Pain

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No grit, no pearl

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

Several years ago, I took to writing the word “grit” on my wrist. Any time I was faced with a challenge, emotional or physical, I would take a Sharpie and give myself a visible reminder to hang tough.

Because that’s what grit is: courage in the face of anything. Strength of character. Steely-eyed endurance. Firmness of mind. An indomitable spirit. Pluck. I like these descriptions; they’re traits I’d like to embody, words of fortitude, resilience, and backbone. “Grit” was on my wrist when I climbed a host of Colorado mountains by myself, when I went into difficult meetings at work, and when I ran my first marathon earlier this year. Associating myself with the concept of grit, no matter how contrived, makes me feel strong and capable and — if I’m honest — like a badass. I like this version of grit.

But there’s a more literal, concrete definition: grit can simply refer to rough, loose particles of stone or sand. The other day, I was walking Foxy on a dirt trail in flip-flops, and felt the sharpness of dust and gravel slide in against my feet. Grit can be abrasive. Grit can be painful.

Anyone who has gone through major loss knows that there are moments in which survival feels impossible. Sharp sadness invades uninvited and rubs so raw it feels as if your heart cannot go on beating, that the open wound of gritty grief might actually kill you. This has been true for me in the aftermath of my recent unraveling. On the worst days, my heart has felt so exposed, so sore, that I have been tempted to react desperately and defensively. I’m ready to build a shield to protect myself from ever hurting this way again.

But then I remember, that is not how the pearl gets made.

Like our hearts, oysters are soft and tender, relying on their hard shells to keep them safe. But occasionally, a grain of sand will sneak in, and this coarse foreign object — this grit — can cause pain, rock against flesh. One might think that the oyster would react protectively, forming a leathery callous to protect itself, but it doesn’t. The oyster remains soft, yielding to the suffering, and slowly, over time, begins to wrap the grain of sand in translucent layers of beauty.

The pearl is the oyster’s response to the pain.

I wish it didn’t hurt so badly. I wish the pain could be erased. But as my friend Becky recently said to me, “God isn’t an eraser, he’s a redeemer.” There is no changing what has happened, no denial of what’s been done — but there is hope for redemption, for something beautiful and new. God brings beauty from ashes and pearls from dirt.

So I will keep my heart soft, giving myself over to the pain in the trust that it will be transformed. I will keep my back strong, summoning the courage and resolve to keep going. And I will keep my wrist inked — now permanently — with grit.

Fargo Forever

Thursday, May 25th, 2017

Over the course of the last four and a half months, I ran 434 miles. Last Saturday, all of that training culminated in me running — and I do mean running — the Fargo Marathon. I did it! I ran the entire thing! I never stopped, except this one time (we’ll get to that).

First things first, I will never do it again. I will never run another full marathon. My body just isn’t meant for it, you know? In the last few days of recovery, I’ve felt like an old Volvo whose frame was just sprung in an accident. Everything was rattled and pounded and jarred and thrashed. I’m back to walking, but I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to squat down to unload groceries into the refrigerator ever again. My knees are talking to me, telling me the deep secrets of their souls. My left glute is permanently crimped. I descend the stairs backward like a toddler, using my hands for balance, butt in the air. Nay, I say to thee: I will live the rest of my days in a safe, padded cocoon, treasure my cartilage, and protect my joints like the precious gifts they are.

But am I sorry I did it? Not a chance.

My sister Sarah drove up from Kansas City – 9 hours! – to be race support

The morning of, standing in the chute waiting for the race to start, even before they starting playing “Eye of the Tiger,” I was already tearing up. I couldn’t believe it was finally here, all of the hard work come to fruition. It’s true what they say: the training is the real achievement, and the race is just the victory lap.

A reeeeealllly long victory lap.

The first 20 miles went better than I could have ever dreamed. When I did my 20-mile training run, it took me 3 hours 40 minutes; when I hit the 20-mile mark on race day, the time was 3 hours 15 minutes. I was flying! (You know, for me.) Up until that point, I was running 9:55 minute miles, and having a great time.

