Feminist reflections on fitness, sport, and health
Author: Susan Tarshis
I am a full time Psychotherapist practicing in Milton, Ontario. From time to time, I post thoughts about my practice and the human condition to my own blog but mostly, I'm a regular contributor to my friends' blog (Fit is a Feminist Issue). . .because that's more fun.
I’ve done quite a few big things in my middle age meandering in the world of activity and fitness. When I was 35, I decided to do a C to 5K program. Let me be clear, I was really starting from the couch. There had been nothing aerobic in my life up to that point except maybe dancing. I was coasting on my youth and maybe also a little messed up from bad gym class experiences of childhood. I think it took me over a year to actually get up to 5K running and that felt HUGE. Little did I know where all that would lead me.
16 years later, I’m a person who has cycled from Toronto to Montreal a few times, run a half marathon, cycled up the coast of NFLD in adverse circumstances, hauled people all over Algonquin Park with a canoe on my head, rode a lot of horses, experimented with lifting heavy things and much more. Running 5K is a thing I could just do right now, if I wanted to. I’m super proud of all the big hard things I have done with this body, yet I am also aware that I’m not really chasing the next big thing. I hope there will be some things, I have some plans, but I’m more focused right now on the immediacy of moving and how it seriously doesn’t have to be much to make an impact.
One of the points of advice you read a lot on this blog is “find a thing you like to do and do that thing”. Think about it. Isn’t that the most delightful fitness advice ever? Isn’t it better than telling you that you are going to die young if you sit too much, or that you have to work out intensely 30 minutes a day or you will die young, or you will die young if you don’t walk fast enough, or any of the other sensational headlines around fitness that we are assaulted with constantly? Just find something small and do it.
The benefits of that became very alive in me last January, when I was doing Adriene’s 30 at home yoga thingy. I wrote about how I loved it here. None of those practices were over half an hour. Not many of them were particularly intense. It was the only exercise other than dog walking I was doing as I was in the middle of a life implosion and the respite of her daily uploads kept me from falling off a cliff. My osteopath was the person who commented that my musculature was “enlivened”. ENLIVENED! What more can you ask for, seriously?
Now, I did not continue to do yoga every day for the whole year. But, when I had no ability to do anything else and I needed to move, I would do a 15 minute practice and feel better. At this point in my life, exercise has to, at core, be about feeling better.
There was this piece carried by the CBC (Canadian national broadcaster) that impacted quite a few of us and I thought I might do a whole blog post about it but decided against it because, at the time, I was just angry. She is an Instagram star and I guess that’s how it got brought to their attention. The woman is 73 and she got fit (with the help of her daughter’s fitness program, which she is also clearly promoting) after getting fed up with herself at age 69. I heard her interviewed on the radio as well as reading the article and I was angry about it because it is a story of hating herself. She hated herself and then she went on a quest to find a solution. That solution came in the form of beating her 200lbs body down to 138lbs and then presenting herself to the world as finally acceptable. It is also the case that her other health markers improved which is awesome. My concern came in listening to her voice, where I heard vestiges of fear and self-hate looming to take her over the minute she lets up on her vigilance. She is so pleased to be able to “look at herself in the mirror”, yet it comes with the fear of loss if she doesn’t keep going big. This just isn’t the kind of fitness I’m interested in. I’m not blaming this iron pumping grandma for her fear fuelled odyssey. What I really want for her is to find out why the journey didn’t lead her away from that lingering body hatred. The virtue of movement is not only found in suffering. In fact, I think if it is only about pushing and suffering and achieving, we are doomed.
I am counting down the days (6 left!) to the New Year and another 30 day Adriene yoga thingy. I’ve been brushing up with doing more at home practice when I can and I feel better every single time. I’m also eating a lot of cookies and walking my dog all over the country side. Life is lovely at last, my implosion having settled, and adventures are coming my way. I hope you can find a small thing to do when big feels beyond you, and love yourself while you do it.
