My shoulders are coming out of their sockets. I wish I didn’t mean this literally, but I do. When I was rock climbing a few weeks ago, on two separate routes, each shoulder subluxated, meaning… it slid out of the joint. It was painful and frightening. Unlike a dislocation, it didn’t stay out of place. I went flying off the wall and my shoulder slid back into place, but not without lingering discomfort and weakness.
So now I go through my day with the distinct feeling that my shoulders are not as stable as they used to be. When I open doors and lift heavy objects and brush my hair, my shoulders give me subtle reminders that they aren’t quite okay.
The ironic juxtaposition is that lately I’ve been feeling as though I’ve been carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders, so it’s only fitting that my shoulders are breaking down, that they are literally tearing at the seams, giving up and falling apart.
I can’t go a day without hearing a story that breaks my fucking heart. I don’t go looking for these stories; somehow, we cross paths. My soul is shredded, bleeding empathy. I’m torn between wanting to rage against the world, expose these atrocities, scream, “Your perfect world is a fucking lie” from every rooftop, and wanting to run so far from everything and everyone that I know; but even I know I can’t outrun this reality.
So I listen – stone-faced and open-eyed – to the tales of abuse and neglect and betrayal and deception and manipulation and twisted religion and persecution and conditional love and impossible choices and suffocating expectations and bizarre biases and judgement and fear and pain and tears and agony and hatred and soul crushing hopelessness. It takes my breath away. I bear witness. I nod. I sit still.
I wait until I’ve walked away to widen my eyes and clench my jaw and rest my head in my hands. These stories are killing me. These stories are stones burying me alive. I’m barely breathing under the weight of the ugliness of this world. I don’t want to be a cynic. I don’t want to be a nihilist. I don’t want to be a glass half empty kind of person, but how can I not be?
I take care to fill my life with good. I find utter joy and delight in my nieces and nephews, in their laughter and antics and my role as their Aunty Shoshana. I find peace and creativity behind the lens of the camera, capturing smiles, nature and man-made beauty. And I find it most fun to climb the walls of the rock gym, but now my damn shoulders are giving me the middle finger. It’s like even my arms don’t want to be around the sorrow in my soul.
Something’s got to give. I’m an empathic person. It’s a gift and a curse. I cannot ignore the pain of others. My very career is to walk beside people as they travel through the complicated minefield of life. I know about boundaries. I know about work/life balance. I know about self-care. The answer isn’t that simple.
So I pull out my thera-band. I pull out my handheld weights. It’s back to basics. I need to strengthen my scapula muscles to give my damaged rotator cuff muscles a break. My trapezius muscles are overworked and are in constant spasm so I must engage in vigilant stretching. I’ve been here before. My doctor wants me to return to physical therapy but I already know the drill. Strengthen, stabilize and stretch. Can I do to my psyche what I do to my body? Can I condition my heart to handle the ugliness of this world, to withstand the unending barrage of heart-wrenching stories that come my way?
People tell me I’m crazy for rock climbing. Besides my shoulder problems, I’ve got a broken ankle and six torn ligaments behind me. Why would I return to something that has such potential for danger? For the same reason I keep listening to these stories. It’s what I’m meant to be doing. Sure, sometimes it hurts, but I still know it’s the right thing for me.
I drive to the rock gym. I tie my shoes, greet my friends, chalk up my hands, and swing my arms in circles, warming up the joints.
I drive to Starbucks, order my iced coffee, greet my friend, grab an empty table.
I grip the rock, arms taut, muscles flexed, blood pumping, body coiled.
We catch up. We talk about work, summer vacations, recent movies we’ve seen.
I miss a hold and fall. I hit the mat, knees bent, spring back up, grinning, because it was a good attempt. Fist bump my friend, reflect on what went wrong, take a swig of water, sit down to catch my breath.
She brings up her family, her eyes darken, she grips her coffee. Her gaze is faraway, she tries to sound nonchalant, but the hurt is louder than the music playing in the background.
I leave the gym. My heart is full. Of pleasure, adrenaline, accomplishment and satisfaction.
I leave my friend. My heart is full. Of sadness, a visceral ache, anger at a system that has failed her.
My heart is always full.
So I won’t walk away. Not from the rocks, not from the stories. I’ll strengthen my shoulders, I’ll strengthen my soul. I’ll stand up, stand tall, stand still.