Two weeks ago I tried parkour for the first time. Parkour is a sport of urban running, jumping, and vaulting over things. It takes strength and a certain grace of movement. Some might see it as an urban nuisance, something like skateboarding. It is beautiful.
My guide's name is Gwen. I am writing a magazine profile about her, about how parkour changed her life. "I felt like my life was shrinking," she says. I think we all know that feeling. I want to know what it felt like for Gwen when she got out of that trap. She invites me to an indoor practice session. We'll go outside again in the spring. Gwen has been doing parkour for six years.
"I just kind of began opening up again, opening out again. Not feeling small," she tells me. "What that also does is change your expectation of what you can do anywhere, with anything."
The room is full of people wearing baggy clothes and running shoes. They set up big foam mats and vaults. Two little boys dash about the room. The smaller boy is half my height. They vault over the barriers like a wind is carrying them. As they leapfrog over the barrier, they slap both hands down with a chunky whacking noise. Both have a fearlessness and elasticity I envy. Their movements are compact and efficient. If they fell, they would bounce. They are two members of a small monkey tribe.
I do not feel compact and efficient. I vault the barriers feeling like my limbs are going in too many directions, like my inertia is flying off me in a starburst instead of carrying me towards the other side.
Now it's time for somersaults. They were easy when I was little. For just a moment I think they'll still be simple, but when I have to perform, I'm afraid. When did I stop doing cartwheels? I can't remember.
The parkourists want me to throw myself at the ground, bending at the waist as I go down. I'm to tuck my head in and roll with my back curved, like a wheel on the mat. My feet are supposed to end up beneath me, ready to jump up again for another roll. But I roll more like a log than a ball. My shoulder hits the mat hard, and I turn out a flabby roll on my sides. I end up in the fetal position on the ground. The next one is better.
Afterward, the parkourists come up to me and give me hugs. This is the real thing - big bear, eyes closed, not-from-concentrate hugs. Gwen tells me that I am glowing. She is, too. The memory of the evening sticks in my head. It doesn't blend in with the rest of the week. I can't remember what I had for breakfast this morning, but I remember this. It is small but important, like walking outside at the end of winter and feeling spring. I see that Gwen knows that feeling too. "It doesn't have to be parkour," she says. "You need to look for what brings you joy."