This past week I had the opportunity to talk to a young man of my acquaintance about his life and where he would like to be in comparison to where he is now. During that conversation I said “You are larger than the space you have been living in.” The words came out of my mouth because in the moment I felt the truth of them. But the phrase keeps wandering back through my thoughts in a way that asks me to pay attention to it, not just in relation to this young man, but also in relation to myself.
Unless we are in a period of active self-discovery and self-definition (or re-definition,) we dwell inside a set of invisible rules for ourselves. Most of the time we aren’t even aware that we have them. If we are happy in our lives and self-identity then we wear the rules like comfortable clothes that don’t restrict our motion. However the one constant in life is change. Who we are at twenty is different than who we are at thirty, forty, or fifty. We grow and shift, so if we are not conscious about changing our personal rule-set we can find ourselves constrained, trapped.
I came face to face with some of my unrealized personal boundaries yesterday. This same young man with whom I had the conversation got me and my entire crew of kids to go with him to an air sports gym which features professional grade trampolines, air bags, trapezes, a climbing wall, and giant foam pits. Once there, he demonstrated his considerable expertise in using trampolines to defy gravity doing flips and tricks twenty to thirty feet in the air. After which, he patiently and kindly helped my crew work on backward summersalt/flips right next to the surface of the trampolines. It was a joy to watch.
For decades I spent my outing time as a lifeguard and safety monitor. In a place like this gym, it was my task to know where my children were and whether they were following the safety rules. I had to be alert and not distracted, which meant sitting off to the side and watching while the kids played. “We go places and mom sits to the side and watches” became one of the hidden expectations of our lives. So much so that one day when I got on a bike and took a turn around our cul de sac, my kids were astonished. They gaped at me in as much disbelief as if I’d been a fish using a bicycle. I remember the feeling of having them gape at me and wondering if I’d failed somehow by becoming so boring. When they were babies I wanted to be the cool mom, the one who still did cartwheels and ran around with her kids. But somehow I’d become a spectator mom instead.
My kids are all adults now, or nearly so. They don’t need my supervision. Which meant on our trip to the gym, I wore jumping clothes fully intending to use the equipment. Yet the first moment I got on a trampoline, I could feel the eyes of my kids on me. Except it wasn’t really their eyes that were the problem. It was my own mind. I was watching me. With every bounce I hit thoughts about being too old for this, about what if I get hurt, about looking ridiculous, about doing things wrong, about being sore for days. During one of the breaks between jumping, I listened to my young aerialist friend talk about how he went about learning things. One of the critical things to learn is that you get hurt when you attempt to abort a trick part way through. I witnessed that happening around me. People would run up to an obstacle they intended to leap over and I could see the moment when their brain said “that’s really big, we can’t do that” The thought caused a fraction of a pause that changed their trajectory into a collision instead of soaring over. It is the fear of getting hurt that causes people to get hurt.
I pondered all of this as I gained confidence in bouncing. I got better at feeling the flows of the leaps. I landed more surely. I was better able to correct errant motions. I felt all of this in my body and I remembered being a younger person, who did things for joy of motion and impulse instead of pausing for a mental calculation of cost/benefit/social consequences. The ability to analyze and make considered decisions is one of the gifts of age. I have a lot more experience with life and consequences which helps me to be wise in my choices. However that weight of experience can also slow us down as we age. I could feel the weight of it in my head, telling me to be cautious both physically and socially. I had a constant awareness of risk, not just of physical injury, but also the risk of looking ridiculous attempting tricks and failing at them. Except the only way to learn to do things is to first fail at them ridiculously.
The gym had a climbing wall over a foam pit. I knew I wanted to try climbing it. So I waited for a moment when my people were all distracted with their own activities and I headed over to the wall. It seemed a good balance between avoiding outside commentary on my capabilities and not letting fear of commentary prevent me from doing the thing I wanted to try. To my surprise, the grips felt natural under my hands and feet. I traversed sideways across the wall, not daring to go high. Then I tested falling into the foam pit. After a rest, I tried the wall again and climbed all the way to the top. I liked the way climbing felt in my arms and legs. I liked the moment of apogee at the top of a trampoline bounce. I liked stepping outside of my usual sedentary activities. I liked leaving my usual observer mode to be a participant.
There was a moment after nearly two hours of play when I sat on the floor with three of my adult children and our friend. All of us were tired but happy. I was aware of an internal tension. I don’t feel old. I remember being young and energetic. I remember dancing to music in public and splashing in fountains even though I wasn’t supposed to. I remember running just for the joy of it. Yet there I sat with three adult humans that I’d raised from small. My mind couldn’t quite compute how I got from youthful me, to that spot on the floor with my people around me. Somehow in that moment I was both teenage me and middle age mom me. And I realized that I can be both, so long as I’m willing to collide with my hidden self rules and, through that collision, alter them. I can still be the mom who is active and participates instead of watching. I haven’t run out of time. All it takes is a willingness to be ridiculous.
Sitting here on my couch the morning after, my arms and shoulders are sore. Yet when I close my eyes and concentrate, I can still feel apogee in my core and the grips of the climbing wall in my hands. I can take up a different space than the one I’ve been living in simply by going back to that gym again. I can change my creative existence by being willing to write bravely and risk rejection. I can change the patterns of my family by welcoming new people into the house and by altering our physical spaces. Sometimes we are trapped by situations outside our control, but more often we are trapped by our own unwillingness to take a leap and risk change. I’m going to try to be more conscious of the boundaries in the life I have and the changes I need to make in order to get a life I want more.