What do you do when you’re sitting in a meeting, compelled to quiet unmotion for hours at a time? Do you jiggle your leg? Do you bob your head or shift from side to side? Do you correct your sitting position over and over, moving your chair around as you do? Do you fiddle with a pen or paper, trying very hard to keep from clicking or crinkling? I have done all of these things and more to get through a meeting. Some people are compulsive movers, almost never sitting still. This has been linked to OCD and autism, but I have neither of those things. I just have to rock.
Not the way you’re thinking, the leather-wearing, head-banging kind of rock (although I have done both of those things on occasion). As soon as I was old enough to sit up, I started to rock myself forward to back. At the age of one or two, there is photographic evidence that I did this to put myself to sleep, folding up on the sofa like a wet noodle, boneless as only the very young are.
I come by this trait honestly. My uncle and my father were both wigglers. My uncle even rocked much the same way that I do. My older brother rocks even heavier than I do, but I think because he gives in to the compulsion less than I do, and so builds up to it. I make sure my need has an outlet. The back on my work and home office chairs are both unlocked, the better to gently rock myself through the day. I keep both chairs well oiled so I don’t drive anyone nearby to squeak-induced madness.
It’s not considered a normal adult behavior. In that vein, I make certain that my rocking is always an easy motion, never wild or fast. But I have to do it, like I have to blink every so often (You all just blinked, and will be self-conscious about it for the next few minutes. You’re welcome). If I’m standing, I start to sway from side to side, shifting from foot to foot. I do all of this more when I’m stressed, and it starts unconsciously.
So last week, I started college classes again after the long summer break. My Dad’s death sort of sapped all the stress relief from the vacation, I admit, so I started my sophomore year somewhat more frazzled than I had hoped.
I also woke up the first day of classes with the kind of upper respiratory plague during which most people have the good sense to stay home and recuperate. Not me.
Let me explain before you condemn me as Typhoid Mary. In college classes, there is the main list of students with a guaranteed spot, and the wild-eyed waitlist people, desperate to steal one. The first day of class, when every seat is filled and some people stand along the walls, the professor always takes attendance. If your name is called, and there is no answer, hope springs eternal for one vulture-like desperado, and you are dropped from the roster. The general rule of thumb is: Show up to class on day one, even if you’re in a hazmat suit.
So there I am, crammed into a corner of a city bus packed to the racks with other students, trying to wheeze as shallowly as possible. I am utterly still, laser-focused on breathing deeply enough to get oxygen but shallowly enough to not drip snot on my backpack. I cannot reach for a tissue, as that would break the one inch plague barrier I’ve built around me that all the other passengers are strictly maintaining. I am a stone Buddha, roundly curved around my possessions, sniffling pathetically. None of my muscles unflex for the entire 45 minute ride.
The bus was late because of road construction, so once arrived, I was forced to sprint to my first class. Naturally, this class was on the uphill side of campus. I arrived two minutes late, taking an extra minute in the hall to de-snot and stop hacking. The only seat left was at the front of the room. As I claimed it, the people on either side of me leaned visibly away, the rictus of “Oh no oh no not the PLAGUE” written all over them. I hunched down in my seat, once again a stone, trying not to breathe. I stayed that way for two hours, shallowly blowing my nose a few times to stop the worst of the flow.
Class ends. I stagger from that class to the next one, five blocks away with stops for nose-blowing and water-chugging. I med up for the second time that day. It is less than helpful.
The whole day passes like this, ten hours of classes and no room to wiggle at all, before I snap at the end of lab when my tissue runs out. Two packs were insufficient to stem the slimy tide, and I am exhausted, dehydrated and just SICK. With one hour to go in lab, I stand up, hand my notes to the TA, and announce I have had done with the whole of humanity for this day. He excuses me early. I believe his exact words were, “Yes, please. Go. Far, far away from me, and take your sick with you.”
I missed the first bus going home. I saw it as it passed, packed to the racks. The second bus 30 minutes later was better, and I got a seat in the far back corner. I was tense and tired, energy all wrung out. The whole ride passes in a blur, I’m not sure if I bumped anyone or wheezed or infected the whole busload of commuters. I hope I didn’t.
On my walk home from the bus stop, there is a playground. It’s a tiny little park, rarely used with a little play structure, a bench, and a set of swings. I redirect when I see the park is empty and make a beeline for the swings, dropping my bag against the posts.
It takes a while for swings to do anything. You have to build up momentum, expending a lot of energy at the outset before your inertia makes maintenance easy. But once you get going, it takes almost nothing to keep going for as long as you want.
And as I go back and forth, back and forth in slow, stomach-tipping, pendulous arcs, all the tension bleeds out of me. The air is racing past my face, and my sinuses open up for the first time all day. My mind unclenches along with the rest of me, and I look up. There are stars out, a fat moon, and no clouds. The sky is endless, and I stretch out my fingers to it as I’m swinging, swinging, swinging.
Hours after my Dad died, I walked to the playground by my parent’s house. It was 2:00 a.m. and cloudy and cool. I needed to swing, even though it was late. My sister-in-law went with me, both for safety’s sake and I think just to make sure I wasn’t going to crack like an egg. I swung for thirty minutes or more, I’m not sure. We talked for that time, about my dad, about nothing at all, about the moon in the clouds and the bright stars. Somehow, I slid back from the horrible edge and into equanimity again. The peace was brief (grief is like a sledgehammer and it strikes like a mugger in the night), but at the time I really needed it, it was very real, and very solid.
There is a catharsis to swinging that goes bone deep for me. I don’t have to think about anything, or do anything. I can just be me, in that moment, defying little bits of gravity for microseconds at a time. Everything in those moments is okay, and I’m swept clean again, emptied out of all the bad feelings in the world.
I think rocking is a lesser version of this, one I can spread out for long periods of time to unbind the stress in me. I went to my second day of classes yesterday, considerably less ill, and considerably more relaxed. The chairs in the auditorium I have two classes in had backs that moved, just a little. So I used them, to make four hours pass more easily. I move, therefore I don’t explode. I guess that’s just how I am.
Rock on, kids.