Nude Descending a Staircase
The nude in Marcel Duchamp’s famed 1912 painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 does not appear to need a railing. She seems quite capable of walking down stairs, multiplied as she is into several incarnations, a body for each stair. Division of labor, rendering the task of each step far less daunting. As Duchamp parcels out her golden motion, the nude is anything but graceful, her body—or bodies—serviceable, put together more efficiently than we are, with the bulk of her in the calves, the feet: sturdy, working legs. Her head, translucent waves of motion, all flurry at higher elevations, weighs little on her arm-pumping shoulders. She doesn’t even need to think until she reaches the lowest step, where her head appears as she carefully looks down, leans back, holding all those previous stages of her movement steady, saying—if she had a mouth—“Don’t worry about this, ladies. I’ve got it all under control. I’ll stop your fall.”
This is how I see the painting today, when the scars in my brain and spine delay and suspend each downward step, confounding the entire process. I’m trying to work out how she does it. How she descends, machinelike, functional, on such a rickety staircase, without holding on to anything. I want to dissect it, which is a bit of what Duchamp was after—conveying motion in a static, painted image during cinema’s infancy—except I’m searching for instruction in weight distribution and balance. In where one arm goes when the opposite leg moves. In how to do it without bracing, without thought, without fear.
But then I get confused in the blur of her. At some point her upper torso becomes a golden, shining, eyeless horse head, leaning over the lowest figure’s shoulder, and I can’t unsee it. She is human and animal at once. And all of a sudden, the entire scenario is knocked off balance, too much horsey weight pressed upon her shoulder—the way I’ve known foals to do, not knowing their own strength. (How many horses’ jaws have pressed down upon my own shoulders, claiming, pushing?) The horse-head part of her could knock them all down.
When I revisited the painting on the Internet, my search also produced various homages to Duchamp—C-3PO from Star Wars, Bender from Futurama, and Superman, all descending in the same manner as the original—as well as a photograph of a silver-haired, smiling woman on a staircase. The woman looks down the stairs as her shadow rises behind her, stark against the wall. The shot reminded me of cinemascope films from the 1950s—Hitchcock came to mind, as did staircase sequences in two Nicholas Ray films, Rebel Without a Cause and Bigger Than Life. Of course I clicked on it. How could I not?
The woman is, as it turns out, seated. She is modeling the Picasso stair lift, manufactured by HandiCare Stairlifts in the United Kingdom. As she descends, I imagine her gliding, the machinery conveying her safely from floor to floor. Shadows of the banister rails rise like prison bars across her lower body. The metaphor was no doubt unintentional. The woman, like Duchamp’s figure, defies it; she needs no banister at all. Her body changes shape, molds into the chair on a track. I find myself between these two bodies—chairless, trackless, but unsturdily small-footed and weak-limbed. Not cut out for this sort of thing unless I change shape, redistribute myself into parts.
“We really don’t want to be on a downward path, do we,” my husband, Ian, said after I asked if I should call the neurologist about my latest relapse of multiple sclerosis. I’d already dusted off my canes, ready for that third leg—wooden, Lucite, or carbon fiber—to extend from my right hand and unstagger me. “Calling the neurologist” is our shorthand for getting put on IV steroids to nip the flare-up in the bud, before more damage occurs in the brain, spine. Too often, I’d delay that call to the doctor, thinking the episode would resolve itself on its own. By the time I called, the steroids would be of little use, the damage already done. And damage has been occurring more often than before, so flare-ups have felt less like a rarity, more like the norm, the distinction between them more osmotic than fixed.
I suspect we’ve been on a downward path for quite some time, like some roads that seem level until fatigue sets in and you realize it’s been an uphill climb all along. But how do you know, traversing a slight downward slope, that you’re slowly sinking? When you look up, or look behind you to see each horizon, hold your hand level before your eyes? But what if that’s tilted, too?
Apparently, 90 percent of people living with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis experience progression within the first twenty-five years. And I’m past that. What I can’t quite work out is whether there is an automatic shift in category, maybe a new sash presented to signify your place as “secondary progressive.” Those who can, take a bow. Those who are unsure, remain seated. I raise my hand, ask if I am now progressing.
“Depends on how you define progression,” says the neurologist.
How you define decline?
If I have just crested a hill like the one I took so often back home in California, heart pounding, lungs swooshing so fast the air cuts in my throat, and if I have done so in long strides (a condition often unavailable to my body now, but once my pace of choice), lowering my eyes down the hill’s opposite side will come as relief: it’s all downhill from here. If I am on my way home, dog panting beside me as I walk, the comfort of descent is all the greater: we are nearly there.
If, however, I begin my excursion at the top of a hill and head down a long, possibly uneven surface, “all downhill from here” means something else entirely: there is a lack of control, an uncertainty, like entering the dark wood in a fairy story. The fully functioning body leans differently, as if repelled from gravity’s pull. Still, the foot may occasionally pause—itself uncertain of the ground—before the heel plants and the toes automatically follow.
