I caved. You rock.

 

Photo of a climber high up on a rockface in the Odyssey Adventure, Waitomo Caves, New Zealand

I don’t have a bucket list. It seemed like a stupid thing to have when I was sick, like a pointless fantasy.  So while the well-world went about inventorying all their possibilities, I thought more about the small things I would love to do when I was well. More baking for my family. Swimming in the ocean. Making memories of connection and authenticity; creating those little moments, that pieced together would someday provide comfort for the people I love. Like a soft woven wrap to draw around themselves when I am gone. Like I do with the memories of my mother.

But like all the things I never realised about the ‘well-world’, being in remission has me thinking about this bucket list phenomenon. I suspect the list I am developing is a ‘fuck-it list’ (pardon the crude word, but it rhymes and expresses my feelings in a satisfying manner!) I am seeing opportunities that I never would have taken on previously and thinking ‘…ah, fuck it.  Why not?’  Things that never would have been on my radar before I got sick, because, let’s face it; who in their right mind would want to rock climb inside a mountain?

The thing is, if I can go through all those years of sickness, I can do most things. And yesterday I figured if I could put this fat body in front of a camera, I could put it on a caving expedition too.

Let me preface with the fact that the last time I climbed anything was a tree when I was a teenager. I’m not agile, I’m not yet fit. And I am carrying a lot of weight, even for my 182cm frame. I’m 110kg.  So when we arrived at the Legendary Blackwater Rafting Co. in Waitomo (I was with our friend Tatijana from Macedonia, and CC from China) the plan was to glide on black inner tubes through the cave rivers, under the glow worms. It was a real disappointment to discover that the rains had flooded out all but one expedition: the most challenging of the three expeditions, the extreme 5 hour Odyssey caving adventure through the heart of the mountain.  Humouring the girls (both teeny creatures), I agreed to see if I passed the ‘fit test’, where you have to physically force yourself through a tiny low tunnel constructed in the ticket office. It bends around a corner and the theory is, that if you can fit through there, you can fit through the cave crevasses on the trip. Inside the fit tunnel, I had a little hyperventilation moment. Two young tourists I didn’t know giggled at my predicament. I said no to joining Tatijana and CC on the trip.

We went for lunch at the nearby Huhu cafe.  It was delicious. I enjoyed a glass of wine with my lunch, and as I sipped, our waitress (who summers as a cave guide) wanted to know why I wasn’t joining my companions on the climb. I explained the fit test squeeze and she said her partner who is bigger than me could get through the mountain, so I could too.  And besides, the tightest bit is only ten minutes long (puh! says my hindsight!). Was it her?  Was it the wine? Was it the encouragement of my tiny and enthusiastic companions?  We went back to base, I spoke with the cave instructors, and I signed up.

Note the relative size difference between me and my fellow cavers....
On our way to the cave entrance, me and my tiny companions felt excited…. the relative size of us will help you see how small the spaces were in the photo below.

Even when they attached my harness and ropes to me, I didn’t really think about why we needed them. Even when they put the helmet on my head, and passed me some men’s size tens, I didn’t really think about what was ahead. I suspect my brain had ceased all extra function, I was already into the first challenge of my trip, and I was all denial. It’s nothing I thought, it’s been done before, it will come to an end… it’s fine.  Thoughts ominously reminiscent of going into labour.

CC inches her way through a tight spot.
CC inches her way through a tight spot.

About five minutes into the cave, I had to bend double to fit under a rocky outcrop. “I hope there aren’t too many of these” I thought, clueless.  At that point, my feet were still on flat ground and I had balance in my favour. For the next two hours, I would be squeezing my generous self through the narrowest spaces, balancing all my weight on one toe, or holding myself up with my weakling abs and two fingernails. It was a kind of torture. The girls ahead forged on, laughing and chatting with the instructor who was guiding them. My instructor, Tim, calmly pointed out footholds he liked to use. Inside my head, there was a litany of swear words for Tim and his favourite footholds. I wrestled my long, large self, up, over and under the bumps and edges of limestone, willing myself onward. Sometimes, my legs were so weak I had to lift them by pulling on the fabric of my overalls.  Sometimes Tim would push my foot into a hold, and once, he planted his hands on my bum and pushed me upward.  I was so horrified I lost my grip and slithered back down the slippery rocks; he broke my fall.
“I’mfhotyu!” (I’ve got you!) he tried to say, but his voice was muffled by the arse in his face. It was not my finest moment on (in) the planet.

