The First Step

It was evening by the time we pulled out of the dealership. Mom let me drive her brand-new car home, heralding in a new era to our parent/adult-child relationship. Cars, like the rest of technology, have become more complex in the innovation age. Her new model does not have a gear shift. Rather, gears are changed by clicking different buttons, almost like an extension of the dashboard. It will take some time for my mom to adjust to all the new bells and whistles her “computer on wheels” contains. 

As we pulled into the traffic on the interstate Mom said, “Jenn, I just don’t want you worrying about me and your dad so much. We’re really doing fine.” 

I chuckled. “Yeah, I know. But isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black, Mom?

I could feel her smile cut the darkness in the passenger seat next to me. 

Well, “ she said. “I worry about you a lot less now than I used to!”

I threw my head back and laughed.

Well, I guess the tables have turned then, haven’t they?! I worry about you more now than I used to!”

We both laughed at the irony of trading places.

My parents are fortunate to still live independently, in the same house they’ve lived in for the last 38 years, but the benefits they’ve long enjoyed are beginning to be constrained by the inherent burden of doing so. Keeping the inverse correlation of burden vs. benefits in the green zone requires planning ahead, initiative and followthrough, and these days, an uncomfortable level of risk. That said, I was glad to spend the holidays with my family and end the year surrounded by so much love, cheer, and funny stories.

A step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction. 

—Kurt Vonnegut

While I adhere to the journey of self-motivation and improvement, the pandemic surely crushed my fallacy of annual resolutions. Last year, I employed Stoicism into my personal philosophy at the start. I planned to abstain from a bad habit or a cheap “crutch” every month. I succeeded with no coffee in January, failed miserably with no sugar in February (the seed of self-loathing taking root), and was well on my way to a successful no alcohol in March when Mother Nature clothes-lined us all, a sudden, colossal apparition, the hard ground stinging our bruised asses and leaving our vision crossed. Russ shook a perfect Cosmo into fruition every evening after that. I was certain to raise my frosted glass by the stem, and toast the fecklessness of my brutally exsanguinated resolutions, as I opened my gullet wide to the “pink juice,” like a baleen whale hoovering krill for the first time. (If you are a horse person, the pun will not be lost on you).

The death of resolutions aside, it wasn’t until I woke-up on my 40th birthday (almost a decade ago) the ideation of reflection weaselled itself into the crevice of my consciousness like a tiny serpent that found the only warm spot between the chill of boulders ensconced tightly in my cerebrum. These thoughts were completely uninvited, mind you, so intent was my focus until then on what was yet to come. Possibility, potential, is much more seductive than its withered counterpart, reality, when compiled on paper, sometimes appears bleak.

These days, I’ve learned hindsight is a powerful feature, augmenting past experiences, most especially the painful ones that poke through the thread of your trousers like a sprig of thorns, leaving splotches of red ink behind. My path in this world so far has been anything but linear. I wish I could admit to a personal operating system of “Never in doubt, but often wrong,” but often I was in serious doubt, as well as often being wrong.

Dr. Mike Ryan (WHO) said, “If you need to be right before you move, you will never win.” Paralysis of Analysis is a real affliction. This crossroad lured me more than once, like catnip to a cat, but with a lot less fun. It ensnared me, this mental toggling between all the roads, with a lot of energy expended, and many times, no decision made (which, of course, is its own decision, by default). No one wants to knowingly take the wrong path, or even the lesser path of what’s on offer. Everyone wants to choose the best option, setting themselves up for ultimate success. But what does one do when all the roads appear looking like ribbed mongrels with tangled coats?

If I have a single epiphany worth imparting to those facing these same existential questions, as they surface over their lives, I would suggest what they envision before them isn’t always complete in totality. Sometimes you can’t see all of the options, the opportunities, or even the pitfalls. The web of our individual possibilities, good and bad, aren’t always visible to our myopic eye. But despite life’s ambiguity, I implore those catatonic with uncertainty to make a move. In Three Day Eventing, “moving their feet” was the answer to many of the challenges we faced as riders and competitors of the horses we rode. Just like a boxer, success depends on the ability to keep moving. The boxer that plants his or her feet is the boxer rendered horizontal and unconscious. Sports are such a great metaphor for life, but despite my immersion in a sport as a professional for two decades, it’s wasn’t always easy to apply it to the bigger questions confronting my life outside of horses.

Last year was tumultuous. If you’re in between jobs, in between careers, in between your identity or knowing who you truly are, or aspire to be, keep moving your feet, even if you’re unsure if the choice you made is the right thing. Making a choice–whether it’s a step backwards or sideways or forward–creates brand-new roads we can’t possibly see until we go along on our way. We are all co-creators of our own future, but cannibalised uncertainty, fear, can asphyxiate our agency of ourselves.

I swore I would not succumb to soft platitudes in my writing because I detest when others do, but this blog is soggy with that spongecake. However, for the first time in my life, I feel a certain peace, a certain confidence, I’ve never experienced. It has been quite the trek to get here, and not without a lot of scrapes and scars along the way. This is the price of admission to an interesting life. (‘Interesting’ being a completely ambiguous word for you to take however you’d like.)

A good friend said to me many years ago, “Expectations diminish joy.” While I might have understood this truth intellectually, it was much harder to reconcile emotionally, whether it pertained to my expectations of myself or others, or around my expectations of life’s situations, benchmarks and milestones, usually found unmet. Only now have I’ve finally let go of the handlebars, and learned to pedal with my feet, down whatever road I choose to take, and no matter where it leads.

This year, as the smoke begins to clear, as our freedom to move where we like begins to rebound, I hope those that need to hear it, will take heart, and move in any direction, because the first step is the most powerful one of them all.

Thanks to my sister for sharing this passage below.

“It’s dark because you are trying too hard.
Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly.
Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply.
Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.

I was so preposterously serious in those days, such a humorless little prig.
Lightly, lightly – it’s the best advice ever given me.
When it comes to dying even. Nothing ponderous, or portentous, or emphatic.
No rhetoric, no tremolos,
no self conscious persona putting on its celebrated imitation of Christ or Little Nell.
And of course, no theology, no metaphysics.
Just the fact of dying and the fact of the clear light.

So throw away your baggage and go forward.
There are quicksands all about you, sucking at your feet,
trying to suck you down into fear and self-pity and despair.
That’s why you must walk so lightly.
Lightly my darling,
on tiptoes and no luggage,
not even a sponge bag,
completely unencumbered.”

-Aldous Huxley

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