When athletes talk about breaking through the wall, they’re usually referring to the wall you hit twenty miles into a marathon or the wall you hit when you’re straining to lift more than you’ve ever lifted before, not the wall you hit when you’ve been walking for less than a minute. But that’s where my wall is. My wall often hovers in front of me and sometimes it collapses around me. My own personal tonne of bricks. My ominous, lightning-struck tarot tower. But what is a pile of rubble if not a challenge to climb?
I live in a suburb barely on the outskirts of the centre of town but because this is Edinburgh, where dormant volcanoes and chunks of mountain rise from the city, there is a forest park five minutes from my front door. Recently I have been exploring this forest park, slowly and in small sections, savouring every moment because you only get to go somewhere for the first time once. I take different paths each time with no idea where each one leads, relying on a sense of direction that is not calibrated for roads but never fails in nature. Today, I climbed not only my metaphorical fallen wall but also a literal hill.
It was a gradual incline at first, then a steeper one, but I’m tenacious and I love a good view so I climbed. The people I passed on my way likely thought I was at the end of a long and strenuous run, not the beginning of a comparatively short but still strenuous walk. I get embarrassed being out of breath in front of people. It feels like failure. Then I remember that they see me for only a few seconds and I probably don’t even register on their radar. My heart that always beats a little faster than it should, leaping sharply at the slightest provocation but barely speeding up further even when I’m gasping for breath and dripping with sweat, was dancing in my chest as I reached the top, rounded a corner and encountered a castle.
I’m not speaking in metaphors here. There was an actual castle at the top of the hill. I knew it existed but I didn’t realise that was where it was or that I was going to see it today. I stopped to catch my breath and take a picture. I always take pictures when I’m walking because on the days, weeks, months and years when I can’t walk I look at the pictures to be reminded that there are times when I can. Chronic illness can drop you into a bizarre wonderland without warning but so can anything else and sometimes castles appear out of nowhere just when you need a little bit of extra magic in your life.
My activity tracker buzzed on my wrist and the voice of its accompanying mobile app interrupted the music playing through my earphones to give me an update on my distance and speed. Those numbers are good to hear but it could say nothing more than “You are putting one foot in front of the other” and that would be enough for me. I caught myself wondering if I was feeling better, which is a strange state of questioning for me because I have no reliable frame of reference for ‘better’. When other people ask me that, the only way I know how to respond is to say that today I am able to do this, whatever that means. Before, when I had a good day or a good week, there was a little voice in my head that whispered, “This is it, this is the beginning, you’re going to be fine now” and when the next crash came, I hated that voice. Now I let it speak and I reply, “Maybe. Maybe not. But maybe”. I have come to recognise that voice as hope and hope should never be silenced. This is not a fight nor a struggle. There is no against. There is only with.
I looked at the screen of my phone to see how many steps I’d taken and noticed the summary of last night’s sleep. I had been in bed for six hours. I had slept for less than three because my back and legs ached, relentlessly, violently, and the feeling of my nerves and muscles imploding kept me awake. Pain cannot be measured by an activity tracker or displayed by an app and it is an ever-present, impatient, short-tempered teacher. For years, I thought I had to beat it into submission. Now I know that I need to listen to it, to learn from it and to finally understand that it is not a punishment nor a gift. It is simply circumstance.
I wandered beneath the gentle shade of yew trees, planted years ago to allow the lady of the grand house nearby to walk a sheltered path to the castle and I felt history wrap around me, heard the echoes of the steps of everyone who has ever walked under those trees. Walking today, being able to walk today, was not a victory over misfortune nor a triumph over suffering. It was a victory of love, a triumph of acceptance. That’s true of every step, ever, and walking facilitates a unique kind of spontaneous meditation that I always welcome when I’m lucky enough to experience it. It feels like something that has been blocked and caged is finally free to flow. It feels like my mind is open wide.
I remembered a boxer I met at a physiotherapy gym over a decade ago. I’ve written about him before. The one time we met, he strapped gloves to my hands and put on pads so I could hit something, anything, as much as I needed to. And I did, because I needed to so much. Just before everything went black and I had to sit down on the floor of the gym because I was in no way well enough to exert myself like that, he said “You’re an angry little thing, aren’t you?”.
As I made my way onto the final path towards the exit from the forest park, I quietly answered the boxer’s question eleven years late. I was angry, so angry for so long, but I’m not angry any more. Now I’m grateful. Now I go for walks and find castles.
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