There are no hills where I live in Texas. The hills I know reside in the memory of my cells, passed down from one cell to another, like stories. Some found their way into my legs, from horseflesh and hoof, long ago. Horsehair lining my calves offered proof.
If I say things are going downhill, slipping through a downward spiral, it’s clear that the grade of my descent, metaphorical or actual, is fraught, steep, confusing. I may place each foot lower and lower in succession, but the feet might not plant themselves where my mind plans. They might, for instance, hover and step wide, too close or too far, or I might feel as though the ground is nearer than it actually is. I might stumble, each foot separately questioning the ground in a different language, not hearing the other foot drop. The toe might drop first, forgetting that’s the heel’s job. Going downhill is an unstable act of speculation.
I can find hills here if I try hard enough: The floor in this house where I write—its terrain of uneven floorboards and swaying carpet—is the most complex topography for miles. My body knows it by heart and yields here, braces there, although someday it may forget entirely, or the floor may bottom out. The bathtub, with its deep valley, slippery, flooded floor, and rims sometimes missed by the foot so I’m pawing at air, is another matter.
Mine are educated feet; mine are Ivy League legs—over and over they learn (or, more accurately, my central nervous system learns) what walking is like, how it works. They graduate from physical therapy only to forget everything they’ve learned a few months later. “How did that story go?” my neurons ask the muscles. “What about that part when you go—what is it called? Downhill? Decent? Descent?”
“I think I missed that part,” each muscle cell responds.
“Ask the eyes,” one of them says.
The eyes keep their secrets.
The final days of Edgar Degas are often characterized with the words “blind,” “nearly blind,” or “wandering the streets of Paris.” Some argue about the distinctions between blindness and near blindness, and I wonder what they must think blindness is: when the lights go out, or in Degas’s case (and, for a time, mine) when they are too bright to see, to open one’s eye. His spectacles helped shield his right eye from painful glare, and by his forties he had lost the central part of his vision, so that the subject he was painting would need to be seen around, rather than directly. It would not seem incongruous for Degas to wander the streets of Paris in his later years; if the eye could be trusted only through wandering, so it must be for the feet as well.
I once took part in an imaging study trying to establish new ways to map the brain’s cerebral cortex. That outer layer of brain tissue is unclear on MRI, the imaging technique that scans the brain in monochrome, breaking it down into a series of thinly sliced wholes, pushing through layer by layer from the top down, back to front, and in profile, ear to ear. The MRI prefers the direct approach, looking into the center of things, smearing the nuances of the periphery. Contrast between lesions in the cortex’s gray matter, the home of certain cognitive processes, and those in the brain’s inner white matter, the home of everything else, is low, the study indicated, on MRI. To map the scarred brain’s topography, wandering is required.
Researchers laid me down on a table and moved my hair out of the way. One looked at a screen while the other scribbled—yes, scribbled—all over my head with an instrument that felt like a pen. Periodically, the researcher monitoring the screen’s 3D image of my brain would tell the one scrawling over my cranium that he’d missed a spot, or that something needed to be filled in; there were holes. So he would literally retrace, returning to areas of my head that he’d visited before, filling in gaps with his roaming scribbles, the instrument’s pattern inscrutable to me but capturing a sharper image of my gray matter—my conscious, working mind—than ever had been previously seen, than I will ever see. The contrast between the brain’s thinking outline and its interior was something they kept for the study and never shared with me. They did not steal my thoughts, though. They paid me.
The most common misspelling of wonder is wander, and vice versa. It’s been one of my pet peeves in student papers, but now I see it a little differently. When my pace is slowed and I drag my leg, I become far more absorbed in my surroundings, in the wonder of sap droplets on a tree, of ants moving through a fissure in the tree’s bark. At such times I usually seek out the least difficult, most direct path—but my mind wanders, wonders. It has time to. I must believe there is some sense in the error, that through uncertain wandering there comes a kind of clarity.
The layout of an opulent art deco Chicago hotel, which housed a big writing conference I was attending, twisted into a maze of hallways and staircases, short and long, many of which had no elevator. A new flare-up hit the evening I arrived. I had been walking well for a while and had decided not to bring a cane, so for the next few days I staggered through peacock-themed, lushly patterned hallways, choosing whether to take the stairs or the open, temporary metal elevator by estimating the amount of steps and energy it would take to go one way or another. When I couldn’t see the elevator I took the stairs, which was most of the time. People passed, not needing the stair rail, hurried marvels of balance and strength. The interior managed to confound my stride to the point that the vined and peacock-feathered pattern of the carpeted stairs twisted all the more. I couldn’t tell where one stair ended and the other began, or how far down it was. My feet sometimes tipped in their boots, and hovered at others, waiting for the floor to rise. I braced myself on the brass railing, then slowly lowered my body until the stair’s spongy surface welcomed (slightly) my foot. And the next, again and again.
