I am the runt of the litter. At just 5 feet tall, I am constantly wishing that God had given me longer arms to compensate for the lack of height, but then again, I’m not sure that the animal I most want to resemble is a gorilla. I recently read an article that gave me some insight into what animal I might resemble most though: a jellyfish. Specifically, a jellyfish who was incubated in space. I don’t have stinging tentacles or an amorphous see-through body (thank God, no one wants to see everything I ate for dinner), but I do think I have a similar relationship with gravity. Once back on earth, these jellyfish are unable to equilibrate back to Earth’s gravity.
In this past week, we have been mesmerized by the Olympic games, taking little breaks from homework and housework to goggle in awe at men and women of breathtaking talent and grace. It is so far from the realm of possibility for me, these acts of athleticism. This sense of the great distance between me and those with any athletic ability began in childhood for me.
My brothers and sister have inherited some natural athletic talent that mysteriously passed me by. All of them played softball for our township recreation department every summer. Our family even sponsored their teams, and their summer wardrobes sported t-shirts in rainbow colors with “Brownstown Recreation Department” on one side and “Park’s Service and Towing” on the other. I never owned one of those shirts. Summers were filled with the shouts of “Hey, batter, batter. . .swing!” and that curious metallic ringing that an aluminum bat makes when it hits a softball. Just the memory of that sound evokes the sensation of the hot silver lines in the bleachers imprinting on my then skinny thighs, and the dusty, humid evenings spent watching my siblings play. I desperately wanted to be one of those kids who, magically it seemed to me, could not only make that bat sing, but who could also make that dirty softball fly.
Instead, in gym class, when it was my turn to grip that bat, which seemed so heavy and awkward in my hands, it never sang. If by some miracle or fluke, I managed to connect with the ball, the sound my bat made was a soft “snick” or “puck” and instead of flying, it would drop, as if in that particular spot, Earth’s gravity had been replaced by Jupiter’s, and then the ball would begin rolling backwards towards me as if I were a black hole, sucking in all of the closest matter. After another game of dodgeball in which my face managed to attract at frightening speeds yet another dodgeball, I was convinced it might be true.
Determined to overcome this genetic anomaly of lack of coordination, I joined the track team in high school. Of all the sports in school, this one had no balls which might be sucked toward the athletic black hole known as me. I thought perhaps that of all sports, this might be the one which might allow me to join the ranks of the coordinated. I mean, really, everyone knows how to run, right? As a sophomore, I had no idea that some of these kids had been running in track meets for years before I had even considered putting on tennis shoes.
In track, for those inexperienced foolish people like me who had no idea what they were doing, there is something known as Exhibition. Now for an introvert like me, the very word is frightening. What, pray tell, did the coach wish me to exhibit? It turns out, what I had to show everyone was my unerring ability to come in dead-last in every race. I am not exaggerating. I’m sure somewhere in a forgotten desk file, my pitiful performances are documented, and perhaps used as an example of what not to do.
And so, when I read the report of these poor jellyfish who cannot adjust to Earth’s gravity, it suddenly became clear to me what had happened. Sometime while I was floating in embryonic bliss, I must have been exposed to gamma rays in outer space. My feet (and arms) don’t behave the way they are supposed to because I am not on my home planet. That must be it. I can’t just be that unathletic, can I?
This ineptitude skipped my oldest. Her ballet instructor sighed happily at grace-filled lines seemingly created for dance. I marveled at her ability to steal a basketball, lob a tennis ball, and perform the breast stroke. My son walked at 8 months old, learned to ride a bicycle at age 3, effortlessly blocks soccer goals, and performs flips in acrobatics class with ease.
But my middle child, she is the child of my heart. Like me, she still has difficulty riding a bicycle. After watching her younger brother zoom up and down the street, she begged to ride a friend’s motorized scooter, and though my head told me this was beyond her level of coordination, my heart argued that I had set my limits on her. And so with trepidation, I tightened the helmet straps on her head, and watched her wobble down the empty street, her brother and friends cheering her on. I could sense her joy at the newness of the experience. I knew instantly, though, when that exhilaration turned to fear that life was suddenly going by too fast, and began running towards her, to avert the crash that was inevitable. Through the grace of God, she managed to avoid the parked Jeep, crashing in the middle of the street.
There were no broken bones or lacerations that day, though she bruised her cheek, and vowed never again to touch the scooter. For the next week, every time I looked at her, my heart quelled, thinking that I had passed my problems with gravity on to her. I castigated myself, worrying over endless scenarios that would end in bodily harm for her. And then, I watched the absolute joy with which she shimmied her way through jazz class, completely unaware that her turns were not in time with her classmates, watched her cartwheels in acrobatics class that were so unlike her brother’s, and began to smile. I could feel her joy in the dance, happy just to be moving in concert with the music and in the applause that she knows is for her. I would wish no less for anyone.
And so, as we watch these Olympic games, though I marvel at these magnificent athletes, I finally feel a kinship with every other human being on this planet. Though some would call these feats inhuman, it is in fact the opposite. These Olympians are flesh and blood like us, wholly immersed in pushing their bodies to the limits of human endurance, speed and agility. We watch these games not because their abilities are so far beyond our capacity to master, but because we too can sense that joy that comes with moving in concert with the universe. And for once, I am not the only jellyfish in space, just a woman who loves to dance and knows the applause is for me, and for every one of us, as we celebrate all that is possible.
The actual PubMed abstract and article (because I am a nerd): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11537934
The article which explains the article in non-nerdy terms: