Monday, January 07, 2008

A message from a dead friend: about choices

I received a message today from a dead man; a message he sent to me 15 years ago. Fifteen years ago I was attempting what everyone thought was a) insane and b) impossible. I was trying to walk from Georgia to Canada using primarily the Appalachian Trail. I was also trying to do it while respecting my tradition in adhering to the Sacred Jewish Calendar. That Calender had long frustrated my aspirations for arctic exploration due to a) lack of kosher food and b) an uncertainty of when sunset would fall (sunset is when the day begins, thus when the Sabbath begins). And while Mordecai Richler’s book Solomon Gursky was Here was tantalizing in the character of a Jew surviving the Franklin Expedition on smuggled kosher food, I found it more metaphor than feasible.

You see, much like the character in Richler’s book, I had determined that God should either kill me or 'cure' me/acknowledge me (I had some orientation issues, I was young…what can I say?). So I needed to hike over 2,150 miles while keeping (thus NOT hiking) every Sabbath AND Passover, the 15th and 21st of Nisan, plus Shavout/Pentecost and finishing BEFORE Yom Kipper (after which the snow at those altitudes would be impassable). It meant that I needed to hike 1/5 more a day than anyone had ever planned. It meant I needed to start in the snow, before trails had been cleared much less maintained. I mailed my food in boxes to drop locations and trained, and trained. I hiked mostly at night deeming it was both too annoying and dangerous to hike the San Gabriel Mountains during the day. I did the Los Angeles Marathon and got on a bus the next day for Georgia.

It turned out that hiking over 20 miles a day with a 75 pound pack up mountain tops is actually a LOT harder than running 26 miles carrying nothing but chapstick. But I was determined and for the most point I was alone. And I mean not seeing another human being for over a week alone (I bet you didn’t think that was still possible in the US?). My body was a wreck: I had taken my 2,500 calories a day but with the exertion I was doing for12 hours a day I was literally starving to death (I met a hiker nicknamed “Veins” because the previous year he had done just that – hiked until all you could see was his veins and hospitalized for starvation: though the chain smoking of pot might have had an influence too) . I had to hike down to a town to keep Passover. I was falling behind my schedule and started hiking at night, once I hiked entirely through the night, often without a light but the just the moon while on precipices, going up cliffs, on razor ridges for hours. I hiked to get away from weirdos, wackos and in one case to put as much distance between me and an entire troupe of male juvenile delinquents being taken on a “wilderness hike.” The Leader confided that he had filled their packs with five pound cans of fruit cocktail, beans and crap to ‘take the edge off.” Too bad he didn’t confiscate all the knives and the matches. All of my toenails fell off from the blood pooled under them. I once sent my pack ahead and simply RAN 55 miles with a fanny pack. But God would neither kill me nor give me enlightenment.

What was waiting for me at one food drop was a small package. It was from a friend, Henry, somewhat older than me and married but we shared a similar sense of humor. In the package was a toy truck and attached on a string was the phrase: “Keep Trucking!” Henry was dying from a brain tumor from which he had already had four operations to “remove it all.” I think it was in parts now where they don’t operate. Before my trip I had visited him in hospital where he recounted in animated detail how they cut the top of skin from his skull and pulled down the front of his face before drilling into his skull (like I said, we had a similar sense of humor). The toy truck that Henry sent me wasn’t an off-road truck, or an 18 wheeler. It was a bulldozer. Which for most people I guess would be a bit depressing (not exactly the fastest vehicle). I was touched that he had taken the time, in his circumstances, of which dying of a brain tumor was literally only a very small part, to send it. I kept it with me, even though I would ruthlessly leave packaging, fuel and eventually all shelter (tent, tarp, wraps) behind in my attempts to lose the weight I was carrying.