I love me a good TED talk and is there any TED talk that speaks more to the white middle class North American woman than this one right here on vulnerability? This thing hit the internet in the face like a sledge hammer back in 2010. It’s the story of a qualitative researcher who realized that the secret to overcoming the paralyzing effects of shame (about everything. .. body image, parenting, career, class. . .) was vulnerability and its sibling, authenticity . This controlling, perfectionist, driven woman, faced with this truth that she discovered, promptly had a breakdown. It was a horror to contemplate that being authentic in relationship was a necessary part of overcoming the paralysis of shame. It felt like a trap. So, she did what any self-respecting woman of privilege might do and put it all in a TED talk so that we could learn from her experience. It struck a chord. I’m sure that many of you are well aware of this talk, the subsequent books and the Netflix special that was recently released. I also quite loved the original talk. In this basic idea, that we cover up our shame with a myriad of false selves, each more impermeable than the last, she is bang on.
Certainly, she has been a commercial success for herself and with that has come the scrutiny of the public eye. In this revealing interview, she is somewhat honest about her discomforts and the way people interpret her intentions. I can feel the tension in her as I read the interview. She has something to say that she wants people to know. It’s important and it’s so hard to do. She wants to find a way to teach it so she can help but it keeps getting reduced to “Oprah Approved” and “Self-Help Queen”. She resists having her ideas over processed even as she markets them like a meal at slightly better than McDonalds food chain (I couldn’t pin one that I wanted. . .Milestones maybe?).
Then, into my feed this past week comes this blog post of hers on midlife. Since that’s what I’m up to these days, midlife-ing, I was interested in hearing what she had to say (she is 54 and when this was published, she was closer to 53). It has some parts that really resonate for me, like this passage:
If you look at each midlife “event” as a random, stand-alone struggle, you might be lured into believing you’re only up against a small constellation of “crises.” The truth is that the midlife unraveling is a series of painful nudges strung together by low-grade anxiety and depression, quiet desperation, and an insidious loss of control. By low-grade, quiet, and insidious, I mean it’s enough to make you crazy, but seldom enough for people on the outside to validate the struggle or offer you help and respite. It’s the dangerous kind of suffering – the kind that allows you to pretend that everything is OK.
In this passage we again see the core struggle of Brené’s life, that being exposed as not capable of handling all the things is unfathomable, a no go, a hard stop, a nope. If she is allowed to pretend it’s okay, she naturally will. This is the story of many many many of us.
Also in this post, there is the force that is pushing the other way. In her first go around, it was her research that was screaming in her face “You won’t get anywhere by pushing, perfecting and controlling!” Her research said, if you don’t want to suffer shame so much, get real about who you are and express it. In this writing, it’s morphed into “the Universe”. The Universe says:
I’m not screwing around. All of this pretending and performing – these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt – has to go. Your armor is preventing you from growing into your gifts. I understand that you needed these protections when you were small. I understand that you believed your armor could help you secure all of the things you needed to feel worthy and lovable, but you’re still searching and you’re more lost than ever. Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you. You can’t live the rest of your life worried about what other people think. You were born worthy of love and belonging. Courage and daring are coursing through your veins. You were made to live and love with your whole heart. It’s time to show up and be seen.
Basically, this is the same message. Stop worrying, show up, be seen. I mean, I love it. Yet, something was missing. There was a sort of screaming in my own head. It came up most especially in this passage:
What bubbles up from this internal turmoil is fantasy. We might glance over at a cheap motel while we’re driving down the highway and think, I’ll just check in and stay there until they come looking for me. Then they’ll know I’m losing my mind. Or maybe we’re standing in the kitchen unloading the dishwasher when we suddenly find ourselves holding up a glass and wondering, “Would my family take this struggle more seriously if I just started hurling all this shit through the window?”
Most of us opt out of these choices. We’d have to arrange to let the dog out and have the kids picked up before we checked into the lonely roadside motel. We’d spend hours cleaning up glass and apologizing for our “bad choices” to our temper tantrum-prone toddlers. It just wouldn’t be worth it, so most of us just push through until “losing it” is no longer a voluntary fantasy.
Brené! Where is the next obvious paragraph? The one that notices that the reason we alone are responsible for emptying the dishwasher, picking up the kids, contemplating the drink ware and the sound it makes as it shatters, is not ONLY about our lack of courage to be seen. The layer of resistance is not ONLY about us hiding from our very personally held experience of shame generated ONLY by our close family of origin experiences. Brené, if we don’t include the systemic effect of, at a MINIMUM, patriarchy and colonialism, we will continue to fail and fail and fail.
