The First Lasts, a Distressing Diagnosis, and a Letter of Gratitude
The Odd Holiday
Fall semesters have a strange rhythm.
First, you’ve got all the freshmen coming in. Some may adjust quickly, but for most (like me in my freshman year), it’s not until the spring when they start to really feel at home at Oberlin. While everything is still new to them, they bring this excited energy that permeates throughout campus, lifting the spirits of even the most cynical sophomores. The air has a crispness to it, and the leaves start to take on vibrant colours.
A new year, a new start, and months before you must worry about your summer or post-grad plans.
Life is good.
However, right when you find your groove, fall break sneaks up on you. A useful middle marker, it reminds you to not take your semester for granted. However, you can breathe a sigh of relief, for you still have half a semester left (and another one after that!).
But wait; you’re just back from fall break, and it’s already Thanksgiving. Everyone has plans to visit family, and some are taking the whole week off. Momentum halts, just as your classes are starting to talk about final projects and papers. You have three weeks left in the semester.
Where did all the time go?
The fall colours have already started to fade, and soon, the snow comes.
Yesterday, I got some bad news.
Earlier this semester, I ‘suffered’ an injury in my Contact Improvisation class. I was dancing, squatted down, and rotated a hair to my left. I felt a loud pop in my knee and experienced very mild discomfort – worrying, but I figured I’d just put some icy hot on it and rest. After all, it can’t have been that bad an injury from such a basic movement, right? I do flips all the time, if I’m going to hurt myself, it’s going to be from something that I consider dangerous. Over fall break, the inflammation and locked knee subsided, and I thought I was in the clear.
However, yesterday, after almost two months, three appointments at different hospitals, and an MRI scan, I had a diagnosis.
I tore my 'bucket-handle' cartilage.
As far as I understand it, its function is as a cushion between the bones in your knee. When it's torn, it tends to flap about, and get in the way of other stuff in the joint. During fall break, it somehow flapped back into place, and my knee became fully functional again.
However, as long as it's torn, it can move back out of place, and continue to cause trouble.
I need to have surgery.
There are two possibilities, and they won't know which they'll do until I'm actually in surgery:
Case 1) My cartilage is ruined. They remove it, and I have a quick recovery time of about three weeks. However, without that 'cushion' in my knee, I'm guaranteed to be dealing with arthritis later in life - especially if I keep up with my high impact tricking and acrobatics.
Case 2) They can salvage it and stitch it back together. Recovery time is 3 months without any movement at all... or in other words, the rest of my college career.
In case 2, my plans for the immediate future are shattered. I might not be able to perform my senior dance piece as intended, or audition for the circus schools that I'd been thinking about.
I was devastated.
I sat in the car outside the hospital, needing a few minutes to compose myself before I could drive back to Oberlin.
Outside of my relationships, movement has given me more joy than anything else in my life (as you may have noticed). In fact, I had dangerously put some ego and self-esteem into my movement abilities. If everything else went wrong, I could still go train and have a good time.
The diagnosis felt like this.
(Of course, without my housemate screaming “IT'S SO PERFECT!!!”)
I’m more than just an athlete, an artist, a dancer, or an acrobat, however.
I’m a storyteller.
And if there’s one thing that writing all these blogs has taught me, it’s that we have the power to define our narratives.
This injury is just another bump in the road, another challenge. And I know how I’ll handle it – the same way I’ve been learning to handle all my fears and failures in my life.
Last semester, when I had some tough depression, I called the mindset shift and new approach to deal with it ‘The Paradigm Shift’. Now that I’ve experienced a real loss since then, I’ve solidified the core concepts in this new thinking.
The first step is shifting our mindsets is in recognizing our complete lack of control in the world.
Now, that’s not to say that I don’t believe we have the power to shape our futures – far from it. However, I do think that we often cling to an illusion of control that we don’t have, and then when things in our lives go wrong, we blame ourselves or others. We let the circumstances and random bad luck of life bring us down, when we never really had any power over it in the first place.
