A couple of weeks ago I had my first “dump truck” on the river. That’s raft-guide jargon for hitting a rapid in such a way as to make one side of the raft dip down (or the other side get much higher) so that the raft nearly flips over but doesn’t, and instead just dumps everyone (in this case, guide included) out of the raft and into the river. Everyone was fine- I was able to swim to my raft, pull myself back into it, and eventually get the three awesome women I was guiding all back into my boat before we had to run the last two good rapids of the day. We got through the rest of the river without major incident, but as the adrenaline began to wear off, I realized that I’d tweaked something in my back. As it turns out, I damaged my “QL” muscle and spent the better part of more than a week walking and moving as little as possible as I waited as patiently as I could for everything to heal. Even now, more than two weeks later, I’m still not back to 100% and am still not back on the river and at this point, I have all of my fingers and toes crossed that I will get a few more days of guiding in before we wrap up our time here in Reno-Tahoe and move onto wherever we head next.
But I digress.
As they say, “the wind from one door closing opens another” and while I hope I’m not done rafting just yet, these weeks of rest have reminded me how beneficial (and productive!) a bit of real down-time can be. It’s also reminded me how vitally important it is to have a “plan b,” a list of things that interest and stimulate and energize us when life doesn’t go according to plan. As it turns out, injury (or illness or grief or job difficulties or…or…or…) happens to the best of us and it can be easy to allow a few days of sitting around at home to begin to take a downward spiral toward a feeling of purposelessness and stagnation. I remember how lost I felt all those years ago when I first started chemotherapy and my body, which I’d relied on not only to carry backpacks and guide rafts to make my living but also to run through the woods and climb rocks and ride bicycles to keep my emotional self balanced, began to be unable to do all of the things that I’d built my identity (and mental health) around. I didn’t know who I was when I couldn’t move my body with the same strength and dexterity I was accustomed to and this lead to a bit of an emotional crisis that I’m only now, nearly fifteen years later, fully grasping.
While I’m in a much different place in my life now and this injury doesn’t carry nearly the terror or long-term incapacity that came with cancer, I can feel tiny echoes and reminders of how detrimental feeling purposeless can be. It’s lead to some fascinating conversations and I’ve drawn a few preliminary conclusions from talking with others who have experienced similar setbacks:
~ We need purpose in our life. Period. I’ve talked about this here on the blog before, but for a long while now, I’ve believed that the key to “happiness” is not an overabundance of leisure time, but rather challenge and purpose. Where I think sometimes people go wrong with this is in thinking that their purpose has to have some level of grandiosity to it. If you feel a deep calling to facilitate peace in the Middle East, then please, by all means, forge ahead with my admiration and best wishes. But if your purpose is to re-read the entirety of the Little House On The Prairie books or clean out your garage or learn to speak conversational French or make restaurant-quality pad thai, then that counts. It can change whenever you want and you can course correct in whatever way works for you. Just. Do. SOMETHING. And then, when you are done, go do something else. And while you’re at it, make sure that if your current purpose gets derailed, that you have a few more ideas waiting in the wings so that you can switch gears when you need to.
~ “Find Your Passion” is a crock of shit. Elizabeth Gilbert was far, FAR more eloquent than I am when she addressed this in her absolutely-fantastic-if-you-haven’t-read-it-yet-do-so-right-this-very-second book Big Magic, but the gist of things is that for most of us, we don’t have some single clearcut passion that drives us (if you do, then I’m thrilled for you! Congrats! Go pursue that!). For most of us, finding our purpose(s) means that when something is interesting to us, we check it out. And maybe we pursue it for a bit. Wander around a bookstore…do you gravitate to a certain section? Gravitate away. Have you ever watched a movie or read a book or walked away from a conversation thinking, “I wonder what all goes into building a boat with hand tools/ how hard it is to play the banjo/ if I could draw a cartoon of a cat…?” Look it up. We all carry tiny little Google machines in our pockets…within those little Google machines lives an app called You Tube. Everything you’ve ever wanted to learn is available there for free. Okay, MOST everything. Even better…make use of the resources around you. Public libraries are a THING, y’all. Stop by yours, get a library card, and look at their events calendar. There is a better-than-decent chance that something is happening that feels at least mildly interesting to you. And following that interest is how you figure out a purpose and perhaps a passion. Or google “adult learning” or “community/ continuing education” or some variation to find classes in your area. I’ve found everything from art classes to classes on computers and how to book travel and wild food foraging and beyond. There are often free movie nights and lectures and options that cost you nothing beyond marking your calendar and showing up. Which leads me to…
~ Even us introverts need some community. I am an introvert by nature. People often don’t think that because I’m outgoing and enjoy people and love to have great conversation with friends over dinner, but at the end of they day, I need quiet alone time to fill my tank and almost ALWAYS want to cancel any and all plans that require that I put on pants and interact with humans. I’m energized and fulfilled by my own company and tend to get my best creative ideas and work done when I have plenty of time alone. But. That tendency can lead us to isolate ourselves past the point of being healthy. Sometimes I get downright irritated with myself for obligating myself to a weekly drawing class or a coffee date with a new acquaintance, but these sorts of interactions are, indeed, important. Its been shown over and over that connecting to others and having some sense of community is necessary for our general well-being, especially as we get older, and it really is worthwhile to suck it up and put your damn pants on.
~ It’s unlikely that your “plan b” will drop out of the sky and into your lap. This is really a variation on the second bullet point, but let me hammer the point home again. We have to do the work. If you don’t have any interests at all, you aren’t looking very hard (or you have a mental illness that should be addressed by a professional…seriously, one of the most common signs of depression is a sense of listlessness and disinterest, so if this is you, please, PLEASE go talk to someone…it doesn’t have to be this way and you can’t do it on your own, help is out there and I implore you to find it). But barring mental illness, the idea that you’ve already been exposed to all the possible interests in the world and none of them is for you is ludicrous. Don’t expect purpose to find you…take an active role in finding out what lights you up (see the above suggestions to get started!).
~ If you are stuck at home or in bed or have limited mobility, make use of technology- it’s your bridge. We live in an age of technology. Often this technology is lamented as we feel overwhelmed by things beeping at us or overstimulating us or we allow ourselves to get sucked down the rabbit-warren as we scroll through social media or dive headlong into the black hole that is mindless internet surfing. But all of this technology has a good side and often that good side comes in the form of connection. Either connecting us with other humans or with the knowledge or tools to learn and grow. Skype or FaceTime can put you face to face with people all over the world. Try an online meetup or perhaps a group such as a book club. There are audiobooks (by the way, these are often available for free from your local library as are e-reader books that you can instantly download...just sayin') and online classes (I also like these and these, or what about learning a new language or for free here?). Screen time doesn’t HAVE to be mindless. Avail yourself of the benefits of our technological age.
At the end of the day, it’s unlikely that any of us will live out our lives without ever hitting a hiccup of some sort, whether it’s an injury or illness that limits our movement, or a career change or retirement or moving to a new place. We feel untethered and unsure of what to do with ourselves and it’s easy to hang out in the intersection of indecision. But that intersection is a good place to get hit by a bus if we’re not careful, so it’s often better to pick a path and begin down it, even if we realize it’s not the right one for us and have to veer off to find a different one.
As I eagerly await my back’s full healing and a return to the river and the running and activities that are at the heart of why we chose to hit the road in the first place, I will implement my plan b and switch gears to discover and pursue the unknown worlds that are available to me. I will follow my curiosity and make the most of this time of rest. Because the alternative is misery, and, well, who the hell wants that?
A few shots of a hike we took a couple days before my “dumptruck”…we left from the Galena Creek Visitor Center, less than 30 minutes from our RV park, and walked an easy nine-mile loop over the course of a few hours. It was a lovely reminder of the beauty that lays right outside our door...
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