What none of the books at the time bothered to mention was a condition called “pregnant woman syndrome” which means that if you carry enough weight enough hours of the day for long enough (like months), your feet expand a bit to compensate, just like they do during pregnancy. This is what happened to me and I was, in my nice expensive hiking books ripping my feet to shreds against the insides of the waterproofed and tanned leather. . People told me that they had never seen feet so bad. Two toes became infected. I made one hiker physically sick. Literally, hike two hours, take a break, wring blood out of sock, change sock, get up, and keep going. It couldn’t last. I’m sorry Henry. I borrowed some sneakers my size and continued on for another 150 miles. I stopped after a total of 1,052-1,053 “trail marked” miles and probably about 1400+ hiked miles.

Years later, when I came out, not just as a lesbian but as a lesbian who already HAD a female partner (in many religions being lesbian is just a ‘trial from God’’ while a lesbian with a partner=fallen one). And Linda and I were getting shouts and vandalism in our neighborhood. I was being harassed, then attacked at work before finally being ‘let go.’ The truck was there then, the bulldozer. Seriously, I had kept it. People told me I was going to die if I stayed and I think they meant it. Well, I didn’t obviously. I started my own business, and I kept going jogging even thought it meant that we had to memorize the license plate of every car passing us in case they came back and threw things or attacked. My business did quite well financially, but I was a emotional serious mess by the time I moved to Canada.

The number one reason I didn’t want people to know exactly where I lived is because I was so messed up mentally (mostly about four predatory males who immediately tried to latch onto me and would talk to me like I was a piece of their property; “You didn’t tell you me you had a tennis outfit, I guess I’ll have see more of that later.” – that kind of crap). And I was so mentally beaten down that for long periods I just simply couldn’t leave the house or more than two or maybe three blocks at most. I went to a guy who helped me and the epee helped me and I got better. I got better. It is not that I am indestructible, it is that I always move in one direction, even if that is one step a month, or crawling, or dragging myself. So things were good, I had applications for the government and university jobs, I went to competitions, I was happy and confident and then I started falling down (literally – and passing out).

Some know what a kicker going from able bodied to definitely NOT can be. And what it means to go from independent to incredibly dependent. And what it means to have this vast horizon of a future in front of you turned to a limited labyrinth in which there seem to be no “good” choices. So today, almost by accident I came across the bulldozer. Do I know what Henry meant when he sent it to me? No, not for sure. But I know that Henry cared enough about me to send me not what I wanted for my life but what I needed. Henry, after several brain operations knew a lot about bulldozers. See, other vehicles, they see a roadblock or a hindrance or have a hard time and it is “Golly, I guess that just isn’t going to happen, better turn back.”

A Bulldozer doesn’t go quickly but it keeps going, it finds a way. I don’t know if Henry knew about my orientation or if he just was just lying in bed thinking about me out there trying something everyone thought was crazy (at best: the amount of times even while hiking that I heard: “You are suicidal! You are going to die!” or “..raped and die!” was beyond counting – yada yada). I suppose if this were one of the movies with moving music I would send this off to some young 20ish with a “keep trucking” message. Except this is MY movie, no violins, and no circle of meaning crap. MY movie: try to remember that! If Henry could lie there KNOWING what exactly was ahead for him (in detail) and encourage me to keep getting on, then damn it, I am going to keep getting on.

I found out today that my latest wheelchair boxing music movie where I am unabashedly displaying a higher level of boxing as well as going at it tooth and nail with my coach Ian does NOT please the devos, or most guys in general (I don’t think a lot of women like it either). The video of me in a corset and angel wings feeling squirrels however is currently in the top 30 favorite videos in Canada. It is the most accepted, most highly reviewed and most linked video I have ever had (eight 5 star and one four star rating: and it is only three weeks old). So let me pass on the message: The girl in the wheelchair and corset and the squirrels and the girl getting hit by a guy in the face and laughing are not two sides of a coin; they are the same side. Life and living, in however large doses I can manage or small increments I might be limited to is what I do, and what I plan and what I keep planning on doing. I’m kinda sad that a video which because I don’t look ‘weak’ or there aren’t two girls boxing (like my previous boxing video which had my opponent in hot pink gloves no less), is something that no one wants to see. Well, I still do. And I feel that every person (especially) who has or uses the phrase “Go down fighting” or “Keep on fighting” and doesn’t like the video – then give yourself a big slap. Because how should I respect those who have no respect for me?

