Bathing.

Balanced on one leg, I run water into a plastic tub in the bath. I splash some gentle liquid soap into the tub, and then sit on a chair next to the bath to spray some of the same soap through my hair before I comb it and tie it back up in a plait.

I turn the tap off, test the warmth of the water in the plastic tub, and carefully take my clothes off, easing my heavy moon boot through the leg hole of my underwear, and laying the clothes over the bath, within arm’s reach.

It has been nearly two weeks since I was hit by a car while riding home on my bicycle.

The accident dislocated and broke my ankle badly enough that when I was first admitted to hospital, high on pain medication from the ambulance ride, all the medical staff winced at it, and I have since been reminded of its severity many times by doctors and radiographers and nurses and surgeons. My ankle is now full of metal plates and screws.

I sit on the chair next to the bath and use a wash cloth to wipe the warm soapy water over my skin. I am not yet strong enough to lower myself in and out of the bath without help, and we’re still figuring out how best to put the chair in the shower so that I can reach my crutches and get my moon boot on and off without putting any weight on the broken ankle.

Tenderness has been the quiet surprise for me in the wake of this accident.

It hasn’t surprised me so much from others. My man and my parents and my friends have all responded to this with great tenderness and care, and I am forever grateful for this.

What has surprised me, though, is my own tenderness towards myself.

It started as I sat on the road in the immediate aftermath of the accident, shocked, frightened, and in pain. People rushed around me to arrange ambulances and police and blankets because I was in shock. I just gently cradled my leg so my foot could remain off the ground, and reminded myself to breathe slowly.

When I’ve woken in the night since, crying and feeling the fear of that time on the road catch up with me, it’s been tenderness that I’ve offered that part of myself. And this, I think, is the growing of a certain kind of strength. Just as it took a considerable amount of core physical strength to sit on the road for that long, balancing so that one foot could hang in the air, I’m coming to realise that it takes a mostly unseen gentle strength to offer ourselves kindness and tenderness when we need it — especially when so much in our culture encourages us to push ourselves to achieve one thing or another.

In the bathroom, having washed most of my body, I gently lower myself to sit on a towel on the floor next to the bath. One by one, I open the velcro fastenings on the front of the boot, and lift my leg out of it to sit it on the floor. Very gently, I remove the surgical sock, careful not to twist or pressure the ankle, and lay the leg back on the floor. It is bruised and swollen; yellow, pink and bluey grey. Some of the skin is grazed, and there are long straight surgical wounds. The muscles have lost all their tone, having remained unused for so many days now.

The skin on this leg is itself tender, and can only be touched very lightly. Today, I find myself thinking gently towards the leg too, where before there was considerably more frustration towards this part of my body. Seeing the wounds so clearly, and tending to them, has all but dissolved this particular frustration. This tenderness feels like accepting this withered and sore lower limb as part of me again. I had not realised until this moment that I’d even separated it out in the first place.

There will be a part of me that misses this bathing when my ankle is healed. Slowing down so much has also been incredibly frustrating and sometimes upsetting, but this long, slow lesson in tenderness towards myself is one I hope I will not forget. There is something deeply beautiful in learning the value in treating ourselves the way we might hope to be treated by others when we’re having difficulty.

Washed and dried, the return of my leg to the sock and boot is just as much a gentle exercise, as is getting redressed and packing up the washing paraphernalia. I am more aware of the small spaces my body moves through to achieve these small things, and of the texture of the materials I am covering myself with. I am more aware of what it takes to shift my relationship with those spaces and materials by moving through, with or around them.

This bathing is an exercise in gentle noticing.

There is no rushing.

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Slow and steady: realising there is no race

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/3a9/1665537/files/2014/12/img_0513.jpgI’ve always been a fast walker. I think it began when I was very small, and had to walk-run-walk to keep pace with adults. And it continued that way, always trying to keep up with someone or something, present or not. 

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me or anyone who’s read this blog for any length of time that I love to walk. I’ve never owned a car, and for one reason or another, I’ve never quite settled into riding a bike. My feet and legs have carried me all over the place. I walk a lot. And, until recently, everywhere I went, I walked quickly. 

Sometimes I needed to move quickly; sometimes not. Walking quickly was my habit, and I was, I guess, quietly proud of how quickly I could make my way between places on my own two feet. 

This year, for one reason or another, I’ve finally stopped hurrying everywhere. Bit by bit. A cumulative slowing. 

I’ve slowed enough to notice how I’m walking, and to begin to make changes to my locomotion that mean I’ve less discomfort and pain in my hips—discomfort I didn’t realise was so bad until it wasn’t there anymore—and less compression and rigidity in my back—something I hadn’t actually noticed at all, until it too began to disappear. 

But what’s amazed me the most is the ripple this slowing of my walking has sent into the rest of my life. As my walking has slowed, so has my thinking and feeling. Just as there has been space open up for me to notice my physical body and the physical surroundings it’s moving through, there has been space open up in my mind. Space between the thoughts and the feelings and the worrying about everyday or not-so-everyday things. Without a doubt, slowing my walking has calmed me. There’s something about unhurried motion that works so well for me in this way.