The two hours of ‘squeeze’ replay in my memory as a kaleidoscope of close up views of rock. The feeling of rocks pushing against my back and diaphragm, the pain of resting all of my weight on my knees or hands, the scrape and panic, the trap and terror. But just like labour, I kept going, thinking that the only way ‘out’ is to keep going onward. I tried to focus on my breathing, on the circle of light from my helmet. I looked intently at each section of rock in front of my nose, refusing to let myself lose it.

 

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…the rock just happened to match my nails. This pic was taken before we went off the path, while I still had the presence of mind to notice the similarity.

 

“Attach your clippers now” said Tim. His voice even and controlled. I looked down. Beneath me, maybe four or five storeys down the crevasse, was a roaring river.  Between me and the end of the trip was more rock, more rope, more dizzying heights. There were intermittent slippery little metal staples to hold or stand on, and every couple of meters, we had to unclip and clip our safety harnesses from one section of rope to the next. Sometimes, to do that, we had to lean outward and use our body weight to make the ropes taut. I could hear the roar of the rising river below us and the hammering of my heart.  Twin thunder shouting at me to ‘get out!’. I intended to.

 

Abseiling down from the top of the crevasse. This was near the midway point.
Abseiling down from the top of the crevasse. This was near the midway point. My face may be smiling, but my eyes tell the truth!

 

Twice, we had to trust our harnesses and swing out into space.  Once, we abseiled. Neither were things I have ever done before. I panicked with the abseiling. The rope burned the print from my palm because I was gripping it so hard. I was far beyond my maximum ability to keep pushing on, and yet I was. Tim was ahead now, and had cheerily set up afternoon tea at the bottom of a gully. I lurched into the space and sat my shaky self down. I swallowed the sugary cordial in great gulps, it tasted so good! Ems, the other guide, fastened her big brown eyes on us. 
“Want the good news, or the bad?” she asked. I couldn’t respond, I just stared at her. We had taken three hours to traverse the first half of the course. There was at least one and a half to two hours ahead, of even higher terrain. I looked down at my shaking legs and hands, wondering how I could do it. And she said “there is a way out from here if you need it”.

I caved.

Striding forward, up the spiral pathway to the outside, my body surged with new energy. I was going to see the outside!  I tore of my helmet, and stepped out into the air. The wind whipped my hair sideways. The pale sky rained over my face and muddy caving gear. I tipped my face upward and grinned at myself. I didn’t give a monkey’s about not making it the whole way, I was utterly delighted that I hadn’t died, wrapped in rock, pinned under the mountain. I was free.

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The most beautiful view of the expedition: the way out.

I don’t think I will ever try caving, abseiling  or rock climbing ever again, but I am glad I did.

As I write, my arms ache from the push and pull of my afternoon underground. My limbs are bruised and swollen, but my self-belief is soaring.

So, I caved. And I caved in. And I made a memory with Tatijana and CC that none of us will ever forget. A small piece in the tapestry of our lives that will connect us forever.  And for me, more proof  of the universal fact that we are never what we have always thought we were. We can do things that we imagine we can’t. We don’t need to limit ourselves because we are fat, or unfit, or fearful -or any other combination of self-limiting descriptors. If any of these things are holding you back, maybe you should start a ‘fuck-it’ list, too.

I’d just like to acknowledge all the beautiful people I know who are still pushing through the relentless difficulties of being sick, or caregiving for someone who is. Climbing through the mountain yesterday was so hard, but even at it’s worst, in the seconds of sheer terror, it was not as hard as the long journey through Dysautonomia. I tip my helmet to you, because you are the true boundary pushers. You are the endurance athletes. You are the explorers who discover ways to live with meaning through all that struggle. Two words for you my friends.

You rock.

Hello From the Other Side

In Wellington airport the other day, I was flicking through my internet stream. And I came across this awesome Rolling Stone interview with Adele, have you read it?  Her voice sends vibrations down into my reptilian brain. She moves me. She’s amazing.  But I was a little relieved to read that her new song “Hello” isn’t about another lost love, it’s about her younger self. It really resonated with me, because I was about to fly into Sydney, the land of my ‘old self’… (who is really my young self, suspended somewhere in time). My passport is in my maiden name, so every time I looked at my boarding pass I was seeing my old name, the name of that Sydney school girl. It all conspired to make me very nostalgic. So on the plane I wrote this little reflection piece. Thought I would share it here…
because I think Adele tapped into something universal with her song.
If you could call yourself twenty years ago, what would you say?
Would you warn that girl? Apologise?
Hmmm. I’d try to bolster my old self up.  Give her some encouragement.
She didn’t look like she needed it, but she sure did.
I wish I could go back and give her that.
Anyway… here’s my piece about my two selves. My then, my now.