People fight in their own ways, some literal, some figurative. Bulldozers don’t take the paved path. They sometimes have to approach things different ways, sometimes go around, sometimes break a ideas of the ‘way things are done’, but they keep going (I speak not of how you treat people or their emotions but how you find the ways to survive).

Last week I wrote a blog about a common condition in Chronic and Neurological Conditions: Fear. This blog is about the opposite, an emotion in which a clear breath is a victory, not because it was earned or deserved but because you fought or stayed or endured long enough to enjoy it. Where each action is a victory for the same reason. I don’t know why you sent it Henry, but this is what I got: that now I sit where you sat and I see the world as you saw it and you are right, for some of us, this is just the way it is. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have the same capacity or range of feelings. And that it is a choice, to face the fear, to live with it and yet continue to chase those elusive moments, times and experiences which are, as long as I live, my right. I guess the word that comes closest to what I seek, and find, and have filmed about me is: Exaltation


Gaina said...

It's really interesting that the girl you're boxing with seems more aggressive than Ian, but I think that's just a general 'man thing' nothing to do with the wheelchair. I like watching female boxing matches, I find them faster and slightly more vicious than men's bouts!

I did notice a pattern amongst the 'Related Videos' of material obviously aimed at the devotee viewer. Creepy.

It's interesting that AB people want to maintain a certain perception of disabled people and resent it greatly when it's challenged. It's like 'I want to deal with you in that box, or not at all'.

Devi said...

People don't like your boxing video? Their loss, I say. I think (in a non-devo way!) that vid is great - you're just exuding strength and zest for what you're doing. It makes me feel good to look at it. (I hope I'm not being creepy by gushing like this.)

Also, thanks a lot for sharing that bulldozer story.

Veralidaine said...

Okay, now I totally feel like I've accomplished nothing in my life :P DAMN WOMAN! And you call yourself a failure? Look at that story next time you feel tempted to talk about yourself that way. The average person could live to be 200 and never even contemplate that kind of an athletic endeavour. I'm still stumped by why anyone would want to jog, much less run a marathon... the pain and nausea just doesn't do it for me. Horseback riding, on the other hand...

Lene Andersen said...

I don't know where to start with the commenting - feel I could write a 5-page letter to you and still not be done. So first, thanks for making me think.

Second, have you ever read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson? It's about him walking the Appalachian Trail and although personally, I think you're both a wee bit nuts for doing it (as my idea of roughing it is slow room service), there's a part of me that gets it. And wishes I could do something like it. (it occurs to me that living with a chronic illness for 40 years could arguably be "something like it", but that's for another day)

Third, although I loved the squirrel video, it was the boxing one I forwarded. I was struck by how powerful you were (and your reach - good lord, woman!) and how good it was to see 1) a woman and 2) a woman using a wheelchair clearly have the capacity to knock someone senseless. Awesome - can't thank you enough for that.

lilwatchergirl said...

The video of me in a corset and angel wings feeling squirrels however is currently in the top 30 favorite videos in Canada.

Isn't it interesting how disability is constructed by non-disabled people and their gaze?

I enjoyed this post. Thanks. :)

Elizabeth McClung said...

Gaina: she did have the best form and speed of all the women at the club - she is very fast, and I like that but now that I have boxed more, the way Ian uses his body to block and the way I throw punches is far more advanced in the second one. Yeah, the whole "related video thing" creeps me too. To me, I like the video with Ian because it shows the respect he has for me and the sport as he trains me and then uses his own decades of skill to force me to the next level.

I guess if I have a video of me in a club or picking flowers or something "girly" I'd be a lot more popular. Darn, I'm NEVER going to be voted most popular am I?