On ramps, stairs, on an unfamiliar texture, such as the studded curb meant to inform blind people of the street’s proximity, my feet are known to swim, even in their shoes, suddenly strangers. And it’s not necessarily my feet’s fault. They’re not lazy, just forgetful, unable to communicate. In turn, my brain cannot discern the most polite way to tell the feet where they are and where to go. Or perhaps the brain has forgotten the password to unlock each foot’s motion, which now I imagine as sparkling and jewel-encrusted, precious, inaccessible, nearly glowing from its own light source.
When I say the brain might have forgotten the password, what I mean is the neural pathways have been interrupted and traffic has slowed between brain and foot, or spine and foot. I do not mean that the conscious mind has forgotten how to move the foot, although the longer my motor function is impaired by MS, the more foreign the idea of an even stride. How do they do that? I ask myself, startled as a crowd of people pass me in a hall, all dart and hurtle and assured spur.
Scene from the Steeplechase:
The Fallen Jockey
He lies beneath the horse, the man in the pink silk shirt, his softly bearded face angelically rendered by the artist. The light on that face is warmed with a glow so otherworldly that he couldn’t possibly be directly beneath his charging steed, where he would no doubt be engulfed in shadow. His helmet lies open beside his head, useless, white silk lining reflecting—what light? It seems as though he exists on a different plane than the rest of the painting. Perhaps he does, concussed, in danger, possibly dead or maybe just sleeping. They have cleared a hedge, the horse midair, in the process of landing. The rider has fallen, no struggle upon his placid, detailed face, no blood.
Two of the horses in this large and imposing painting by Edgar Degas have lost their riders. Or are the two horses actually the same horse in motion, the nude descending a staircase parceled out into two beasts? And that blur of tail above the higher horse’s tail, yet a third—everything coming down, one horse in each stage of descent, or many. They continue to run. All motion, nearly animated by a series of loose, bold outlines and broad strokes, the horses are dashing out of the picture, while this man, said to be Degas’s younger brother Achille, will remain, a finely wrought inert figure amid the landscape’s wash of green.
“He looks like he’s dreaming the horses,” Ian whispers, so patient in the museum as I am again called back to the painting and stand before it for what must be the third time. I dream horses often, the ones I know have died or have been sold, horses that for years I fed, trained, rode, and nursed through their injuries—favorites. They return to me in sleep, where I no longer ride but walk as an equal beside them, lean against a shoulder, blow greetings into their nostrils. I can imagine them running through the dark above my bed, the gray one luminous, the two sorrels flashing copper. Ian recently recounted how I had once woken him in the night, told him to “Look up, look up,” pointing in the air. “What is that,” I said. I have no such recollection. Perhaps the horses were there.
My mother waited behind as I stepped in. The mud pulled my leg down deep. I sank a bit. I pulled the rein and called the mare, clucked, still hoping she’d walk through.
Horses are said to avoid trampling their riders at all costs, yet in the painting it appears that the angelic head of Achille Degas will soon be knocked by a rear hoof. The animal engine rushes forward, past this still moment.
I have been stepped on only twice by horses: once, leading a troubled horse across a muddy natural spring. I was trail riding with my mother, whose level-headed horse crossed the spring and did not balk an ounce when we passed over it on our way out. My mare, next in line, was frightened. I got off, but she refused to be led through, so I climbed the side of a hill to lead her around the mud, and at some point she hurtled past me in haste to catch up to the other horse. I maintained my hold but was nearly slammed into the hillside. On the way back, I led my horse to the spot first so she wouldn’t feel the urge to catch up to the other mare. I was fourteen and intent on training her to walk through mud. My mother waited behind as I stepped in. The mud pulled my leg down deep. I sank a bit. I pulled the rein and called the mare, clucked, still hoping she’d walk through. From behind me, the horse made a huge standing leap over the spring, passing me, and pulled me out, launching me onto the dry trail, where I lay belly-up like the jockey in the painting, watching while the mare danced and fretted, as skittish horses do, around my body, hooves everywhere. She gingerly stepped once on my stomach, ripping my shirt. Then she galloped up the trail a few paces, grazed and waited. I lost my shoe to the mud that day. The spring sucked it down and claimed it.
The second time I was trampled was after a jump, as Degas depicts, although more artificial and confined (don’t all of our experiences seem more confined than those in paint, in the past?). The horse I was riding heaved her abdomen sideways into the jump’s right vertical post. My stirrup knocked it, and the whole jump tumbled after us. I fell too, and a black hoof stepped on my ankle—no huge injury, just bewilderment. I imagine the horse was tottering, needed a step to regain balance, and I was in the way. I know now the necessity of that extra, stabilizing step. She may have otherwise fallen, too, on me.
Horseless now, sometimes I tilt sideways without planning it. Sometimes it’s the only way to stay upright.
