Stairs (or, on Growing Old and Forgetting to Bang Your Head)
On my increasingly bald head, I have a large scar.
Because people are kind, they never ask how it got there. But since this is a moment for self-reflection, I will explain. In short, it has to do with banging my head against a wall...and stairs, a foe with which I have a lengthy history.
I assume most folks are familiar with the child-rearing concept of “time out.” If you are not, then I assure you I have enough firsthand knowledge for both of us. From as early as I can remember, the main stairwell of my childhood home was the spot for time out. Sometimes there was carpet on the wooden steps, sometimes there wasn’t. But it bordered the opening to the dining room and was within perfect pouting distance of the kitchen, which made it an ideal site for shame.
That was where I would plop myself in a huff on the first step and sit for brief moments that felt endless. Inevitably I would bury my cheeks in my hands (consider it my initial foray into the facepalm) as I contemplated the circumstances of my detention. My confinement never made sense: Why had I been put here? There was some mention of “rules,” but there was no collective bargaining to put these bylaws in place, which only deepened my disdain.
Once I could no longer count my age on one hand, the stairs were still where I contemplated the rules. You could even say I got my scar testing the “rules” of descending a staircase. It’s common knowledge that walking down stairs one at a time is the accepted way. But why? What if you jumped from the second stair to the bottom? Well, eight stitches in your forehead later, you learn why: because if you jump off the stairs, you may run into the corner of the closest wall. Headfirst.
(Note: I understand now that this rule is in place not just for the safety of the stair-taker, but for the benefit of babysitters, nannies, and the like. Imagine explaining to a parent what happened while you cradle a child who is bleeding profusely from their head.)
Alas, this was not the end of the stairs, nor would it be the last scar.
I also have a small scar above my right eye. It is also from the stairs, and because I was older (and my memory was sharper) when it happened, it is more frightening. In this incident, I broke the best rule I’ve ever encountered: Don’t run with socks on in the house. My father said it constantly. As I mentioned, our stairs were wooden. The floors were, too, so when I was in my sock feet, the house became a frictionless hellscape.
It just so happens that I tested the limits of this rule during a dinner party. Did I need to get upstairs that quickly? No. Did I run anyways? Yes. Did I slip out when rounding from the dining room up the stairs? Let’s see if you can tell from this picture:
As you can see, my parents’ concern that my eyeball had popped up into my skull when it ricocheted off the third step was warranted. Thankfully, I just had a black eye. A really bad, seriously long-term black eye. But no stitches were required! Also, not running with socks on in the house remains the best rule I’ve ever encountered. It’s been tested once, which is as many times as anyone ever needs to test it.
Even now that I’m past childhood, stairs and their related devices are omnipresent in my life. Sometimes they’re ladders, sometimes they’re elevators, but they are always there. And I take them, but that’s it, I just take them the standard way. There’s no stopping between floors to ponder the moment. There’s no consideration of why this particular stairwell. There’s no jumping.
Of course, as is my habit, I’m not really talking about stairs, at least not literally.
For someone who claims to value questioning why something is the way it is rather than uncritically accepting the status quo, I am frustrated with how little I actually do that. When you enter the professional world, stairs and ladders become one of the most prevalent metaphorical devices that describe your life. I get told that I’m on “the right path,” ascending to something better.
It’s not really clear how many steps are in this staircase or how long that ladder will take to climb, but I raise no questions because it’s easier to say nothing when you are an impostor. It’s better not to draw attention to yourself when you might get found out. People ask me with genuine interest why I do what I do on a daily basis, and when I really search myself, I don’t have an answer except that it was what the smart people seemed to be doing when we all needed to get jobs. I don’t know “what I want to do,” I’ve just accepted the stairs that were put in front of me.
Maybe, if I stopped for a moment, I’d figure out whether I’m in or I’m out. But I don’t do that. I’m no longer that curious child who was willing to test the boundaries of the rules, and by not challenging anything, I’m accepting what’s there, often without even thinking about the next step.
But this moment that we’re all living in has been the starkest reminder that just accepting the way things are is unforgivable. I’ve failed in a selfish way and it’s no one’s fault but my own. To not have a plan and accept the easy one because you’re content is garbage. The fact that I’m writing this down indicates that I should have known better...but I didn’t stop to think. I didn’t give myself a time out. I didn’t jump off to see what would happen. I didn’t bang my head.
When everything seems to be going right is probably the best time to ask why, not only because it’s a safer, stronger position from which to question the world, but because we don’t—can’t, really—know how deceptive it will be, or how long it will last.
So excuse me while I take a time out to (hopefully figuratively) bang my head against a wall like I used to do when my only worry in the world was a few stitches in my forehead.