Sometime earlier this year, I made a little pact with myself to stop hurrying. To stop rushing. Even if I was late. Perhaps especially when I was late. 

Because I realised at some point that for me, hurrying and anxiety were really one and the same. Hurrying was the embodiment of my anxiety, and hurrying had become so habitual for me that I was no longer sure whether the hurrying or the anxiety came first. 

It’s been an interesting exercise. Not one I’ve always succeeded in, of course. But those little ‘failures’ are probably the most interesting. Once I’d made the connection for myself between hurrying and anxiety, the times I failed to slow down became a sign that there was something it might be useful for me to look at. An anxiety that was perhaps stronger than my general desire to slow down. Noticing that I’d failed to stop hurrying became an opportunity I could take advantage of when I did manage to slow myself. 

And the funny thing was that most of the time, those ‘stronger’ anxieties were not really worth worrying about, once I gave myself the opportunity to tease them out a little. More often than not, they were like a shadow I’d vaguely seen in the corner of my vision as I hurried past—a shadow that looks like a monster until you look at it properly and realise it’s just the shadow of a tree branch moving around in the wind.

This year has been a very full year. Full of wonderful things, but also things that were challenging (those things were often one and the same). It’s not surprising that there were some anxieties lurking. (There always are, aren’t there?) But what I keep thinking about is how I’ve managed to get more done this year by moving slowly than I could ever have even hoped to have done by hurrying. 

The past year feels for me like it was an extended lesson in wandering, in noticing things along the way. Perhaps in appreciating things along the way, rather than missing them as I rushed towards some fairly arbitrary destination or goal. Stopping to smell the roses, sometimes quite literally, since many of my neighbours are skilled gardeners.

I keep thinking about how my year has been full, but not busy, and that the difference between those two things is all in how they feel. I know which one I prefer.

Wandering, place and muscle memory

20140417-214025.jpgWe are walking down streets we don’t know, ambling, listening, looking, taking it in, and talking, always talking. The sun is out and I have to take off my cardigan as I warm up from the walk, but then put it back on again as the sun disappears behind a cloud.

There is a tiny homemade market in a little park, the stalls set out on picnic blankets. There is a little old woman sitting on a park bench with her granny trolley, squinting at us. A string trio dancing around on a street corner, and further up the road a brass trio in an open arcade. A woman out the front of a men’s suit shop, spruiking its wares, referring to the plain suits as “staplers you have in the cupboard for years”.

The sun comes out again, disappears again; I remove my cardigan and put it on again.

We have been walking for more than an hour when we decide to catch the tram to get where we’re going on time. We catch it to the end of the line and start walking again, but abandon the journey about ten minutes in, realising we’re not going to make it in time after all. The tram takes us back to the open arcade, and we wander through a market, where a sign tells us that, yes, in case we were wondering, one of the stalls sells organic chia. A man talks in short bursts into a fuzzy microphone about the vegetables he’s selling. A few doors down there is a gourmet grocer and deli, and further down still, a bakery where we eat tidbits off pretty little plates before we begin walking again.

Back in the quiet streets, we take several wrong turns, some on purpose, to explore, others by accident. We walk down cobbled back alleys and peer into gardens. We listen to the breeze through the trees, and get acquainted with neighbourhood cats.

We are looking at houses, but, in doing so, also exploring a possible new stomping ground, a possible new life. Walking streets that we might later frequent, guessing (probably incorrectly) at short cuts we might take. We walk steadily for three hours.

Life is strange in transition; the softer autumn light and cooler air seem apt. And the walking, the slow, continued movement, the tiring feet and legs—these things help a sense of the place settle in a little, become somehow a muscle memory as well as a mental one.

Am I falling? On fear and failure and the shame of bodies

It’s not until my skis touch the ground at the top of the chair lift and it sinks in that I have to stand up and ski away from the lift that I realise how terrified I am. Down the tiny slope that leads away from the lift, I pick up more speed than I am ready for and do exactly what you’re not supposed to: crouch down. I fall. I haven’t got my gloves on yet, and I graze several of my fingers in the icy snow. It stings. But more than anything, I’m embarrassed. I haven’t even actually done any skiing yet and I’ve already fallen over.

20130829-180042.jpg The slope — a beginners’ slope — brings more frustration and shame. I am most definitely the least experienced skier in my lesson group. This is not surprising: I haven’t skied since I was a teenager, and I was a novice then. The teacher is trying to show us how to execute turns. I just fall over every time. We get just a third of the way down the slope, and I have fallen over about eight times. Then I slide backwards across the mountain, off the snow and into the grass. The whole lesson group is watching me. I cry. Just a little; the hot tears of frustration and shame. I remember this feeling about skiing from when I was five and ran into a fence in my ski lesson. I cannot do something that everybody else can. They have all watched me fail miserably.

This moment, where I have to ask the ski instructor just to give me a minute to collect myself, makes me think of my beginners’ yoga students. It reminds me that it’s possible they feel this shame and frustration when they can’t do something I’m asking them to; that it’s important I always remember to approach a student’s difficulty with the compassion the ski instructor is showing me now.

~

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about falling. For the last few weeks, I’ve started my day by rolling out of bed and standing on my head for a short while. In the lamplight of my bedroom, I rest my weight on my elbows, forearms and a fist I’ve made with my hands. The top of my head touches the floor lightly, and I walk my toes closer to my face so my torso is perpendicular to the floor, hips up in the air. I lift one leg, then the other. Often I wobble and my feet touch the wall behind my head. As I hold myself there, reaching my feet towards the ceiling, I play, slowly, with my balance. What happens if I tilt my pelvis so my lower back lengthens a little? What happens if I tilt it the other way? Some days I really notice the comparative weakness in my left shoulder, and my legs and feet sway a little from left to right. Some days I am steady, and this usually surprises me, because most days I’m wobbly. As I wobble around upside down, I ask myself: am I falling?

Mostly, the answer is no. I sway a little, I adjust. I sway a little, I adjust. The balance takes focus. If I wander off in my mind, I lose it. I need to bring my feet down or they’ll fall down.

It’s the same on the ski slopes. That shifting of balance. The focus. Lean away from the slope, put your weight in the outside foot, or in the toes if you’re facing downhill. Lean the way you don’t want to fall.

It fascinates me: balance, falling. The fear. When I’m skiing, I’m afraid I’ll fall and get my skis caught up in one another and twist my ankle or knee or hip. I’m afraid I’ll wobble my already unstable hips out of alignment, because I know how easy it seems to be for me to do that just in regular life. I’m afraid of the pain, I guess. Which is a fairly reasonable fear, except that it so often means I focus on that when I should be noticing where my weight is, adjusting where necessary and thereby avoiding a fall.

Slowly, I get better at skiing. I fall less and less. And when I do fall, it’s mostly strategic, because I’m aware of the limits of my skills and would prefer to fall myself than plough down a small child. I get better at noticing the minute changes I need to make in the direction of my skis and the weight in my hips and legs to turn a certain way. I notice how much more difficult it is for me to get my left side to hold my weight than my right; how much more difficult again this is when I start to get tired. Or if I let my mind wander too much. Being present just in that moment is immensely useful for balance.

I am not, by any means, a good skier, but I do okay. And that’s enough.

For about the same amount of time that I’ve been doing headstands each morning, I’ve also been reading Illness, by Havi Carel. I will, at some point, write more here about this book and its ideas, because it’s having a profound effect on how I view my own chronic illness, and the periods of greater or lesser health within that, but for now I want only to mention one idea that returned to me as I alternately fell and skied down the slopes. Carel writes about how a serious illness — chronic or otherwise — can bring with it a sense that one’s body has failed them, betrayed them. That because of this failing in this one part of myself, I am somehow not enough. This is certainly how I’ve felt about my own body because of illness at various points. And I wonder if, on a different scale, that is part of what I was ashamed of when I kept falling and falling and falling that first time down the slope. Whether that is part of what any person might be ashamed of when they’re asked to do something with their physical body that proves difficult or impossible.

Because, to a certain degree, we are our physical bodies and their capabilities and limits. We are our illnesses, our falls, our tears of shame. We are also that steady headstand that comes along every now and then, that brilliantly executed turn on the skis.

Of course, we’re also not any of those things. We both are and are not our dys/functionality. This is something I have to remind myself on a regular basis. It’s all about perspective.

And so it is about perspective with falling. Perhaps when I’m standing on my head I am actually falling most of the time; it’s just that I catch myself. And when I’m skiing, I am, of course, actually falling down a hill the whole time, even if I’m not falling over. It’s a sort-of-controlled falling, or at least it’s a falling I’m sort-of-almost comfortable with most of the time.

~

20130829-180017.jpg Several days into our week away, on a day where the snow is too slushy to ski, my brother and I go for a long walk. We talk, among other things, about falling. About how falling is not so bad anyway. Yes, sometimes you hurt yourself when you fall over, but mostly the physical injury is minor; the injury to the ego is greater. It’s embarrassing. We talk about how facing a fear of falling can teach you so much. About how falling can teach you so much.

This is something I think about often with physical activity, that it so often brings up questions about self and identity and capability and worth. I can stand on my head, and that makes me feel capable and strong. But I am at best a novice skier, and that makes me feel small. There’s something to learn from each feeling, if I’m up to looking at it a little closer.

20130829-180004.jpg As my brother and I talk about being afraid of falling, he jumps up onto a pole running along the side of a road, and walks along it, balancing. He talks about the relationship between balance and falling and play. We trudge through snow in inappropriate shoes, and I am conscious of the risk of slipping, but we go ahead anyway. We discover a small creek, we climb on rocks, we peer at plants. At one point we come across a snowman someone built earlier in the day. I take pictures of moss and rocks, he throws snowballs at me. It reminds me of adventures we had as children. Adventure, triumph, play, fear of falling, failure, and shame are all so tied up in one another. Shining in the midday winter sun, the snow crunches under our feet, a wonder and a danger all at once.