Action and reaction [short story]

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My feet got tangled and I went tumbling down.


I had just parked the car and was walking to my favourite coffee shop this morning when something got hold of my foot. I turned my head down but before I could see what was restricting my movements I realised I was tumbling down. I probably fell over in two seconds but it felt like I was falling in slow motion and I could foresee the damage of the impeding impact. Images of my upcoming half-marathon flashed before my eyes. No training today that’s for sure. I went down on my left knee first,—no, not my knee—then the right, then my wrists swung forward to protect my face and finally the rest of my body hit the unprepared surface. I wanted to get up but the forces of gravity and pain were keeping my body stuck to the pavement.

“Are you all right?” I heard worried voices hovering above me. The good samaritans that came to my rescue grabbed my arms and helped me get up. “Are you okay?” someone asked again. I was a bit disoriented and dizzy from the sudden jerk of my head, all I could muster was “I hope so”. They held my arm and walked me inside the nearby hairdresser.

“Please have a seat while I get some water” said a concerned hairdresser. I took a seat next to the window and a deep breath, “what a way the start the day” I joked, finally starting to come to my senses. “If you can laugh about it you might still have a good day ahead” the hairdresser said passing me a glass of water.

“Ouch” I felt a sting when the broken skin touched the water droplets outside the cold glass. I turned my palms up and saw blood and grit from the floor. I looked at my legs to assess the damage and noticed wet spots halfway down the black running pants I was wearing. I tried to roll them up but they were too tight, I had to wait the check my knees when I got home. I sipped the water slowly trying to digest how this happened to me today.

“There was something stuck to my feet,” I said putting the empty glass on the coffee table.

“You don’t know what it was?” asked the hairdresser.

“No, but I’ll find out now,” I said trying to rise up from my seat but my knees ached and trembled and my bottom landed back on the chair. I tried again, this time I placed both hands at the edge of the chair,  pushed down through my arms and began straightening my legs. A sharp pain traveled from my head to toes. That’s the moment I realised I might not be able to run the race. I didn’t just fall, I had a fall. When you fall you get up again and move on with your business but a fall is a beast of another kind, it is an unprovoked attack, a serendipitous act of violence that finds you unprepared and inflicts grievous bodily harm. And it knocked me down really bad.

The hairdresser followed me to the crime scene for our forensic investigation. We found narrow straps of white plastic scattered around the parking. These are the straps used to bundle magazines and stack them in piles. Someone, maybe a delivery person, must have slided the magazines out and mindlessly tossed the used straps. “There are garbage bins everywhere, why couldn’t he or she have walked ten metres to dispose the plastic straps properly?” I squeezed my eyebrows together.

“People can be so thoughtless” the hairdresser sighed.

“If I were an elderly person I’d be in hospital with broken bones” I continued.

“I know,” she said with a tone of concern, “I’ll throw the straps in the bin so no one else gets hurt.” She said walking to the trashcan.

“Thanks heaps for rescuing me today.” I waved to the hairdresser and started limping to the car. I opened the door, squeezed through the opening with half-bent knees and started the engine. My legs felt heavy, it was tricky to operate the pedals and with every new movement I discovered a new pain. Eventually I got home and rushed to the freezer to get the ice packs. I put them in my sore knees, ah, finally a bit of relief.

Every action has a reaction—the pressure of the cold bags of ice in my skin made me think of Newton’s 3rd law of physics. Newton wasn’t referring to human behaviour but I kept thinking of how the actions of the delivery person resulted in pain and suffering to another human being. I’m sure he or she didn’t intend to harm anyone but being unaware of your behaviour is just as bad. I wriggled in the couch trying to find a conformable spot. One of the greatest crimes of our civilisation is the offence of mindlessness, that’s why there is so much pain and suffering in the world. If we were conscious of the consequences of our actions, we would be better equipped to change our behaviour. But we are too busy or preoccupied with our everyday lives and keep on going on auto-pilot, we don’t pause to ponder.

I noticed that with every new trip to the kitchen to replace the ice packs the pain worsened so I decided it was time to inspect my knees and apply some antiseptic cream on the wounds. But there was an obstacle on my way, the stairs. I had to go upstairs to get the first aid kit and a new pair of pants. I grabbed the rails on both sides and swung my legs forward, one at a time and with every step images of people whose physical abilities do not correspond with the demands of their environment flashed in my mind. I felt privileged I was only carrying a temporarily broken body.

By school pick up time my legs were as stiff and heavy as iron bars and I started to move like a robot to keep my legs as straight as I could. The drive to school is literally painfully slow but luckily most of the route is within school zones so the other cars are going slow too. When I get there I have to explain my robot moves to the parents at the gate and one of the mothers asked: “are you going to sue the council?” Hum, I hadn’t thought of that.

“No,” I replied with a pause, “I don’t even know who the tosser was.”

“They might have caught the fall on CC TV” she insisted.

“Good point,” I reply, “but I don’t want to put my energy on a litigation.” The glares of disappointment from the parents made me feel like justifying my position so I said “I might send a letter to the council though, to alert them to be more vigilant.”

“But they’re more likely to do something about it they feel the pain with their pockets.” stressed another mother.

“That may be true,” I said slowly trying to calculate the impact of my words, I don’t like the blame and sue culture that has developed in our society but I didn’t want to offend anyone so I carefully added as limped over eggs shells on the way to the car park: “but I don’t think every accident should be a case for litigation.” They didn’t say anything back and continued to walk at normal pace so I was left behind wondering if because they found me too slow or too righteous.