In her interview with the Guardian that I linked above, she actually does show an awareness of how patriarchy has impacted her career. She explains the struggle with the double standard regarding her work:
“That article that was written about me,” she says at the end. “The one where it said: ‘America Has a New Queen of Self-Help’? I’ve got to tell you, I cried for four hours, because I don’t think they’d ever do that to man who had been a researcher, a scholar, for 13 years. And it’s not unusual for me to be the only female speaker in a day-long list at a corporate event. With a predominantly male audience and to be paid half of what the men are. So I double my fee and then everybody leaps on me. Saying, who do you think you are? You know who I am? I’m the person trying not to vomit into my mouth when I hear what my male counterparts are making. That’s who I am. I’m just trying to stave off the throwing up. It’s difficult, difficult.”
Yet, 3 years later, she publishes this blog that fails to explicitly acknowledge that our experience of being squashed, unheard and unseen in our lives, careers or even on the bus has a good deal to do with the fact that we apparently cannot rely on our families or broader communities to notice we are losing our gourds trying to do every f-ing thing. We cannot rely on them because they tell the same story about us (and by “us” I am talking about those the patriarchy does not include in it’s power structure) that we are telling ourselves. This story, is the story of the dominant power structure, not just your withholding mom. It’s SYSTEMIC, Brené!
This post, and my use of poor Brené, as a counterpoint, did not come out of nowhere. In fact, I was contemplating writing about my kind of recent knowing that I am really quite fabulous exactly as I am in this moment. I am recognizing that all the choices I have made (although they looked chaotic at the time) have led me to a place of relative peace. That ole Universe whispered and I said oke doke. But you know what? That’s crap. Like Brené, I have lots of education and I have an overabundance of resources, both financial and community. It still took me until I was 50 to fully move out of and get radically pissed off at the role I was playing in ways that didn’t endanger my children or my own well being. This wasn’t just a matter of me listening to the inner whisperings of my soul, although I’m totally guilty of believing that at times, I love that narrative. This was me finally having enough power and financial security to be able to see my way out of the stories I was telling myself, without running into the block of fear. To hear Brené tell it, this fear is imaginary. We’ve made it up because we don’t want to feel the shame of our failures and all we need to do is be brave and poof, the way will be cleared.
Except it’s hard to be brave if you can’t afford decent housing and you don’t have pay equity and your can’t get a job because of how your name sounds and you are sexualized at work or you are misgendered constantly or you are not believed and you are not supported in your parenting or your health and all the ways this seemingly increasingly cold hearted community is abandoning people and telling them to suck it up.
Brené never talks about that and I really want her to. I want her message to make a difference to more than the middle/upper-middle class mostly white women who can actually use and execute her advice. But how?
What if, included in her message of personal empowerment, there was also an exhortation to give back somehow? In some ways this is counter-intuitive to the message. We are already giving and giving, this is about being real and brave and taking ourselves and our choices and our realities back. But if you can do that, as I can, it really doesn’t feel right to leave people behind. Maybe this is the evolution of Brene’s work that I long for (and maybe she IS speaking about this already, I didn’t do a deep dive). When we have benefited from our self-discovery and our bravery and our steps out into the light, we need to turn around and grab someone else and take them with us. It should be a person who can’t reach critical velocity of exit from these stories of the patriarchy because they can’t amass the resources, usually because of multiple points of marginalization. Ideally, it should be someone not at all like me and Brené. It could be through recognized charitable orgs, or even better, pick an individual and really make a difference. In the past 4 years or so, that’s been my choice. I don’t get a tax receipt but the impact on that one person is big. If everyone who followed Brene’s every word did that, what a difference that would make. It would empower an army of previously silenced people who could war more effectively against these narratives, continue to put good work in the world, maybe run for public office!
That’s what I hear the universe saying to me right now. Take someone with you.
This has been a truly draining week. First there was massive election angst and I don’t do well with that I will admit. My strategy is to over involve myself up close with every minutia so I don’t miss anything that might give me hope. Of course, when I find a thing that qualifies as “hopeful” I am immediately terrified it will change or be wrong or otherwise disappear. I started this pattern after 2016 and it’s just continued. Even these days, where there are things that should technically give me hope or at least tamp down the horror (a Liberal minority up here with the balance of power in parties even farther left and a burgeoning impeachment case down south), I am not soothed. The speed at which this world has gone from something approximating a “right track” in some places to a general decent to tribal warfare is horrifying. I want to hide. But if I hide, that’s one less voice in protest, one less ally, one less person sandbagging against the flood of hate. So, hiding is not an option.