Still feeling good with 7 miles to go — I was so young and innocent and had no idea what was coming

But then I passed mile 20. And you know what’s past mile 20? Hell. Except hell is made of a billion tiny knives stabbing you simultaneously. And then those monkeys from The Wizard of Oz fly in and rip you limb from limb. And then what’s left of you is set on fire and left to burn in a dumpster.

I’m trying to find a strong enough word for the pain. Agony? Excruciation? I could feel every cell in my body individually dying — probably because they literally were.

Somewhere between mile 22 and 23, I reached downtown Fargo. This is the iconic stretch of Broadway where you run past the Fargo Theater, and tons of people are out to cheer. Earlier in the morning I had had visions of reaching this point, and how surely it would result in a euphoria that would carry me to the end.

But do you know what happened on Broadway?

I stopped, put my hands on my knees, crumpled to the ground, and curled up in a ball. I curled up in a ball in the middle of the road! There were no thoughts going through my head except one long “Noooooooooooo.” No to running. No to pain. No to life. I heard footsteps around me as runners passed, and figured it was only a matter of time before someone yelled for a medic.

I was down for about 10 seconds before I felt hands under my arms and I was hoisted up — but it wasn’t a medic. It was a fellow runner. He was wearing a National Guard shirt and looked like a real BAMF, you know? He stood me up, steadied me on my feet, looked me in the eye, and then shook his finger in my face and yelled, “YOU GOT THIS!” Then he high-fived me so hard my hand hurt, and took off.

And you know what? It worked. I started to run again. I ran through the pain all the way to the end, because, in the words of modern day wise men Rascal Flatts, “When push comes to shove, you taste what you’re made of.” And it turns out I’m made of grit. Who knew?

Our sage prophets

When I crossed the finish line, I immediately burst into tears. There was my sister Sarah, and my dad and Nicole, and our friends Scott and Stephanie, and I didn’t have to run anymore, and it was over, and I had done it. I had done it! The thing I had never been sure I could do. But I did it anyway.

I earned those ugly tears

I finished in 4:27:14, faster than even my secret stretch goal. And I will love Fargo for the rest of my life.

Marathoner!

The time I walked to Breckenridge

Friday, July 4th, 2014

The night before I left, my mom said to me, “I just never want you to be scared, or anything to be hard.”

I laughed, because didn’t she know what I’d signed up for?

Like it or not, I was right: the first week on the Colorado Trail has been scary and hard – mostly hard. And despite the temptation to sugarcoat the details for my lovingly protective mother, I’m just going to give it to you straight.

I was prepared for a challenge. I was prepared for physical discomfort. But I was not prepared for the pain. On the first day, my pack weighed 45 lbs – the equivalent of a 5-year old child. My friend Sarah hiked the first two days with me, and when we would stop for breaks, we would unbuckle our packs to have them drop to the ground like boulders, like that ride at amusement parks that pulls you up, up, up, just to release and send you plummeting to the ground. Granted, Sarah’s pack was mostly a Bota Box of wine (of which we barely had any – sorry, Sarah).

Mine was just heavy.

I quickly developed sores on each of my shoulders, spots where my straps rubbed me raw. I hope you’re not offended by a bare collarbone, because here it is.

photo (12)

Then came the blisters. First my left heel, then my right pinky toe and the one next to it, then the ball of my left foot, then the left pinky. I doctored them as best as I could, but there was no way around the first few days of excruciating pain. Every step was like walking on knives.

The heat wasn’t helpful, either. Saturday and Sunday, Sarah I went whole hog, hiking 21 miles the first day and 20 the second. The days were so hot, we’d arrive at our campsite ready to vomit (hence the minimal wine consumption).

Before Sarah left on Sunday night, she looked at me and said, “You’re really brave.” But is it really bravery if I didn’t feel afraid? I was too shell-shocked to feel fear.

