Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Learning To Fall

My dad was a volunteer firefighter in our hometown for most of the time I spent growing up, and I have many wonderful memories of his time with the department. It was something he took great pride in and really enjoyed doing. That fire department was like an extended family to us for many years, and there were plenty of social activities, over and above the dedicated hard work they all provided, to demonstrate and reinforce that connection. We had conventions, picnics, training operations (that sometimes included activities for the whole family), community events, and even a youth oriented “Jr. Fire Department” (an activity and education group that my brother and I, along with many of our friends, helped to establish). It was through Dad’s involvement with the Beeville Volunteer Fire Department that I learned a great deal about community involvement and helping people just for the sake of helping. That is one part of my childhood that I will always look back on fondly.

There were some bumps though. I don’t know about you, but my childhood always had some bumps. I’m pretty sure that’s normal. It helps us to learn, and to remember what we have learned. It’s kind of like writing your lesson twenty times, only with cuts and bruises instead of paper and pencils.

Our fire station back home was a two-story building, as they usually are in my experience, with most of it being one large open area for the trucks and equipment. There was a lounge and an office downstairs, and a couple more offices and a meeting room upstairs. I’m going from memory here, so I may have missed a couple points, but that was the basic layout. It was a volunteer department, so the space was smaller than you might usually see on TV or in the movies, though still larger than many volunteer department buildings I’ve seen over the years. As I recall, the building shared space with the City Hall and with the police station, so that might account for the larger accommodations.

During my time with the Jr. Fire Department, we usually held our meetings downstairs in the equipment bay or in the lounge, but sometimes they coincided with the regular department meetings. In those latter cases, we would do our part in association with the regular meeting upstairs and then those of us with parents in the department would hang out in the lounge while the adults did their thing. We usually flew down the stairs, seeing how many we could skip at a time, as children so often do, and racing to see who could get down the fastest. I won this little impromptu contest one evening by skipping almost all of the steps. It wasn’t on purpose. I tripped somewhere near the top, somehow managed to miss everything and everyone along the way, and landed in a heap at the bottom of the stairs. Miraculously, I was completely unharmed - I don’t remember more than a bruise, to be honest - but it took a good while for my mind to believe that fact. I was pretty sure, on my flight down, that I was going to die, and my brain took its sweet time catching up with the reality that everything was fine.

On another occasion, this time at a state convention, a group of us were playing outside while the adults did whatever paralyzingly boring things the adults did inside. You know how it is at that age (and if you don’t, you should request a time machine so that you can go back and try childhood again - you seem to have missed a few important pieces). We kids were not terribly familiar with what the adults did at these conventions, but they gave us new people to play with, new lands to explore, and new trees to climb. How could the adult activities compete with that?

I was climbing one of those trees when I discovered, quite to my surprise, that I was stuck. Like a cat, I had gone up but then couldn’t get down. At a fire department convention! Could it get any more perfect? My dad rescued me. He could have laughed at me. He could have told me to get down the same way I got up. He could have done any number of things that would have been perfectly normal to do under the circumstances. Instead, he drove his truck up under the tree and then helped me to climb down onto the roof, so that I could have a straight, clean shot to the ground without the risk of falling.

I should clarify at this point that I am absolutely terrified of falling. It’s not a fear of heights; in fact, I love heights. Mountain trails, airplanes, highrise buildings, and various things of that sort all offer some of my favorite views, as long as I feel safe. I won’t go near the edge without a safety rail, but put up a simple pvc pipe at waist height and my brain will register everything as perfectly fine. If I trip off of a two-inch curb, though, I turn into an epileptic scarecrow, with limbs flailing wildly trying to keep my balance. My phobia is so severe that watching a fall in a movie will cause my breath to hitch. At the same time, I’ve never met a roller coaster that I wouldn’t try at least once, and I’ve only been defeated by one (so that I couldn’t talk myself into doing it again) once in my entire life. I love roller coasters! I don’t understand it either, but I never have claimed to make sense.

I don’t think life is about making sense. Certainly it isn’t about making sense all of the time, at least. I mean, sure, we have to make sense at least occasionally or it just gets too complicated to manage, but too much sense can be its own disaster. How dull would life be if you always knew what to expect under any circumstances? How would you ever learn anything? No, I believe that if life is not throwing surprises at you, at least on a semi-regular basis, you are probably not learning anything, and you are almost certainly not growing. There is no way around it. Sometimes you have to fall.

Clearly, I have a well-developed understanding of how frightening that can be. Even if we look at it in a purely rational manner - which I freely admit that I do not always do - falling can be dangerous. You could get hurt. Depending on the fall, you could get way worse than hurt. Still, you just have to do it sometimes. Otherwise, what’s the point? You may as well be a rock sitting in a field somewhere, doing nothing, learning nothing, and not, in any real sense, living.

If you take any form of self defense class or fight training - and I’ve had various forms of both over the years - one of the things they always go into early on is learning how to fall. You have to learn how to do it in a way that won’t cause permanent injury, or worse, and the same is true for metaphorical falling as well. You have to learn how your mind works, where your fragile points are, and where your strong points are, so that you can leverage this knowledge to your best results. If you get to know yourself well, you can reduce that fear of falling and maybe even, just sometimes, you might forget to fall entirely. When the circumstances are just right, sometimes, instead of falling, you might fly.

I’ve gotten better with my own fear. I used to be nearly paralyzed by a set of stairs, if I was going down. Now I take the stairs on a regular basis for the exercise. I’ve taken those training classes I mentioned and, of course, I’ve had plenty of practice. We tend to fall often, no matter what we have in mind otherwise. It’s a work in progress, but life always is. I keep falling, but I always get back up. I’m still just learning how to fall correctly. Plus, as my dad taught me, if you surround yourself with the right people, there is often someone there to catch you, help you down, or help you back up, as the case may be. Things are so much less scary with the right help.

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