Around here, activity, rest, fitness, food. . .we think of them as in the service of something other than the dominant narrative. Nourishment, pleasure, strength, an outward impulse to go beyond zones of safety in order to gain a sense of aliveness. . .these are the things I think about when I try to write about how feminism and fitness intersect. These are the things that are necessary also to shore up my strung out heart and body so that I don’t hide. Extra important in that task is my choice of activity and whether I can like it. Because if I don’t like it, things will only feel worse in the end.
I have started weekly Pilates training again and I really like that. In part, I like how it is finicky and specific. I like how it is efficient in its impacts. I already feel stronger and more balanced, even though I can’t deadlift as much as Cate ( 170lbs, that is 2.5 yellow labs worth, that’s me plus a decent sized beagle. Can we just measure weight in dogs from now on? That would be fun right?).
I have also been running again. I try to go out once a week. I try not to push too hard. Running should not feel punishing and desperate and it has often felt that way to me. I think that is likely because I have run while comparing myself to people who are very much faster and more efficient than me. I have poor body mechanics for running and at some point I need to just accept that. Run how I run and leave it at that.
So, it was in that spirit that I went out yesterday. It was early evening and the sun was still shining. It was about 11 degrees which is perfect running weather for me. I did not want to go. I felt tired and weak and headachy. As I was walking out of my office, I had passed the open door of my colleague’s office. “Tell me to go run”, I said. She said, “Oh that’s a good idea, I should run too. I’ll go if you go.” I promised her I would and left to go home. I came in the door and didn’t pause. I changed and put my shoes on and grabbed the dog and went outside. The air was fresh and perfect and the leaves were spectacular. I started to move.
I was aware of how I was holding my shoulders around my ears and I dropped them down. I was aware that my hip girdle was also tensed and I tried to move more fluidly. These are the benefits of Pilates, btw. I have reacquainted myself with a more nuanced sense of what my parts are doing and their state. So, I was moving along and noticing my breath. It was not very laboured and I thought, “That’s nice”. Then another thought occurred to me, “Could I enjoy this? Is there any pleasure here?” I realized, as I put one foot in front of the other, that I have never explored mindfully if there is any pleasure to be found in a run. I have found achievement. I have pushed boundaries. I have felt accomplished but, as I have said many times, I have never really liked it. I proceeded on for the next few kilometres and looked into my body experience to see if I could enjoy myself. I am happy to say that I found some success there. It helped that I deliberately didn’t try to run faster or push in anyway. I stuck to my 10 minutes of running and one minute of walking pattern. I noticed that after my one minute walk, I actually had a sense of feeling refreshed. It was, overall, a very hopeful experience.
I started this post talking about the election and my general fears about the world. Running isn’t going to solve anything. Running, and my engagement in what it has to offer, does mean that I am out in the world as a moving being. I’m not hiding and I’m not giving up. I won’t disengage. I will do things that are strengthening and find the pleasure in them. Something about that feels hopeful.
I started running again. It’s fall, it’s cool and it’s getting dark early. The days of long cycles are almost gone and the truth is if I don’t have a goal, I won’t do anything. I don’t love running much. I have never loved it or really liked it at all to be truthful. Upon being encouraged by Cate, I signed up for a run in the spring and now I guess I’m prepping for a 10k. I took my old dog out with me today and we both slowly and just a little bit painfully squeezed out 4k. But that’s what it’s like at our age. Everything is a little slower and a little more painful. It would be so easy to just let it all go and just stop trying. That’s what I was thinking about as I ran, feeling that familiar uncomfortable burn in my chest and the weight of my legs as I willed them to move. “Why am I doing this?”
“Why AM I doing this? Why Why Why Why” the rhythm of my feet in time to the question. It’s not because I will win any races. I am no performance athlete. I am not doing it to change my body in any profound way. I don’t have to do it to maintain anything, I walk enough to meet all the minimum standards of movement for health. I’m trying to get hold of what is going on with me these last months, some seriously profound shift in who I am is bubbling up. Somehow this choice to run again is part of it.
