The Light In The Dark
Sometimes life shoves us out of our complacency and it can come in many forms.
I’ve heard that a near-death experience or a diagnosis with a chronic disease be described as a “sacred moment”. Or as the American poet Jack Gilbert wrote “Teach me mortality, frighten me into the present” Such events change our world view and our place in it. Understandable.
But can something as relatively benign as a drawn out recovery from a garden-variety injury also change the trajectory of our life?
In September 2011 I injured my back at work. I was a cop then, with Victoria Police, working at the Mounted Branch. 2 decades training horses, training riders and riding horses in a wide variety of situations. Crowd control, patrolling, sporting and other public events, ceremonial duties, searches. All over the state. Once even to Canada to represent Australia. I was a career cop, 30 years, most of it at the Mounties.
It was an inextricable part of my self-identity. Until it wasn’t.
Pain and Empathy.
Late 2011 saw me on an emotional roller coaster. Pain-free days hijacked more often than not by those when I could not step into my clothing, could not sit, stand or lay down comfortably. Sleep became a torment. Pain dictated my mood and how I viewed the world. Pain and fear of what my future may not hold became the taste and the texture of my life.
Fortuitously, pain and the need for distraction, also saw me gravitate to the internet.
On May 30th 2011, I had watched a Four Corners segment featuring an investigation into the live export of cattle and, from there, began to learn about other animal rights issues. During my recovery, I took the opportunity to research further. Undercover footage and articles detailing the horrific, yet lawful and standard, industry practices that are inherent within all forms of Animal Agriculture, not just Live Export.
There was a gradual deconstruction of ego within me during these months. A growing humility, born of feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty, that manifested as empathy. It was long overdue.
While my education and connection with Animal Rights issues continued, I also came to recognise how desperately I missed my “old life” with my adventure racing and trail running communities. I missed work too but now, with recognition of our fellow beings own rich, emotional lives, I had mixed feelings about my role training horses. Especially in such an unnatural and stressful job as police work. I also felt adrift personally.
I had felt physicality and being outdoors and active defined me, and in many ways it did. It was and still is, where I feel most alive, most connected to the now and the most freedom. Who was I if not this person?
The thought that it may all be gone was a dark one indeed. I swam in that week after week. All the beautiful colours of my life seemed to bleed out to brown.
But one day, browsing YouTube, in between videos about Animal Rights, I stumbled across a short film. As I watched, time felt to stand still, the hairs on the back of my neck prickled from a current of possibility, tears of recognition welled in my eyes. My life was calling me back.
It was a promotion for a race called The Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica. I knew immediately that this race, as impossible as it seemed at the time, was my beacon. I couldn’t sign up soon enough. I didn’t think about it. I just signed up. The thought of it, of doing it, kept me motivated and hopeful on the dark days when I could barely walk to the end of the driveway.
Make No Small Plans.
Powerful stuff it is to have an audacious goal to hang your hopes and dreams on. And it must be audacious. Small plans don’t light the fire within like something you have never dared imagine as “possible”.
I had dragged myself through those long days of believing physical challenges in wild and rugged landscapes were over for me, such is the grip of despair when you have had no previous experience of “injury” or an uncooperative body.It’s such a trap, such a lie, an abyss we can so easily fall in to when we have lived a life with too few bumps. Perspective comes slowly more often than not. My mind was not conditioned to deal with setbacks of this kind. Experiencing it, was a precious life lesson that benefited me in ways that I am still discovering.
Leap of Faith.
This story is not about “running” or even Animal Rights. It’s about living. Not existing. Living.
It’s to speak of the terrible disservice we do ourselves when we let fear run the show.
It’s fear that keeps us stuck and small. It will keep us safe and comfortable… and barely living. Certainly not growing. It will tell us who we are and what we are capable of and make sure we never get too big for our boots. It’s fear too that can see us passing responsibility for the shape and colour of our lives to others. When the fear in us is so big we don’t believe we can deal with it, we may be compelled to give it to a partner, a parent or even a close friend to keep safe and close at hand. We ask them to take responsibility for our life. To make it more. To make it all ok.
