The Space Between Thoughts

Whatever Mountain

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Shane L. Koyczan :: Fairbanks, AK  04.21.2017

 

If you think it will be easy
If you think the path
will be laid out before you
or that the trail
will have previously been blazed
all obstacles cleared
every footstep
already pioneered by those who have gone before you

if you think that every barricade
will have been dismantled
or that every wall
will have been removed

if you think pressing your hands
into the wet cement of a foundation
will have proved to the world
you have left your mark upon it

if you think the grit
under your fingernails is evidence
that you have done enough

or that your rough and callused hands
offer sufficient testimony
that you have earned rest

if you think the test
will be anything less
than an essay question
aimed at unearthing
the answer of how much
your heart can bear

you will be disappointed

it will require more than
that there will be no welcome mat
waiting to greet you at the foot of this mountain

no medal
to pin upon your chest
when this is done

you will have won nothing by crossing this finish line
It exists
only to task you with discovering
how much deeper
you can go

it will insist that you drill past
the “I don’t know”
that has stood stubbornly in your way
since the instant
you first wondered if you could

it will burden you with the charge
of bringing to the surface
an understanding
of the misunderstood

the excavation
of an answer to the question
what now?

how do you keep going
in a world where the hellos
are outweighed by the goodbyes?

how do you train yourself to know
that you have to battle through the fall
if you ever expect to rise

you have to accept the fact that
the size of the mountain in front of you
is secondary to the fact that there is a mountain in your way

you don’t need a finish line to remind you
that the way forward exists because of the work you put in
forging the path behind you

effort isn’t weighed on scales
there will be times when the last breath in your lungs
must volunteer to become the wind in your sails

because who else is going to do it?

forward

faster than full speed
toward the colossus of uncertainty
that’s been laying bricks in your throat
to make room for the quiet impostor
sent to replace your roar your

strength is not diminished
because others think your struggle is futile

every time you broke
you learned to reconcile the pieces
and build a better self
using what you could salvage from the ruins of your slaughter

your alma mater was a school of thought
where the lessons were taught in reverse
test first
instruction later
it was a classroom dedicated to the teaching of what can be learned
from your failure

the answers were never meant to be easy
you’ve always known it
you don’t borrow the conviction it takes
to make yourself practice the impossible
you own it

the heaviest thing you will ever have to lift
are our own spirits

they will at times
be weighted down with the terrible gravity that is doubt
they will at times refuse to man the lighthouse
meant to steer you clear from disaster

you will never master being whole
without first knowing
that some of the pieces we lose stay lost
and that sometimes the cost of moving forward
is having to leave behind that part of yourself
and learn to exist without it

to face down whatever mountain is in your way
but then do what you’re going to do about it.

Shane.L.Koyczan

 

 “Each year it feels as if our challenges become greater… that they occur with a more alarming frequency. These days feel so urgent… like we are being called upon to shift gears and enact change that is overdue. We each face our own mountain to climb, and in our ascent we sometimes come upon obstacles in our path that we believe are insurmountable. Already, just a few short months into this new year, it feels as if we have come upon test after test. It scares me when I wonder how long our resilience can hold out. Today, for world poetry day, I wanted to offer a balm to perhaps soothe the ache in our endurance. This is for anyone standing at the base camp of their particular challenge. Your support is appreciated :)”   -Shane

 

 

 

Trailbreaking

Snow

Castner Creek, AK

The Inuktitut language, famous for its descriptive powers, has a number of different words for snow trails. When the trailbreaker first clears the trail, it is called an iglinikuluk. Over time, as others follow it, the iglinikuluk becomes an igliniq, which denotes something more fixed, like a snow road. Trailbreakers have sometimes cut paths that are inconvenient, but travelers still obediently follow them through the winter—even a bad igliniq is faster than cutting a new iglinikuluk.

* * *

So this is how you cross a field of snow: you take one step forward, and then another. The journey begins, always, in arbitrariness and error. In reaching your destination, you look back over the path you have forged. It is crooked, ugly. On your return trip, you shave off some errant zigs and zags, and your trail becomes slightly straighter. Over the following weeks, other people notice your trail through the snow and begin following it, too.

One might assume that over the course of a winter, the other walkers would attempt many other routes, exploring every option until the snow is evenly trampled, thereby inverting the problem of the blank field, since a wholly trodden field would be just as useless and perplexing as an untrodden one. But instead, as the winter progresses, you discover that people don’t walk that way. They tend to follow a preexisting trail and alter it slightly with each trip; where you veered, they veer less; where you erred, they make corrections. And so your trail becomes slightly more elegant journey after journey, continues to widen and harden, transforming from an iglinikuluk to an igliniq.