“But what if I’m not tough?” I said, blinking back the tears.

“You can do this,” she said. “You can do this.” And then she drove back to Denver with her husband Tom, and I spent my first night alone in the woods.

I thought that the decision was made when I put in for my leave of absence last fall, or maybe when I gathered each piece of gear, or definitely when I stepped out on the trail on June 28. But I’m learning that the decision to hike this trail is made every single time I pull my pack back on, groaning under the weight, and then straightening my shoulders and moving forward. It’s a constant re-deciding to keep going.

I could tell you a lot of stories from this week – about how in a moment of desperation I lay on my back in the middle of the trail in Happy Baby pose (feeling anything but happy), or how I leapt an uncomfortably wide irrigation ditch with my full pack on (like a heavy-laden, off-balance superhero), or how I came across a felled tree blocking the path and it was too high to climb over so I opted to crawl under (and wound up stuck, belly to the ground), or how I feel a new kinship with Lance Armstrong (because if someone were to offer me performance enhancing drugs, I would take them), or how I came across car campers who said the 5 magic words (“Do you want a beer?”), or how I awoke on the fifth day with a fire in my bones and tore over the Continental Divide (like She-Ra, Princess of Power). I could tell you how amazing my shower in Breckenridge felt (a holy experience), how delicious my burger tasted (try the curry ketchup at Empire Burger), or how I cried this morning when my dad brought me a resupply of food (and a visit from Foxy).

But it’s time for me to close the computer and head back to the trail – I’m about to be dropped off at the trailhead to hike into tonight’s campsite, tears still in my eyes. I’m going to keep going. And that’s what the past week has really been about – deciding and re-deciding and walking even when I didn’t think I could walk any further, through the tears and discouragement and the most beautiful terrain.

I’m 104 miles in. Here’s to 104 more.

ContinentalDivide

When you can’t go back

Monday, September 9th, 2013

On Friday, I witnessed a tragedy. It’s not my story to tell, but everyone who experienced it was deeply affected, and I spent the afternoon close to the surface, eyes brimming with tears. That night when I called my mom, I erupted into sobs, undone because what happened could not be undone.

I spent Saturday morning quiet, sad, in my backyard pulling weeds. The yard had been sprayed a few weeks ago and everything was brittle and dead, but I needed to clear the ground. As I worked the roots out of the dry dirt, I realized just how many foxtails I was dealing with.

The foxtail weed looks like a wheat head, small and bristly. When Toad would come in from the backyard, her legs would be covered in them, and I would pull them off one by one. But then Becca told me that foxtails can burrow themselves in a dog’s skin, working their way deeper and deeper – and like a porcupine quill, they can only move in a forward direction. Once in, their awn-shape makes it impossible to pull them back – you can only hope that they’ll work their way out someday.

I never let Toad in the backyard again.

When horrible things happen, we want to reverse them. Most of the time, they’re irreversible.

The only thing to do is to keep moving forward, looking for the light.

My first trip to the ER

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

I woke up this morning with a hospital bracelet on my left hand and a patch of gauze taped to my right. Last night, for the very first time in my life, I had reason to visit the emergency room – and judging by the Vicodin now pumping through my veins, it was nothing short of a necessity.

Perhaps you recall the time long ago that I worked out with Gunnar the Viking. Although I never paid for another personal training session, I’ve incorporated some of the moves he taught me into my regular workouts – and last night, while lifting an embarrassingly small amount of weight, I threw out my back.

And just like that, I am one of the Debilitated.

The pain… I wish I could communicate the pain. My lower back is a war zone, a constant buzzing electricity that shoots hot daggers of fire throughout my body whenever I move, making me cry out loud and literally want to vomit. I somehow made it out of the gym and into the driver’s seat of my car, and then, with tears streaming down my face, drove home where Hannah encountered me gasping for air and crying.

She took off my shoes, laid me back on a heating pad, elevated my legs, gave me some Aleve, and we both went to bed. Except I never fell asleep – the pain kept getting worse, I kept crying uncontrollably, and after 4 hours of increasing agony, I did what any logical person would do: I called my mom.

Now, I’m not saying I’m super tough or anything, but I definitely don’t lose it like this. Physical things don’t make me come unglued – emotional things, yes (we all know this), but physical things, never. My mom was freaked to hear me so hysterical, and convinced me to go to the hospital.

And because everyone loves an oversharer:

I got my first-ever oxygen mask (when the nurse said that the nasal prongs looked a little bit long and he would look for his scissors to trim them, I assured him that it would be okay because “I’ve got nostrils for days.” Really? Who says that?), an IV for pain meds, and prescriptions for various narcotics. I’ve been ordered to “take it easy” for several weeks, which is disappointing and scary for someone as active as I am.

Then again, when do we ever have a doctor’s order NOT to work out? If it weren’t for the pain, I’d be almost intrigued by this invitation to a slower pace.

My pain level was a 9-10 last night, but down to a 4-5 with the drugs today. I’m in bed with a heating pad, surrounded by pill bottles and books and projects that I would work on if I weren’t feeling so mentally dulled. Toad is the best little companion, letting me sleep until 10am without begging for her breakfast or needing to go out. And Hannah is the champion of roommates, getting up at 2am to drive me to the hospital, sitting with me until 4, taking me to the pharmacy this morning, and not making fun of me for whimpering.

I figured I’d write all of this down so that someday when I’m about to give birth and afraid of the pain, I can look back on this and say, “Remember that? You’ll be fine.”

Girl, interrupted

Sunday, December 2nd, 2012

… and we’re back.

I thought about making a video to give a glimpse into my life in November, but if I had, it would have been full of long, drawn out silences and artsy frames of my face staring off into nowhere.  Trust me, I respect you more than to put you through that. The month was fairly quiet, nothing exploded, and I crossed off each day in my calendar as it passed.

It’s an odd thing we do, this virtual sharing of our lives. The internet is still a new frontier, and WE are the ones determining the etiquette – how much to tell, how vulnerable to be, what is meaningful, what isn’t. In real time, we are succeeding and failing and flying and flailing – and we’re often giving hundreds (if not thousands) of people a front row seat.

When it’s great, it’s really great. But when it’s not, it’s magnified.

As far as this blog is concerned, I’ve been playing it safe. Having once written from a very authentic place, I’ve been sharing less and less – and what I do share is surface-level, at best. I’ve wanted to maintain an image of having it all together – of being fine, even when I’m not. I’ve wanted to be cool and smart and witty; I’ve wanted you to like me. There, I said it.

I have spent years chasing excitement, adventure, and change – looking to validate my existence with various and sundry admirable feats. I’ve sought interruptions to the mundane, and solicited drama to avoid being bored with my life (or, more exactly, disappointed with my life).

But it turns out that what I’ve needed has not been an interruption of circumstances, but an interruption at the core of who I am.

These days, my sense of self is being torn apart in the best possible way. Oh, sure, it can feel like being put through a cheese grater, painful and terrifying, like the pieces could never possibly be put back together (unless they were melted in a microwave) (which doesn’t sound much better).

But it’s been SO GOOD, you guys. Humbling. Necessary. And it’s leading to good things.

In fact, Greta, who knows me better than just about anyone in the world, recently wrote to me, “I just feel like you’re leaving this very safe, very small, very familiar square of space and heading out into the biting air – and now you’re WALKING and FEELING and seeing things. I see you MOVING right now, more than you have in years.” What an encouragement to have someone who can recognize the things that we’re too close to see.

And how ironic that the acceptance of what I’ve historically thought of as an “ordinary” life could actually lead to much greater truths: freedom, clarity, peace.

I am still very much in process. I have jack-nothing figured out. But I am tired of holding my breath, hiding beneath the surface-level words posted in this space. I am ready to come up for air, no matter what it might look like, no matter who might see the inevitable thrashing (and you know there will be thrashing).

