Wednesday, July 01, 2009
Living on the edge
Spend enough time with Oliver and you will come to find out that the boy likes to live life on the edge. Literally. If we are walking down a sidewalk he will position himself so that he can touch whatever wall or fence is adjacent. In the woods he will walk with one foot on the path, one foot in the forest. If there is a ledge or berm or line, he will walk as close to it as possible. I've known this about him for years but while we were on vacation I began really paying attention and I learned something new about how Oliver navigates life.
Going places with Oliver is relatively easy these days. He smiles easily, seems to understand so much more of the world around him and is just, generally, an easy-going kid. But he still needs quite a lot of help and support because he can sometimes be impulsive and often will do things that might be considered inappropriate or that make me uncomfortable. So I am hyper-vigilant when we are out in public and I rarely let him stray out of my arm's reach so that I can reign him in if necessary. One thing, for example, that has often perplexed me and caused some stress is that Oliver is very likely to walk straight into other people. For instance, if we are walking down a street or an aisle at the supermarket and someone is advancing towards us from another direction, Oliver will visibly change course so that it would seem he is trying to collide with the other person. It stresses me out and confuses the other person -- why is this kid banging into me when the whole street is otherwise empty?
In Switzerland there are many streets closed to automobile traffic and lined with outdoor cafes, people sitting close-by to foot traffic, sipping their coffees. We spent a lot of time walking these streets and I began to notice a pattern. No matter how often I re-directed Oliver, he would always try to change course and walk straight to these clusters of unsuspecting people or towards the nearest pedestrian coming our way. It frazzled my nerves. I wanted to give him the freedom to walk independently but often found that it was easier to take his hand. When I had his hand he walked comfortably beside me.
But after taking so many pictures of Oliver keeping to the outermost edge of the environment, it suddenly dawned on me that he probably wasn't trying to collide with those people at all, he was trying to anchor himself by aiming towards the next closest thing in a moving world.
I tested my little hypothesis a few times to see what would happen if I didn't re-direct him and sure enough, he simply brushed by the advancing person and continued on his merry way down the street. I would love to simply be able to relax now that I've figured this out -- and wow! It feels like such an important insight -- but I can't let him go around letting him constantly brushing against people and things all the time. Even in the woods this was a problem: the paths that we hiked regularly were all crowded by stinging nettles -- I've never seen so many! So every time I saw Oliver veering towards the side of the path (constantly) I had to remind him to stick to the middle. It was frustrating for both of us.
Oliver is almost seven and he's been doing this for almost as long as I can remember. Finally figuring this out -- putting two and two together -- feels a little bittersweet. I can't believe it has taken me so long!!! It also makes me wonder how different Oliver's perceptions of space must be from my own and what I can do to help him feel more comfortable navigating the world.