By winter’s end, you look upon it, shining like marble, and realize that it bears no mark of your authorship. It seems inherent, close to preordained. You find it hard to believe it was once a meandering line of your own footsteps, steps you’ve almost forgotten by now, long erased beneath the new thing, the thing that has come to be and will continue on being, even if you were to suddenly vanish from this earth.

One day… or Day One

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Today was for that moment when the orthopedic surgeon said I’d likely never walk again without a cane. I was flat on my back in a hospital bed at FMH, fractured pelvis, crushed sacroiliac joint, internal bleeding, stomped by a horse. The only question I had was, “Will I still be able to lift weights?”

The doctor laughed. “You’ll never carry a backpack again, squats and deadlifts are out of the question. Your climbing days are over. We can look at installing a morphine pump for pain management, but you’ll be in a wheelchair for at least twelve weeks. You’ve got spinal cord impingement, sciatic nerve damage, your pelvis is fractured like a sheet of plywood and you have a fracture 2mm from your spinal cord. If you take even one fall, you’ll be paralyzed for life.”

That was October 4, 2003. I was 26 years old. I had a two year old toddler, a brand new full time job with the State of Alaska and a 12 credit course load at UAF in the criminal justice program.

Every day since that day, I’ve fought hard for every step. I live with the aftermath of a crushed sacroiliac joint and the sciatic nerve pain that resulted. I’ve learned a couple things, though. Life hurts whether you’re trying or NOT trying, whether you bench yourself and sit on the sidelines of your own existence or whether you push the limits of what is possible with every breath you take.

You get to choose your pain. The pain of not engaging fully in your own life, the pain of apathy, listlessness, purposeful ignorance, self-pity and the destructive, distracting behaviors that result from that are monumental. I know. In December of 1999, I weighed in at 306 pounds because I ate myself into oblivion. At 23 years old, I was ancient. Weighed down by my own misery, I hit the end of my rope. I changed my mind. I shredded 150 pounds off in eight months. I had a brand new baby to raise and I didn’t want her memories of me to be those of a woman who made excuses. I took up powerlifting in those years, because it was a natural fit. I was incredibly strong from carrying so much extra bodyweight.

As I lay there in the hospital on October of 2003, I made a decision. I decided that I would walk again. I would crawl if I had to, but I wasn’t going to live a half-life, reliant on pain meds and drugged into oblivion. With whatever life I had left, I was going to truly live.

When I stood on top of my first mountain, deep in the heart of the Alaska Range, in May of 2009… I cried. I spent two weeks in the range that spring, hauled 100# in a sled and 75# on my back. I dug snow kitchen after snow kitchen as we moved down glacier. I held my climbing partner’s fall when he stepped into a crevasse. We weighed the same: 185 lbs.

Years passed. I climbed mountains. I biked. I hiked. I backpacked. I raced. I lifted heavy, trained hard. I set a goal for myself five years ago: to break every personal record I’d set in my 20’s before that accident.

Today, I deadlifted 300 lbs.  I haven’t pulled that kind of weight since I was 26 years old. I haven’t broken my record yet on that lift, but I will.

Strong is what’s left when you use up all your weak. The choice is yours: is it “one day…” or is TODAY your Day One. You decide.

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The Peace of Wild Things

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms –

to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

-Viktor E. Frankl

* * *

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* * *

Last year, I read a beautiful poem by Wendell Berry: The Peace of Wild Things. I’ve had good reason to return to it again and again as 2016 came to a close and as this new year has begun. There’s a deep calm in the eye of a storm, a quiet certainty that lives and thrives while the weather system is raging. There’s an understanding that this, too, shall pass. Berry writes:

 

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

In fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feed.

I come into the peace of the wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water

and I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and I am free.

 

Today, this moment, this small fragment in time is ours. This present moment is all that exists. With courage in the here and now, we rest in the space between thoughts.

* * *

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

-Viktor E. Frankl

Nebulous

Never apologize for burning too brightly or collapsing into yourself every night. That is how galaxies are made.    ~ Tyler Kent White

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I’ve been collapsing into myself as the daylight hours shrink and winter’s blanket threatens to suffocate me. The dark is very dark this year, the cold gets into my bones and I hurt. Shoulders bent under the weight of the ‘mountains I was only supposed to climb’, I struggle to draw a deep breath. To get up, to keep walking.

