There are two basic skills in slacklining: getting on the line and falling off the line.
Some folks are better at putting themselves out there and into a position where they can fall— on top of the line, in front of everyone to see. Other folks are better at falling, able to disperse their momentum and get ready for the next attempt on the slackline. Every once in a while, I’ll find someone that is afraid of both putting themselves in a position of possible failure as well as the dangers of falling. This is a story about one of those people.
During the second half of spring break, last week, I spent five days camping and exploring the Okeechobee Music Festival. I brought two slacklines, four close friends, and an eye for adventure— we set-up our lines near a relatively high-traffic area close to the main stages, and allowed the gawking crowds form.
Soon, a few like-minded individuals showed up, crushed the slackline, and brought their own, bringing our line total to four. With a lovely grassy clearing and possibilities limited only by our imagination, we created an adult playground: lines going from knee height to overhead, traversing spans of fifty feet, even intersecting in mid-air! With a whole lot of wackiness for the adventurous and adept, I placed one line low to the ground with another line at about chest-height, acting as a handhold— the beginner-line for newbies and the inebriated.
The handhold served as a proxy coach, the most patient assistant in your slackline learning. Generally, people need someone to help them up the line and hold their hand as they walk slowly, learning how to accept the wobbliness of the thin nylon webbing which is more like a thin trampoline than a secure walkway. The beginner-line allowed folks to saunter up and attempt their first walk without asking for any help. Soon, there were two crowds: one watching the advanced folks do outrageous things on highlines, and the other congealed around the beginner-line waiting for their turn or watching the fun.
With this beginner-line set and rolling, an affable fellow wandered over and joined the viewing party, a crowd of festival-goers transfixed by the odd movements and slight sense of danger. I recall hearing his voice and southern drawl for the first time while completing a walk on one of the higher lines. He was repeating a word of advice, some bit of coaching wisdom, from an experienced slacker to the rest. It had an unusual tone to it and when I jumped off the line and sized him up, I realized why— the fellow had a prosthetic left leg, above the knee.
The tone, I quickly understood, came from his assumption that he could not participate in the slacking, and so relayed the advice with an air of “y’all are crazy, have at it!” Immediately, a fire sparked into life within me, a bit of adrenaline coursing through my veins as if I were walking fifteen feet above the ground while a gust of wind throws the line into chaos.
Earlier, with a fairly normal and average young man or woman, the stakes were low— everyone has damaged relationship with their body, whether the image or the function, but it is generally not the primary trauma affecting their lives. A person might tumble and feel a bit foolish, yes; they’ll get up, brush themselves off, and try it again with a goofy smile. With this fella? I felt like it would take all of my coaching skills and intuition to not mess this up.
First, I had to gently massage the idea of slacklining into his brain (getting him on the line). Too much force, and he’d shy away like a cat that does NOT want to join the bathtub. Too little, and he’d explain away his potential like water off a duck’s back. Second, I’d need to set the space for him to approach, learn, and grow from the experience of slacking for the first time (allowing him to fall). This would involve managing the crowd, which would probably go (appropriately) wild and crazy seeing a one-legged fella crush the slackline and his own limitations.
I walked over to him and asked, as casually as possible, if he had ever slacklined. I figured he would meet this with a hearty laugh, and he did, but it was an important step in establishing a repoire with him: I didn’t want to coddle him. I wanted to start the conversation in a way that respected him and gave him a chance to say, “Yes, I have, and let me show you.” I didn’t want to talk about his leg unless he did.
He looked me up and down a bit. With a loud chuckle and that country twang, he said, “No, I have not!”
I bounced back with, “Would you like to try?” and that gave him momentary pause.
I knew the immediate offer to try it would throw him off balance, and snap him into a deeper level of attention to the situation. I could tell from his affable tone and overall disposition that he is the type of guy to fill space with laughter and ease tension with jokes. Additionally, I figured he’d be really good at directing attention away from himself unless it drew a laugh.
So, I avoided playing into his strengths and bopped him on the nose with my question. I was careful: I didn’t pick up any of his laugh or smile and my tone was calm and serious. I wanted him to be sure that I wasn’t picking on him, just offering him a chance to try something really new.
After his pause, he shrugged and gestured to his prosthetic leg, saying it would get in the way. I offered that he might learn easier with it taken off, and that he’d probably be better than most folks starting off. He gave me a quizzical look, so I continued, “Unlike normal ground, when you’re on the line you are generally most stable when balancing on one leg. That is what makes walking so difficult— the time spent on two legs. You are probably better than all of us at balancing on one leg… because that’s what you do pretty much all day, right?”
He nodded, and shifted his weight onto the right leg while gently waving his prosthetic in the air, and saying, “Yeah, all day!”
“Now, the line will add instability, which you’re not used to, but I’d bet that you’d adapt faster than most folks. Want me to help you up?”
And this is where I stumbled. In that moment, I was too clinical, too much of a distanced coach. He looked down and fumbled with his hands, almost as if he snapped out of a light trance. He said, “Maybe next time.” I didn’t push harder because I knew that would only drive him further away, faster. So, I hoped that he might return the next day, telling him that we’d be set-up in the same place throughout the weekend and he is completely welcome. He offered some thank yous and goodbyes, and then melted into the surging festival crowd.
It was my turn to snap out of a trance, realizing how deeply I had invested my attention. I focused too heavily on getting him on the line, and not securing his fall. I should have introduced myself. I was asking him to trust-fall into me, in front of a group of strangers, and I didn’t know his name and he didn’t know mine. While I could’ve started the conversation in front of the line and with others watching, I should have gently moved us to a corner, away from the full attention of the crowd, so he could feel more secure.
He didn’t return. For the remainder of the festival, we set-up the lines around noon and took them down after dark. I kept a small vigil, hoping to see his distinctive outline and gait, but for whatever reason I never saw him again. As I develop into the physician I want to be, I relish and seek out opportunities like this, to help people learning the virtues of getting on the line and falling onto the ground. These are practice reps, with relatively low stakes. I’m learning as much as I can because soon I’ll be playing with a much tighter line with a much higher fall.
- On horses and equine-assisted self exploration
- On writer’s block (or Course Three: a post-mortem)
- On learning through Rorschach tests (or a meditation on walking sticks and tapestries)