About a year ago, the final chapter of the second book of my life trilogy, if you will, was coming to a tragic end. I clung to movement to ground my grief. I would get up and walk or stretch of lie on the floor in Shavasana weeping and tending to my body, my literal heart, holding pieces together with remembering I was still a whole physical being, if not a whole emotional one. I tried running a few times in the spring but each run left me with a feeling of being broken somewhere, like my body was a minefield and I made a wrong step. I stuck to the bicycle. The rhythm of my legs going round and round was more tolerable to me in more than just my body. Cycling has more range of experience. I could be gradual about it ramping up and down in the intensity based on the way a hill rolled. They physics of cycling is just kinder in all the ways than running. I needed kindness.
I was learning to live alone, preparing to live totally alone as my youngest child made her way through grade 12 and out the door to her adult life. There was relief in it, and frustration, and an exhaustion that pulled me down flat so much of the time. I guess that’s depression, to be technical, a deep nearly unreachable grief. I actually can’t run from that, as much as I have said so in another blog of mine. This was a grief about myself and I couldn’t escape. Running pressed buttons that seemed to make it worse.
Then the summer happened and the ridiculous intensity of that cycling trip to Newfoundland. Cate wrote about it here, using the experience to explore the idea of Grit. Upon reflection, that trip loomed up, surprised me and broke something else. It wasn’t the kind of breaking that the attempts at running were creating. It was more like it broke me open and exposed the seeds of what was next. The intense physicality and emotional strain of that trip (there was some weeping in a ditch) reminded me I was alive in ways I did not expect. It reminded me I wanted more life and I wasn’t settled and I wasn’t done and whatever the heck was happening wasn’t quite right either. After that trip, the physicality of my life became more joyful, even as it was trying. I realized that my sense of internal brokenness had abated and my body synced up differently. I still felt pain and fatigue but I no longer felt wounded.
When I did the TriAdventure weekend in August, I decided to run the loop once (about 4.3k) and it was not horrible at all. I ran another time up north, no hills, and that wasn’t gross either. Then there was today.
It’s seems I can’t run with a broken heart. When I think of my life and with whom I have run and why, that makes complete sense to me. It’s just one of those weird mind body expressions that I have learned to pay attention to. Here I am, in the first chapter of the third book in the trilogy. I don’t know how long this book will be or whether there will be one of those really meaningful epilogues at the end. Yet I do know that I have found my way to being more profoundly embodied than I was before, with more connections and more attention paid to what that means. Moving through to menopause ups the ante even more, as I drop into the netherworld of societal location that is the post-fertile woman. Lots of attention is being paid in the media these days to this process. Maybe Gen X can make a mark after all as we question the significance of our state change. Perhaps it IS significant, this emergent Crone in running shoes who is not clinging to youth but rather embodying something else.
So ya, I’m running again and it’s kind of okay. My heart pounds but it feels in one piece now. I’m on my own but embedded in community and other people’s lives in the best ways. I’m just getting started, it seems. Watch out :).
Last weekend, I participated in The Triadventure: The Finale,
which is the primary fundraising event for the Nikibasika project in Uganda
(the blog’s very own Cate Creede is the director of this profoundly meaningful
endeavour). The idea of this event is similar to the Friends for Life Bike
Rally that lots of us have done. . .promise to do something physically hard and
impossible to contemplate for some people and then ask them to donate. It has
the effect of creating a dual path to convincing people to part with their
money. One is the project itself (which has literally raised, as in
parented, nurtured and guided, 52 kids from very adverse circumstances into
community leaders and beautiful humans), the other is people being impressed
with how hard the participants are willing to work in order to draw attention
to the project. To that end, the full event is a 3k swim, a 14k run, a 13k
canoe and a 122k bike ride.
One of the other impacts of events like this is the community they build around a mutual goal. I came to the Triadventure late. This is the last one as the project is now fully funded to its conclusion, which will be graduation from post secondary education the last 13 kids (the youngest is 15 right now). I feel both sad that I didn’t get in on it sooner and also that the experience of being there this last time was enough to make me profoundly grateful that I got to participate even once. I feel very strongly that community building is actually the single most important impact of this event and others like it.
The money is important for sure but the lasting impact on people’s hearts moves forward through time with ripples that generate profoundly important structural cohesion in this very non cohesive world. It’s an antidote to despair. It’s hope for people across the Atlantic but also for the people immediately around us. Smith, a graduate of the project whose profession is somewhere between doctor and nurse practitioner, and who was able to come to Canada for a couple of weeks to see our medical system and participate in the event, wisely noticed the love. He talked about the love that his brothers and sisters felt in the care they received and the idea that people cared for them and worked for them. He also noticed the love of the group for each other. He was struck with love and he said it so beautifully and vulnerably over and over.
