The Gifts of Microrelationship

 

biking
Photo credit: Cesar Kobayashi

 

“Let it all go; see what stays.” -Unknown

I do some of my best thinking on my bike.

When I run, I have to listen to music, or a podcast, or talk to a running partner.  Otherwise, the voices in my head will go at me nonstop, telling me that I suck and running sucks and I’ll never make it past the first half-mile. In my opinion, running without some sort of entertainment is nothing short of a spiritual practice.

But when I’m on a bike, it’s all flow. I hit the right cadence, the countryside blurs past, and I move into a zone of quiet contemplation. The miles fly by and my mind settles into a state where ideas come and I reflect and make connections that have never occurred to me before.

I also don’t fancy being hit by a car, so earbuds are a no-no on the roads.

Today is one of the glorious first days where signs of spring are beginning to appear and it’s time to pull the bike out for a ride. This morning I pumped up the tires, checked my brakes, and hopped on with plans to ride five or six miles, but the sunshine felt so good I just kept going.

While I pedaled I began to think of the people who first introduced me to road biking, nearly fifteen years ago.  A handful of my coworkers invited me to join their post-work biking forays into the surrounding farmland and hill country of our town. I bought my first little road bike, a steel frame Mercier, went on my first ten-mile ride, and was completely hooked. It wasn’t long before I was biking to work and riding the fifty miles to my dad’s ranch in ninety-degree Texas heat just for fun.

Those coworkers, who I’ve only seen once or twice in the last ten years, gave me a gift that has lasted and made a significant impact on my life. They introduced me to a sport that I love, and they were some of the first to plant seeds in my mind that I might be capable of bigger things than I had once thought.

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I’ve done alot of moving across the country as an adult, and as a result, I’ve had to leave behind many people that came to be important to me. It’s always been hard leaving these people that I really cared about, uncertain if our friendships would survive long distance and states apart.  On many occasions, I’ve vehemently tried to maintain those relationships, and while a handful were strong enough to persist, most eventually fizzled to the point of being fond Facebook connections.

I’ve also had many people come into my life who left just as quickly as they came, for a myriad of reasons. In many cases, I would beat myself up over the breakdown of these relationships, thinking that somehow I had failed them and myself. Growing up I had unconsciously told myself that quality relationships, those with real meaning, should survive for a long time, and if relationships end, it is a bad thing.

Years ago I read Henry Cloud’s book Necessary Endings and I remember feeling so relieved that it is OK to end relationships and not all friendships or romantic partnerships will or should last forever.  Somehow I had believed that I always had to be friends with everyone I encountered, and everyone had to like me and want to be friends with me. I’m so glad I got over that, because it was an exhausting endeavor trying to make myself like everyone and present myself in a way that they would all like me, and then feel horrible about myself when some didn’t reciprocate.

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Relationships come and go; some are short and some last for years. But it’s difficult when relationships end badly, or people that you desperately want to be part of your life either choose not to be or can’t be for some reason or another. As I biked this morning down Indiana backroads, I recalled a handful of people that I’ve met over the last year and a half that were part of my life ever so briefly.

It can be so disappointing when you meet someone who you think you really click with, who you suspect might be a part of your future, and suddenly they’re gone. It doesn’t matter if it’s a friend or a romantic interest, it can be tempting to either try and control the situation to make them stay or ruminate for far too long as to why the connection dissipated.

Today, on my bike, I did a bit of reframing of perspective.   I decided to call it microrelationship -relationships that are fleeting and may never reach the robust maturity of the kinds of friendship we tend to value most, yet are still meaningful and somehow impart gifts to us.

I specifically thought of a handful of people that have flitted in and out of my life since moving back to Indiana from Massachusetts.  They came and left for completely different reasons, but every leaving grieved me on some level. However, if I’m honest about it, even though those friendships didn’t last, I was given something by each of those people that positively impacted me, gifts of encouragement or inspiration or challenges to grow in different areas of my life. One person inspired me with their commitment to health and a lifestyle that contributed to it.  Another heard and saw the real me in a way I’m pretty sure no one else ever has. One person insisted that I stop listening to the bullshit smack that my mind gives me, and start writing more and regularly. And yet another pointed out prejudices lingering within me that needed to be addressed.

I’ve decided that microrelationship is just as valid a model of doing life with people as long-term deep relationships.  Sometimes it can be tempting to keep your heart closed, and not really open up to people or be transparent until you’re sure they’re going to be around for a while. But I think this can be a mistake.  Some of the people who had the biggest impacts on my life have only been in it for brief periods of time; if I had closed myself off to them for fear that they wouldn’t stay, I would have missed so many gifts.

I’m not talking here about coming across as needy with people, or giving information vomit, or blowing past safe boundaries when trust hasn’t been established in a relationship. What I’m talking about is allowing yourself to be authentic and genuine and real and VULNERABLE with people even when you have no clue how long they’ll be in your life.

I think it all really comes down to just learning to live in the present.  Things come, things go.  People come, and people go. It is not ours to qualify what is a meaningful and good relationship just based on duration or whether or not we ever see a particular person again.

We will never really understand why life brings us people when it does, or takes people away. All we can learn to do is accept them as a gift,  and leave our hands open for them to come freely and leave freely.

How to Breathe Through Pain

I got bitch-slapped by 2017 on her way out.

