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What's at the top of a Magic Ladder?

sara.gladwin's picture

What’s at the top of a magic ladder, anyway? (a continuation of this post: /exchange/eco-literacy-2014/private/colonizing-museum-exhibit).


Having this question rise to the forefront of my thoughts all weekend reminded me of a question asked by Holden Caulfield in the Catcher in the Rye. He asks a man driving a taxi: "You know those ducks in that lagoon right near Central Park South… By any chance, do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over?” It is a strange question, and seems to have an obvious answer. The ducks fly south for the winter. But the reader knows that Holden isn’t really asking about ducks at all. He is asking where “it” all ends. “It” supposedly meaning life…


What are we supposed to gain by living our lives the way we do? 


What is the point of “it” all?


Where do we go when we’re done living?


Where do the ducks go for the winter?


What’s at the top of a magic ladder?


Paula Allen Gunn reframes what it means to tell a story, explaining how a Keres Indian Tale is misrepresented by when framed by a patriarchal understanding. The Tale becomes a familiar trajectory of a narrative plotline, driven by conflict, triumph, defeat, and centered on the agency of men. Pieces of the story are pulled to the foreground to construct a form that the patriarchy can recognize and digest. A Keres understanding of the Tale would represent equal weight between story elements; as she describes: “…no single element is foregrounded, leaving the others to supply “background” (241).


Her ideas make me evaluate the function of storytelling in my world.


Birth, Childhood, Teenage Years, 20-Somethings (and/or College Years), Middle Age, Old Age, Death: These are the chapters we separate our lives into.


Why do our lives seem to climb steadily, predictably up the ladder?


“What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are—underneath the year that makes you eleven.

Like some days you might say something stupid, and that’s the part of you that’s still ten. Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mama’s lap because you’re scared, and that’s the part of you that’s five. And maybe one day when you’re all grown up maybe you will need to cry like if you’re three, and that’s okay. That’s what I tell Mama when she’s sad and needs to cry. Maybe she’s feeling three.

Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. That’s how being eleven years old is.”


-Sandra Cisneros, Eleven


I like this idea of age, and of life, where the sections are not so neatly divided. It is a way to reconcile with a reality that contradicts neatness; resists our efforts to contain entities as separate. Our identities are not so cleanly split between past, present, and future, as we expect. We are not so easily measured out by our position on the ladder.


Wandering through the Barnes became my disruption to the climb. As I was walking down the stairs, focusing in on my sensory experience of connecting with the ground under my foot, I recalled a memory. I had just turned down the hallway in my house. I am six, or seven, or eight. I am staring at my legs, which propel forward feet, seemingly with purpose. For that instant, it all didn’t seem to belong to me, everything all except the head. There was my head, and then there was a moving, unclaimed body. And then the foot collides with the wooden floor, and I re-learn that it is my foot. Coming into this knowledge depended on the impact intimately felt by only the skin and the wood.


I have always thought of this as a meaningless memory, but oddly enough, it is my most vivid and sensory childhood memory. As I write, I realize that the moment has only ever been meaningless because I had told myself it was meaningless immediately after it occurred, and every moment since. It was the only response I could imagine for the question that popped into my head while it was floating somewhere outside my body, which was: “Will I remember this moment?”

And then I thought, “Why would I, it doesn’t mean anything.”


As I walk down the Barnes steps, I am six, seven, or eight, recalling the first time I noticed the sensation of walking. How could I have forgotten?


I had originally looked to the words of Henry David Thoreau on walking to understand. Gradually though, discontentment replaced understanding, in reconsidering the aptness of those words. He writes that Sauntering, in a “...good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere.”


I walk down the stairs of the Barnes and I am walking down the hallway of my home. But it is not my home, and now I am worried about Henry and me, and what we think it means to walk.


I am picturing a scene, narrated by Virginia Woolf. The figure of a woman as she is walking, attempts to enter the library of a famous university:


 “-but here I was actually at the door which leads into the library itself…instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction” (173).


Not everyone is permitted to feel equally at home everywhere.


I think of the women I work with at Riverside correctional facility. I think of their hunger for books. I think of the doors that shut as I walk out and leave them behind.


Sauntering, or the ability to be equally at home everywhere, is a beautiful but not always accessible art. For as much privilege as it takes to climb the magic ladder, and ascend to the top, it seems as though a certain amount of privilege is required to get off the ladder, to be a saunterer in the Thoreauvian sense. “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man—then you are ready for a walk.”



Anne Dalke's picture

sauntering (vs. climbing the ladder...)

Reading this, I agree that it’s not entirely “done,” and/but quite the saunter—from Sonibare to Cisneros to Thoreau to Woolf, threaded through by your vivid childhood memory of the sensation of walking, of being disassociated from, then reconnected to, your body. It’s a continuous thread interrupted by that lovely line --“now I am worried about Henry and me, and what we think it means to walk”--the jolt of recognizing the privilege of sauntering. All of this threaded too (as always) by your constant awareness of the women of Riverside, who are not allowed to saunter, whose experience need reminds us that “not everyone is permitted to feel equally @ home everywhere.”

I’m glad you've gone ahead and let this go (i.e. put it up Serendip)—letting it saunter, unfinished, not-yet-thought-all-the-way through, but onion-like, opening up, to be peeled—so your classmates can join you in this place. And we can move on…not up the ladder, but deeper into the onion…