While riding the first leg of the bike ride on Sunday, I was chatting with one of the participants about the world and doom and all of that. She asked me if I thought political climate impacted the psychological health of society and how quickly I thought it was passed through to impact. She was actually asking this question in contemplation of another project she is working on that is a support umbrella for social innovation. So, this wasn’t just another bunch of left wing pinko cyclists complaining about the government and the hetero-capitalist-colonialist-patriarchy (although that was there, no doubt).
My answer, in case you wonder, is “YES” and “nearly immediately in my experience”. Leadership sends messages and the messages about disregarding the vulnerable land most acutely in the laps of the vulnerable. By definition, they are VULNERABLE and so do not have means that others have to weather the whims of cost cutters and people who think boot strapping is physically possible (as in physics people, you can’t lift your own self off the ground. Either there is a ladder, a crane, stairs or a person carries you). They are attuned to being left behind and react immediately. They are attuned to the messages that are implicitly sent (it’s their fault, they aren’t trying hard enough, their problems aren’t real, they aren’t real) and this results in further despair, trauma, immobilization and giving up. If no one cares about you, why should you care about yourself? Why would you know you could care about yourself?
Then I started to make the analogy to cycling. Sweeping to be precise. The role of a sweep on a long ride, especially a community/charity ride, is to stay at the back and make sure everyone gets home safely. This means they are likely going at a pace that is not very fast and sometimes not even very fun. It’s work to sweep. You have to keep an eye out for the most vulnerable and help them. Further, you have an obligation to look around and make sure you didn’t miss anyone because sometimes there are people you can’t see (sorry Alan, I’m glad you caught up but I felt bad).
Sweeping requires compassion for people who make dumb choices (about gear or bikes or not enough water or not enough training). Sometimes sweeping requires extra help, like a car and a lift. Those resources are given to those who need them so they can all meet us at the end of the ride and be part of our community together. If we acted like some leaders, people who make mistakes, have gear issues, get sick the day of the ride or get lost, would all be left on the side of the road, in some cases to die. We would say, “that’s their problem, heat stroke should be mind over matter”. But that is disgusting of course and we wouldn’t. We don’t.
I want the whole world to run like the Triadventure,
or the Bike Rally, or even the Ride to Conquer Cancer. I want safety and
community and sacrifice and love to be the primary motivators and goals of what
we aspire to create and be. I want hope, damn it. I know how to sweep, the
principles are easy. I want every politician to behave like a sweep. I want the
focus to be on service and selflessness, the kind that lifts everyone up and
feeds everyone, including those who serve.
Fundamentally, I think this is the kind of wisdom to
be found in sport and specifically non-competitive sport. We were all just
helping each other do a hard thing with love. I mean, that’s just the secret of
life right there isn’t it? Do the hard thing, with love.
I love Algonquin Provincial Park, a gorgeous area about 3 hours north of Toronto. While it has a few car camping spots along the main highway, it is best known for its back-country camping. The hundreds of lakes and multiple rivers are connected, web like, with well used portages, each one opening up to another spectacular vista and a loon call. It’s heaven and a place I go to disconnect from all. . .this. . .*waves hand dismissively*.
It was about 10 years ago that my dear friend Sarah, the oft mentioned, occasional contributor and mischief maker around here, introduced me to the experience of putting all your stuff in a couple of packs, putting a canoe on your head and waltzing off to adventures of all sorts. In my many trips with her, I learned the value of good gear, how to set up a camp, how to keep from getting too wet, what you need to survive and what you can get away with that is pure luxury in the experience of the trip. I have since introduced my kids and my mom to the experience, with a lot of FIAFI blogger help (Sam, Sarah, Cate, Mallory).
So, when my other Bestie, Jenn, said they wanted to go, I knew I would make that happen. Now, Jenn is no slouch when it comes to camping. They were in the Girl Guide organization for something close to 20 years as a participant and leader. They know a thing or two about tents, fires and outdoor cooking. They also love the water but somehow never put all these things together into a back-country experience. So, I planned a little trip. And when I say little, I mean little. We would put in at Tim River, do a little paddle to the lake, pop over a 350m portage to another lake with only two sites on it and establish our private resort on the point for a couple of nights. Easy, peasy. Except it wasn’t exactly that.
