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Prayer for Our Stumbles

I’m trying to adopt the habit of standing on one foot at a time while I brush my teeth. Because I use a toothbrush that beeps at 30-second intervals for two minutes (to encourage thorough brushing, of course), at first I switched from one foot to the other at the beeps—thirty seconds left, thirty seconds right, and so forth. Now I sometimes stand on one foot for a full minute before switching to the other. I think my sense of balance is getting stronger!

This new practice grows out of a stumble I had in NYC last month. Walking with my daughter-in-law and youngest granddaughter, I turned my ankle on a sidewalk’s uneven seam. I wobbled precariously for a moment and frantically wind-milled my arms in an anything-but-graceful effort to remain on my feet. Now it so happens that I was in Chicago with the same daughter-in-law a year ago when I tripped on another sidewalk. That time I fell forward and went down, boom! Fortunately, my long wool coat and thick gloves cushioned my knees and palms. I scrambled up with as much dignity as I could muster under the circumstances and resumed walking. Except for being bruised, I was fine, truly. But I never mentioned the bruises to my daughter-in-law. I wanted her to think of me as a fun and fit traveling companion, not an old woman at high risk of falling down when you take her places.

In New York, my flailing arms worked: I did not hit the pavement but stayed on my feet—though barely. Once I caught my breath and reassured my daughter-in-law and granddaughter that I was okay, we continued walking. I knew that I had hyper-extended something, but I kept that information to myself. When we returned to our hotel room, icing my ankle would have been prudent. But again, not wanting to give even a hint of being unfit for travel, I said nothing. As it turned out, except for a little swelling and, once again, some bruising, my ankle has been just fine.

But my daughter-in-law’s alarm both times was real; I saw it in her eyes and heard it in her voice. Her fright got me thinking about how people of a certain age—my age—can develop problems with balance. Somewhere I read that standing on one foot at a time while brushing your teeth was a simple way to strengthen or maintain one’s balance. And so that’s what I’ve been doing.

These last few weeks, as we have moved not only into a new year but also into a new decade, I’ve been thinking a lot about stumbling—not only literally, but also figuratively. For me, figurative stumbles are things like lapsing into fear, resentment, envy, or sloth. They are things like speaking or acting thoughtlessly or selfishly. They are things like participating in activities haphazardly or half-heartedly or hastily because I overscheduled or procrastinated or simply got distracted.

The trick to standing on one foot at a time without falling over is to pick a spot and firmly focus your gaze there. When I can do that while I brush my teeth, I can keep my balance. That seems an apt metaphor for other aspects of life. If I can find the best spot on which to fix my gaze—some people might call it God, or Yahweh, or Allah; others might call it Higher Power, or Love, or Source of all Being—if I can find that spot and gaze on it steadfastly, perhaps I can do a better job of keeping my balance in other ways. And when I do stumble and fall, as I surely will, I’ll know where to begin again when I get back up.

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