Something From Everything
The fall was entirely my fault.
It was July, and our decision to camp near Lake Chilliwack was centered around the surrounding mountains and extensive hiking options. The day’s excursion was to the top of nearby Elk Mountain. It was only 3.5 kilometres from the parking lot to the summit, but hidden in that very pedestrian sounding distance was a demanding 800 meter elevation gain.
At the start of the trailhead I selflessly offered to take the leash for our excited pup, and selfishly attached said leash to the waist strap of my hiking backpack. 60 pounds of furry, slobbering, whining, barely constrained excitement became my own personal beast of burden, continuously pulling me forward up the mountain, my arms once again free, hiking poles stabbing rhythmically beside me.
Even with the (considerable) assistance, I was panting and breathless by the time we reached the summit.
By the time we had refuelled and rehydrated, I was no longer breathless. But I was exhausted. The heat and elevation had spent me, leaving me weary even before beginning our return. We began our slow, cautious, thigh-burning descent, and the worst guide dog in existence remained foolishly tethered to my waist strap.
I hardly remember the fall. A ledge of no more than 3 feet appeared in front of me, and I turned suddenly to the left to side step it, at the exact moment that my beloved dog leapt over the ledge, pulling me unexpectedly forward and downward with such momentum that I fell hard on my right chest and was dragged along the ground for several feet.
For the longest moment there was only the panic of being unable to breathe. Bent over on all fours, head low, flirting with losing consciousness. My mind screamed at my body to take a breath, and also calmly reminded myself that it would be a few seconds until I would be able to do so. When I could finally breathe, I heard the gasping, agonizing cry as if it were coming from someone else.
Breath returning, I sat up and stared at my left hand. The pain to my chest was so all consuming, that I saw my disfigured digit before I felt it. My thumb had become tangled in the wrist strap of my hiking pole, and was now turned unnaturally sideways. I took a deep breath and returned it to (more or less) proper alignment. All while the adrenaline was still surging through my body. All before any member of my family had reached me.
It was a long, painful hour until we reached the car. Another hour until we had reached the hospital, and many hours before an emergency department physician wrapped my thumb in a splint and tensor and tell me I had fractured the distal tip of my thumb, but it was (more or less) in proper alignment.
What he did not say— what he did not see behind the swelling, high patient demand and short staffing was I had also severed my ulnar collateral ligament, requiring imminent surgical repair. It would be two whole weeks until this information was discovered at a follow up appointment.
I was squeezed into surgery the next day. The plastic surgeon reconnected my already receding tendon, and placed my hand in a (new) immobilization splint. After the two weeks in the initial splint, I would be in the second splint for six weeks. Then a month in the third, and the beginning of hand therapy.
I suddenly had the summer off. A difficult feat in most professions, nearly impossible in nursing. I would not be able to return to my regular work in the emergency department for another two months, until my ligament had the strength to handle the strain of regular work, and the stability to remain attached if my hand was unexpectedly grabbed, hit, or overextended during an emergency (all distinct possibilities).
I lost track of the number of times coworkers joked that I had fallen on purpose and made the calculated decision to throw myself down the cliffside for an extended vacation A thousand variations on “anything for a few days off, hey?”.
I admit, it was not horrible. My days were early morning walks before the rest of the house had awoken (with my partner holding the dog’s leash), extended afternoons reading in the backyard or on the beach, sitting out on the deck with my family playing cards and picking up my love from work in the sunny afternoons to explore each and every new microbrew that recently sprung up.
But neither was it ideal. I was frequently frustrated with my new limitations. Future camping trips were cancelled. Biking and swimming (two of our most frequent summer activities) were impossible, and pain was a constant for the first few months. Previously routine activities were unexpectedly difficult. I couldn’t grip socks with two hands, shirt buttons were nearly impossible, turning a pepper mill was a challenge. Each and every day I would discover a new mundane activity that was now challenging or impossible.
More than anything though, I began to wonder if my hand would ever return to its former state. Progress felt agonizingly slow. Exchanging one splint for another hardly felt like forward movement. It was two months before I was even allowed to move my thumb, and when I finally could, I spent hours flexing and extending it, watching as it moved unevenly by a meagre few degrees despite considerable pain and effort.
Every few weeks I checked in with my hand therapist and received a new regimen of exercises and stretches. Each time she inquired about my pain and daily activities, and would measure my grip strength and angles. Each time she was happy with my progress, but I always wanted more. I worried that my sensation felt abnormal, or that my thumb would become fatigued after only a few exercises, or that my flexibility or strength wasn’t where it should be.
