Ker Plunk!

KerPlunk[1]When my kids were little they loved the game “Ker Plunk.” The concept of the game is relatively simple. It’s played with a vertical plastic cylinder that has several small holes poked around the centre. A handful of thin plastic sticks are inserted every which way through the holes, creating a mesh on which you then perch a handful of marbles. The players then take turns extracting the sticks, until eventually the marbles come crashing down into the tray at the bottom of the cylinder.

My experience of the game was somewhat different than my children’s. For one thing, they didn’t have much interest in the scoring of the game. In theory you won or lost based on how many of the marbles fell into “your” section of the tray. In practice, the real joy of the game was that moment when the marbles fell, especially if you weren’t the one to cause the collapse. The kids lived for the crash, but weren’t terribly interested in what they perceived as the somewhat tedious process of setting up the sticks to play again. This meant that the set up tended to fall to me. The kids  would wander back when it was time to start removing sticks again.

It’s been quite some time since I’ve played Ker Plunk with anyone, but the game entered my thoughts the other day because I found myself feeling something equivalent to the moment when one has just started to remove the critical stick. You can feel the marbles shift, but you’re committed to that particular stick now and there’s no turning back. All you can do is keep pulling while you cringe in anticipation of the clatter of marbles on hard plastic. And then, even worse than the anticipation of the crash is the knowledge of what comes next–the long, tedious task of re-inserting the sticks, one by one by one, until the resulting web has enough structural integrity to hold up the marbles again.

Someone asked me recently how I do all the things I do. Well, the truth is, I don’t always. Sometimes I pull out one two many sticks, and sometimes they are pulled out for me– usually by whatever seasonal illness has caught up with me in my run-down, overextended state. Either way, I find myself standing amid a pile of sticks, watching the marbles roll off in every direction, and wondering where I will get the energy to set up the sticks for the next round.

But I always do.

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If a tree falls

When you live your life on the riverbank, you are always at risk of losing the ground beneath your feet.

fallen treeThe fallen tree was once a tall oak. Seldom do you get to see a whole tree, roots and all. This tree would have been a great object lesson for my grade 4 teacher—no leaves to obscure the systematic forking of the branches, and not much soil to obscure the mirroring root structure. Just a clod of riverbank clay to which the roots have clung, but to no avail. When the riverbank crumbles it crumbles, and if you happen to be standing on the broken bit, you go with it.

Sometimes we can read the warnings. The ground cracks. Fissures appear in the grass and loose soil tumbles down the bank. There are human-made warning signs too. But even if you could warn a tree it wouldn’t help. Because the tree can’t take a step back.

A healthy tree can bend and flex to withstand the force of tremendous winds. But it has no defense against the force of erosion. And if a tree falls, there’s no getting it back up on its feet. It’s pretty hard to transplant a fully grown oak.

erosion signFortunately, when the ground beneath my feet gives way, as it has more times than I care to contemplate, I am not bound by the force of my own roots to succumb to the collapse. At the core of my resilience is the knowledge that I can take a step back and regroup when I see the warning signs. I may slide and lose my balance for a while, but I can head off the big fall with evasive maneuvers.

Most of the time. There are still moments when the ground beneath me opens up without warning and I find myself suspended over nothing, like Wile E. Coyote sprinting past the cliff’s edge. The secret, of course, is not to look down. Wile E. only falls when he looks down. You won’t always notice when I’m travelling across the void, because the years have taught me to keep going forwards until eventually my feet touch solid ground again on the other side. And take root in new soil.

Know the signs...
Know the signs…

Lately I’ve been noticing some cracks in the soil around my feet. Some things that mattered a great deal to me seem less important now, and other things are gaining prominence. I can feel my universe start to slide. In my sixth decade am coming to a new realization—now that I have learned to cross the void when it comes, I don’t need to wait until I lose my footing. I can step off the edge and navigate the air to a new solid ground. Because you can transplant a fully grown person.

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