I was walking with my little granddaughter, Charlotte, when we came to the fountain. It was dry and contained a collection of last fall's brown leaves. She was fascinated and asked me to put her into it. So I lifted her up over the circular stone wall and dropped her down into the basin. She was like a windup toy in motion.

It looked like so much fun that I joined her, and soon the two of us were running around in a circle and tossing leaves in the air. When we were finished with our frolic, I lifted Charlotte back out and placed her squarely on the sidewalk. All I had to do was climb over the low stone wall. I stood on top, jumped down, lost my balance and fell sideways into some hedges.

I have to admit I can lose my balance now on such maneuvers that wouldn't have fazed me not long ago. I sometimes list to the left or right or find myself gently crumpling. My father was light-footed and could dance on rain; Mom was heavy-footed and steadfast. I didn't inherit any of Dad's jauntiness at all. I am not, nor have I ever been, very supple. I do have my father's vertigo and have always been somewhat clumsy. Add six decades to this, and it's understandable that I'm not exactly nimble of foot. Charlotte didn't seem to notice my spill, or maybe she thought grandfathers are supposed to sprawl into hedges now and then.

Keeping your balance is one of the earliest things you learn in life. Charlotte is now confidently climbing on the monkey bars and sliding down the slides at the playground. Every week she improves on her strength and agility. I've watched her fall upstairs, topple head first into the sand, trip over sticks and collapse in the middle of a room. She gets right up and dusts herself off. She's had some bumps on the head, scrapes to the knees and a couple of split lips. But she already knows that the point of life is to stand on your own two feet. It will be a few more years before she can ride a bike and then another dozen or so before she drives a car. There's no stopping us once we get going.

Balance is the essence of life. How hard babies struggle to stand upright! Children spend many years striving to master the fine and gross movements of the body. As a kid, I ardently practiced walking on top of walls, riding my bike no hands, and standing on the bicycle seat as I sped downhill. I learned to balance myself to hit a baseball, to shoot a basketball, to run with a football, to dive into a pool, to swim straight and fast. I climbed trees, scaled ledges, walked on roofs and swung on ropes. In my twenties, I had to balance myself on tall ladders as I painted my house. With each step I gained more confidence in my manhood and my image of myself in the grand ballet. Even kings and presidents are careful to keep their balance in public lest they be seen as bumbling dunces.

It's ironic that as I'm losing my physical balance in late middle age, I have acquired a mental and emotional equipoise that I never had before. As humans we focus on the obvious; we spend a lifetime trying to stay on our feet, but we rarely give any thought to the equilibrium of the heart and soul. Why does it take so long for us to mature emotionally? We can climb mountains, run marathons, break the sound barrier and explore outer space. But as long as we neglect our inner spaces we remain unbalanced within ourselves.

Even as my body sometimes stumbles, my soul is more harmonious. My emotional life has finally caught up with my feet. I'm not as hard on myself or others as I once was. I am slower to anger; I am less ready to judge or condemn; I laugh more. The balance of the soul is made up of the virtues of compassion, forgiveness, patience, gratitude and humor. My great-grandmother, Mary Clark, could only walk by holding onto walls in her advanced old age, and she was one of the wisest and best people I ever knew.

When we are born, our safe arrival depends on a dexterous doctor and a mother's embrace. We spend our earliest days looking up as other people surround us like orbiting planets. As time goes on we walk alone, and sometimes we believe our solitary isolation is the only way to be. We don't always see the web of mutual interdependence or the invisible stays that guide us along during our balancing acts. As we age, the underpinnings of our separateness begin to weaken. We understand that the bonds of love are stronger than steel cables. What is a trapeze artist compared to the hire wire act of the human soul?

Perhaps it's silly at my age to be running in circles after a little girl, but I feel that together we are tracing the concentric rings of life. I hope that in the years ahead maybe she will take a lesson or two about living from her Papa. And some day in the future my Charlotte may have to steady me on the path.

We spend so much time getting on our feet that we discover, almost too late, that the heart is the compass that points the way for all the steps we take in life.

Barry Wallace's "Between the Lines" appears each Wednesday.