It was a rough year, but I had made it. Things were on a positive trajectory and I was feeling hopeful.  But then, right when I thought I was on the homestretch…..

(Yes, I know I’m splicing together random metaphors).

It was like that scene from Million Dollar Baby.  You know, where Hillary Swank’s character dominates in the boxing match, and as she goes to the side of the ring to soak up her glory, her opponent throws an ugly illegal punch that pretty much ruins everything.  Oh what the heck, watch it here and you’ll get the idea.

I’m obviously not the only one that has been thrown what feels like a totally unfair and uncalled-for blow, but no matter how intellectually we approach these things, they can still hurt like freaking hell. And sometimes the hardest thing to do is to force yourself to get back up again and to keep breathing in and out, and to believe that life is benevolent and good.

I’m halfway through nursing school, and in that time I have gained an even greater appreciation for the way our bodies work.  The intricate balancing system of chemicals, blood gases, and pH to maintain optimal functioning is fascinating.  Even when we are diseased or injured or offer them crappy energy supplies, our bodies fight valiantly to keep us moving.   It’s quite an elegant set-up, really.

One idea that is really pushed on us in school and clinicals is the importance of open airways and proper breathing. When in doubt, the best action is always to check a person’s airway to make sure nothing is obstructing their breathing. And second, when someone has had surgery, even if it’s just a C-section, or a lung illness, the patient needs to perform incentive spirometry.

Incentive spirometry is slow, forced breathing to help fully open the air sacs deep within the lungs and help a person regain as much lung capacity as possible.  The problem is, when you’re in pain, you don’t want to breathe deeply.  You want to take short, shallow breaths and use as few muscles in the process as possible.  When you’re in intense pain, you also likely feel completely bone-tired.

Can’t everyone just leave me alone, God dammit? Breathing hurts and my body hurts and I’m exhausted – I just want to lie here in my misery and not move!

Forcing yourself to breathe in these medical situations is exactly what needs to be done for the body to restore itself. It may hurt like hell to use that stupid incentive spirometer (and I know from experience, having had three C-sections and my gall-bladder removed), but pushing through that pain to help your lungs open up and allow for optimal gas exchange is paramount. Without going into too much detail,  gas exchange (oxygen and carbon dioxide) is crucial…for proper cell metabolism, for maintaining a narrow-bounded blood pH, for minimizing anxiety and confusion…the list goes on.

Emotional pain can cause the same kinds of breathing problems as physical pain. I doubt I’m unique in this-when my heart is broken or I’m panicking or I’m descending into the depths of despair (thank you for that sentiment, Anne of Green Gables), my chest physically hurts and I find myself taking those short, shallow breaths. When I realize it and attempt to breathe deeply out of my diaphragm, the emotional pain seems to intensify rather than abate, and it takes all the courage I have to let my lungs expand.

Failure to breathe deeply from emotional pain can lead to some of the same negative side effects caused by physical pain. But what is worse than just failing to breathe deeply is when we stop breathing and hold our breath. This, however, is our tendency.

Because breathing deeply or breathing at all during these times feels like you’re endorsing or condoning what is being done to you or the situation you find yourself in. Breathing is necessary to bring in oxygen and let out carbon dioxide, and those gases are necessary for life, and life doesn’t feel like a good thing right now because it is what brought you this pain in the first place. Our natural reflex is to want to close ourselves off from breathing, pain, and all that life brings because we want to protect ourselves. How could a rational human being sanely accept and embrace the hard things that come our way, uninvited?

We unconsciously think that if we hold perfectly still, the pain will go away. But this isn’t the way it works. When we hold still, the pain remains trapped within us. It can’t lessen because it has nowhere to go.  And then, the lack of life movement within us accompanied by this body of pain, creates bitterness and resentment and scar tissue on our hearts.  We become small, immovable, hard, unchangeable.

Breath creates space inside of us for new things to happen. It provides a vehicle for the pain to start moving, within us and then eventually, out of us.  To ruin the moment here, I’m thinking of patients who have tracheostomies.  Their trachs and lungs get all bound up with phlegm and mucus, but if they can get a good, long, deep breath in and cough hard, all the gunk in their lungs is loosened up (or potentially flies across the room at you and you’d better duck fast) and they feel better.

This is where spirituality beat science and modern healthcare to the table. Mystics and contemplatives have known for ages that to heal and to get through pain, we have to keep moving and we have to keep breathing deeply. There is no other way to convalesce if we want to live.

So many spiritual practices focus on the breath. Watch your in-breath, watch your out-breath. Count to five on your inhalation, count to eight on your exhalation. Place your hand on your abdomen and feel your diaphragm expand. On your exhale, push back into downward dog. On your inhale, press up into cobra pose.

Practices like yoga teach us how to sync our breathing with our movements.  It’s not just about exercise; it is about learning to live and be with the pain that is within us, how to hold it long enough to transform it, and then how to let it pass through us without destroying us.

So…I know and believe all that I’ve just written at a head level, and to some extent at my heart level.  When I breathe my chest still hurts and I just want to go crawl under the covers and not move. But I choose to believe that life is good and what comes to me is what I need. I choose to feel the pain and not run away from it. I choose to transform it and let it transform me. I’ve run away from hard things too many times in the past because I was afraid of the pain. But I’m not afraid of pain anymore, and I will breathe deeply into life, and I will get up again and again and again. So bring it, 2018.

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