Patience is the ability to idle your motor when you feel like stripping your gears.Barbara Johnson
Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast ever, drops out of the team final; uncharacteristic for her – and for us. What does it mean to say I’ve had enough, that the “mental is not there” especially when there’s no visible injury? What does it mean to this thru-hiker who struggles with letting go and knowing when it’s time to stop, to see someone as strong and brave as Biles to say no to the world, really, to the sport, to all of our assumptions about being bad-ass? Well, it’s a kind of permission.
I’ve already said my no – and said my “enough” and right now, I’m waiting. Waiting for the results from my heart monitor. Waiting to take a cardiac stress test. Waiting to see if the cardiologists can fix me up – and get me back on trail.
But I’m not just laying around. I’m exercising. The daily two-minute plank is back in the routine, and weights for my upper body. I do a bit of yoga, walk up and down hills and I even took the bike out on Grand Rounds where I sweated so much, I shorted out the first heart monitor and had to have another one sent to me.
I feel in between– in between my plans and my life as it is. But also in between my body as it was and something that’s fragile now. Like Simone, the “mental is not there,” the feeling of flow, of connection, of being in the right place at the right moment.
It made me think of a poem by Leza Lowitz, an American poet who lives in Tokyo. It’s called “Waiting.”
You keep waiting for something to happen, the thing that lifts you out of yourself, catapults you into doing all the things you've put off the great things you're meant to do in your life, but somehow never quite get to. You keep waiting for the planets to shift the new moon to bring news, the universe to align, something to give. Meanwhile, the pile of papers, the laundry, the dishes the job – it all stacks up while you keep hoping for some miracle to blast down upon you, scattering the piles to the winds. Sometimes you lie in bed, terrified of your life. Sometimes you laugh at the privilege of waking. But all the while, life goes on in its messy way. And then you turn forty. Or fifty. Or sixty... and some part of you realizes you are not alone and you find signs of this in the animal kingdom when a snake sheds its skin its eyes glaze over, it slinks under a rock, not wanting to be touched, and when caterpillar turns to butterfly if the pupa is brushed, it will die – and when the bird taps its beak hungrily against the egg it's because the thing is too small, too small, and it needs to break out. And midlife walks you into that wisdom that this is what transformation looks like – the mess of it, the tapping at the walls of your life, the yearning and writhing and pushing, until one day, one day you emerge from the wreck embracing both the immense dawn and the dusk of the body, glistening, beautiful just as you are.
Leza Lowitz wrote that glorious poem, “Waiting” and it captures this kind of juxtaposition of urgency – a need to break out when all the while a need to radically accept what is.
While I convalesced in Kalispell, a friend I made on the Pacific Crest Trail reached out and shared her struggle. A former competitive gymnast, she was raised in the world shared by Simone Biles and so many others who pushed through injuries, remaining stoic and fierce. Until the day it caught up her.
Only this summer she was guiding young people in the wilderness and was suffering from such severe shoulder pain but was not offered relief from her superiors. Seeing no way out, she self-medicated with opioids putting herself and her charges in danger. Until she realized her health was paramount. It took a doctor reminding her she could do permanent damage and she simply had to stop, but it was traumatic and difficult – because her mind was certain she could push through and the culture she worked in demanded it of her.
As I wait for answers and a path forward, I think back to Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere and one I’d hope to summit until HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) stopped my forward progress. It’s basically fatal with the cure to get down to lower elevation, which is what I did as quickly as possible. Oddly, the morning I left, swollen and weak, the others in the party came out of their tents to hug me and the guide pulled them away. “Stay away from her!” he said.
As sick as I was, I think I laughed. Did he think it was catching? Did he think my leaving the mountain to save my life would somehow cast a pall on their continued ascent of the mountain? It was strange, but maybe old fashioned and sort of like the TV show “Survivor.” Who knows. They never made it to summit anyway, and later I was told that the guide thought I would celebrate their failure. OK, maybe a little shadenfreude for him, but not the friends who take these uncontrollable aspects of life more in stride.
Does that describe Simone Biles – “I’ve had my Olympics,” she tells her teammates. “Now it’s your turn.”
Aha, and I’ve had my thru-hikes, too. We’ll see about more.
All my work is done for the day and my new heart monitor is scheduled to arrive this afternoon so Richard suggests I swim before I have to hook it back up and can’t get wet. It’s been so hot in the Twin Cities, that the lakes are a little dingy and filled with plants and algae. I hadn’t been in the Saint Croix River in a long time, so I decide to make my way out to one of my favorite parks, Afton State Park, prairie, and deep wooded ravines next to this wild and scenic river – a place I’ve trained, brought friends, brought my joys and my sorrows.