For both horse and rider, a fall simultaneously disorients and liberates. Among equestrians, falls signal experience, grit, hard work, and commitment—essentially bragging rights—not only because they reflect more demanding and rigorous training, teaching a rider how to react and improve, but also because after every one, the rider must dust herself off and get back on the horse. Unless, as is probably the case with our fallen jockey in the painting, the rider is too injured or concussed to remount the horse just yet.
Falls happen quickly, but certain images or sensations in their whirl are indelibly etched in the memory, stopping time. In what other context are we hurtled unknowingly into the air, turning? From beneath the horse’s stomach, the rider might catch glimpses of angles never before seen: the ovoid shape of the horse’s abdomen, the dark wrinkle of sheath or teats, the legs and hooves a maze of odd angles, and then gone to sky. In Degas’s painting Achille’s legs are still in the position of riding, knees out, heels spurring only a blade of grass.
Now, though, my attention drifts to the horse. It is easy to recognize the freedom the animal feels without a rider’s weight, but harder to know how directionless the horse might feel without it. Degas returned to this painting at least three times over a span of nearly forty years, making changes here and there, getting the anatomy just right. You can see his meticulous attention: between the front legs of Achille’s horse hangs a shadow of the foremost leg, the artist’s way of correcting a less dynamic, heavier stride in the original painting.
The shadow leg—that’s my leg. That’s my movement: blurred, dark mistake. A correction made to look intentional.
Surprising I find it here in painted shade. In animated mistake and the vigor of correction. But didn’t my stride glow with its own light, my foot’s wavering motion? Maybe it fits in the jockey’s brightly lined helmet. Or better, my movement is the bewildering pace of four legs—five, including the shadow leg—floating and rushing over a motionless, supine human form.
As confusing as movement can sometimes be for me, or rather for my legs and feet, or rather for my brain and spine’s scarred axons, what I find so compelling in the painting is that even in a state of physical certainty—the athletic jockey, the galloping horse—the world can turn upside down, and the body is suddenly unfamiliar. In that way I don’t need to enter the painting. It is already in me.
When a horse is born—and I have been lucky to be present at several foalings, have felt one wet, black foal slip into my lap, have lifted the placenta from the colt’s frantic, gasping nostrils—its hooves are not yet hardened, having spared the mother the pain and rupture of that kind of merciless kicking in utero. The hooves at first resemble fingers or tentacles that glisten at the end of each leg. I remember each one moving aimlessly in the air, feeling the dry air change them before they turned to stone. Remarkable that within two hours the foal will rise and stand, wobbly and new. The next day it will spring from one end of the paddock to the other.
Like those newborn tentacles that harden to hooves, my feet sometimes search in air for their shape. Like the foal but much older, I am repeatedly born anew, find my feet and learn again to walk, but it takes far longer, and my feet feel the beckon of an old tentacle from time to time.
“And so walking begins as delayed falling,” writes Rebecca Solnit, observing the first steps of toddlers. Forward motion, propulsion, is all that stabilizes us when first we try to walk, hurling our little bodies from one point to the next. Remarkable to think of our first bipedal accomplishments as delay, but it’s true: we delay the inevitable through constant motion. Arms outstretched, bowlegged babies, we stagger against topple, against stillness. And so it has seemed, each time I’ve learned to walk again. Once the wires between brain and leg fray, the rest of the body attempts to make up for it: the abdominals pull the knee as though connected through a taut pulley system. The arms stretch, the stance widens. Compensations are made without conscious control. I toddle. I sway. I reach for walls, for edges. My arms keep me vertical.
“Laurie, why do you have your arms up by your shoulders like that? And your legs are so wide apart. I mean, it’s like you’re a toddler learning to walk for the first time,” said a lip-glossed physical therapist, suppressing her laughter. “I mean, that’s really how toddlers walk!”
I can’t remember whether she imitated my gait or not. Her level of surprise indicated that she had only just arrived at the idea that young adults may occasionally drift into zones of necessity when their bodies stop moving as designed, widening their stances to survive, hands up for balance—because the world at times is a wavering tightrope. Though her words stung, and though they sounded like the kind of thing a similarly tanned and lip-glossed girl would have said to me in middle school, I thought about the months leading up to this moment—my prolonged acceptance of my slowed stride as a sign of disease progression, against the glimmer of a chance that I could indeed learn again to walk here, at this world-renowned center—and, as I possibly would have done in middle school, I acted as though I was in on the joke.
“Exactly,” I said. Because learning to walk was precisely why I was there. Didn’t she know that?
I was walking for her without my cane, with equal parts sideways and forward motion, inching my way along the hallway that surrounded the main therapy room. She left for a moment and returned with two long wooden dowels—the size of thick broom handles—which she inserted into my hands. We then began slowly, methodically walking, the physical therapist behind me, holding the dowels’ ends, pushing them forward and back as she swung her arms, which in turn swung my arms, like an old-fashioned toy train with its long bars alongside the wheels, keeping everything moving forward together. It felt so unnatural. Over time, it began to feel more natural, but the timing between arms and legs can astonish and perplex me to this day.
