Out of Kilter
– Nonfiction by Elizabeth Templeman –
The universe is screwing with me. It’s conspired to compromise that elusive sense of control, toying with my dignity, distorting perception, fogging my brain, churning my gut. It’s thrown me out of kilter, as the expression goes.
Vertigo: originating from somewhere in the looping alcoves of the inner ear, an affliction typically considered to be benign. Vertigo has been my affliction for five weeks, and I have to say, it hardly seems benign.
Vertigo is seasickness on dry land. It’s ground that’s slipped its mental mooring. Walking down the hall beside a colleague, I turn left to speak to him, only to reel into the wall to my right. I do a quick deliberation: can I make that stagger seem normal, faking an intention to veer abruptly right? The added mental processing distracts me so that I forget what we were talking about. Nothing left but to resign all semblance of self-possession and to confess to the vertigo, which I don’t really want to acknowledge. Or to have.
Even after I face the damn condition, I can’t get used to it, because it keeps morphing into a different version of disorientation. It spins me along its axes. At first it confounded me as I’d turn to my left, especially on a sudden turn. And so I’d positioned myself to the left of others, leaving me able to track things from a rightward perspective. I slowed down my movement (aiming for the kind of fluidity of a dancer); a friend asked if I’d hurt my back (neatly dispelling any delusion of balletic grace). Despite the awkwardness, and occasional lapse—each resulting in a surprising spin of my own private axis—I was becoming accustomed to this curious new condition.
And then, a shift to a vertical version of vertigo. Stepping up or down, or simply looking up and down, would send me reeling. Stairways became treacherous and I pitched headlong a few times before adapting to a new level of carefulness. Although safe from the twin risks of shame or pain of plunging down a busy stairway, the worst version of up-and-down vertigo was reeling through space at my desk, having looked too suddenly down from my computer screen. Having to clutch the edge of one’s desk until the world rights itself is an eerie experience. One generally presumes desk work to be mundane, and stillness, a boringly safe state. But then, my first encounter with vertigo had been from what should be the safe confines of bed.
That would’ve been that one restless rotation, mid-insomnia, to look at my clock. Being myopic, that involves grabbing hold of the damned thing and drawing its glowing face to my face. At precisely 1:58 AM, in the third week of August, as I held my clock, our bedroom began to spin around me with all the force of a carnival ride in a horror film. Squeezing my eyes shut, I thought; this could not possibly happen again. But alas, it could. I gripped the headboard with one hand, and stared into the gloom until it ceased spinning. Then I curled to the right and willed myself back to sleep, praying like only a lapsed Catholic can, that when morning came, I wouldn’t even remember whatever this was. For a few days, there was no trace of anything recalling of that unnerving memory. No more nocturnal spin cycles.
And then, suddenly, those shocking episodes set off by a sudden turn to the left; later, when looking or moving up and down at desk or dinner table or dishwasher; and finally (or so I hoped), on a right-ward turn. Which seemed so wrong. Six weeks later, and far wiser in the distinctly peculiar ways of vertigo, it vanished. The crystals in the canals of my inner ears had either repositioned themselves, or maybe dissolved. Or temporarily jammed themselves into some cranny. I felt fully in sync with others moving through the hallways of the university where I work. Desks no longer veered suddenly out of kilter, throwing a corner into my thigh as I move past. Doorways remained static as I manoeuvred through them. I could forget worrying about possibly resembling a drunk staggering past her too sober colleagues.
However, even in its departure vertigo was annoyingly remarkable. For an entire day, not even the slightest threat of the floor dropping, or unmooring. And then, the following night, the oddest sensation: a muffled sound from the right—of some mild compression in the chambers of my inner ear. It was a sound my dishwasher might make as dishes shift and settle, propelled by the forces of streams of water. And then, a wooziness, a wash of mild distortion bringing an oh-so-subtle insinuation of nausea. I navigated with care through my own house, each foot hovering mid-stride to avert the sensation that the kitchen floor was falling from beneath me.
Out of kilter; or off kilter, are both ways of experiencing the world: kilter being a term of unknown origin, but used in modern vernacular only in the negative.
Never mind that it’s all a matter of perception, that even as my brain and eyes roved and my feet sought the ground, I experienced only some rogue sensation brought about by minuscule crystals free-falling in some spiralling canal in my head. Perhaps kilter, or kelter in its ancient alternate spelling, is a quality of alignment, of working order or ship-shapeness. Perhaps we notice only when we have left it—or it’s left us—behind. Maybe, like normality (or eptitude), it’s most irksomely apparent as an absence.
This night, though, I am approaching kilter again, and happily so. I have a new appreciation for how mechanical a creature I am, and a renewed sense of humility to accompany that awareness. Yet I long for that boring state of alignment that I can rely on sharing with those around me. Boring, perhaps, but a blessing nonetheless.
About the Author – Elizabeth Templeman
Elizabeth Templeman lives, works, and writes in the south-central interior of British Columbia. Previous publications include a collection of creative nonfiction, Notes from the Interior (with Oolichan Books) and individual essays in The Globe & Mail (“Facts and Arguments”), and journals including Room Magazine and Eastern Iowa Review.
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