Expectations and life’s hard, unpredictable, realities

Journeys have meaning because they are unpredictable, nuanced, and tinged with risk. Otherwise, why journey? And every day is a journey. 

Like most nuggets of wisdom, this is easier to digest when not actually experiencing any of life’s very real risks or crises. This weekend, I was supposed to be at the starting line for the Times Colonist 10K, a popular run in my home of Victoria, BC. A 10k run is no big deal, unless you make it a big deal.

Ready to run?

Ready to run?

In my mind, I turned a plan to run this year’s TC10K into a big deal.

You see, two years ago I was on an operating table, being bolted back together in a procedure known in medical terms as ‘open reduction internal fixation of left acetabulum.’ I had fallen off my bike and the impact drove my femur through my pelvis. Not good.

Months later, when I could bring myself to read medical reports and view radiology images, I was quite impressed by the damage I had done, the skill required to put me back together, and the collection of plates and screws that will remain with me. It’s a changed me, changed by two years of rehab, unsteady balance, and uneven hips.

Post-surgery, I wasn’t entirely sure that I would be able to walk decently, ever again. We take mobility for granted, most of us, until we don’t have it. I was extremely grateful when I was eventually able to roll around in a wheelchair, then bump down a hallway with a walker, then stump around on crutches, and eventually walk with just a cane.

For a self-described runner, that meant editing my expectations. Through the weeks of healing and months of physiotherapy, I graduated to a decent walk, to comfortable biking, to flat-ground hiking, and beyond.

Shadow selfie: on crutches in Beacon Hill Park, late summer 2014.

Shadow selfie: on crutches in Beacon Hill Park, late summer 2014.

You need a huge support team to do these things. My wife nursed me through recovery, friends wheeled me from place to place, my surgeon encouraged me to get back on my bike. My granddaughter, just learning to walk for the first time, inspired me to relearn so I could keep up with her. I enlisted a number of physiotherapists and a yoga therapist to help me get a wee bit bendy again. Much of that was, as one of my therapists described it, “recovering from recovery” – undoing all the muscle and limb imbalances that develop when you compensate for pain and weakness.

When I started to play around with a tiny bit of jogging, no one on my team was very enthusiastic. Running is so hard on joints, everyone says. Yet not running can be hard on a person too. For many years, running was my release, my meditation, my weight control and a big chunk of my self-esteem. (Here and here are some earlier posts, and a Runner’s Blessing by my brother-in-law Doug Koop.)

So I quietly constructed a personal goal: to participate in and finish the TC10K. Unlike previous years, when I had run to set a personal best or finish well in my age category, I would make no time goals. Just do the course, be swept along by the thousands of others with all their personal motivators.

I know, from many years of participation in walk and run events, how all those people at the starting line come forward with such disparate goals, but similar anticipation.

I have walked as a buddy alongside people who weren’t sure they could walk a full 5 km. I have started out alongside runners who wanted to break personal records or “place” in their age group, or qualify for Boston. I have been impressed by participants whose social anxiety was so great that they only left home once or twice a week, yet challenged themselves to come out and experience a crowd.

“Road race” events are about meeting the human challenge in its many unique forms.

Over the past six months, I gradually trained my way up from 90 second jogs to my 10 km goal, albeit at times much slower than in years past. The hip felt better each month and even my surgeon was coming around to support my modest running. A follow-up surgery might not be needed after all. A story of progress and success and celebration went through my head on every upbeat run as I checked off milestones on my calendar. And, despite the cautions, one begins to assume that the story will continue to unfold in a certain way.

Then, life happened. In early April, I was wrapping up a 10 km training run, feeling ready for the TC10K and feeling slightly proud of my journey.

As the proverb says, pride goes before a fall. Two blocks from home, I snagged a toe on a small imperfection in the sidewalk and suddenly was down on the concrete. Almost two years since my last one-man crash. This time, I skidded on knuckles but whacked my head hard and split my lip open. Laying on the sidewalk, blood streaming out of my face, my immediate thought was simply, ‘crap, this isn’t supposed to happen again.’

Making assumptions about what is supposed to happen is a fool’s game. What really had to happen did. A passerby rustled up a bag of ice and towel while another called an ambulance and my wife. At E.R., my split lip was cleaned and closed up with sutures. A big purple egg rose on my cheek. Some things were said about concussion and rest. Mostly I remember a nurse looking at my scarred up face and saying, “Well, at least you’re not a model.” How did she so quickly make that assumption?

Life has a way of reminding me, in unpredictable ways at irregular intervals, about that risk thing. Just when you think you’re on a smooth path, or walkway, you get thrown. It’s great to have goals and destinations – just don’t get too attached to your internal narrative. Life messes with those narratives, big time.