I was reluctant to come to my next visit, but thankfully, I was passed to another physical therapist, Meg, who stuck with me until I graduated. In place of wooden dowels, she handed me weighted balls to swing with my stride, and she walked beside me, coaching and praising. Mostly, we focused on strengthening my core—abdominals, hips, and buttocks—to help me remain upright without tipping. Each step powers you forward, but it also opens a hovering moment when you are standing on one leg without anything to hold onto, ready to tip, unless your hip can hold you, or your side can still your sway.
We tried to regain what I had lost—what I have lost—the muscle right above my left knee, essentially awash in weakness if not for the surrounding muscles helping out. So we strengthened those. One session, I spotted a short wooden stairway nearby that we’d never used. Even though my house has about four steps between the porch and the ground, stairs were something I wasn’t “ready for” yet. Pointing to the staircase prop, I said, “So strange—going downstairs has become harder for me than going up.”
“That’s because it is harder,” she said. “Going downhill or down stairs is a form of controlled falling.”
The idea seemed so counterintuitive; for most of my life with MS, I’d look up a flight of stairs with dread, gauging whether each climb was worth the energy. I yanked myself up staircases, assimilating the railing as part of the machinery of my body, buildings and their towers quite literally incorporated into my propulsion, their very inaccessibility transforming them from their original concrete, wood, plaster, or brick into fleshy components of my ratcheting motion, my hand gripping higher up the rail every few steps, the banister blooming an extension of my arm, all climbing, all huff and puff. Going back down was usually the reward. How had it become so disorienting? Downstairs, downhill, down, down, down, now an entirely different story. Controlled falling, without much control.
“For you,” Meg added, “the falling is all around you.” Which is actually how it felt. Anything carried the potential to set me off balance, tip me. Over time, the idea took on new meaning. As my ability to walk without assistance strengthened, that falling all around me became more and more pronounced. Impaired proprioception—I’d experienced it before, but never in such immediate flurry. My perception of my entire body’s position within the blur and hum surrounding me, where the “me” began and the cushion of space around me ended, disintegrated. People and objects—walls, even—would all of a sudden enter my frame of vision, my space, uncomfortably close. In a grocery store I would—and sometimes still do—cling to a rack of shelves, my husband running interference, blocking any stimulus hurtling toward me.
As my motion gained speed, so did the world. To address this, Meg found a small, slightly shriveled yellow balloon, and from a couple paces behind me she threw it into my space as we moved down the hall. Once it passed my ear I threw it back, all the while keeping my eyes ahead. How can I convey the sense of this most difficult game of catch, except to say that the falling was all around? Around each corner, therapists rushing, patients trying a new prosthetic or brace, and this sudden yellow, which grew less sudden over time.
The falling is still everywhere and a constant possibility. In a crowd. In an unfamiliar room. In a hall. In shoes. On a grassy surface. A ramp. Stairs, of course. Thresholds. In a grocery store aisle. Before paying attention to anything else when I traverse a space, I try to scope out what I can hold on to, what I can grip or lean against should I lose balance. Always a step ahead when I’m actually many steps behind, looking for corners and railings. Wallflower.
With my feet wide apart and my hands in the air clutching at an invisible safety net, balancing the way toddlers do, I’m bound to catch up eventually, I tell myself. Until I learn otherwise. Again.
All is downhill from here. I try to control the falling.
Many of the hills in the city where I live are built on air: bridges arced over underpasses, spirals of freeway connections, bridges across bayous, four-storied townhomes, rising from stairs. Most of the bungalows perch atop cinder blocks. Smaller hills are built from the ground up: curbs, ramps. The ditches alongside streets to collect and move rainwater. Low tufted hills manufactured in parks. Uneven sidewalks and their edges. And below, the steep slopes of bayous, banked by concrete and planted above with deep-rooted groundcover and trees to slow the slippage when floods come.
If the falling is indeed all around me, and if going downhill or down stairs is a form of controlled falling, could every surface be essentially a hill flattened, no distinction between crest and valley? Falling, their constant potential? The ease or instability of decline, the exhausting, steep climb upward, the steps across a room, or the controlled fall into the unknown, all one?
When I was a Girl Scout, my troop camped once at Newport Dunes, a sandy campground surrounding a small, tideless Pacific lagoon. I loved water, and although we lived steps away from that same ocean, I yearned for a certain stillness in water, just wading out into it and beginning to swim, rather than diving beneath wave after wave before reaching calmer seas. So the first thing I did after setting up my tent was to step into the lagoon, each step a little deeper but not deep enough to swim yet. Then the wet ground suddenly moved beneath me. Stunned, I flinched my knee up. I took another step. The seabed shifted. It oozed and slid, too slippery, no grain to it, slimy mounds everywhere. This tranquil lagoon was actually teeming with motion underfoot. I ran out of that water as quick as I could.
But not before catching a glimpse clear through to the seabed: giant, disk-shaped, speckled sea slugs populated the lagoon floor, and I was walking on their backs. No wonder they were moving. I had invaded their territory, unwittingly stepping on their bodies because there was nothing else to stand on. How was I to know then that the ground beneath me could change so quickly, or that years later it would do so over and over on dry land, to such a degree that although I could not see any difference in a floor’s surface, could not run away from it or point to it, the substance of ground beneath me could be altered by my own body’s faulty wiring and shifting sense of touch and stability, the perceived changing surface underfoot dependent more upon time’s returning relapses than on the physical substance I stand on?
When I lived in a house trodden upon by peacocks, where their howls and caterwauling during flight—as though they were coaching themselves just to reach that next roof—were commonplace, the property, though occupying an acre of downward slope from house to pasture, was terraced into at least five flat levels, like wide stairs for some giant, upon which the house, patio, yard, barn, and large paddock sat. Ice plant attempted to hold back any sliding mud between these levels when it rained. To keep the carved-out spaces clean. To keep the steep hills between them in their place. Still, I remember sliding down to the barn, the squish and slip of it, and the way my feet grew adept at carving their own stairs as I stepped down sideways.
Flatness was what we prized. It meant you could exercise and train a horse, and it meant not sliding. There, in the rolling hills of California, people carved flat spaces into the slopes; here, in this flat Texas city, they manufacture hills out of flatness. Both places were planned in these ways to protect structures, to keep the land the way they wanted, when rain came.
During an El Niño year, back when the public was just becoming acquainted with that West Coast weather system, I took my horse out exploring after a storm, once the ground seemed dry enough. We stuck to nearby trails; I didn’t want to venture too far out. The trail I chose got a lot of sun and usually dried out quickly. The ride was fairly steady until we came around a corner and looked up. The trail before us was gone, had sunk straight down, as though a chunk of earth had just been sliced out like cake. The level trail transformed to cliffs, one on each side of the new cavern. Nature’s a carver too.
On the ocean side of the peninsula, near Portuguese Bend and the Vanderlip estate that originally spawned our neighborhood’s muster of peafowl, sprawls a ninety-acre region called the Flying Triangle, where the land slides in two directions, set atop a slick layer of bentonite clay. Descriptions of this clay range from “Teflon” to “a greasy runway” when wet. I remember my mother showing me pictures of houses broken apart, one half of a kitchen up where it was meant to be, and the other half tilted, gradually sliding. Broken homes. Flung down in their flying triangle.
Why call it flying? What is the difference between flight and slippage?
We could see the Flying Triangle below us when my mother and I took a long ride with friends over the peninsula’s big hill and down the wide, switchbacked fire lane toward Portuguese Bend. She pointed to it: there. It just looked like a gently sloping hill. Pretty, the way the light struck the wild field. Although from the distance I saw no homes at all, I felt a twinge of fear, imagining a line dividing our here from the Flying Triangle’s there, as though I would risk sliding if my horse stepped across it.
The steeper your descent, the steeper your lean back, as though you’ve lost a part of yourself behind you.
While my mother and her friends sat together at picnic tables, I was drawn to Portuguese Bend’s cross-country jumping course. Most of the jumps were too high and wide for me then, but there were some low jumps and a set of horse-sized stairs, each stationed one stride apart. My horse and I leaped up the stairs, circling back around to jump up again and again. Delightful to find, no less imagine, a staircase for horses. To ascend so regularly—up, then a stride, up, another stride, and so on, built into the ground. Going down those steps, which I did when I felt ready and brave enough, was something different, looser, riskier. I had never ridden faster than a walk downhill, and this was galloping and jumping. It felt like my horse’s legs were falling off, as though, every time I rose forward out of the saddle for a jump, I would be pitched over, or like we were both going to tip at any moment. Going up the stairs, that was a kind of assured, gleeful rising. Going down, I think, in all its fearful messiness, was flight.
First Lessons: Leaning
When you ride a horse up a hill, you lean into the hill. The steeper the hill, the steeper your lean, your hands giving the rein to the horse, your shoulders hovering above the neck, until you are rising fully out of the saddle and into air, the animal beneath you all sweat and snort and heave; by rising, you lighten its load.
When you ride down a hill, however, you lean against the incline. You contradict it. The steeper your descent, the steeper your lean back, as though you’ve lost part of yourself behind you. You sit deep and become heavy. Rather than driving the horse into the dirt, your lean lifts pressure from its front legs and distributes the effort back to its powerful haunches. The horse’s motion becomes more controlled.
To lean into a hill, you relinquish control to the air and the hooves conveying you. To lean against the hill, you gather all the control you can muster and do the impossible: lift the front end of a horse.
