by Denise Frame Harlan
A crew came to take my maple down—a shade tree, a terrible loss. One man steps into his blue climbing harness, adds a red helmet before clipping his harness onto the weighted hook of an enormous crane. The hook lifts him, settles him against the trunk of the tree. I remember the summer I turned twenty-eight, when I spent my days in trees, in blue harness and red helmet, besotted with wind-sway and leaf-rustle. At the end of those workdays, I clipped my harness onto the suspended loop of the forty-foot Tarzan Swing: I stepped off the leafy platform into an arc of pure joy, a blur of pendulum-swing laughter. Now, my hands on my stiff back, I watch from the window as the crew chips my maple into pale-green mulch, leaving a vacant piece of sky.
For the Last Notes of Ruminate Issue 28
, I wrote this remembrance of an ancient pleasure no longer mine: harness, helmet, pendulum plunge. Even as I wrote it, I wondered if my stiffness was permanent.
Writing is bad for the back. We sit. Some writers work in basement office cubbies, but my soul needs sunlight and a view, so I moved my writing desk to a gorgeous window, overlooking The Great Marsh, the place where the Atlantic mingles with the coastline. This morning I was writing when I saw a large bird with an odd long tail, a tail like a ribbon, circling higher and higher as all the other birds cleared the sky—a pair of binoculars showed me a blur of a bird carrying a large fish, the fish still waving its tail. I couldn’t identify the bird—perhaps one of the golden eagles that nests near here—but I wondered why a bird with a fish would keep flying higher. Is she gaining height to take this fish a great distance? The little voice on one shoulder says, “get back to work writing, for heaven’s sake!” The little voice on the other shoulder says, “how often do you see that? Like, ever?”
I have courted distraction, and I am not sorry.
What was I saying?
Ah. Writing and backs: we sit, and chairs are the enemy. When I was a grad student, one of my classmates offered to loosen up my shoulders while we listened to our classmates read. Afterward he said, “You got a lot going on in there.” Yes. To complicate matters, I fell hard.
I was hiking, running downhill on a mountainside, trying to catch up to third graders because, as everyone knows, downhill is more dangerous. I said those words aloud, before trotting through the switchbacks with my walking stick. My feet flew to the left and my right hip landed on granite, while the walking stick levered between my foot and a tree trunk, slamming square across the bridge of my nose. Because of a black eye, a busted lip, and maybe a broken nose, I worried about everything above my neck. My thesis was due that month, so I worried about my deadline, because grad students are foolish that way. When my face recovered, my gait didn’t. Long walks, once so vital to my writing life, required days of recovery.
So I gave up all exercise and I finished my degree.
And my back worsened, as backs will do when people don’t move. I built a “standing desk” from some brackets and shelves, so I can write without sitting. I tried a little yoga, saw some marvelous healers, but nothing helped for long. I am fifty-one, after all, and my mother was plenty stiff by this age. “It’s Ol’ Arthur,” she’d say on painful mornings, “Arthur-itis.” I thought my stiffness would simply worsen for the rest of my life, like hers.
This spring, I wrote my Last Note as the crew took down my tree, and then I found Bob, who does deep tissue body work in a ten-session plan. Like massage, like assisted yoga, like nothing I’ve ever known, Bob is slowly undoing years of stiffness. That little crick in my neck that began in high school gymnastics. That place where my left hip held the toddler. The way my foot arches. After each session, I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck but I walk taller.
I can wear shoes I haven’t worn for years: cowboy boots, flats. When I settle into the pew at church, I can feel my vertebrae line up neatly against the wood, feel my injured hip loosen and allow my right leg to rotate just a little. My ribs rise, and I relax.
Last week I got an email from my campus’ outdoor program: the Giant Swing would be open to the faculty, but time slots were limited. My husband asked, “What would Bob say?” I didn’t ask Bob: I signed up.
While I waited my turn for The Giant Swing, I counted 21 years since the last time I rode a 50-foot Tarzan swing. How good it is, to step into blue harness and red helmet, to throw out one’s arms and be lifted into the treetops. The ride felt like laughter, like sighing.
Today I feel a little twinge of tension in my lower back, but nothing that can’t be undone. Bob will be thrilled, when I visit him for my next session. How good it is to fly.
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