Have you ever stood on a wobble board? Mine is a sixteen-inch wooden disk, mounted on top of a hard plastic dome (imagine a circle of wood glued to half a baseball, with the round part of the baseball touching the ground). After I tore ligaments in my ankle for the second time a number of years ago, my doctor suggested I use a wobble board to try to prevent future injuries.
The point is to rock back and forth on the board in every possible direction without letting its edges touch the ground. Theoretically, I’m not just strengthening lots of little muscles in my ankles and calves by wobbling around, but I’m also improving my proprioception, my body’s ability to sense where it is in space.
It’s comforting to think that my muscles know where my elbows are in relation to my earlobes and how to keep me upright if my left foot lands halfway on the curb and halfway on the road. I like that my body is working to keep me balanced without any conscious intervention on my part.
Not that long ago, I went through a period when I felt every day as though I were standing on that board. Accosted by a loss that knocked me off balance, I couldn’t figure out how to make the earth stand still beneath my feet. It was as though aftershocks from an earthquake were rattling the ground every day, reminding me that destruction was immanent.
Friends, well-meaning strangers, and grief counselors all recommended I “talk to someone.” For weeks I carried scraps of paper with names and phone numbers in my pocket. I was terrified that I’d call the wrong person; how do you choose among strangers which one to invite into your vulnerability? It wasn’t until I finally decided to talk to a trusted priest and even he handed me a scrap of paper with a phone number on it that I finally decided I wasn’t going to be able to find solid ground on my own.
A few months after I started “talking to someone,” I had a dream. In the dream, my husband and I were lying on our stomachs on a raft. We were somewhere beautiful, maybe off Hawaii or Monterey, in the middle of the ocean. The raft was also somehow a spacious field of grass, rocking gently on the waves. For some reason Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World” always comes to mind when I think of this dream, although looking at the painting now, seeing the way the woman in the grass looks (purposefully?) toward the house in the distance, I can’t really explain why.
There was no purpose in my feeling in the dream. Years ago after breaking my wrist I woke from surgery to a stranger wrapping me in hot blankets. That was how I felt in the dream: enveloped, tended to, almost surreally peaceful. I found myself craving that feeling long after I was awake. I can close my eyes even now and almost feel it.
At some point in the dream, though, the waves picked up. The raft started rocking aggressively. As the waves grew menacing, I became terrified, certain that the next one would capsize us and pull us under. I dug my hands into the grass as the dream that had begun as a beautiful respite became, literally, a nightmare.
Just as I was trying to scream myself awake, a voice in the dream said, “It’s not a raft; it’s an island.” I don’t know whose voice this was, but it spoke matter-of-factly into my fear. It repeated those words, “It’s not a raft; it’s an island.”
Somehow, saying it made it true. I looked around, and I could feel the column of earth under my feet, reaching all the way down to the ocean floor. We continued to dip and lunge in the waves, but we weren’t going anywhere. We were on solid ground. I could relax back into the movement.
When I told the woman I had finally chosen to “talk to,” about this dream, she smiled. She said something like, “That’s such a powerful message from your psyche, telling you that you are going to be ok.”
The thing is that I believed her. The ground didn’t firm up instantly, but “It’s not a raft, it’s an island” became available to me as a mantra, as a little stone I can worry in my pocket whenever the earth starts pitching beneath my feet.
I remember one time flying over the Southwest and being terrified for a moment at how tiny all the cities are, how desolate the spaces that sprawl between. “We’re so alone!” I remember thinking, feeling a wave of compassion for all of us, tiny people scattered like old seed on dry land.
If you zoom out even further, beyond the airplane, who is to say what’s raft and what’s island? What is there, really, that’s tethered all the way down?
In his poem, “The Abduction,” Stanley Kunitz writes,
Our lives are spinning out
from world to world;
the shapes of things
are shifting in the wind.
What do we know
beyond the rapture and the dread?
There was a time when lines like those could paralyze me, when all I wanted was to make the world stand still. I thought I needed the “shapes of things” to stop “shifting in the wind.” I wanted to be able to say with certainty, “The world is this way; therefore, it isn’t this other way.”
For some reason walking the dog with Fred in the rain tonight, I’m thinking about this dread and rapture. It’s a gentle rain by the time we head into it, but just half an hour ago, it was wild; lightening arced into the ground and wind twisted the sycamore in the back yard sideways.
The streets are wet and I walk balancing on the curb, still working on my proprioception, still trying to figure out how my body is positioned in space, still learning to keep my balance in a whirling world that holds both love that rocks you gently on the waves and loss that tries to drown you.
The trick I’ve learned on the wobble board is this: If you don’t want to fall off, you have to go with it as it flings you face-forward; you can’t panic as your body falls backward or dips to the left or right. You can’t fight the motion.
You have to let go. You have to trust that somehow, in some way you don’t have to understand, the center will hold.
View Christina’s World
Read The Abduction