My therapist, with decades in this particular, specialized field, with a wealth of knowledge and experience, placed a hand over my splint and held my gaze.
“It’s fine, Matt. Really. You’ve done what you can. It just takes time,”said the therapist.
I wonder how many of us need to hear those words.
I know we’re just talking about a thumb. My thumb, and my specific accident and surgery and recovery. But I can’t help but wonder, how many of us are staring at that thing that is wounded, that thing that is in recovery, willing it and wishing it to heal, to advance, even to return to what we enjoyed before.
Maybe it’s your own injury, maybe it’s a wound from the past that won't stay past. Maybe it’s a relationship, your community or even all of society. How many of us are impatient, frustrated at the seemingly glacial pace of progress—if we even believe that progress is occurring at all?
I’m not naive enough to think that time heals all wounds. Left untreated, time will only cause some untended wounds to fester. Had my tendon not been reattached properly, had I not been splinted,and resplinted (and reslpinted again) properly, had I not received and practiced helpful stretches and exercises, time would not have been kind to this wound. We (and others) have a considerable role in our healing.
But sometimes everything that can be done, has been done. You have done all you can, and all that remains is time and patience. The average recovery time for my injury and surgery is three to four months before grip strength returns, but up to a year before “full recovery”. I needed time and patience. Now, nearly five months after my injury I can see and feel the progress, but I still get impatient.
It will take the time it takes.
There is no established timeline for some recoveries, of course. But with certainty we can say that it will not come as quickly as we would like it to. We want to see our growth and healing and progress over minutes, hours and days, not months or years or lifetimes.
But it will take the time it takes.
It takes incredible courage to take the long view, to do all the work and exercises we know how to do and trust our wounds will continue to heal in their own time. We might not have the vision to see it ourselves. We might not have that level of trust in time.
But we do not wait alone. Perhaps someone can lend us their perspective, someone who has gone before us, who cares for our healing and wholeness.
When you need them, may you hear the words of someone much wiser, much more experienced than yourself. May they place their hand upon yours, and look you straight in the eye, and say: “It’s okay. Really. You’ve done what you can. It just takes time”.
And may they be right.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.
“I just feel like if I stop pushing this boulder uphill for a second, it’s going to start rolling back downhill again. Maybe even run me over.”
There is a delicate balance to sharing with strangers on the Internet. This comment was entirely too honest for comfort.
The addressed group was an online writing community, and a good one. Some online creative groups are merely thinly veiled self-promotion machines. This group celebrated each other’s accomplishments, gave feedback (when invited to), and twice a week wrote together (separately) over video in silence—except for the occasional rustle of paper or laptop keys tapping in the background. Occasionally we aired our (uncomfortably honest) frustrations and disappointments with our creative endeavours, and the success (or lack thereof) we found in them.
“I just wrote a great piece for a local magazine”, the man who uttered the above comment continued. “For a few days, I had a big increase in traffic to my website, even a few signups to my newsletter. But a week later, those same traffic numbers were down, the lowest they’ve been in over a year”.
“I mean, does any of this have any momentum if I stop pushing, if I’m not constantly selling myself?”
There were a lot of murmurs of agreement. That one hit close to home.
It would be one thing if our entire collection of writers were simply novices, lacking the necessary experience, skill and discipline to create something worth reading. But this was a talented group, littered with notable accomplishments.
Many of them have written articles regularly picked up by well-known websites and print magazines. A few wrote novels distributed and produced by respected publishers. A handful were creators of top ranked podcasts. At least one quit their day job to pursue writing and creating full-time (and though they might be hungry or even malnourished, insisted they were not starving). Many received various awards that all said, in essence: “It’s good. Keep going”.
By many metrics, many of them were successful writers. But these “success” stories didn’t feel very successful at that particular moment.
A week later, another “successful” artist posted online about a recent windfall.
“I just hosted a book signing and meet-and-greet at the largest bookstore in downtown Vancouver, on a Saturday. My publisher was so excited. I was so excited I was there for four hours. I sold three books. What am I doing wrong?”
Even the greatest writers of our time don’t seem immune to this disappointment. In her seminal book on writing Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott reveals that after her first book was published, she disappointedly realized that “it seemed that I was not in fact going to be taking early retirement”.
She explains similar expectations for fame and fortune would be repeated and dashed with the publishing of many of her subsequent books.