If I’ve learned anything from these elementary lessons so deeply ingrained in my body’s memory, I hope it is this: when anything starts going downhill, lean against it, counter its weight, look up, and raise the world sinking before you. I must remember.
Or at the very least this: whether walking downstairs or down a hill, lean back against it to keep yourself from falling. Your action must counter the slope, if at all possible.
Whenever Ian and I visited his family on the Isle of Sheppey, in rural England, my father-in-law always outpaced me, even when he began to use a cane that he twirled with flourishes between confident strides. So when he began falling in his mid-seventies, a dozen years after I met him, it came as quite a shock. He was bewildered more than anyone. He fell about once a month at first, which we learned about from my mother-in-law’s weekly handmade cards and from Skype conversations. Then once a week, multiple times in a day, until mentions of the falls grew more incidental, more referential, more “Haven’t I told you” . . . Doctors called it “normal aging,” sent him home with a heart monitor or vertigo pills, each visit the same routine, the same prognosis, the same tests. When the tests turned up inconclusive, the doctors gave up. It must be normal, this steep decline, this falling into age, going downhill.
He could never explain how it happened. He wasn’t dizzy, didn’t black out. All of a sudden he was down, usually tipping forward as he put on socks, or in the shower as he washed his feet. Sometimes as he turned around in the kitchen, holding a cup of tea. The falling was inexplicably all around him. He began using a rollator, an advanced form of what Americans call a walker and British people call a Zimmer frame. We all thought it would offer him stability as he moved around. Eager to give it a spin, he stepped out alone with it one day, turning down the main road’s sidewalk. The road seems flat there but it has a slight downhill grade, the kind you barely notice, the kind that makes you feel stronger because the distance traveled requires so little effort.
He leaned into the hill’s downward lightness, gaining speed, perched like a jockey on the rollator’s handles, feeling once again the wind generated by his own motion blowing cool against his face. Liberated, he released all of his weight to the miraculous aluminum tubes and wheels supporting him, this new, lean, wheeled extension of his body.
He lost control. The rollator flew out from his hands. He tipped. A passerby found my father-in-law crumpled in the gutter. The road is narrow there, so this person certainly saved his life. Sometimes I imagine the stranger as a truck driver who stops his rig, leaves the door open, its chime merging with the calls of wood doves and blackbirds as he blocks traffic; sometimes it’s a blonde with curious children in her car; sometimes an old woman sitting at the bus stop, kerchief over her curlers. Sometimes there are many, and a young man there, too, wearing a track suit and sweating a little because he had been running in the opposite direction, up the slight hill. Someone called the paramedics who lifted him into the ambulance and drove him home, where his wife was ironing, unaware that anything had happened until the colored lights flashed against her house.
Hearing about the fall from a continent and ocean away, my shoulders shifted back instinctively, as though I was riding a horse downhill, trying to lift its front end from gravity’s pull, trying to lift a man from a downward path, his shoulder bending to the wind. On the telephone I urged him to lean back and stand straight the next time he used the rollator, as I had been taught to do by horse trainers and physical therapists. It turned out that his body was becoming more forgetful than mine.
Months later, I sat with him one afternoon at their dining table. We talked about what it’s like to lose power, to release the body’s former strengths and mourn their absence—two old-timers gimping along. I was glad he brought it up, because he didn’t talk much about such matters with the rest of the family, and it felt awkward to push for more specificity. He had fallen many more times by then. His geography, his radius for living, had narrowed: this recliner, these rooms, that room with assistance only, the garden if supervised, but no bending, never alone on the stairs. Who could catch him if he fell?
In a year my father-in-law would rise from this table where we’d talked together, fall and hit his head on the radiator, be placed in a hospital for weeks, get shifted from one hospital to another, and lose the ability to stand altogether, never to return home again. Nowadays, when I sit at that table, the radiator’s warmth rising up my back, I imagine what that fall was like, and I remember the time we sat alone there together as I listened to his vulnerable observations of his new, mysterious physical limitations. He felt responsible for and ashamed of his inactivity, as though exercise could have maintained his strength.
Our conversation trailed to silence. He watched his wife outside the window, her lithe, energetic body stretching up and up, hanging laundry on the clothesline with colorful pegs. “That is one amazing woman,” he said, as though her devotion and energy had just struck him, as though the very notion of easy movement was already becoming a source of wonder. Down she bent to her basket, up she reached again.
One horse I trained and loved, the sorrel who was later sent to slaughter without my knowledge, feared the shadowy, murky base of certain hills. Instead of moving forward, he would often reverse at high speed, legs all a tangle. This once resulted in the two of us backing into the street at rush hour—me raising my hand apologetically, hoping we wouldn’t get hit, his irregular hoof beats striking the pavement, both hearts racing—simply because the horse would not descend the trail’s slope. If there was mud, all the worse. His refusal to walk down a particular hill sent the two of us through a neighbor’s fence once. His fear of that hill knocked me unconscious.
