Tuesday, July 11, 2017

On the Year that Kicked My Ass, and That Time My Ass Kicked Back

Well, it's starting to kick back, ever so slowly.

I went on another Wild Women adventure, this time to Georgian Bay to try my hand at kayaking for a change. I was with a whole new group of women, our ages spanning three decades and from a wide variety of professions and backgrounds (and photographic skills - all the pics here are from them). It's always a treat to be on the water surrounded by the giant slabs of rock and tall trees rooted in the tiniest crevices with people concerned for the health and well being of the water, air, and land. We wash on the ground well away from the lake, compost as we go, forgo campfires, and practice no-trace camping. Meetup groups aren't always as environmentally minded. The guides on the trips are exceptional, well practiced in both tripping and diplomacy, and the food is better than anything I typically eat at home.

Wearing the exact same clothes as last time!
On the last trip, I went in order to challenge myself to solo a canoe through the portages so I could travel alone. I've been on my own for almost a decade, and I'll need at least to be able to take the lead if I hope to ever get any of my not-so-canoe-y friends on board. In order to do the things I most enjoy, all by myself became a bit of a mantra.

And then this year of surgeries happened.

Total independence is no longer my goal - can no longer be my goal. I have to work towards working with others in order to get anywhere. This trip came just when I needed it as I teetered precariously on the brink of succumbing to self-pity. My dad, who also left me this year, always saw my quest for independence as a barrier and encouraged me to "let other people shine" by asking for help and sharing the load. I tried to asked for help, and for things forgotten, and for time for a break without feeling sheepish or ashamed of my blunders and inabilities. Interdependence is a hard one for me. And, through it all, I was still pushing myself, able to feel just enough muscle strain at the end of the day.
"Purely physical fatigue, provided it is not excessive, tends if anything to be a cause of happiness; it leads to sound sleep and a good appetite, and gives zest to the pleasures that are possible on holidays." ~ Bertrand Russell

I started the trip terrified about hurting myself with cuts, blisters, bites, and burns to my arm. I already got a paper cut marking final exams, which was a bit like getting the first scratch on a new car. I watched it on tenterhooks as it healed over days. Despite many lymphedema-driven rules to wear gloves to wash dishes so my hands aren't wet for any length of time, no gloves were able to keep my hands dry kayaking. Pre-emptive bandaids to avoid blisters also failed me; next time I'll remember to bring duct tape. Despite repellent, I got a couple mosquito bites. Despite liberal amounts of suntan lotion and a compression sleeve, I burned the fleshy sides of both elbows. But every cut, bite, blister, and burn healed without fanfare.

Knowing I'm still able to heal helps me breathe again. A bit. Studies caution us to increase activity very gradually, and, after just one day of physio with just three pound weights in my left hand, I jumped into the trip. There's absolutely no going easy on one arm in a kayak, and I have no idea how to tell the difference from hardworking muscle pain and problematic lymphedema pain, so I took a break on one of the days as if doing a little less than everyone else would prevent strain. I couldn't figure out any other means of measurement. Then today, for my second visit with the WellFit trainer, I suggested we could probably do the same weights on both sides. I seem no worse for wear.

It appears that I really just can't be as careless or reckless as usual. I'm strikingly clumsy maybe because I have a high tolerance for pain. I'd rather crash through the bush or scramble over rocks oblivious to scrapes and bruises than to watch my footing. It's so boring being careful. One of the guides felt the need to whisper to me, "I need to see your shoes on." I think I take in the world by sense of touch! Now I'm finally forced to heed my mother's warnings and slow down.

I can't say I don't sometimes fall a bit into resentment of the hassle, for instance, every time I have to think about petting my cats with my right hand only in case they suddenly turn to attack, which they are wont to do. But I took Pigliucci's book on Stoicism with me, which helped me remember Epictetus's attitude after his leg was broken in an act of malice: "Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will; and say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens." It is what it is, and there's no point lamenting the past. As Pigliucci explains, "we need to learn how to maintain agency under changing circumstances."

On the first evening, at a beautiful inn we stayed at to prep our gear and work on some basic skills, a guide who was unable to join us on the trip told us about her back problems and a recent arthritis diagnosis that makes sitting excruciatingly painful. An avid kayaker, her passion and livelihood has been pulled out from under her just like that. And here I am, pathetically complaining when I just have to stop bumping into things! We need role models for coping with that level of tragedy. Adversity is a training ground. Challenge accepted!

