Ex Die in DIEM

by duncan mcnicholl

The Slope

There’s a hill, or at least a slope, and when we walk through our lives it’s the slope that we walk. For the most part we’re following along the side, like a contour canal or a railway, and we meander back and forth to stay at the same height but keep moving.

We can’t stay still, and if we climb too high then the air gets thin and we start to lose touch with what’s going on back down there on the path. But it isn’t climbing high that’s been my problem lately, I don’t think.

Sometimes when you’re hiking and you try to stay level you come across a patch of scree or loose earth, where the sheep have grazed to bare soil and what earth there was has blown or washed away. If you’re sure-footed, you can navigate these patches, slow down and step carefully and get through it without sliding down too much. But that kind of walking is tiring and requires concentration and focus of the sort that you can’t alway manage, especially when you’re trying to juggle all of the other things you have to do while you walk. We can hope that as we get used to the juggling, as we practice it on the firmer ground it will become easier and easier, taking less attention away from walking, away from keeping that all-important footing.

There’s an element of grace to juggling.

In a beautiful essay called On the Marionette Theatre, Kleist explains that grace is a fickle thing: we can often do things by feel quite confidently, until we try to think about what we’re doing, at which point it quickly collapses and requires hard work and wisdom to regain. That’s the way it is with juggling, I think: we get used to it, and happily manage it as we walk along, but when we drop a ball or lose our rhythm, it’s back to the beginning and suddenly we need all of our focus just to keep the balls in the air, and now there’s nothing left with which to navigate.

But that’s only if we drop the balls, if we lose our rhythm. And what could cause that kind of thing to happen? Well, slipping and falling.

Because the thing about scree is that you can lose your footing so easily, but when you do it’s not just you that slips and falls a little, the scree goes with you, grinding a miniature gravel avalanche down the slope and taking you with it. And then you pick up your juggling balls, and you start to climb, and you start to juggle. The climbing is easier when you keep the balls and your arms still and out in front holding your balance on the climb, but that’s a luxury you can’t always afford. Even when you can, the climb can be so difficult: two steps forward, one step back as the slope shifts and slides underneath you, and you have to keep trying to climb, no matter how tired you are, because if you try to just stand still and catch your breath then maybe the slope will slip anyway, and instead of staying where you are you’re falling again, and you can’t tell if you’ve dropped a juggling ball or not: did you have four? No, I think it was three. It’s always been three, right?

Except no-one else was keeping track: they’re you’re balls, not anyone else’s. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s just that they have to keep track of their balls, and the juggling, and the walking.

And so maybe you’ve fallen, and you didn’t always try to climb because you were just tuckered out from the slide, and now even when you can keep the juggling going and even when you’re climbing, you still can’t quite remember what the path looked like, what it felt like to be up there on the contour, and you know that you have to keep it up if you want to be there again, but you take two steps and you slide back and you take another two and there’s another slide and it all just feels a bit too much, a bit too hard.

But you can pause. You can take a breath and look around and see that we are all on the slope, that we are all still trying to climb, some of us juggling, some of us with our heads down and our hands out, some of us falling and sliding. The people up there on the path, some of them went too high and had to come back, some of them have managed to walk that path all along, but some of them were down here in the gravel, and they climbed back up, maybe with help, maybe without. Maybe they have advice. Maybe they know how to help.

Maybe they just know that we’re all on the slope.