The base of a hill is dark and mysterious to horses, quite possibly a jagged chunk removed from the earth, a hole a horse could tumble right through, its descent a fearsome flight. Or maybe, after a rain, the puddles at the bottom of a hill become shimmering broken windows to drop into, the many hoof prints sloshed through the mud evidence of other horses’ falls, their hooves swallowed up in unstable ground. Or maybe we fade to nothingness at the end of the slope. The longer I worked with this horse the more accepting—but still wary—of going downhill he grew, perhaps trusting me a little more, and the better prepared I became as we approached.
I understand his fear now, facing decline. I must be prepared, gather up my reins.
Depending upon the circumstance and slope, I chose one or more of the following strategies to move this horse downhill:
1. Stop and watch, gently coaxing with my spur, giving him the rein;
2. Sing to him, “Both Sides Now” a particular favorite that set his ears twitching;
3. Turn the horse around to reverse down the hill, a frightening experience but one that distracts the horse from his source of fear until we’ve passed it;
4. Slow his stride and turn his head—again, distraction;
5. If all else fails, dismount and lead him down through it.
Beginning our descent down a long, steep, usually contentious, shady path, I noticed a family of skunks waddling down a few paces in front of us. I chose option four. He remained calm, didn’t see the skunks. No black and white tail raised in alarm.
Once, riding him home from a show, descending a hill that usually coiled this horse’s stride and raised his fears, I noticed a foal running in a paddock next to the path. I sat back, all of my weight leaning against the hill, preparing for the worst. The foal was young, probably a week old or less. It seemed frantic. I turned my horse’s head away from the spectacle. Somehow I remember the foal wailing, but if it did, my horse would have surely balked. Or maybe not. He sometimes surprised me with his calm when the stakes were high. Although my left rein insured that he couldn’t see the foal, I had to look, quick, sidelong glances: the foal’s mother lay on her side, legs outstretched, stiff, and raised above the ground a couple inches. She was entirely motionless, most likely dead. Unaware of the hill’s real drama, my horse calmly carried my backward-leaning body down the narrow path.
Which would you choose when facing a downward slope: to turn away or to face what lies ahead? To be surprised or to be prepared? Could one ever be fully prepared? Can the grade of descent be measured? What if it’s terraced? What if you can’t tell the difference? When I was small I loved ladders, climbing the vertical one that led to my brother’s attic room when he wasn’t home, my hands each grasping the smooth, polished wooden rungs all the way to the top and back down, like crawling, only up, higher than anyone in the house. The ladder to my attic today folds out at an angle, with rails on either side closer to the top. I’ve stopped going up there, not because of the climb up, but because of the climb down, not knowing where my feet will land when the eyes can’t see what’s below. Each foot unwittingly dangles, trembling, waiting—hoping—to hit a rung. Unsure, unaware, I’m all the more frightened of the drop.
I’m tempted to say this: the difference between “going downhill” and “all downhill from here” does not lie in one’s perspective on decline, awareness fueling fear versus distraction breeding ignorance breeding its own fear. “All downhill from here” nestles in the curled embrace of “going downhill.” Both lead to the same destination. What the ground there feels like, or how long it will take to get there, is another matter.
When I began writing this essay, an MS relapse had weakened the arm and leg on my left side. I hadn’t been able to type for months; the left hand could barely press the keys. Not being able to walk evenly was something I could handle. Not being able to write was another matter. When I finally sought physical therapy, I was more motivated to get back to writing than to walk.
At some point I realized that I could write by hand, because, hello, I’m right handed. I could at least write a rough draft. Ultimately, this essay began in red ink scrawled across smooth, wide pages in my notebook, arrows emerging from one page to another, words and sentences crossed out, sentences trailing off to nowhere. Coming back to it was like entering a maze.
In between the red-inked beginnings and now, my steps have slowed at least twice a year for no less than one month each time. I wrote some of this when the prospect of going shopping in a single grocery store was daunting. I wrote some of it while I was capable of walking two miles. Like an actor, I had to get back into the character that was me as though my body was an old costume—method acting through memory, only it’s not an act. Today my body hobbles once again and has done so for over a week. Tomorrow it may change again.
When I began writing this, my father-in-law had fallen about a dozen times. He could still stand up. The cause for his falls had been neither diagnosed nor treated. As I write this now, he has been gone from this world for four months and twelve days. This occurred after a couple of years when he was unable to walk at all, one year unable to sign his name, and months attempting to speak and hopefully be understood. Progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), a rare, progressive neurological condition, was diagnosed a little over a year before it took him. The passage of time burns deep, especially when I—from my seemingly eternal returns of movement and loss, those slowly deepening hills and valleys—stop and behold the entire disease process, of a degenerative neurological illness so similar and yet so different from my own, go from its late diagnosis to death in less than two years.
I’m still on the same chapter.