Archive for November, 2009

On the Perpetual Balancing Act

November 17th, 2009 | Meera

In the months after I quit my teaching job, addled from the accumulated unease of days spent in battle and carrying my failure like an extra limb, I found there was nothing more soothing than stillness. Breaths grew small, hands rested quietly against thighs, feet found their place and kept it. I remember one train ride in particular, so gripped with disquiet that having once looked down to my shoes, I felt physically incapable of the simple act of raising my head. The carriage bumped along Boston’s pockmarked streets, but each twitch of its creaky frame saw me tighter and more transfixed.

I strove to be still because movements, in those moments, were traitors. Fear could speak its name in the shudder of a shoulder and there was no step but a misstep. So I paused, glassy as a frozen pond.

My silence here lately has had that same root, I think. It’s been a long, strange year. I’ve unmoored myself, once again, from a career that didn’t satisfy me. And once again I am afraid of defeat. I’ve been trying, I’ll admit, to stop time with hushed inaction. Later, I tell myself, I will speak. Later begin to move. Now, for now, let me be a statue who never leaves her spot. Better that than a human being, capable of tripping. Capable of falling.

But here is the truth; I’m not, you know. Not glassy, or frozen, or still. Not for a second, no matter how paralyzed I think I am. I haven’t a choice about it. Nothing can stop me from swaying to keep my balance.


It’s clear, I suppose, that movement requires reams of complex coordination. I lift my hand to turn the page of the book I’m reading (One Hundred Years of Solitude, for the third and best time in the past dozen years), and to do so I must regulate, consciously or not, the movement of the joints at my shoulder, elbow, wrist, thumb, and forefinger—each of which is capable of turning and bending independently in up to three dimensions. That, in turn, requires controlling the contraction of nearly thirty different muscles, including the six sinewey carpal muscles that bind the wrist and let it roll over in a small half-moon once my fingers have grasped their insubstantial target. Peer in, and these muscles themselves have constituents whose movements must harmonize: fibers threaded together in bundles, each individual bundle squeezing or easing at the bidding of a single nerve.

My many parts synchronize in a beautiful clockwork, all so the sentence that begins somberly on page 70 can end on page 71 with a faint smile: “He soon acquired the forlorn look that one…sees in vegetarians.”

But in stillness, surely, there is rest. As I stand without moving, not even shifting from foot to foot, surely the threads out of which my muscles are woven are unruffled. I want this to be true so badly. Yes, breath continues, and heartbeat. Fluid moves across membranes and always there is the minute trundling of molecular motors carrying their endless loads across my cells. But look, I tell myself, these are only tremors within, rumblings beneath the earth. At least the earth itself remains stoic. My body, terra firma. So do I keep myself safe. In my immobility I can be a soft black hat on a table, waiting for the flourish of handkerchiefs that will prove the show was worth coming for.

Not so. Standing itself is parlous, and never as steady as it looks. Consider how heavy is the human head upon its kinky spine, how large the torso on its spindly legs, and yet how thick those legs compared to the stiff ankles, the tiny feet, upon which we place at last the entire burden of ourselves. We are not built, like lions, on four muscled legs, the pillars of an ancient church. Like inverted pendulums, we are secured to the ground, but travel up through our torsos and to our crowns and what you find is oscillation.

This is what the physiologists say—and they should know, because they watch: No one is ever truly standing still.

We do not ripple as do pliant blades of grass, breathed on by the wind. Instead, we fight to maintain verticality through a near-constant series of tiny displacements and corrections activated within the musculoskeletal system. Postural sway is what they call it. A gentle phrase, and one that captures both the strictness of our ideal (Watch your posture, young lady!) and the impossibility of adhering to it. Motionless we are not.

Here, then, is what moves us. It starts with diminutive shifts in the intensity and positioning of the points of pressure where our soles meet the ground. All unconscious, we map and remap the subtle forces with which we push back against the earth. As we do so, the imaginary reference point we use to gauge our balance (somewhere in between our feet) becomes a constantly moving target. It wanders.

“Rambling,” this is called affectionately in some scientific literature, as if the center of each human being’s personal universe is defined by the fact that it likes to take long walks in the outback.

So. We have a point of reference that keeps us upright, and it moves. But it isn’t unwatched. The current position of this center of pressure is instantly communicated by nerve signals traveling up the brain stem and into the neural system that controls balance. In response, nerves fire in an imperceptible ballet. They gently squeeze and relax those braided threads that make up the muscles in our calves, abdomen, back, thorax. The whole delicate orchestration causes equally diminutive shifts—”trembling,” they call this—in the position of our center of gravity.

Trembling follows rambling, and so we stand. How frail those words make us sound. Like needles skipping across a sheet of paper, following a skittering heart.

My Secret Life

Not so long ago, apparently, researchers regarded these stray wobbles as nothing but noise, meaningless bits of information generated by a flawed neural system that was not built well enough to give absolutely correct instructions. If the brain could direct the body to be perfectly still around a fixed central point, the thinking went, it would. What can we say? It can’t. C’est la vie.

If you had told me this, that day on the train, I’d have nodded. It would have been of a piece with my mood then. I’d launched myself into the air, expecting to fly, and fallen terribly. To learn that even my penitent stillness was deficient would have been no surprise.

But scientists, unlike saturnine ex-teachers, do not like the idea that things are just so because they are imperfect. Imperfection is not very interesting. So they continue to wonder about this sway. They draw graphs of it, delightful manic scribbles like ants circling about a drop of syrup, and see that though the movements we make as we shift and sway are variable, they vary within strict limits. No ant strays too far from the sugar.

Scientists also try to poke at the problem, making us close our eyes and seeing if our spontaneous quiverings change. And look, look here. They do. The intensity of postural sway increases significantly with eyes shut. But the tiny muscle movements we make don’t get more haphazard, as they might if the brain were just making more mistakes. The ants are wandering a little further away, but they’re still finding that sweet center.

(Are the ants working for you? They are for me, but I’ve been thinking about this all evening, worrying away at the idea of it. I might be an ant myself. If not, here’s what might be clearer.)

The reason you sway more when you close your eyes, scientists think, is not that you become unsteady, in danger of losing your balance. It’s that you’re working harder to keep the balance you have. With each tiny shift in those pressure points in the soles of your feet, each minute muscular movement in your legs or back, this theory holds, your brain is tracking information about your position in the world. In a way, the sway is a way to test the limits of stability.

If I do this, am I still standing? What about this? Or this? The same incessant experiment takes place whether your eyes are open or not—the brain and body are just more enthusiastic about their probings when one perceptual channel is closed off.

What I am saying is this: Maybe I have to stand up and sway to stay in balance. I’m a little less funereal now than I was those few years ago, a little more willing to welcome uncertainty. Maybe stillness itself is the root of the fall. And maybe, every instant in which I stray away from the perfect center I seek shall be followed by a move back towards it. I’m by no means sure of that. But I do like the idea of experimenting with the limits of stability. And I think I’ll be doing a little more of it right here from now on.


Carrying a Ladder

We are always
really carrying
a ladder, but it’s
invisible. We
only know
the matter:
something precious
crashes; easy doors
prove impassable.
Or, in the body,
there’s too much
swing or off-
center gravity.
And, in the mind,
a drunken capacity,
access to out-of-range
apples. As though
one had a way to climb
out of the damage
and apology.

—Kay Ryan