There’s a beach I’ve walked past so many times, and this time I was going to use it. Funny, getting there in the 90-degree stagnant heat with the A/C on full is not easy. The main entrance to the freeway is closed, the detour sending me back past my house in the wrong direction before I could enter. Once I reach Woodbury where I play my flute nearly every week, the roads are closed and again I’m sent in a circuitous route around this sprawling suburb and finally out to farmland and massive fields devoted to potted trees and shrubs under sprinklers.
I had to really want to get here, it would seem. And I did – more than I knew. The prairie is lush with color – yellow, purple and dotted with oak trees. As I crest the hill it’s already loud with crickets and birds. I’m not sure how this is going to go, but I take a pack with my towel, a chair, my umbrella for the sun and head down the bluff towards the river. A woman coming up tells me the water is wonderful.
The trail along the edge of the river is an old railroad, straight and flat. I pass the beach itself to check things out further down as speed boats and jet skis rush past. One is parked on the beach and I walk down to look for a private place for my swim. It’s perfect in the shade, the humpy, tree-covered hills light blue in the haze, small wake waves touching the shore. I take off my shoes and wade in, trying not to step on a massive clam. But my feet sink in. It’s mud! Soft, yes, but not making it easy to wade in. Water plants sway in the current, grabbing at my ankles, silky, slimy.
OK, it might have looked that way from above, but this is not the best swim spot. I sit in my wee folding chair and read for a bit before packing up to find a less muddy access. Maybe I’ll just walk a little bit more, to the end of the trail before it darts straight up into the forest. It’s hot, muggy, the air still and quiet. I move slowly as if swimming through the air. At the turn around, a doe looks up at me, startled but still. Two fauns with spots shimmy their bodies behind her, only their big ears and curious eyes watching me.
I decide to go up – only for a little bit and just to get my heart going before I dunk in the water. The forest is dense in shade, though not especially cool. I’ve run up this trail in laps, but now my feet feel as if they are barely touching the ground. The trail curves, then flattens for a moments through a stand of pine before heading up again. A wasp nest hangs on a limb above my head, gray paper swirls. I’m deposited in prairie where a flycatcher clings to an erect gayfeather.
Crickets hop ahead of my step, hidden on the path until they explode in brown wings with white fringe. I choose a different path to one I normally take and find myself momentarily disoriented. I see a familiar lean-to ahead, and realize it’s just a new way of seeing things. As if to guide me to this landmark, a tiny reddish-brown bird hops two feet ahead, turning back to see I’m coming. Sweat drips on my lip in beads.
I stop for a moment to listen in the shade, deciding if I want to go on. It’s all in sun next, a walk through the heart of the restored prairie. Ah, but I have my umbrella and head deeper in, alone, just me and the crickets. The trail is a mowed path through black-eyed Susan and purple bee balm, Queen Ann’s lace about to burst forth from a closed ball.
Dragonflies buzz me and the slightest breeze moves my hair. Massive thunderclouds build and sunlight pokes out in long rectangular rays. My umbrella moves as a silver ship atop the high grasses. A hummingbird moth yellow and black flits from blossom to blossom, it’s massive tongue flung deep inside as its wings keep it aloft.
I hear heavy breathing and it breaks the spell. It’s a trail runner who gives me a smile of commiseration that we are both here in the heat together because we want to be – we have to be. It’s bliss.
I think about this time of having to stop – knowing it’s mostly my choice, but also something out of my control that has to be fixed. Like Simone Biles, I got off trail before I really hurt myself. The coming weeks of waiting are going to take patience and grace to manage, and some figuring out.
I think about a poem by Kay Ryan, Poet Laureate for the Library of Congress.
Patience is wider than one once envisioned, with ribbons of rivers and distant ranges and tasks undertaken and finished with modest relish by natives in their native dress. Who would have guessed it possible that waiting is sustainable— a place with its own harvests. Or that in time's fullness the diamonds of patience couldn't be distinguished from the genuine in brilliance or hardness.
My thru-hike is in the extreme heat and over thousands of blow downs of trying to get back to myself, to figure out the puzzle of my health and remember what matters. Here at home is not the big mountains or the glory of thousands of miles walked, yet somehow in its quietude, it takes my breath away, it reminds me why I love walking, why I’m the Blissful Hiker. A bird, a bug, a flower, the sound of crickets, all of it calls me back to that place in my heart that’s most alive when I’m outside.
I head back deep into the woods, steeply down along a finger of land above deep ravines and towards the beach, where indeed it’s sand all the way out into fresh water with wisps of ice cold freshness from springs. I swim until almost dark, then head back up the hill to go home and sleep in my own bed.