Devi: I agree, I like videos where people are enthusiastic and you get a sense of what they feel about the sport and how the sport progresses, to me this is like some skiing video where the person wipes out maybe but is laughing.

Yeah, that bulldozer story was hard to write, but I'm glad I did - even for me, I hope I got some of my feelings across too.

Veralidaine: Failure: well, you notice I didn't achieve my objective? But I understand what you say, often in trying we achieve more than just thinking about it. I would like to try horseback riding but it was always VERY expensive.

Lene Andersen: Um, okay, what did you think about? I did read parts of Bill Bryson but he only did 'bits' of the trail and had a support van and while I appreciate what he was trying to do, where I was, and where he was were completely different states of being. I was facing fallen trees and snow and having to climb rock faces without ropes to get over them and wade down the middle of streams to follow the orientation map and compass to meet up with a trail again (in zero degree weather - which is why it is good I am so accomplished at making fires). It had been a dream that Linda and I would do part of the AT together and the hike spring 2007 was a build up to that, so that's a bit of an Ow! mentally. I think enduring even the societal assault on having a chronic illness for 40 years is very akin to the self identity, self reliance, and endurance of a journey "something like it".

As for my reach, I have a condition called Marfans to thank for that, since my arms outstretched are actually longer (taller) than I am. I am glad you forwarded the video. My feeling now is that I am not the woman to show boxing as an adaptive sport because I am degenerating too quickly; but maybe I will have the time to inspire the woman who will be an icon for females in boxing as an adaptive sport.

Lilwatchergirl: Yeah, it is kinda frustrating, but, I guess I should realize you don't always get to be seen how you want so I have to decide what I want more - to be "liked and approved" or to "do what I need to survive as Elizabeth McClung" - not a tough decision - just wish some days I could have both.

elizabeth said...

I loved this post. I'm glad you found the bull dozer.

Just so you know - you are a Spartan. After one blister I'd have been crying on the ground.

Lene Andersen said...

Ah jeez, woman, must you make me think so much that I can articulate it relatively coherently? ;)

Many things, most related to tenacity. What made you continue on that trail for all those miles? (p.s. yes, I realize that Bryson was a wuss when he did it - or rather, I realized it after reading your post) Do you think your ability to cope now is "better" because you've done really hard things in the past? It's something I've been mulling over lately - that bulldozer ability to put your head down and get though. Where does it come from? Why do some people have it and others find it more difficult to connect to? How is it related to how much you feel in control of your life/future, if at all? For starters.

alphabitch said...

Funny you should bring up the AT; I've been wanting to do some kind of extreme thing like that -- not really sure why or what it would prove, but I'm NOT outdoorsy and I don't even much like hiking or camping. But you've hit a nerve somewhere ... I'll have to think about this.

And I have to add once again my 'yay boxing video' to the general cheers here. My admiration for your skill and athleticism is considerable.

Also 'yay anything you have to do to survive as Elizabeth McClung.'

Marla said...

That is a great post. I am so glad you have such a popular video! Of course it has the squirrels in it! Everyone loves those cute little pests.

What a sweet man to send you that bulldozer. I can see why it is so special to you.

Now, the fact that you tried such a long! I would never even think about doing a hike that long. You have more motivation than I think you know what to do with! Write another book. I am really enjoying Zed. :) Do you think I will be saying that when I reach the end? :) Just kidding.

Cooper said...

LOL. Thanx for the words. Yes, yelling at the person holding the rope. For me it's being told that I am free to do whatever I want to long as it meets certain criteria.

If there is a manual on how do deal with that, please let me know.

BTW, screw everyone else on your boxing video...they can kiss your spokes if they don't like it....

Elizabeth McClung said...

Elizabeth: I'm glad I found it too. Actually, I don't think I started all Spartan, it is just once you realize that if you sit down and cry no one is going to come and be there and you STILL have 12 miles to hike that day, well.......