You see, while the park is well used and the lakes are small, nature is big. Sometimes, she gets really freaking huge by way of wind and rain. Also, the park is always changing. When a portage is marked on a tree by the shore, it doesn’t mean the trees around it stop growing and maybe obstruct that sign so that a paddler can’t see it from the direction they are coming from. And further, while my canoe is AMAZING and weighs about 37lbs, putting my fat friend Jenn in the stern or bow, proved to be a more complex issue than we anticipated.
And you know what else? One of the things I have learned about being a woman in the park, is that I need to decide to do things the way they work for me (and the people I’m with for whom I am responsible). So, this is really a story about how we make it work, even when it doesn’t look like what we thought it would or what other people think it should.
First of all, the two of us don’t fit the profile of canoeing partners. I used to experience this with Sarah too, and basically with everyone I’ve gone with except my ex. Most of the time it’s a couple of cis men or a cis man and a cis woman. Now there is nothing wrong with this configuration of tripping, obviously. What a pleasure it was to pile the heaviest pack on my ex and put a canoe on his head and go while I picked up the lighter pack and the spare bits. But that wasn’t an option with us, no man to power through. We had our own strengths, our wits and the “sense god gave us” as I imagine one of Jenn’s New Brunswick relatives saying, more colourfully than that I suspect.
This is how our put-in day went. Everything was going swimmingly. The stuff was tucked in our packs, everything was in a dry bag or a zip lock and all was efficiently strapped down. I am totally obsessed with everything being in dry bags, even if it makes the pack itself look a bit awkward. I have never tipped, or had never tipped yet (more further down, a little foreshadow here) and I have been slightly mocked by this obsession. We went to pick up the canoe, got it on the car in a half hour, grabbed the paddles, gloves and life jackets and within the next hour, we were at the put-in. Damn ,I was impressed with us.
The plan was to put Jenn in the stern because they were heavier and off we would go. So off we went. It felt a little unstable but my canoe always feels that way at the beginning. It takes some getting used to because of the flex. Well, we were about 15 meters out and the dry streak broke. The dog moved and the people over compensated and over we went. . .in front of 6 dudes who had just paddled in off the river. We were fine, we could stand up. The dog was swimming and the canoe swamped. Yet we lost not one piece of gear because it was all strapped to the canoe (another obsession) and everything was in a dry bag. There were offers of help and a lot of suggestions from our dude friends. In truth, they were gracious and kind. One of them insisted that putting me in the stern and Jenn in the bow was a better idea. I was skeptical but we tried it. We paddled for 2 minutes and I knew that was an even worse idea so I turned us around and got us back before more wetness occurred.
We were at a cross roads. It wasn’t going to work that Jenn sat in a traditional place. But hell if I was going to leave without trying something else. So, I asked them how they felt about sitting in the middle like a 5-year-old and they were thrilled. It worked! We were stable and I could maneuver and we happily (like supper happily) went off down the river.
It was windy but the wind was behind us. We were just glorious sun and smells and the world’s happiest people and dog. Then we hit the lake. Going down the shore perpendicular to the waves with a tail wind was fine. Yet, I knew something was wrong about an hour in. We should have seen the portage by then and I stared hard at the map, trying to discern were we were, meanwhile, the wind was gathering force in a way I had never experienced there and we were down at the end of the little lake clinging to a log, parallel to the waves and in danger of going over again no matter how good a ballast Jenn was.
Friends, I panicked. I was hungry and exhausted and my dog was freaking out in her quiet dog way and I didn’t know how the heck I was going to turn this boat around and try to make my way back to the mystery portage we had clearly blown past. Jenn, on the other hand, was having the time of their life. What a weirdo. The log was acting as a break water and Jenn noticed that if we pushed along it for a bit, and around a stump and a rock, we may be able to turn ourselves around in calmer water. It took everything in me to make that corner and get us to temporary safety. I knew we were actually in real trouble in the sense that we didn’t really know how far back we may have to paddle and that I may not have the strength to keep us stable and going in the right direction. But, fear not. . .a miracle occurred. As soon as we turned around, we saw an empty camp site. It wasn’t ours but I made the call and set off for that shore. We would camp there and deal with being double booked or whatever later.