On my way home I was in so much pain I was thinking of driving to a medical centre but I pulled over at the chemist instead and asked the pharmacist for her opinion. I rolled up my pants and she frowned. “Looks quite nasty.” Drops of sweat run down my shoulders, maybe I broke something. “But I don’t think you broke anything,” she said as if reading my mind, “I don’t think you would have been able to drive here otherwise.” Phew. She recommended an anti-inflammatory tablet and a visit to the doctor next morning “if you don’t wake up feeling better.”

As the day progressed the pain got stronger and my knees stiffer and I started to get cranky at the possibility of breaking my tradition of joining the Sydney running festival. I’ve been doing the half-marathon for five years straight, now thanks to that mindless delivery guy I might have to give it a miss.

I was picturing the fall over and over in my head and what I could have done differently. I was cursing whoever tossed the rubbish in the parking. I wanted to stomp to my room and start the day over but instead I had to gently swing my hips from side to side to move my legs, sit in the edge of my bed and carefully lay down and place ice packs in both knees.

But staring alone at the ceiling I started to think about how I was reacting to the situation. I was joining the mindless mob. It’s not the end of the world if I missed the race and being angry at the world was not going to make me recover faster. I was not able to run but I was capable of taking a step back and turn off the auto-pilot. Instead of continuing ruminating my story, I put my headphones on and played some soft music. It did not take away the pain but by the time I got up to change the ice packs I was counting my blessings, the accident could have been much worse.

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I’ve reframed my picture of ageing this holiday

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Four years ago: my mum, very capable at 69, Balmoral beach, Sydney

We all dream of a picture perfect holiday, with white sands, blue beaches and most importantly away-from-it-all. My holidays in Brazil have had a good deal of perfect moments but I certainly didn’t get away from the catastrophes of living. It’s been very confronting to see how much my mum has aged in the last 12 months and hard work to let go of the idyllic view I held of ageing.

The vision I had for my parents in old age was dotted with time for rest and reflection and opportunities to do things they didn’t do when we were young but this simply didn’t eventuate. Of course I was conscious that ageing is a period of decline but I didn’t think my mum would walk the downhill road in her seventies. When dad’s life was cut short eight years ago I knew things were not going to be as rosy as I had pictured them but I was still positive about mum’s ageing. My expectations were reinforced when she came to visit us in Australia four years ago, on her own and full of vitality. Unfortunately I think that trip marked the beginning of her decline.

It’s been emotionally painful to see that the wonderful chef my mum once was can no longer cook a nice meal and the avid storyteller lacks the desire to entertain her grandkids with tales of a bygone era. Mum hasn’t been diagnosed with any age related illnesses but she has endured debilitating spinal problems, hearing and memory loss. She feels frail, alone and at times frustrated with her situation.  When I was growing up anger was a feeling I rarely saw mum displaying but she has a much shorter fuse these days. When I met my mum in this condition I felt a deep sense of helplessness and I wasn’t able to sleep for several nights thinking of ways to help her change her situation.

So, since arriving in Brazil I’ve read a good deal of articles about ageing parents and learnt a bit about the harsh reality of the elderly – the chronic health problems, increasing frailty and social isolation. The suffering of the elderly can be so severe that it can lead to depression and even suicide. In fact, suicide rates around the world are higher for people over 70 than any other age group.

In my eagerness to help I’ve made a few well intentioned suggestions and recommendations that were not interpreted that well by mum. When you lose your independence and control you become very reluctant to change. So instead of creating more friction and stress I’ve decided to change the one thing that I can control: my view of ageing. I have now accepted that my mum is no longer self-sufficient and that the parent I once depended on is now increasingly dependent on me and my siblings.

Once I was able to accept my mum’s ageing as a fact of life and something I have little control over I started to sleep well again. I’ve adjusted my expectations so as to lie within the realm of what is possible and as result improved my relationship with mum. This doesn’t mean I’ll sit down and watch my mum wither – I’ll still do what’s possible to relieve mum’s suffering but I’ll be mindful of her limits, feelings and desires.

These holidays I tried to get away from it all but found myself right in the middle and coming to terms with our mortality and shared vulnerability. It certainly hasn’t been the picture perfect holiday I expected but definitely one I will never forget.

Day of silence: nowhere to go, nothing to do, no one to please

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The collective energy of 50 people doing nothing is powerful. We sat still this Sunday in the beautiful grounds of Kincoppal Rose Bay for a day of mindfulness. Fifty people in silence – sitting, walking, listening to the sound of nature  and just being. No one checking their phones or rushing to get somewhere or even saying thank you. Silence can be liberating.

My mind is usually as busy as an amusement park, always looking for distraction and entertainment, so a day like today, where focus on the present moment reigns, is very refreshing. After the session I’m clam and grounded and feeling blessed that I had this opportunity to share in a day of nothing with so many.

It’s reassuring to see that there are so many people trying to find an avenue back to the present moment amidst the chaos that life is in the 21st century. At the end of the day when we had the opportunity to discuss the experience, the comments revolved around the same theme: finding time and space to just be. We are all in the same boat.

Like everyone at attends a retreat, today I’ve renewed my commitment to stop rushing towards the future. But as I walk home now after a day of bliss, I know I will open the door to the chaos of kids, dinner, lunch boxes and work – my natural environment. The challenge is to bring awareness to these ordinary moments, which make up most of the moments of our lives, and be present to them.  It’s much easier to be calm and content when you get to lie down in your yoga mat. I’m putting the welcome mat to the ordinary tonight, I hope I’ll succeed and I hope that you will too.