Until last autumn, when I overused one of my tendons while walking 520 miles of the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) in Spain, I had never sustained a mobility-impairing injury. While people may say that I was lucky to be injury-free for decades, I often wondered if a fear of getting hurt prevented me from attempting exhilarating and risky pursuits. Maybe I hadn’t trusted my body enough, or its ability to heal, and missed out on stretching myself and testing my physical capacity.
On the Camino, I discovered that it was possible to walk between 12-18 miles a day, day after day, despite intermittent and occasionally intense pain. Now that I’m committed to healing, I’m walking a different “way”. I won’t say that the limitations imposed by this injury are ones I would actively wish for but, at the same time, these restrictions might offer an opportunity to learn other ways of moving in the world, both in my body and how I engage with life.
The healing process has been a non-stop exercise in mindfulness. To take pressure off this tendon, I need to wear orthotics in my shoes, all the time, except when sleeping. If I get lazy and walk around barefoot while indoors, the resulting twinge of pain is like a monastery bell, reminding me to pay attention and put my shoes on. On errand days, I’ve learned to choose my parking spots carefully to minimize time on my feet. My tendon is also a useful timer for grocery shopping. If I linger too long in a store, even if I’m not moving very fast, I’ll feel it. Keeping weight off my legs has forced me to be more efficient and focused, or pay a price. As I keep forgetting and re-learning, my tendon dislikes it when I carry too much. That’s forced me to break my habit of “efficiency”, where I try to cart all my groceries, mail, swim gear, iPad, etc. inside in one trip, as if I were a package-laden mule. If I have something even heavier to schlep, I need to ask for help or refrain altogether, both of which are a bit hard on my ego. In short, I need to slow down, pay close attention, and either request assistance or acknowledge my current limitations, opposites of the behaviors that likely contributed to my injury. Prior to even setting foot on the Camino, I had the tendency to move hard and fast, taking my legs for granted, oblivious to my skeletal alignment (a contributor to the injury), and projecting an energy of determined purposefulness. Many people used to tell me that I looked like I knew where I was going even if, in my heart, I was clueless about the direction my life was headed. Now I need to tread more lightly, which helps me listen inside more intently.
With vigorous hiking out of the question, I can’t head to the mountains to clear my head and recharge my spirit. I’ve sought out other settings for nature to work her magic and medicine, such as parks, pools and a reservoir with stunning views that I might have dismissed as not being wild “enough”. Indeed, I had been a bit of an outdoors elitist, eschewing wide, flat trails closer to home in Denver for steeper and higher peaks, even though the high-altitude excursions took a toll on my joints. But the Camino, which mainly traverses gently rolling terrain and agricultural lands, increased my appreciation of these landscapes, also both abundant in Colorado. While lacking the drama of snow-capped mountains, fertile fields and farm animals offer their own subtle beauty which, before my pilgrimage, I wasn’t as willing to contemplate. With summer crops planted and some vegetables already being harvested, I have plenty of excuses to visit local farms and enjoy their produce.
Being temporarily forced off the mountains (and out of the dance studio) has left voids in my schedule and social life. To fill those, I’m volunteering and exploring other communities where involvement mostly involves sitting, not crossing streams or clambering across boulders. Lately, I’ve discovered that several folks, whom I assumed were able bodied, are also coping with injuries, some chronic and without the possibility of healing, and I might not have have even learned about their situations without my own Adventures in Tendonitis. Appearances are deceptive, and if I’m moving too fast, not paying close enough attention, or if my gaze is fixated on distant peaks, I’m likely to miss the possibility of connecting with people around me. Since I can easily get lost in my head, that is a lesson I need to keep learning.
Ilona Fried blogs at www.alacartespirit.com