After that, the trip proceeded in the way I dreamed it would. Everything was dry and we made camp quickly and efficiently. Jenn put up the hammocks and I made the most amazing dinner on my little MSR burner. We always have a lot to talk about but we had even more this time. We talked about our experience of the day and where it was hard for each of us. It turns out that the hard was in different places. Jenn’s hardest point was when I asked them to stay as still as possible while I turned the canoe around when they were in the stern. They didn’t want to let me down by facilitating dumping us again, although that was a very real possibility and wouldn’t have actually mattered given we were already soaked. It was hardest for me when I realized that I was responsible for their safety and I briefly doubted I could meet the task, that I got us lost and now we were going to drown. The solution was breaking it down into small tasks and smaller moments. When I think about it, the entire trip is just that. It forces me to break everything down into one thing at a time because if I don’t, I get overwhelmed by all the things and bits and pieces and gear and stuff. When I’m focussed like that, on what I can do right there in front of me, then I am successful and move to the next step.
There was a lot about that trip that was so hard. Yet I loved it and will do it again in about 4 weeks, this time with another friend and my kid and her pal. I will remain obsessed with dry bagging everything and I will look very very carefully at the map before we go anywhere. But nature is big and who knows what it will throw at us. The thrill of that possibility is energizing even when it’s a bit painful or fearful.
Don’t think you can do something like this? Of course you can. Find an experienced friend and do it! Everyone, every body, every gender deserves the magic to be found in places like this. Just remember. . .dry bags, PFD’s, and one thing at a time.
I’m in the front hallway and it’s 8:45 pm on a Tuesday night. I’m about ready to get in my PJ’s. My daughter has woken herself from a power nap about a half hour ago. She puts on yoga pants, a t-shirt and her hair up in a messy bun. She dons running shoes, picks up her bag and kisses me goodbye. She’s going climbing. Cheap rates start at 9pm. I watch her walk out the door and down the path to the car. She is nimble, energized, unconcerned. I am struck at the contrast I suddenly recognize in a fully embodied way. I will never be able to do anything like that with such ease again.
This is mid-life, right here. I am fully conscious of the experience in this moment. I am tired, aching, knowing I have to conserve to perform. I am without the reserve that exists in my 18 year old daughter and that’s reality from now on.
Peri-menopause. “The Leadup to Menopause Can Be Very Uncomfortable and Poorly Understood“, read the headline of one of Sam’s #blogfodder posts on our community group. That post happened to go up on my birthday last Friday. I was smack in the middle of a massive mental break down for no reason. Sure, I had worked in the morning and sure, I had my mother coming over for dinner. But for godssake, my kids were around, the weather was beautiful and one of my two best friends was already on the train to come hang out while I cooked. All was well. Yet there I was, on my couch, hyper ventilating while my poor kid offered me water and I choked out the sentence, “It isn’t you, it’s my hormones”. I wanted to die. Instead, I took an Ativan from my dwindling supply.
What’s happening to me is deeply personal and physical and psychological. It is everything all at once. I am both worn and worn out. I am needy and needed. I am at the peak of my career and confidence and simultaneously challenged to justify my life. It’s a mess and the “failing ovarian function” is just one more frickin’ thing that I have to deal with in unexpected places.
I really struggle with the language of “treating” peri-menopause. Is it not after all, a natural part of life? Why should I have to treat it? On the other hand, declining estrogen is already affecting my heart and bones and I have too much I want to do and see before I retire to a rocking chair. I think back to that moment of watching my daughter saunter off at an ungodly hour to be intensely physical and I am so so so jealous of that ease. When I prepare to go out to do something strenuous, I spend my time prepping and unravelling my tired, stiff body, hoping that whatever I am about to do doesn’t break something, or at least not too badly.
“How was your ride?”
“I do not seem to have any undue injury.”
That is success now.
I am so very proud of what my body can do. I did my metric century two weekends ago and last weekend, I did a quick 40k before I went and stomped around the streets of Toronto for the Toronto Pride Dyke March. I was fine. I wasn’t even unduly sore. I have to make peace with the fact that every morning, likely for the rest of my life, I will have to unravel my aching body to face my day. No wait, “my STRONG aching body”. That’s better. My aching, strong, peri-menopausal self will get up, unravel, take the dog for a walk, fuel up with coffee and do what needs to be done because that’s what it needs to do. Ease will not be a part of that process in the way it is for my daughter, but grace can be. I don’t have the endurance of youth but I do have the sure knowledge of how far past the edge I can go without falling. This is mid-life, right here, right now.I think I’m almost ready.