In 1983, during a week-long series of multi-media shows at the Brooklyn Academy of Music called United States I-IV, Laurie Anderson, the American experimental performance artist and musician, described walking as falling and catching yourself with each step:
You’re walking. And you don’t always realize it, but you’re always falling. With each step you fall forward slightly. And then catch yourself from falling. Over and over, you’re falling. And then catching yourself from falling. And this is how you can be walking and falling at the same time.
I’ve often smiled at her words during the 24+ years since those fabulous, funny, weird evenings at BAM. I fling my right foot before me and lean forward, falling onto it. Then I throw, and fall on, the left foot. And so on, down the street, “walking and falling at the same time.”
I’ve been thinking about this especially during the past seven weeks, during my introduction to Tai Chi at Ho-I on Monday evenings. I’ve come to realize that, although my verbal activities all day are (pretty well) considered, most of my physical movements are automatic and fairly random. I go flailing about, falling and catching myself as Laurie Anderson describes.
Perhaps you’ve seen Tai Chi? It’s what old Chinese men and women do in the park: a silent, solitary dance. Tai Chi is teaching me an appreciation for moving with greater intention, for better balance and control — and in decades perhaps, a potent ability to defend myself. With Tai Chi, it seems, I should be able to kill someone very, very slowly. (Don’t worry. That’s not a goal.)
Amid my usually thoughtless physical activity all day, however, I recognize one series of moves that I always make very methodically, very consistently: getting in the car. I always swing open the door very carefully. I always move my feet the same way. I always shift my weight the same way. My pace and timing are always the same. Even my breathing is the same, all the way to the cleansing breath, once I am behind the steering wheel, the door is firmly shut, and the keys are finding their way into the steering column. Is this true for you? Pay attention next time and see.
Why do I dance so consistently with the car door? Perhaps because I’ve learned that, when I do it haphazardly, without practiced skill, I might whack my head on the threshold, kick my shin against the door, fall into the car, or slam the door on precious body parts. (They are all precious to me. I love them all like my children.)
The car door is, in some modern way, our physical adversary, our daily sparring partner, seeking to punish us if we move carelessly. We can get in the car without thinking much about our movements, but those movements must be well practiced. Or else we have bumps and bruises to show for it.
Though I am at the very beginning of this study and practice, I can see that Tai Chi offers to teach me to move through all of life with increasing physical skill and intention. For now, I am ever more grateful for my mobility and agility.