As toddlers, we learn how to walk by holding up our own weight. Our knees buckle and we stumble at first. Eventually, we learn how to stand on our own, unaccompanied by the hands that once guided us. We are prodded by hopeful parents to go out into the world.
On frosty mornings, I ran to the bus stop in time to avoid having to chase it down the road as it left a trail of exhaust smoke. When temperatures became so frigid that sheets of ice glazed over the sidewalk, since I didn’t know how to glide across the surface like the Olympic skaters I admired, I often fell and scraped my knees in the process.
I once fell down half a flight of stairs walking in heels, and got carpet burn. Something told me to bring an extra pair of flats but I ignored that voice to maintain poise.
In college, on a crowded rush hour train with standing room only, the force of gravity jolted me from my anchor—the silver pole I clutched for the duration of the trip, and my suitcase tumbled down with me.
As a graduate student, when I slipped in the bathroom of my apartment in West Baltimore, bruising multiple bones, I wondered if I could sue my landlord for pain and suffering. I was lucky. I had heard stories of elderly tenants who had fallen in bathtubs and were lifted out barely recognizable—scalded, writhing bodies, covered in water burns.
Previous falls compelled me to scurry away, to remove the cloak of embarrassment as quickly as possible, and become invisible. Yet, in that moment, I was not hyper focused on the act of falling itself. I began to recognize my own frailty and imperfection. Our bodies are not invincible—not incapable of short circuiting. Sometimes they can betray us, much like when something unexpected falls out of your mouth in a Freudian slip, something you intended to keep locked behind the sealed gates of your lips— nudged in a far corner of your mind.
In that bathroom, with its shiny off-white tiles, it dawned on me that my life was traveling on an upward incline. I was accumulating miles on earth. I was aging, slowly but surely.
As I limped out of the room, I made a note on my to-do list to place a caution sign in common areas and to make sure Life Alert was on standby. Money that was supposed to go towards chipping away at those pesky loans would be reserved for a hip replacement if I wasn’t more careful next time.
As a young millennial, it’s common to feel invincible, as if the bones are made of elastic that you can continue to stretch without reaching a snapping point. It’s why a group of beachside party attendees, against medical advice, can confront a disease that has killed half a million people, and say “if I get Corona, I get Corona” as if Corona is asking for permission.
Progeria is a condition in which a child begins to show rapid signs of aging. The odds of being born with it are 1 in 4 million.
In Biblical times, Methuselah lived to be 969 years old. Slowly, the human life span began to decrease. The oldest human in recent history whose age has been verified was Jeanne Calment of France, who lived to be 122 years old and 164 days.
When we ask centenarians to reveal the secret to a long and happy life, they often reply with various maxims:
“Keep your mind sharp.”
“Don’t sweat the small things.”
Yet, one’s life span could be attributed to many factors: genetics, race, illness, lifestyle, socioeconomic status. Currently, the average life expectancy in the United States is 78.93.
“No one ever gets to the quadruple digits.”
Blessing, the fourth grader I was babysitting, made this observation over a game of Uno. We moved from talking about Hershey’s candy bars and birthdays to contemplating our own mortality in the space of a few minutes.
The concept of aging has been explored in various facets of popular culture. Yet, the question remains: what would happen if we stayed frozen in time and stopped aging? If our lives on Earth remained infinite? Would we still be drawn to productivity if we knew that there was no time bomb ticking in our ears? That we essentially had all the time we wanted to do whatever we pleased?
Blessing said that if she lived to be a 1000 years old she would observe how the world has evolved over the past millennia. Many people who lived through the most harrowing events in history would have wanted to experience the change they fought for in their lifetimes. Yet, it is often the case that they don’t.
One minute we are learning how to exist in the world as new humans. The next minute we are experiencing puberty and all the awkward bodily changes that come with it. Soon enough, we reach another phase of awkward bodily changes. We find ourselves yielding to a gravitational pull. Time draws wrinkles in our skin. Our pace is slower, and we are not as nimble as we used to be. We are taking more time to pause and reflect because we realize our time on earth is shrinking.
There is an entire industry dedicated to preserving youth: creams that promise to make you look ten years younger, exotic facials, plastic surgery, hair growth serums, and other concoctions—-Avocado! Oatmeal! Egg! Mayonnaise! Urine!
We cannot see beyond our present moment–not even a second beyond what we are currently experiencing. We take a picture, and our phone can now predict we will look like at age 80. I tried one of these apps in a selfie with my colleagues. I look like myself, but with wrinkles. Now I get a glimpse of what awaits me. We look at our future selves and hope that this picture will become our reality. We hope to grow old and live vast, fulfilling lives. We hope to remain.
While the word fall is often associated with humiliation, clumsiness, weakness, or chaos—-“a fall from grace”…”the fall of man”….”things fall apart”, fall is also the season of new beginnings– a season when old things fall off to welcome the new.
In my brief time on this planet, via my track record of less-than-graceful encounters with floors, it is clear that no matter how much experience we have walking, no matter how many miles we have accumulated on the journey, we are bound to lose our balance. Failure will greet us. I stand up, dust myself off, and keep walking. When life sticks it’s large foot out to trip you, and laugh in your face while marveling at its own cleverness, you play it off as if you are dancing to the world’s tune in your own eccentric way. You are doing the tango, and the floor beneath you just happens to be your unfortunate dance partner.