I walk down the street

Autobiography in five chapters

by Portia Nelson

I

I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost … I am helpless. It isn’t my fault. It takes me forever to find a way out.

II

I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe I am in the same place. But it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.

III

I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in … it’s a habit. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.

IV

I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.

V

I walk down another street.

*************************************************************************

I can’t remember when I first came across this piece, but it started to resonate with me about two years ago.  I found myself in a situation where I began to feel I was walking down the same street, falling in that self-same hole repeatedly.  The hole wasn’t mine, it belonged to someone else (and was in the care of the local Council!) but it was mine to fall into.  The more aware of it I became, the more conscious of where it was located on that street, the no more was I able to avoid falling into it.

Part of me knows that I will always continue to fall into it – it’s my reaction to spraining my ankle that may be able to change.

I have always had weak ankles, making balance in yoga practices quite a challenge for me. I sprained them multiple times when I was younger.  The funniest time was when this terribly preppy first-year undergraduate invited me out in my first few weeks at Yale.  He was from one of the leading prep schools on the East Coast, clearly from a wealthy family, and he was incredibly polite and well-mannered.  I, in contrast, was from a very ordinary, not very well-off middle-class family who lived in a small apartment on the West Coast and I’d gone to a run-of-the-mill public (that is, state) school.  I didn’t like this guy, I found his good manners stifling, and I felt intimidated by his background, but I didn’t know how to say no to him.  I was a great film enthusiast and a friend of mine had recommended a Jimmy Cliff film called ‘The Harder They Come’ that was on that night which I knew nothing about, so I suggested we go see it.  Sitting there in the cinema in the dark I found a horrible feeling of dread creeping over me, partly to do with the film and its unsuitability for this occasion, probably more to do with how I was going to handle the rest of the evening.  As a result, rather bizarrely and most likely the result of stress, when the film ended and I stood up to exit, I found the entire left side of my body had gone dead and I fell over in the aisle, spraining my ankle badly.  People stepped over me, strewn in the aisle, to exit the movie theatre. This guy, Rob, escorted me back to my room, and being the type of young man he was, he then felt he had to come visit me on various occasions while I convalesced.  Those awkward meetings still make me cringe.  When asked about my most embarrassing moments in life, this one is near top of the list.

So I know what it’s like to have weak ankles and fall in holes – literally and metaphorically.  There are holes out there for you to fall in, but the harder holes to manage are those within.

Coming back to that hole in the pavement on that street – this five-part improvement programme has always appealed to me, and yet there is something about it that has felt too neat and not quite real.  The penny suddenly dropped and I realised it was about Chapter V.

‘I walk down another street.’

All very well, all very possible when we are focusing on the external landscape.  What about the internal?

I carry my street with me, the past is always within me.  What I can change is how I relate to it, in the present.  That is my different street yet even still as I walk on the same street.  The invitation is not to change streets but to change my relationship with the street I am on.  There is a subtle difference here.  And that’s why the Self-Help industry misses the point of what it means to become a fully-functioning Self.

Here’s my Chapter V: I walk down the street.

I [ just, simply, whatever] walk down the street.

I can then find liberation within the past not from the past, moving from the dark end of the street perhaps to the brighter side of the road.

I walk down the street.  I might see a hole, I might even fall in a hole, perhaps I do sprain an ankle.  But all my old reactions pre- and post- the hole experience are reduced, changed, different.  I have the experience without letting all the associated responses be triggered.

Actually that’s harder than walking down another street – but this isn’t a competition.  And really there is no choice.  I am on the street.  I am walking down my street.  And still and always, my hole, you are there.

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12 Responses to I walk down the street

  1. elizabeth says:

    I agree that changing streets is not altogether a satisfactory solution.
    Could we not finish by noticing that the next time I walk down the street (why not sidewalk?), I am very pleased to see that the road has been repaired. It is a good feeling and I am glad that I choose to walk down that street.

  2. karin says:

    Hello Elizabeth, many thanks for your improved happy ending. (Maybe I am walking down the street to avoid that hole in the sidewalk!) Much as I like your proposal, I have a different take on the generic situation. It would be wonderful if the road were repaired and that is a possibility but not a certainty, because repairing the road is not in my control. All I can be sure of is that I walk down the street [sidewalk] – and to do my best to learn through practice to not fall in that hole, and to not anticipate the negative possibility of falling in it (rather like praying for what you don’t want to happen), and to not be unhappy if I do fall in it.

