Well, this post was supposed to come out in early January, when the title might have been more appropriate. But six weeks later, I am only now beginning to pull my head above water every now and then to notice what year it is.
For those who read my last couple of posts–a quick update: my mom survived, although she spent 3 months in the hospital. And since my parents clearly need help now, I spent December and January clearing out their house in New York and moving the two of them in with us in Massachusetts. My dad clearly has dementia setting in, which is tough tough tough. And my mom is weak and overwhelmed, using a walker, needing a lot of help, but at least basically healthy now. Still working on fixing up their New York house for sale, establishing a new network of care and medical resources for them here, cooking and cleaning for 5, and balancing three generations of strong and very different personalities under one roof (with very mixed results). And lest we think we were almost out of the woods, my husband is now facing difficult knee replacement and reconstruction surgery at the beginning of March.
As I’ve often said, one of the goals of this website is to provide inspiration for people contemplating or going through planned or unplanned adventures. So I hope the above summary makes at least most of you feel better about your own lives, just by comparison. And if it doesn’t, because you’re going through a stretch just as tough or tougher … at least take comfort that you’re not alone in the swamp.
Indeed, I’ve been amazed, the past few months, at how much company I really do have. I dislocated my wrist jumping out of bed to chase down my dad in the early hours of one morning, soon after my mom went into the hospital. And due to the amount of caretaking, packing, clearing out, cleaning, moving, and such I’ve been doing since then, the soft tissue damage still hasn’t healed. So I’ve had a brace on my right forearm and hand for the past 15 weeks. It leads to interesting conversations at grocery stores and other places where I now need to ask for help.
“Oh, yes, I went through that with my parents,” is a common reply, said with sympathy, softness, and almost heartbreaking kindness. I’ve found people working at Target because they couldn’t take care of their parents and keep their inflexible corporate schedules. I’ve found parents who are raising disabled children. People working two jobs and caretaking parents with dementia when they go home at night. What’s been most eye-opening is the abundance of the stories. I am reminded almost daily of the saying, “Try to be kind to those you meet on the street. You have no idea what burdens they are carrying.”
And yet, finding kindred spirits in as unexpected a place as Target shouldn’t surprise me.
Adventure, as I’ve often said, comes in many forms and guises. The fun kind is the kind we choose–flying onto a glacier, scuba diving some exotic waters, climbing a mountain, kayaking a coastline, or exploring new cultures and lands. But just as educational is the kind we do not choose–the kind where life simply throws us out of the “normal” we knew into an unfamiliar, challenging, and uncertain place where there’s no clear way out, or even forward.
This is, of course, the point of my Surviving Uncertainty book. And there’s a whole chapter in it devoted to the importance of friends and kindred spirits, which includes the following notes on the subject:
“One of the most important elements in any epic hero journey tale is the role played by the friends and unexpected guides who appear along the way. Where would Frodo Baggins have been without his good friend Sam? Or Gandalf? Or the enchanted trees, for that matter? Many epic heroes begin by thinking they can conquer the world on their own. None succeed without letting go of that notion, even if they recognize that there are battles–particularly internal battles–we all have to work through on our own.”
“A hero’s journey can be lonely, because it involves walking away from the comfort others are still clinging to, even if you didn’t choose the events that forced you out of that comfort. There will be times when you have to accept that others just don’t understand. But the flip side of that is … in the dark woods and night of a hero’s journey tale, after the hero has walked away from the villagers who can’t follow, or don’t understand, there are always fellow travelers; kindred spirits who appear to keep the hero company and help protect and guide them. That’s not just a fairy tale idea. It’s how the world works.”
So it shouldn’t surprise me when my own words, written with such conviction, prove true again in my own life. And there should be great comfort to others in that, as well. Kindred spirits really do always appear.
I still have a stack of interesting articles and ideas I’ll comment on in the weeks ahead. But first, a few random insights and thoughts from my ongoing adventure, as I face a new and very uncertain year:
The appeal of physical adventure
I have been reminded, once again, of why physical adventures are so appealing to people. Physical adventures are limited-time endeavors, with clear-cut goals and challenges that CAN be overcome. They also allow us to focus on ourselves, instead of others (always more fun), and they almost always involve some new sights, experiences or rewards that are thrilling, exhilarating, beautiful, or sensuous. This makes them far more appealing than some of the other–and arguably more important–adventures in life, which do not have clear starting or end points, involve challenges that cannot really be completed, overcome or conquered, and require us to focus on others instead of feeding our own senses and desires.
But I also find myself wondering why we so glorify people who pursue individual, physical adventures instead of the messier, focus-on-others variety. Climb Mt. Everest and you can get paid to give speeches on it for years. Step up when a family member dies and give up your unencumbered, happy life to raise their kids for them and nobody offers you anything.
I know why, of course. It’s the same reason we want to watch movies about exciting things, rather than mundane daily life. Movies (and magazine stories, or any other public storytelling or recognition) allow us to live vicariously through the excitement and adventure of others. And who wants to vicariously live the life of burdened people walking down the street? No fun in that. (Perhaps reality TV shows are an exception to that, although only because we look at the contestants as negative role models, not admirable ones.)
But there is some important food for thought in that disparity.
The resilience of humans
At least a dozen times in the past five months, I’ve said to myself, “I cannot do this any longer.” And yet, of course, I do. The truth is, humans are amazingly resilient. We can handle far more than we think we can, which should be a comforting thought to anyone who fears that they won’t be enough for the challenges life throws at them. The only caveat to that is … while we can handle almost anything, it is not without cost. And that’s the kicker.
What do we do about that? I’m still working on that one, but I think it’s why the writers of epic hero journeys inevitably give their hero scars from the dark, challenging nights of the journey. George Lucas had Luke Skywalker lose his hand. Ged, in Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea Trilogy, has his face terribly scarred in his battles.
The important thing, I think, becomes what we do with the scars we accumulate along the way. More on that later, too.
The importance of patience
Part of the appeal of flying, or adventure sports or challenges, is that is allows us to be actively “in control” of what’s going on around us. (Or, at least to the extent that we convince ourselves we are, even if nature actually has the upper hand.) Nobody likes being helpless. Taking control and taking action are empowering.
But while it may get glossed over in adventure books, there’s an equally important aspect of any physical or life adventure, and that’s the ability to recognize when, to some extent, you simply need to accept waiting it out, or being where you are at the moment. Every VFR pilot knows the frustration of sitting in an airport office, waiting for weather to clear. Well, the same is true in other areas and times of our lives. Sometimes life diverts us from the path we wish to be on, and railing against it doesn’t change anything. In fact, it might blind us to something important along that side trail.
I believe it was the writer Alice Walker who told her students once that those frustrating times of knowing you weren’t where you wanted to be, but not knowing where to go next or exactly how to get there, was actually an important phase, because it was in those times when new ideas or understanding ripened within you.
Acceptance and patience, if combined with a still-open mind, eyes, ears and heart, can, I think, be powerful forces. Attend to the tasks at hand as life requires of you. But even in the exhaustion and frustration, try to listen, still, for what understanding or direction might emerge.
More to come on all of this, as well as other entrepreneurial and adventure thoughts and ideas. And, even if a little belatedly … Happy New Year!