I'm just beginning to understand my doctor's cavalier attitude and his push for me to live my life normally. I could live in a bubble and still swell up, or I could get a few nicks along the way and be reasonably fine. Fine enough. It's not possible to completely eliminate the risks in life. It's better to avail ourselves of the possibilities rather than cower at the thought of what might be.

No fear of snakes or other creepy-crawlies - yet. 
It's bizarre how many little fears I've developed along the road, how much I've heeded anxieties over tight spaces or dark streets or uncomfortable conversation at the expense of potential pleasure. At that skill-building session, we were made to roll the kayaks. After a decade of swimming only with my head above water since developing a phobia as a curious side-effect of laser eye surgery, this was a frightening prospect. My daughter's been trying to get me to put my head under for years, Sunday after Sunday at the local rec centre. Apparently, it takes just about a dozen sets of eyes on me to overcome my fears enough to just do it already.

These groups are phenomenal for cheerleading one another on, and I considered why that attitude can't follow us everywhere. Why don't we always listen to and support our neighbours and acquaintances much less random strangers wherever we go? I think our competitiveness thwarts attempts at connectedness.
"What people mean by the struggle for life is really the struggle for success. What people fear when they engage in the struggle is not that they will fail to get their breakfast next morning, but that they will fail to outshine their neighbours. It is very singular how little men seem to realise that they are not caught in the grip of a mechanism from which there is no escape, but that the treadmill is one upon which they remain merely because they have not noticed that it fails to take them up to a higher level....The root of the trouble springs from too much emphasis upon competitive success as the main source of happiness." ~ Bertrand Russell

I think part of the ability to override that on trips like this is that the setting and situation dampen competition. When we do everything as a group towards a common goal, there's nothing to gain by being fastest or strongest except an expectation that you'll take on a greater share of the burden. We need each other to get anywhere. Taking too much from an individual in the group is of no advantage if we have to carry a broken soul to the end with us. It's a nice little snapshot of the merits of socialism. Nobody gets left behind.

But I also think our diversity helped. As a teacher, I offer all my curriculum for the taking to anyone who visits my website, but many teachers don't share quite so well. Regardless our common goal of helping students learn, some teachers keep their efforts close to their chest, wary of anyone who might use an incredible lesson plan as their own. Even though the worst teachers rarely get fired, it's a weirdly and unnecessarily competitive field. I've come to understand it as akin to siblings vying for parental attention. We're similar enough to provoke us to search for that little something to make us stand out. But on a trip like this, with a random collection of people from varied professions, we're different enough to comfortably support one another, to lean on one another, and to learn from one another: little tidbits like, 'When the moon is full, it will rise directly across from the setting sun.' Who knew!?! 

Then turn around and...

I'm not remotely sentimental, but at the end of five days, I surprised myself by being a bit of a blubbering mess. Kindness always slays me. In movies, people can die off and hearts can be broken and I'm completely unaffected, but moments of warm sincerity, and I'm a basket case.

Back at the ice-cream stand where we left our cars, there were no qualms about changing out of wet underwear out in the open. There's an abdication of civil self-consciousness that happens if you're outback even for just a short time. It wasn't until after getting a ride into the city with the rocks at the sides of the highway shrinking into the distance and then getting on the rattly GO bus that I was suddenly aware of my days without bathing, and I tried to sit all closed together and away from anyone else so as not to offend.

Back to town, I hoisted up my pack and walked the three km through the park home. I was too stinky for a cab-driver to have to endure, and I hate that we live such sedentary lives that we've crafted an entire industry devoted to provoking us to intentionally move our bodies. It's so much easier when it's a useful effort, when it's to move us forward rather than when it allows us the convenience of staying in place, moving for the sake of moving without any larger purpose informing our actions.

ETA: Just got back from a lymphedema check-up. After measuring my left arm, the nurse was very concerned that the swelling increased in my lower arm by more than a centimetre in just a week. It means the swelling's moving down my arm, which could end up interfering with my ability to use my hand. Then, just to be sure, I suggested she check the other arm as well. Lo and behold, my right forearm was also more than a centimetre larger. It's muscle, not fluid. That's what a week on the water will do for you!!

I'm the one with the snake tattoo peeking out.


Sue D said...

Glad you had a great time. I really enjoyed this post.

Marie Snyder said...

It's always reinvigorating up there!