 “Star formation begins when the denser parts of the cloud core collapse

under their own weight/gravity.”

 

Feet fall heavy. Perhaps it a sign- a harbinger of change. Tomorrow, I celebrate Solstice. I celebrate the Dark and the return of Light.

Tonight? I am soft and quiet and miserable and collapsed. Weary. Undone. Dark.

That is how a star is born.

Look Up

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“Please, don’t worry so much,

’cause in the end none of us have very long on this earth.

Life is fleeting.

And if you’re ever distressed, cast your eyes to the summer sky,

when the stars are strung across the velvety night,

and when a shooting star streaks through the blackness turning night into day –

– make a wish, think of me.

And make your life spectacular.

I know I did.”

– Robin Williams

Where the Ocean Meets the Sky

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Atlantic Ocean touches the sky in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary

Stellwagen Bank (or Middle Bank as it’s also known), is an underwater plateau just outside Boston Harbor. It’s home to migrating humpback and right whales, and it was home for me- for an afternoon.

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After flying from Fairbanks, Alaska to Boston over a weekend and working all week in the JFK Federal Building, I was more than ready to board a ship (any ship) and get out where the wild things are. I took a last minute sailing aboard a catamaran heading out to the open ocean for a whale watching adventure.

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Catamaran Wave Song

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Humpback whale, breaching

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Where the ocean meets the sky, I’ll be sailing…

For an hour and a half, we sailed under cloudy skies and calm seas. The shoreline faded out, Cape Cod melted into the horizon, and there was nothing but the wind and salt spray in my face on the top deck of the ship.

I had left my sunglasses and jacket behind; it was 85 degrees, cloudy and muggy back on dry land. As tears streamed from my eyes, I closed them, bowed my head and just let the wind blow. I had the upper deck to myself, mostly- me and my Dramamine and mental exhaustion.

These past six months have taken their toll, and I am tired. Soul-weary. I nestled against the cold metal of the deck rail and let the salt smell of the ocean permeate. I didn’t come out here for answers, I just came to sit and let my tears mingle with the wind and sky and to let the ocean cradle my broken places- like only an ocean can.

The whales came out to play, then- surrounding the catamaran on all sides. Announcing their arrival at the surface with exquisite ‘bubble nets’, they drove scores of fish from below and devoured them as they breached. They danced then, those giant whales. Rolled and dove and resurfaced and came so close to the boat it felt like I could reach out and touch them. A slap of a fluke to the flat water, and the spray would catch the wind and for a moment, I was one of them.

The only camera I had with me was my iPhone, and it didn’t even matter.

Zero problems were solved that afternoon, no mysteries were unraveled and nothing really changed… but I left a little heartache, there- out in the marine sanctuary- and I carried a little of the ‘salt cure’ with me as I flew home.  I was reminded again of this beautiful and fierce poem by Kim Cornwall:

What Whales and Infants Know

 

A beluga rising
from the ocean’s muddy depths
reshapes its head to make a sound
or take a breath.

I want to come

at air and light like this,
to make my heart
a white arc above the muck of certain days,
and from silence and strange air

send a song

to breach the surface
where what we most need
lives.

*  *  *

Begin, again.

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“Didn’t you used to be involved in martial arts or teaching self defense?” My coworker’s words caught me off guard and tired, hauling workout gear bags up two flights of stairs.

“Yeah.” (I’m not a great conversationalist before second breakfast.)

“Didn’t you have a black belt or something?” He just wouldn’t quit.

“Uh-huh.”

“They pretty much just hand those out to little kids, even, these days. Saw a commercial on that the other day- some place with little kids jumping around and they all had black belts. Everybody’s a winner, now, I guess.”

*  *  *

I shrugged, continued up the stairs. Rope climbs, tire flips, 400 meter runs, linear progression on the bench press… the missing skin on my fingers tells a different kind of story about winning, this morning. It tells the story of starting over, repeatedly. Of falling down and getting back up. Of finding myself so over-extended that I couldn’t find my comfort zone with a GPS and a headlamp.

I didn’t learn self defense in a dojang, but I did rehearse patience. I apprenticed to practice, I earned my results. I carried that forward into training in Krav Maga and then instructing.

I had the privilege of training with Bill “Superfoot” Wallace several times, when I was a 1st degree black belt candidate. I would arrive an hour early, just to sit in silence on the mats of the dojang and observe as he went through his own warm-up routine. The same consistency in training and absolute tenacity that allowed him to retire as an undefeated kickboxing champion was clearly evident in the simplicity and consistency of his everyday routine. There aren’t any shortcuts to greatness. There aren’t any easy roads to winning. There is pain, there are life-altering injuries, there is the everyday grind and there is greatness found in apprenticing to the process.