That disappointment is hardly the sole possession of writers. Some form of “what am I doing wrong?” has likely been asked by every single person in all fields of creative work, especially after some encouraging success. We all look for the momentum to build. We all check our website traffic or total downloads too often. We all hope for that viral post, that golden opportunity, that windfall. We all prepare for the fanfare and fame. We all secretly dream of early retirement.
We all want to be successful artists, but with each new and fleeting success, our frustration and disillusionment grows. Maybe we’ve been measuring our success all wrong. Maybe we need a new vision for what the work even is.
One of my favourite written works, Poem of the Woodcarver (a Taoist tale, usually attributed to Chuang Zu) addresses the complex relationship between creativity and creation, pride and prosperity, work and wonder.
Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand of precious wood.
When it was finished, all who saw it were astounded.
They said, it must be the work of spirits.
The prince of Lu said to the master carver:
“What is your secret?”
Khing replied: I am only a workman: I have no secret.
There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded I guarded my spirit, did not expend it on trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set my heart at rest.
After three days of fasting, I had forgotten gain or success.
After five days, I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days, I had forgotten my body with all its limbs.
By this time all thought of your Highness and of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work had vanished.
I was collected in the single thought of the bell stand.
Then I went to the forest to see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes the bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was put forth my hand and begin.
If I had not met this particular tree, there would have been no bell stand at all.
My own collected thought encountered the hidden potential in the wood;
From this live encounter came the work which you ascribe to the spirits.
The Poem of the Woodcarver does not fix or address any of the (legitimate) disappointments of my writing group, or my own. Understanding the concepts in this poem will not increase readership, will not procure book deals, will not increase website traffic or newsletter sign ups. It will not sell more books at book signings.
All of those concerns and hopes are understandable, but they are also secondary, illusionary or even distracting. The Poem of the Woodcarver is a tale of singular focus. That is what both infuriates and intrigues me. I want to know how to see the bell stand within the tree and be paid and praised for it! I want to write the work that is true and transcendent and increase my web traffic and downloads.
I want to write the novel, and get the publishing deal. These things are deeply entangled, but are not at all the same. The master carver needed to forget about success, esteem and even his own self for a time.
There is a reason he fasts and does not enter the forest for seven days. It takes a long time to let go of the wrong metrics.
Fortunately, the poem offers us some much better metrics as well, even if they are more exacting. It reminds us that there is some deep work of infinite value that has nothing to do with the summons of royalty or the court (success), nothing to do with praise or criticism (self worth) or even our own self (ego).
It reminds us that there are some works of art so sublime that they are both timely and timeless, natural and otherworldly.
If we have to choose only one singular focus, it’s clear that the work is ultimately its own reward, and that of incomparable value.
Just after Anne Lamott warns the reader of the pitfalls of publishing, she says “publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises”.
This is the work we get to be about. The live encounter at the intersection of our preparedness and life’s wild, hidden potential. A chance to reveal the staggering beauty hidden in plain sight. Something ascribed to the work of spirits.
Now that’s something worth striving for.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.
My youngest son was ready at 6 am.
Ready in spirit, in attitude and excitement of course, not ready in any tangible or physical way. The schoolbag was yet to be filled with indoor shoes, a lunch pack, and water bottle, and my son’s face still had traces of honey and peanut butter at the corners of his lips, his overgrown summer hair hanging messily just in front of his eyes.
So much for our intentions of a clean haircut before this, the first day of school earlier this month. Oh well, enough pomade can wrestle down even the most stubborn of hairs, faces can be rewashed, and bags can be packed quickly enough.
If he wasn’t ready in spirit, the physical stuff wouldn’t amount to much anyway.
My children were all excited, in their own way. One was physically vibrating and asked me (for the third time that morning) about the classroom number and teacher. One wore an old kitchen apron to the table and sat well away from the siblings, so as not to catch an errant crumb, drip or stain on the crisp, first-day outfit.
It is a marker of a good summer when our children both mourn and celebrate its ending. Each child relished in a season without early morning alarms, in lazy mornings, in lake and pool days, in camping and movie marathons and (dearly needed) gatherings with friends.
But brevity certainly adds to summer’s incomparable value. The crisp cool mornings of fall were coming soon, and bus schedules, overfilled backpacks and classes would soon come with it.
I swear (though my kids would never, ever admit it), by the end of summer they might even long for those days.
And then those days were here.