    • elizabeth says:

      Not so satisfactory in my opinion. First of all the hole was in the street. That is what was written so if you are on the sidewalk, you are not in the street, therefore you are in a relatively safe place. “Not being unhappy to fall in”, seems most unconvincing. Falling into a hole is scarry, and upsetting. If it were to continue somehow appearing, I would change streets.

      • karin says:

        This is interesting, Elizabeth. First off, I think my writing was sloppy – because the hole is in the sidewalk in the original poem (see above), and I’ve let it slide into the street in my writing. So maybe best not to get too hung up on where the hole really is!

        Well, yes, falling into a hole when you don’t know it’s there, is scary and upsetting. Maybe ‘not being unhappy to fall in’ was just a mindgame/delusion – what I meant was accepting that could be an outcome, I didn’t mean wishing for it or expecting it. Earlier this evening I read an interesting piece about meditation where ‘the secret of the ages’ is defined as having great expectations without any attachment to the outcome.

        I guess my great expectations are about not falling into the hole – and sometimes I will, sometimes I won’t. But I hold to my belief, you/I CAN’T change streets – the street is inside. Go to another one and you take the inner street with you. You see it in life all the time – you change your circumstances and then you notice the same patterns keep arising, good and bad, neutral patterns. It’s how you walk down that street with its many potholes that can make the difference.

  3. Anne Sherry says:

    Karin,
    I was delighted to read this piece on a poem you’d previously shared with me. Synchronicity is clearly alive and flourishing! I’m currently working on an article which I was intending to send to you – and which includes reference to ‘the hole’. Thank you for being so timely.
    Best wishes,

    Anne

    • karin says:

      Hello Anne,
      Thank you for being so timely! It has raised my spirits no end to discover this synchronicity in our writing activities, and I really look forward to reading your article – as well as hearing more from you soon I hope. In truth, I am quite fond of ‘the hole’ as it keeps me on my toes and learning, if not always comfortable, emerges from it.
      Hoping all is well,
      Karin

  4. Madhu Sameer says:

    This is amazing. It is amazingly synchronous. I JUST finished doing a 15 hour online course for Chemical Dependency 5 minuts ago.It had the same poem….. 🙂

    Amazing…

    M.

  5. Madhu Sameer says:

    The concept of time is a human illusion, produced by the left brain. In reality, we are standing still in time. The cells in our body change, and so does out outward appearance, but the psyche is timeless. It stays patiently where it was arrested in its development. And it keeps repeating the traumatic event, over and over again. The arrest does not necessarily have a negative connotation. It is patiently allowing you to do the same things over and over again till you master them.

    My tortoise often falls into a ditch in thebackyard, and tries to climb out. Depending on the depth of the ditch, it sometimes manages to scramble out,other time it stays there. But it never gives up trying.

    In our psyche, we too have some elements of the archetypal tortoise…

    Just my 2c.

    M.

    • karin says:

      Another synchronicity I just realised – this week I was drawn to teach the tortoise posture! I didn’t make the link with all the tortoise/turtle stuff that has been happening over recent weeks till I just read your comment. And this week was the first time ever I could comfortably do this posture because my upper back – the space between my shoulders – is changing. I think I am getting a little more able to scramble out of the metaphorical ditch these days – and certainly I keep getting thrown back into it to have another go! We are ineluctably (I love that word!) drawn to the ditch/ hole. It gives us a chance to try again and, as Rosa Luxemburg said on my Facebook page only tonight (!), ‘those who do not move, do not notice their chains’. (She did say it tonight, since time, as you say, is an illusion!)

  6. Madhu Sameer says:

    Time IS an illusion. If it were not, we would not still be fighting the Homerian wars. Seriously – what has changed in the last 2000+ years ? We’re still at war for the same reasons, in the same ways. The environment has changed, but humans and their reasons, and ways, have not. The psyche sttil wants the same things in the same manner…

    Glad to know the ditch is easier to climb out of. My tortoise – when he becomes bigger – will also be able to climb out most ditches.

    Inelucatable is a wonderful word !!!!

    • karin says:

      Agreed about the psyche.
      Is the ditch easier to climb out of? I ask myself a rhetorical question. Even as I wrote that last night, I thought – careful!!
      Dreams are great reminders of the ditches we are still (and always?) in….I had one such last night.

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