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“Superfoot” Wallace   – August 2013

These days, I’m working my process from the ground, up. Coaching myself. Not loving it very much. There is a tremendous amount of work that goes in to planning and executing solid training. I know, I coached and trained clients for years (while letting my own training fall to the sidelines). There’s great advantages and disadvantages to building your own training plan: you know all your own weaknesses. Nobody can hurt me like I can hurt me, no one can heal me like I can heal me. Somewhere, in the mix of those two things, there is progress. There is a winged creature emerging from a cocoon, slowly and painfully.

In all of this, why do we endeavor? Why is it necessary to exert ourselves? I’d contend that it’s for the same reason that a butterfly has to exert itself in order to crawl from the bug-soup environment of the cocoon into the sunlight. The wings and legs of the soggy creature can’t and won’t function on their own if the cocoon is split open prematurely or if “help” is given. The butterfly is compelled to endeavor, to struggle, to work its own way out. Only then will the legs and wings be strong enough to stand, to fly.

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Ready to spar. 2013

 

The mental discipline that is forged through hours and days and weeks and months and years of practice and training becomes a solid platform, bulletproofing the mind. Consistency yields results that live deep under the skin. Practice becomes routine, then creates an environment for the extraordinary.

* * *

I climbed the last flight of stairs, tuning out the stream of commentary from my coworker. Remembering the thousands of turning kicks, side kicks… the sound of multiple boards breaking when I’d make contact with fists or feet. The way it felt to connect a solid back fist with a target. But none of that was winning.

I remember how it felt at the end of my black belt test, standing there soaked in sweat, glycogen depleted, broken bones in my feet grating against each other. There’s no forgetting pain like that. It didn’t feel like winning, it felt like a beginning.

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Like this morning. And yesterday. And tomorrow. And all the tomorrows.

 

Start where you are. Do what you can. Use what you have. Be who you are.

Begin, again. And again.

* * *

Perspective

Above Camp

Pika Glacier, Alaska Range – Italy’s Boot Icefall

“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”
― René Daumal

Ice Fall

Italy’s Boot icefall

 

I climb for perspective, for a better view. Not necessarily the view from the mountain or the summit, but the perspective gained by endeavor, exertion, intentional movement.

It’s the same reason I return again and again to lifting heavy weights. In exerting myself, in choosing to fuel wisely for endeavors, in living mindfully, I find perspective. Hard-earned, hard-won, understanding arrives on the heels of ‘doing the work’.

It will change you. It will outsource your smallness, your invisibility, your heartbreak, your broken pieces, your inadequacy- it will require your full attention. It takes everything and it gives everything. The reciprocity of exertion is unparalleled. Move your body, free your mind.

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Italy’s Boot- in the icefall

 

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Italy’s Boot – view from my tent at day’s end

 

Pay the price for the attitude you want.

 

“I am dead because I lack desire,
I lack desire because I think I possess.

I think I possess because I do not try to give.
In trying to give, you see that you have nothing;

Seeing that you have nothing, you try to give of yourself;
Trying to give of yourself, you see that you are nothing:

Seeing that you are nothing, you desire to become;
In desiring to become, you begin to live.”
René Daumal

 

 

* * *

 

Rise Up

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Doesn’t have to feel good to BE good.

I turn forty this year, in the fall of 2016. I started training for this decades ago. Laying groundwork, running trails, lifting heavy things, moving my body when all it wanted to do was slow down and fall apart like an old grasshopper in autumn.

Unafraid of chronological change, I am actually looking forward to this next decade. A lot. I decided to celebrate in advance by competing in a Spartan Race with all of my siblings. I’m the oldest of five and uniquely qualified to lead the way toward a better birthday bash, in general.

Cake and icecream? Bah. Party streamers? Pooh. Balloons? Pop.

The music of the Spartan fife calls me in real time, not just for the momentary fun of challenging obstacles and playing in mud and barbed wire- but as a measuring stick. A reminder that we are only as good as the time and training and consistency we apply to each and every day of our lives.

When the race rolled around, I had every reason in the world to sit out. To tap out. To cancel, defer, explain myself away completely. I was utterly spent before even boarding the red-eye flight to travel 1,500 miles to Washington State. I had trained hard, worked hard for months (years, actually) to be at the point where I could participate in a challenge like this one, with my family, and be an asset to the team. The wheels came off the wagon in February. Sick with pleurisy and pericarditis, I was exhausted to the point of near-incapacity. Unable to take the time off work to actually recover and heal, I was staggering toward exhaustion every waking minute. Immune system compromised, I succumbed to bronchitis and a nasty sinus infection shortly thereafter.