But what we don’t understand is that their fear becomes mingled with our own and there’s now so many hands fighting for the wheel of our life that the ditch becomes the only sure certain destination. And sometimes it’s unconsciously intentional.
If we are lucky, shit happens. Major shit. Shit that will turn our safe little world of fear-hugging sameness on its head. And then, if we are luckier still, things begin to shift. We remember a time when we weren’t stuck. When we were full of curiosity and courage, despite the presence of fear. When fear was in the back seat playing video games, where it needs to be most the time.
We see something, hear something, experience something and suddenly we remember the magic of living in spontaniety and confidence that once gave our heart and soul abundance and daily we fell in that immersive joy.
The seed of possibility stirs. Dreams emerge. Fear takes that back seat.
They say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. And that teacher isn’t necessarily a human. When the moment comes and we find ourself transported, when the veil drops and time stands still, whatever that thing is that makes the hairs on the back of our neck stand up. That is our moment. We take that leap of faith. And with shaky hands and a pounding heart, we “sign up”. Not allowing ourselves time to think too much. Through our urgent action we refuse fear entry. Cos that bastard will be there, it always is when anything worthy comes our way. Slam the door in its face. Stand up tall and begin, gathering the threads of our life and piecing them back together.
It doesn’t matter if this crazy thing doesn’t make sense to anyone but you. Maybe even you think it’s nuts. But you’re doing it anyway. All you know is that you need to try.
The Doing. The Being.
With each step we discover, or re-discover, our dreams and desires. We begin to move with greater confidence and despite everything, including the inevitable setbacks, we remember that it’s all a process that we need to respect and honour. In a life full of short cuts and “hacks”, it’s a blessing to be forced back into the slow lane. It’s there we rediscover our humility and become proud of our scars, cos dammit we’ve earned them. The wounds that healed and allowed us to run through rivers in dappled morning light and to climb mountains of mist and vines and splendid birds.
I watched that short film many times in the months that followed. I kept the fire burning and I muted the naysayers. When I looked at the fit, strong people in the video and found myself doubting my right to participate, I would shut that voice down too. I’d look closer. I’d see their wrinkles, their grey hairs, their less than lean physiques, their exhaustion and tears.
In the ways that matter, when the chips are down, we are all the same.
We don’t need to be fast or fearless to do hard things. We don’t need to have it all figured out to begin. We need the fire in the belly, the will and the trust that we are brave enough to turn up and do the work every day. Experience is forged by our stumbles and mistakes, how we begin and how we begin again…and keep going.
That first step, then one foot in front of another. Until it’s done and then, more than anything else, we realise that this huge thing we did is the platform from which all else will be built. And it’s solid. And it is ours.
Doing isn’t about winning, although it can be. Presence, being right in the messed up middle of it, that’s the gravy. As we grow, we find that it’s the not trying, the not doing, that becomes unimaginable in the wide open life we are creating.
We can never predict when or where we will find that moment that changes everything. Where all the dreams of our conscious and unconscious mind converge. Wait for that “whole body YES” and when it comes grab it like our life depends on it and don’t let go.
This is the short movie, https://youtu.be/bm77T-ELkzY that brought me back to life from the very moment I watched it and thought
I paid a hefty deposit in the summer of 2012 when I was still unable to run but I started where I was at. Walking. And began building from there. I had 12 months.
But after a while I began to push too hard, too quickly, flaring up the injury again. I knew 5 months before the 2013 edition that I it wasn’t going to happen for me and scratched, sinking for a while back into the mire.
I picked myself back up, re-set my goals and entered for 2014 and devised an 11 month break from my “world of details and obligations” and travelled the globe backpacking with a plan of “no plan”. The only plan was this race as the grand finale.
I spent the final 5 weeks of my travel in Costa Rica and fell in love with the country. The 5 day/223km Coastal Challenge was in the last week and it was everything I hoped for and more.
My goals were simply to enjoy and to finish, uninjured, within the cut off times each of the 5 stages.
Finish uninjured I did. In fact I thrived out there. It was my first real Ultra. My first as a Vegan.
I finished in 10th place female, far better than I’d expected, but it was never the point where I finished. It was the signing up, the work and the doing.
I didn’t just have my life back. I had a whole new life.
When we take back the steering wheel of our life there are no wrong turns.