Movement can be frightening. Anything might happen to a person in motion, untethered from the ground. You land on an ankle funny, or stumble out of control, or collide with a hard something in midair, and your whole life could change. The body is a sensitive machine, and our soft skin is a delicate barrier between our insides and the world around us. No wonder so many Americans prefer to sit! Sitting is, on the whole, safe. Plus there’s television to watch. (Of course, this doesn’t apply to sitting in a car or other vehicle, because then you’re not really sitting, are you? It’s a trick of physics. Look out the window — you’re moving.)
My son Felix is going to be five in May. From August to December, he sprouted up an inch and a half. Talk about a trick of physics! His entire being is in motion: the creeping, incremental growth that I only notice every few months when he suddenly seems so tall, but also on a grand scale, he’s a bundle of constant energy, a burlap sack full of kittens in the shape of a boy.
Like a gangly teenager, he’s not quite sure how to keep his ever-changing body safe. Yesterday, he climbed onto a stool to reach a pack of stickers from atop the refrigerator, unaware of the stool teetering and tottering from his shifting weight. When my wife saw my look of alarm, she said, “Yeah, he’s been doing that lately.”
“That doesn’t seem safe!” I said.
Felix shrugged, grabbed his stickers, and then shimmied down.
To him, I guess, he lives in the same body. He jumps from his comfy green reading chair to the bed the way he has always done, but now he’s so long his head almost bashes into the wall. Or he’ll change from taking the stairs one foot after the other to hopping two feet at a time, throwing off his balance and mine too, if I’m following close behind. “Be careful,” I hear myself saying several times a day. But this is one of the most ineffective things you can say to a kid.
“Ok, Dad,” Felix replies, while doing nothing to change his behavior. I can hear the eye-roll — the sigh of parents, gawd! — in his tone. He’s four going on fourteen.
The boy has reached a height where, when out at stores or walking on the streets of New York, he’s on the periphery of my eyesight. Sometimes I think he’s with me, when he’s not, my eyes are tracking something else. Or I think he’s run off when in fact he’s at my heels, or a bit to my right, and I just didn’t see him. Nor can other people, who swerve out of his meandering way. “Be aware of your body in space,” I’ll tell him. “You’re a big boy now. Keep to the right on the sidewalk. Be considerate of others. Don’t make any sudden moves!”
“Ok, Dad,” he’ll say again.
Before the latest snow storm, we trudged out to pick up a few provisions. The store’s aisles teemed with people urgently stocking up in case of snow-pocalypse. In one narrow lane, while I obsessed over what brand of coffee beans to buy, Felix fidgeted at my feet. “Excuse me,” a woman said, hoping to pass by us. Instead of moving away from her, flattening his body against the shelves opposite, as I was, Felix moved forward as the woman squeezed into our space. I placed a hand on his shoulder and said, “Be careful,” but before he could say, “Ok, Dad,” Felix and the woman ran into one another, and a Campbell’s soup can fell from her arms and whacked him in the eye.
Felix shrieked and cried for a moment before reigning himself in. “I’m ok, Dad,” he said. Though he almost lost it again when he saw the blood. The can had made a small cut by the corner of his left eye.
Later, I worried that I could’ve been more forceful in pulling Felix back, but really, the situation was out of my hands. He is a body in motion, with his own trajectory, his own physics, and all I can do sometimes is be there to hold him when he gets hurt. I might wish it were otherwise, but it isn’t. He moves through the world on his own, and he won’t realize his limits or figure out the best ways to handle his body without learning a few hard lessons.
The next day, when the snow had settled, Felix and I marched to Prospect Park with our red sled. He sat in the back while I pulled him up the slope, patting down the snow and making a flat track for us to follow back down. While Felix’s pre-K was opening late, too late for him to go, the majority of New York City schools were in session. We had the hill to ourselves.
He sat in my lap, and I paddled my arms to get us going and then the snow flew into our faces as we careened down the lane, the air alive with peels of ridiculous, high-pitched, out-of-control laughter. There is a thrilling joy in motion and speed. Movement is life, growth, and change. It’s frightening and uncertain but also wonderful and powerful. The life of a parent, of a child, of everything, is a blur.
At the bottom of the hill, on that clear, crystal cold morning, we were alive. The frigid air made it hurt to breath and laugh and even sled, but it felt wonderful.