Our bodies have this way of having the last word. Lack of quality sleep, profound stress driven by an ongoing family emergency, long-term overwhelm at work and an increased caseload that just wouldn’t end… and down I went.

When the week of the race arrived, I hadn’t been able to actually train for about three weeks. Lung capacity compromised, I was ready to call it off. After talking to my sisters, I realized two things: one, we are a team and this is a team endeavor. Two, if they were willing to take the chance on me- move at my pace, pick up the pieces I couldn’t- then who was I to determine that I was inadequate?

I raced.

It was pretty grim. My joints were in bad shape from the extended illness. My blood sugar and insulin were out of balance, continually. I was spiking and depleting and crashing and burning, hard. And yet? I ran. Easy. Opened up the throttle and just relaxed into my trail running stride, between obstacles. When it was time to climb walls and ropes and crawl through mud and carry heavy things, I found that some things were easy and some things were difficult, just like the rest of life. The biggest mountain we will ever climb is the one in each of our heads. The one that says, “What if I look ridiculous?”

I did. Look ridiculous. I’ve seen the pictures. It’s okay. I’m not a super hero. I’m just a woman who won’t quit. It isn’t pretty, especially when conditions are suboptimal. In fact, it’s kind of ugly. Messy. Chaotic. Ridiculous.

My family had my back. Literally. When both of my calves cramped up as I clamped my legs around the rope for a Tyrolean traverse, my sister and brother-in-law were right there to grab my toes and pull them back and release the tension that I couldn’t. They shared my burpees with me when I failed obstacle after obstacle. They walked with me when I couldn’t run. They know. As embarrassed as I was, as dark as the places were in my mind in those moments, I learned something far more valuable than words can express. I learned, again, that vulnerability is the gateway to strength. That strength is perfected in weakness. That family and friendship is stronger than any obstacle and that even at my worst, on my worst race day EVER, I am enough. Not because of what I can do (because that was fairly limited), but because of who I AM.

I am not afraid of failing. Of being the slowest, the weakest link. There was a good enough reason, and that’s all I needed. In life, we don’t often get to feel amazing. Great. Fantastic. Heroic. In fact, if we do… we should look around carefully to see what we aren’t fully comprehending.

I didn’t race on April 23rd so I could prove anything. In fact, if that had been my goal- I would have never climbed the wall at the starting line. I would have stayed on the course as a spectator, with every good reason in the book to back me up. I knew better. I have made a commitment in life to bring all of my pieces to Life’s starting line, every single day. I bring my 100%. It’s not always pretty. In fact, it’s rarely even a little bit adorable.

I ran those trails, crawled through mud pits full of cow manure, climbed walls and slid down rocky hills… because family matters more to me than how fast I run, how cleanly I climb or how horribly I fail at the margins of my experience.

I raced for my best friend, my Anam Cara- whose entire life is dedicated to his family, his children. I raced for his children. For their future. For all the uncertainty that lies ahead.

I raced to remind myself that my best is good enough. That life is meant for living. In the now. I raced to give myself hope for today and for tomorrow- that even in my own frailty, I can do my part. Can be a valuable part of something greater.

As I ran the course, I passed a man with no legs. Amputated so completely that he is literally without a lower half of his body, this man was navigating the obstacle course with his torso and arms. He was completing every single obstacle, just as I was, and he had no team. He was doing it alone. As I slowed to acknowledge him, to look him in the eyes, he said aloud, “No matter what life gives you, no matter how bad it gets, you have got to RISE UP.”

He locked eyes with me and I stopped. Knelt down. Cried. Kneeling next to a man who knows what it means to rise up, I found what I came for that day.

I brought everything I had to that race course, just as I do with my everyday life. He did the same.

I’m leaving this thought here today, with you. For your todays and your tomorrows, for all that you are and all that you can be: rise up. To do that, you have to start where you are.

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Make a damned choice. Mark Twight nails me to the wall, again, with this one:

“The hardest thing to do is one thing at a time.”

You likely won’t get to feel amazing and look like a hero and collect a special medal for doing that one thing today that will make a difference for your tomorrows.

You know what that one thing is. Go do that. I guarantee you, you’ll find me out there doing the same.

 

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Life won’t wait.

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