We finished the physical preparations. Ice packs slid covertly into lunch kits, water bottles filled, tightened (and inverted for good measure), bus route information was confirmed, repeated and then texted to each of the older children (also for good measure). Then, the herding of cats. Children into the front yard for the obligatory (but no less important) back to school photo.
We abandoned the traditional doorway and steps surrounded by dried and dying potted plants, and opted for the healthy lilac tree overlooking the street below. I took multiple photos in quick succession and found at least two of them usable.
My youngest and I made our way to his school. Tables were set up beside the playground, accompanied by sitting volunteers holding class lists and facing directly into the bright morning sunlight. A kindly woman smiled, squinting despite her sunglasses and directed us towards the appropriate door.
When we reached the classroom, my distracted son attempted to walk directly through the doorway before being abruptly halted by the outstretched arm and outward facing palm of his new teacher.
“Where do you think you're going!?” she playfully growled, furrowing her eyebrows before relaxing her whole face into a wide, natural smile.
She introduced herself to us both, and my son laughed nervously, giving me the briefest of waves and then darted inside, disappearing behind a corner. I was momentarily unnecessary, and I am grateful for it.
I was grateful for this teacher and every other amazing teacher our family has had the privilege of knowing, grateful for those who partner with us to shape and draw out our children, grateful for all of those who are prepared enough, patient enough and audacious enough to choose the role of “teacher.”
But there’s also something audacious in those who choose the role of “student”.
Not for my son, of course. Not for those in their youth. Those in their first two decades (wisely) get little say in the matter. But for those of us who have seen a few more decades, who finished our formal education a long time ago, the prospect of becoming a student can seem strange.
If you are like me, walking your own children to school, reminding your own teenagers of their bus routes and finding yourself the same age (or older) as your children’s teachers, perhaps the term “student” seems regressive.
And once we’re finished with classrooms and lecture halls, who exactly would be willing to take on this mantle of “teacher”? Perhaps more than we have ever considered. Perhaps more than we ever realized.
Perhaps we need a better education on how to find these teachers, and how to be a student. Because they are two sides of the same coin.
A while back, I realized that I was developing a different relationship to some of the voices speaking into my life. Some were mentors and colleagues whom I interacted with regularly, but others were authors and speakers whom I never met (and some had even lived and died long before I was born).
All of these voices held knowledge, of course, many of them specific expertise. But some of them called out for reciprocation. They were filled with possibility, with a palpable ache in their voice for their hard won wisdom and learnings to be both acknowledged and absorbed.
They sounded like teachers, calling for students, beckoning them inside their classrooms. The fact that we might be estranged by a great distance, culture and time never seemed to bother them. Or at least, that it is how they sounded, to me.
For years, I’ve thought about the adage: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”.
What is it that makes the student ready? Maybe simply the decision to become one.
Perhaps the teachers were always there, waiting for their students to take on that all sacred role, to sit down humbly and ask “what can I learn from you today”?
Perhaps we could ask that question of anyone, and be surprised by how many great teachers we are surrounded by every day.
Paradoxically, the teachers I admire most seem to accept themselves as students, as well. These are teachers whose extensive experience only increased their commitment to curiosity. Their world was always becoming larger, more complex, never simpler or smaller. These were teachers who were courageous, humble and mature enough to never abandon the role of student.
And despite all that knowledge, and all that wisdom and all that expertise, these class lists are never truly full.
These teachers are always taking on new students. Maybe someone they instruct from the front of a class or lecture hall, maybe someone they sit down with on a regular basis over a cup of coffee. Maybe someone they correspond with online. Maybe someone who hears their words from a great distance, written many down many years ago.
Maybe someone like you, or me because we will never stop needing great teachers.
And there are so many, ready to appear, when we're ready to be students.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.
Summer is full to bursting.
I’m on the Kettle Valley Railway trestles, tentatively watching as my youngest son nervously steers his bike towards the centre of the planks, his hands rigidly in perfect position, the rhythm of his peddling unwaveringly steady. I mention the rock formations above and to our left, but my son’s eyes remain fixed, straight ahead, unwavering.
He is neither relaxed nor comfortable, but he has crossed seven trestles so far this day without issue. I call it a win.
I’m at the Starlight Drive In in Enderby. We arrive early, play keep away with the soccer ball and frisbee under the giant white screen as we wait for dusk. We set up deck chairs around the hitch and fold rear seats flat. The children bury themselves in blankets and then wrestle and barter for optimal seating positions.