So thank you for being here, whoever you are. Your presence, even virtual, makes a difference to me. Our stories are meant to be shared – and I’m grateful to have a chance to share mine with you.

Reminded

Saturday, July 21st, 2012

First things first, thanks to everyone who has called/texted/written to make sure I’m okay.  I am not dedicated enough to go to a midnight showing of any movie, let alone a Batman one – and in fact, I wasn’t even in Colorado on the night of the shooting.  I am very much okay, aside from being horrified along with the rest of the country.

I am reminded once again that this world is not a safe place.

Other things have been going on in my life – big events, changes of plans, last minute flights.  I spent the week in in Richland, WA, feeding ice chips to my grandmother, smoothing her hair back with a wet washcloth, sleeping on a too-small hospital loveseat.  I hate cancer with a passion, and in spite of missing a week of work, there was no doubt that I was exactly where I needed to be.

I am reminded once again that family always wins.

Life continues to feel fractured and imperfect, and “happiness” isn’t something that I feel much of these days.  But even when walking in the cold shadows, we are bound to come across patches of warm light – the trick is to just keep moving.  I am moving.  And I’m encouraged by the moments of warmth, and trusting in a hope that is bigger than circumstances.

I am reminded once again that “happiness” and “joy” are different things.

Running uphill

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

Well, well. It seems that yesterday’s post was the blog heard ’round the world – that was the most visits I’ve gotten since December 1, 2010.

In the event that you’re new here, welcome. I’m Annie, the curator of this here little web log, and I live in Denver, where the weather is currently 27 degrees and snowing. I’ve been told that for having a desk job, I lead a pretty exciting life – and a lot of the time, I have to agree, although it’s probably worth arguing that I just like to make a big deal out of the dull. I’m hungry all the time. I order the clothes in my closet according to ROY G. BIV. I’m working really hard toward becoming debt free. I don’t own a single pair of leggings.

Here’s a little glimpse into my present reality.

I’m less than a month away from the Seattle Half-Marathon, and my training has been going super well. I’m excited to run this course through my favorite city (if you’re familiar with Seattle, check it out – such a fun and scenic route). I know that there are a lot of hills, and I’ve been figuring out how to run hills more efficiently. My über-runner friend Mark Miller always says that when running uphill, one should keep the same effort level, but not necessarily the same pace – which is relevant to my life right now.

I’m heading uphill, and trying just as hard – but just going a little bit slower.

Several months back, I found myself at rock bottom in the ditch of all ditches – down with the muskrats and the snakes and the creepy crawlers – with no clear and easy way out. I’m slowly but surely working my way upward, but realizing that a lot of damage has been done. Movement doesn’t come as easily as it once did. I’m finding that it’s helpful to slow down, to not push myself too hard, to strip away distractions, and to focus on one step at a time.

It’s not flashy, and it’s not exciting, and it’s quiet and tough and sometimes painful work that can only be done on my own, under the strength of my own two legs. But it’s leading me higher.

Thanks for being here, friends.

“You might change your mind”

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

I’ve been thinking.

And I think… I think that Lori McKenna’s “The Luxury of Knowing” is the best song I’ve ever heard.

I mean it.

Keith Urban’s version isn’t bad, either.  Holy smokes.

[Please forgive YouTube videos – just listen.  And let your heart break.  And then get on with your day.]

“The Undoing”

Monday, May 9th, 2011

It feels strange to not be writing here.

When I don’t write, I’m reminded that this blog was born out of a need in me, for myself, and not really for anyone else.  I can’t not write.  I think I have to, as a part of being the truest version of myself.

But I haven’t been writing here. And I’ll admit, I’m not feeling much like myself these days.

But here’s a new song, recorded yesterday with a stuffy nose, super lo-fi style in the living room.  It gives a glimpse into these days, the days when it’s difficult to write anything else.

Thanks for hanging in there with me.

[Song has been taken down – maybe you’ll hear it some other time.]