s drive away, but she was only seeing clients remotely anyway. During our sessions, she sat at her dining table while we sat at the desk in our spare bedroom, recently converted to a home office. You know your therapist is good when she can communicate empathy and understanding through a laptop monitor. Her résumé would say she’s a counselor or therapist, but I call her a magician.
I realized slacklining also restored my solitude. Everyone was still home all day, but I could be alone again. My new personal retreat: the one-inch width of 70 feet of climbing webbing tied between two trees in my front yard.
I now set it up higher (chest height, the way Rachel set it up on my first day). I work on my posture, because after taking videos of myself I saw that I lean forward. (The scrunched-up posture would’ve made an onlooker think, “Does she even want to make progress?”) I used to make it a goal to increase the number of steps, but my tendency, then, was to take small steps, heel-to-toe. Now the goal is to increase my stride length. Sometimes instead of trying to get to the end of the line, I just stay at the middle, where it’s most slack and therefore most difficult. My legs are not stepping forward, but they’re still getting a good workout staying balanced in place as the slackline sways. Though I’m staying at the same spot, my muscles and stabilizers are improving.
Our family is improving. We’ve established a routine that keeps us settled yet progressing. On June 6, 2020, we started a new family activity: rock climbing. All three of us have never done it before, so we’ll be beginners. We’ll start from the ground, put our hands and feet on the rock, and make our way up.
Photo by Algy O’Connell, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Mahalia Cruz.
- Pandemic Journal: An Entry on Slacklining and Breathing - June 25, 2020