So now, instead of running a weekend race, I am once again on the rehab path, but a new and unfamiliar path. I did have a concussion and, unlike most muscle or bone injuries, brain injuries have their own mysterious trajectory. For someone like me, who dove into rehab, being told to ‘do nothing’ is new territory. Nothing that jars the body or requires brain power. Do you realize what human activities require brain power? Yup, pretty much all of them except lying in a dark, quiet room.

Attempts to jump back into life – the meetings, writing, volunteer work, recreational outings – resulted in concussion kick-back. Headaches. Heaviness. Fatigue. I had to learn a new normal: three naps a day. Less reading. No loud rooms.

In a quiet moment, I re-read a journal note I wrote years ago. “Reality is bigger than you,” my note said, “it’s not a good idea to fight it.”

So, I am learning to walk a different path. Figuratively and literally. Instead of going for a run, I walk among trees and alongside waterways, drinking in their calm. I’m once again reflecting on the wisdom of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s ‘Full Catastrophe Living,’ which teaches that this day, even the messy and painful and irritating bits, is my life – not just a passage through to some smoother or more comfortable time.

I struggle with blaming myself for all my clumsy, self-inflicted accidents. But what’s the value of that? There’s a parable about Buddha advising someone who had been hit by an arrow and was anguished about it. “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. And with this second arrow comes the possibility of choice.” We can choose not to shoot the second arrow, choose to be kind to ourselves.

We can also choose how to edit or summarize our experiences. I heard my internal voice saying, “every time I go out to exercise I have these terrible, scary accidents.” Which is, objectively, patently false. Twice in about 25 years of running and biking have I had these accidents. As any story writer knows, it makes a world of difference where you start the story, and where you end it. In real life, we write those stories, those narratives, in our daily thoughts.

And, as always, none of this learning came to me naturally. It comes via caring family members and friends and professional helpers who gently encourage me to ‘settle into my impatience’ or ‘don’t forget to live this experience.’ It came from people in my life who model patience and love and acceptance. People who gently describe a better path and wait for me to ‘discover’ it.

So, onward. The stitches are out and the brain is clearing. Tomorrow, a few thousand people will run or walk the TC10K for a few thousand different reasons

image: exerscribe.com

image: exerscribe.com

I will strive to sustain goals and expectations without becoming attached to the outcomes.

Quite likely, at some point in the future I will begin to believe that I am on a wise and healthy path. Life will remind me, then, of my limitations. And I will once again do an internal reset.

Comments

  1. Fran Grunberg says:

    Dear Lorne,
    Thank you for your insights and wisdom as you grapple with finding meaning in falling and hitting the concrete! I appreciate your thoughts on “leaning in” to the process of recovery and being accepting of our vulnerabilities. Your narrative really reinforced for me just how powerful attitude can be….the metaphor of the arrows really hit home in my heart . We do have a choice in how we look at life experiences, especially the ones that come unexpectedly! Your story was inspiring for me and I hope that you continue sharing your journey of recovery.

    • Lorne Daniel says:

      Thanks Fran – very kind words made more meaningful knowing the challenges that you have faced with such strength and integrity. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond.

  2. Catherine Steong says:

    A wonderful essay, Lorne! Amazing that you can write this on low brain power. You rock!

  3. Peter Christensen says:

    Lorne, thanks for starting a conversation.
    Life is suffering or so say the Buddhahaha! (sp.) Well one good thing about recovery is that it allows time for reflection! I too have learned something from recovery, from overdoing it, and about second arrows! Guilt is the formidable tool of the flim flam artists within and outside. The ones within convinced me that goals, how many, what kind and the accumulation of them are what will buy eternal life or at least extend it. Like the messianic addicts of hypermobility who preach doom in order to fleece householders of their hard earned pay, my interior child was schooled to believe that reaching goals and acquisition were the holy grail, and that life journeys were soley a vehicle with which to achieve goals or persuade others.
    However, one cannot fool the passing of time, o maybe for a little while with drugs and disbelief but each of us will in our time become less agile, less able, less. So it seems to me I have a choice, I can, as Dylan Thomas says, “Rage, rage against the darkness” which will likely and has resulted in more surgery, or try to live the Eight Fold Path, understand and enjoy the journey. Perhaps even try to grasp what sages have said about humility, that it will eventually come to us if one remains rational.
    Well, all of this changing and doing is easier said than done and I am certainly not the first to have changed my way of looking at things after sickness and recovery. What is amazing to me is how many times I have come up against desire and been defeated. A slow learner I guess. Peter

    • Wise words, Peter, from someone who has certainly experienced a lot on the trails of recovery. It’s hard to just ‘be’ when we are programmed to pursue goals of this sort and that. Life does have a way of showing us how to appreciate and accept its realities – though the process can seem a bit harsh and abrupt 😉
      Wishing you many fine days of meandering along ‘The Path.’

  4. A year later, still funny and dear and inspiring.

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