Lene Anderson: For me, the dream to do this hike had been from my teens reading (insert cliche) National Geographic. Pretty much everything I wanted to do was not something that anyone thought I 'should' do, so I soon learned that if I wanted something, I had to do it regardless. I was almost disowned and thrown out of my parents house because I wouldn't back down on planning it and for the first few months every call home was one relative or another offering me money to quit. I guess the question is "Am I stupid?" or "Am I determined?" or what? I've tried to be what people wanted but also to follow my hopes and dreams, and when those clashed, for some reason, I would find a way for the dreams to survive. I think perhaps because I have been so often alone, and clinically depressed has helped me understand what true endurance is: sometimes the greatest conquest is NOT doing something (like taking those pills). Do I control my life? Not at all. I walked over months a distance someone could drive in 24 hours. Now I can't always get out of bed. But I know that no one but me can decide to stop trying to get out of bed. (Or as my coach says, everyone is too scared of you to call an ambulance because it is clear you would rather die than give up trying to make that last sit up.) - not sure if that is a recommendation for sanity or not?

Alphabitch: I'm yah! on Anything to survive as Elizabeth McClung (or as Alphabitch), and yah on anything you decide you want to do - trust me, after a week in the woods, no one would be able to smell a difference between you and someone who was there all the time (haha!). The mountain doesn't care if it gets climbed, just so long as you care?

Marla: if you are reading Zed and not swearing, you aren't reading close enough. More F words. I love the squirrel video too - I'd like to go see them again this month. Yeah, I tend to need a "big project" - because well, I dunno, I was dropped on my head as a child? Henry was an amazing man, who had a severely disabled terminal child; a wife who was doing constant caregiving to the child and he, between operations was working two jobs to try and give them the financial support and security he could before dying. And sometime in there, he thought about me.

Cooper: "Kiss my spokes!" - that's my new favorite line - yeah, if anyone finds that manual, we should all get copies.

Veralidaine said...

Re: Horseback riding-

It is expensive, but I bet you could give it a shot. There really is nothing like being in control of a 1,200 pound animal. My father joked when I was a little girl that he bought me riding lessons so that I would know how to push around those bigger and stronger by the time men started being interested in me- he thought it was funny, but it's pretty true! You probably get a similar thing from boxing- eff y'all, you may be bigger and male, but I can BOX! For me it's eff y'all, you're bigger and male, but do you weigh as much as my horse? No? Then I have dealt with bigger and badder than you, pal.

Try here:

glassroses said...

I really like this statement, very Tao: "sometimes the greatest conquest is NOT doing something." Sometimes I realize that doing more/being active will just case problems later. Just today the PT had to argue me out of the treadmill (because I walk slower than senior citizens with canes and I'm starting to get panicky about that since I'm not in that demographic). Doing more work at the wrong time, though, leads to more pain/more disability. I can only build up or maintain strength when I'm not in so much pain. He's wise for a PT--in my exerience, most insist on doing more work with more intensity and a better attitude as the cure-all for everything, even when that backfires.

I love hiking, miss doing it, even a few short miles on an easy trail. I told the PT I want to be back doing it in the spring, but he looked doubtful, even though he thinks a scooter would only be temporary. I don't have much strength and the pain beats me down, but I have a lot of stamina when I can be active, though I can regret it later. It surprises my husband. He said at one point this weekend that he was surprised I was still standing. So was I, actually. I used to keep going long after everyone else tired out. But getting through each day sometimes is like a long hike, takes endurance. I have to say after reading about your boots/nails that your endurance way exceeds mine! I'm thinking about going back to either of two possible athletic activities, though it would be way strange to go there in a scooter, then stand up for a while to do some of the workout or to get in the pool. (I.e., forseeing judgment, if she can work out for an hour, why does she have to use equip?)

I rode on a horse last summer, took a lot of courage plus doctor rule-breaking. Glad I did it, but not sure I'd do it again.