After all, the sun could just decide to explode on us one day, and we wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. More realistically, we could get wiped out by some rock that wants to give Earth a kiss. Or maybe the dinosaurs will invent time machines and travel forward in time to eat us.
The only thing we truly have control over is how we react to the experiences that life gives us.
And so, when certain things change, we must change with it.
If I am put out of lower body movement for three months or more, I’ll adapt. I’ll find ways to express myself through different movement – like handstands, or calisthenics. I’ll put my senior dance piece on other dancers or adjust my solo choreography. I’ll replace my ambition in my movement practices with curiosity. I’ll let go of my expectations of myself and find a stronger form of self-esteem that doesn’t rely on my physical abilities. I’ll make a new path.
Because I can’t change the fact of my injury.
Adaptability is our immense capacity to evolve, restructure, and find alternative solutions as life continues to throw problems our way.
However, Adaptability is only the rational side of the coin.
To accept love and joy in life means to also accept loss and grief.
I can acknowledge my injury all I want – I can make all the alternative movement and training plans in the world – but it’s still going to suck. My ability to do the things I love will be taken away from me, even if only for a short term, and I’ll need to deal with that.
However, over the course of a lifetime, one will lose everything. It may be a bit bleak, but everyone you ever know will die someday (if we ever ‘solve’ death, I’ll gladly eat my hat. You heard it here first, folks). In a few hundred years, the odds are that no one will remember your name, if human civilization even continues that long.
That truth can be the most depressing thought in the world… if we let it be.
Consider this: wouldn’t life be so dull if every relationship (with ourselves, others, and our passions) and event in our lives began and ended perfectly? General narrative structure has a conflict, a character arc, a climax. Human stories and characters are defined by their struggles.
If we don’t struggle, we don’t grow. If we always try and protect ourselves from getting hurt, we close ourselves off. We don’t try new things or meet new people. We don’t take risks.
What a boring way to live, right?
Some may call this ‘faith’, but I prefer the term ‘resilience’.
It’s our power to continue to stay vulnerable without being broken. It’s deciding to remain emotionally authentic, sincere in our self-expression, even when we get hurt. It’s choosing optimism in the face of nihilism, just because it's better than the alternative.
Resilience is that little voice in the back of your head that cuts through your panic, grief, and existential dread and whispers “You got this”.
Now that we have let go of things outside of our control and accepted that we’ll eventually lose everything, the only thing left to do is to start counting our blessings – starting with the fact that we wake up every morning.
I’ll be the first to admit it – I’ve been feeling pretty damn sentimental these days.
Yes: my injury blows. But for this past semester, I’ve been thinking a lot more about the 185 days that I have left until I walk across that stage to get that really expensive piece of paper.
It’s like that Joni Mitchell song – “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.”
Senior year has been incredible so far.
I’ve experienced far more richness in my relationships (with myself, others, and my passions) than I ever have before, taken more risks (and failed way more than before), and have done things worthy of a great story. I’m living more and more as the spontaneous, optimistic, passionate and corny hippie that I was born to be.
And I’m starting to experience some of the First Lasts of my college career.
My last time witnessing the colour change of Oberlin in the fall, my last fall break, my last Pittstop Lindy Hop (which just happened!).
By the way, fall break this year was easily the best I’ve ever had. Like most of my previous breaks, I went with the rock climbers to Red River Gorge, Kentucky. A week with beautiful people, in a beautiful place, doing one of the things I love most in the world; what more in life could I ask for?
Gratitude is more than a feeling. It’s an action; it’s a verb. And you get better with practice.
It’s hard not to be a little sad sometimes, knowing that all of this is going to end, and I’m going to need to figure out what comes after.
But somehow, that makes it all a bit more beautiful.
One day, all of this will just be a memory, so I may as well enjoy the ride.
My list of what I’m grateful for is far, far too long for this already long blog. But what tops the list is, always has been, and always will be the people that I’ve been blessed to call my friends. I don’t need to name you, because I already tell you all the time just how much I appreciate you.
I wouldn’t change a thing about my life.
It's been a wild ride, and I'm so grateful.
(3/4 of my house, on one pull up bar.)