When the movie starts the bass from the rear subwoofer is blurry, the mosquitoes are all feasting on us (despite the liberal application of dollar store insect repellant) and each child uses the washroom at least once through the course of the movie.
Still, pure magic.
At one point a child extends their head backwards over the tailgate and complains about the movie being upside down. We consume salty popcorn and nachos that dry out our mouths and way too much artificial queso cheese. We catch glimpses of the distant northern lights in the eastern hills. We argue at the end of the first movie that 3:30 a.m. is not an ideal time to be arriving home after a double feature, and 1 a.m. is plenty late already. We vow to return and make poor sleep decisions in the future.
I’m at Tickleberries, reading aloud the names of each of their 72 flavours of ice cream as we wind our way through the switchback isles. I don't get through all the flavours. I spend a long time arguing that a child’s cone is perfectly appropriate for a child, before eventually conceding to a single scoop. The “single” turns out to be closer to a triple, and the “double” far more ice cream than anyone should ingest in a single sitting. We take our towering cones outside to share with the sun and wasps, and my youngest gets through most of their top scoop before the soggy ice cream cone caves under the weight, spilling blue and orange all over the hot cement.
I’m at Red Bird Brewing, sharing a table with my love and a few friends we have known for years. We’re talking about events from over a decade ago that I can scarcely remember. We talk frankly about the trauma that one of our friends endured, and all the ways it broke them and strengthened them. We think about the times we were there for each other, and the times that we weren’t. We apologize with downcast eyes and wistful smiles. And then we laugh raucously at a remembrance from our ignorant youth. We drink spectacular Saisons and Hazy IPAs, and devour delicious woodfire pizza cut with kitchen scissors.
I’m at home. It’s late at night and I’m creating a grocery list for camping, confirming schedules with friends for an upcoming trip and staring at my rapidly filling calendar. I’m looking at the handful of remaining dates unspoken for in August, and it feels as if summer is already drawing to a close, just as it starts.
When you start to feel like every single available moment is spoken for, it's hard not to feel the tug of scarcity. You can already see September coming. That there is not enough time, and before you know it, another summer will be gone forever.
But summer is anything but scarce. It is filled with early morning walks with the dog, with late evening paddles on glass-like water, with trips to the farmers market (and the accompanying stuffed bags filled with fresh beets, peas, apricots and strawberries), and countless other moments both pedestrian and sublime. There’s very little scarcity in summer. Summer is full to bursting. The scarcity resides in me.
For years, I felt like I was squandering each and every summer, especially when I moved to the Okanagan. Our summers really are spectacular. But between short summer staffing, limited and highly contested vacation time, a shortened season of clear skies due to wildfires, and wild, ambitious plans for epic adventures both home and away, each September would leave me filled with regret for all we couldn’t do.
Summer seemed filled with endless possibility. But my time, energy and resources were always finite.
As it is for each and every one of us.
Think of it this way: Summer is an all you can eat buffet, and even if you load your plate to the very edge, and pile the food high, and return multiple times, there will always be infinitely more on the buffet table than you can possibly consume.
We are both blessed and cursed by possibility.
Possibility is a tricky concept. It can open us up, cause us to dream and plan and hope. But it can also close us off. Leave us wishing for more, leave us ungrateful for the gifts we have right in front of us, leave us staring up at the buffet table, rather than every good and appetizing item on our overflowing plate. Possibility can hand you something delicious, and leave a bitter taste in your mouth.
If we imagine summer as a fraction, our experiences over every possibility, then our results will always seem frustratingly small. But if we see each and every experience as a whole? Not divided by possibility but simply possible, in this moment? That changes the equation entirely.
Ultimately, that’s what each of the above moments were: whole events, undivided pleasures, absolute gifts. I know that there will probably be many more, and by the time September comes, less than I might hope for. But that’s just me looking up at the buffet table again.
Because each of our plates are piled high with mouthwatering moments it’s worth being grateful, worth taking our time, worth savouring. That’s because summer is full to bursting.
And I hope to be too.
More Something From Everything articles
- Playing with uncertainty Jul 1
- A narrow place May 20
- Taking another look at faith Apr 19
- The shifting season Mar 21
- The enlightenment of failure Feb 20
- Bracing for impact Jan 20
- Forced merriment Dec 21
- The price of love Nov 23
- Truly terrifying Oct 21
- 'The work I show up for' Sep 21
- Wrong answers only Aug 19
- Fire in the sky Jul 27