In my late 40s my knees began trembling when I stood for any length of time, and neither going rigid or relaxed stopped them from quaking, and because I’ve always done public speaking, this development embarrassed me and I began requesting a podium to lean on when scheduled to speak. When it worsened I asked, when possible, to be seated when onstage, particularly at poetry readings, which take 10 to 40 minutes, so I could concentrate on my performance and not my balance. Then I bought and wore flats, and then wore pants, which hid my shaky knees, and sturdy oxford shoes. Still I quivered terribly and fought to remain standing. My mother has Benign Essential Tremor—that’s constant shaking you can’t help, but isn’t fatal—and it’s genetic. Her hands always shook. At age 80 when she couldn’t pour coffee or feed herself, she reluctantly sought medical help and took effective meds. I thought that was my future. At social events and readings, I propped myself against walls and blackboards, and leaned on the vanity while brushing my teeth. I figured I had something like Benign Essential Tremor, only sporadically and only in my knees.
Last winter I fell twice, sprawling on the gravel in front of my house, for no reason. Actual walking was no problem. Balancing, though, got worse. In April, hiking Arkansas, I crawled across rocks that others walked and even danced on. In July at the Lincoln Memorial, I had to really work the railing to descend the magnificent stairs. I noticed nobody else needed the railing, including people much older than I. Thinking I’d soon need a cane, I surfed the Net for cute ones. Balance deteriorates as we age and I accepted that, although I’m still in my 50s and older people said, "You're too young." Yoga improved my condition bit by bit, so I knew it wasn’t a brain tumor.
Touring Newfoundland and Labrador in late July, I daily walked on jagged or rounded oceanside rocks as blithely as a rockhopper penguin—without hiking poles. Only one time did I have to call for a hand. Back in hot humid Missouri, working indoors, I lost that ability. September 1, I started Tae Kwon Do, which requires balance (how else can you roundhouse-kick bad guys in the face?). Practicing the simplest kicks, I had black-belt instructors holding my hand or catching me by the belt as I toppled toward the mat. I was required to practice standing on one leg at a time for a full minute, to hop around the room on one leg, and to walk along a long thin strip of tape as if it were a balance beam. These foot, ankle, and calf exercises, essential to martial arts and to balance, help me improve.
I even went to a restaurant that had an unexpected, unmarked step down, and accidentally stepped down into nothing, wearing high-heeled boots. I caught myself and stayed upright and uninjured, and believe only Tae Kwon Do foot and ankle strength saved me.
Recently, an almost-mastered spin kick that would have won me an orange belt didn’t get better with fierce practice. My balance plateaued, then declined. That’s not supposed to happen.
Not long ago, on the Internet I learn that Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, is involved with balance. In Newfoundland I was outdoors all day each day, hiking, on ferryboats, absorbing sun. I no longer have the oncologist who prescribed 50,000-unit doses of D because blood tests always found deficiency. Now I take over-the-counter D supplements faithfully and spend more time outdoors, getting what sun there is. How much D I should take, I’ll have to ask an authority. It’s also crucial for bone health.