_____________________________________________________

I used to go walking there, far above the chase, and perch on a rocky outcrop in a blue-green sea of gum. I liked thinking that maybe centuries earlier, indigenous people had sat there, watching the bush fires maybe, or searching for signs in the skies. Maybe they were children, maybe they were not so different to the girl I was, hiding in the wide bush, running from the things she couldn’t shape with words.  My legs were strong then, I would relax my breathing and let them carry me along the barely perceptible bush tracks, avoiding the hostile prickles that seem to typify every Native Australian plant. Stay away!  the barbs and spikes screamed. Yet they sheltered me, surrounded me on my rock. Hummed and buzzed with all the wildlife they sheltered, too. Sometimes I could be there for hours, watching the seconds evaporate, one by one into the heated haze of afternoon. I was the only person who knew about the rocky outcrop. Just me. No one ever replied to the chalky poetry I wrote on the rocks, stone against stone. There were never any signs of any other person but me. Yet I felt the ghosts of the aboriginal children who sat there too, kept from me by time alone. In the bush I was anonymous. Alone. Free to think my thoughts and ache my pains. I loved it there.

Sometimes I could be there for hours, watching the seconds evaporate into the heated haze of afternoon.

Today I am flying back to the city that cradles my rock of anonymity, a small space amongst the wide Ku-rin-gai Chase National Park. I haven’t been there for so long. Maybe the rock has been discovered by another person by now. Maybe the bush has changed so much I would never find it again. The landmarks I used, now grown and burned and reshaped in the decades since I walked there. Strong on those young legs. And there wouldn’t be time anyway, I tell myself. I couldn’t absent myself to go bushwalking alone.  I am scheduled. Planned. There and back. Quick trip.  Short stop. Turnaround.  A thought panics my mind. Maybe I left my girl self on that rock. I have an urge to find her again. To see the banksia and gumnuts and breathe the eucalyptus in the air.

I remind myself that nothing ever stays the same.

I didn’t. I think of my internal topography. The rifts and seismic shifts of the years between. The person I have become, so far from the girl on the rock.

Soon, the driver I have never met, will hold up a placard with my old name on it. The name of that bushwalking poet. It must be the strangeness of that, making me nostalgic for her. She’s had two other names since then, two more selves layering over her original self.  She was so afraid of what would come. But she should give herself more credit. I return in her name, a brief walk in her shoes, back in her town. That pony-tailed girl in the white school shirt and grey checkered skirt. She had long brown legs. Strong legs. Walking legs. I will walk on the same bones, strong of heart, towards a new and exciting experience of this place. The questions I don’t know the answers to, the questions I won’t ask, will hang, palpable in the air. I will be patient. Wait until I am at the studio. Prepare the strength I will need to walk in my body, proud of who I have become. Because confidence is never as easy as it looks! There will be no sign of that girl, troubled and stormy, hiding on her rock in the vast space of the Australian bush.

Sydney will feel so big and busy. It always does. Everybody bright and smooth and slick. The cars so fast, glossing across the flat wide roads. It’s an efficient city. No pause for poems scratched on rock faces. For ancient faces. I turn inward and begin to sculpt my outward self. There will be expectations and I don’t know what they are, but I will smile and read the social cues I find. I will joke and try not to say the embarassing things I often blurt out. I might talk about the Sydney I used to know, so long ago.  I will stare down the blank iris of the camera and imagine myself within it. Caught in a nanosecond, angles and tilts, light and shade.  I will stand tall. Kia kaha.

And while I am doing that, the girl inside myself will look out across the Chase, somewhere north of here, back in time. Somewhere between a rock and a hard place, she will find a pathway through. If I could, I would wave to her, out there on her rocky outcrop. I would wave to her and tell her I’ll see her on the other side of twenty years. Older, wiser, taller, kinder.

Hello from the outside
At least I can say that I’ve tried
To tell you I’m sorry
for breaking your heart

But it don’t matter, it clearly
doesn’t tear you apart

Anymore

lyrics from Adele’s ‘Hello’
You can listen to the song here: