The ties which bind

15 Aug

Suzanne’s Perspective

I sometimes allow things to become important to me, when they help me, to get through a difficult situation.

Like shoe laces.

When I climbed Kilimanjaro six years ago I realized, after the first excruciating day, that I was not going to make it through the pain and the unending monotony of it, if I allowed myself to focus on the number of kilometers I still needed to cover to reach the summit.  It also wasn’t helpful to calculate how many hours remained of marching at a pace set by men stronger than me, none of whom were my friends.

I figured out what I needed to concentrate on, were the little things, which didn’t scare me.  I needed to concentrate on them, and do them well, while blocking out the rest.

do it carefully. do it well.

I really liked my professional, waterproof and climate tested hiking boots.  They were the most expensive I could afford, and they came with brown and black woven laces – thin, long and strong.  Putting on my boots and tieing those laces became a ritual, at the start of every day on the mountain.  I would do it carefully, I would do it well.  I would tie a perfect knot and secure it tightly.

At the end of another day of marching over slippery rock with the snow and the wind beating the will and personality out of me, I would fall into my tent and end my day as I had started it – with those laces – with that ritual.  The knots would still be there.  Tight and true.  The laces seemed unbothered by my ordeal.  Ready as always in the morning, to face another day.

On the way down from the summit (achieved, but immediately overridden by the remaining task ahead), I got separated from the main group with one other hiker.  I found myself sheltering behind a large rock from the weather, feeling hysterical and exhausted, staring at those laces.  The knots were still tied tight and true, and for a moment I imagined being found that way.  Her boots survived, her body didn’t! They could have pulled them right off me and put them on their own feet, and those laces would have complied and endured, passively dealing with everything dealt them, so much stronger and more durable than me.  Thinking about wasting my lovely new shoes and their hardworking laces distracted me enough to take a breath, get over myself and my hysteria and to allow me to continue, and to hike another 12 hours more, to the final camp, and another 8 more hours after that on the home stretch.  We finished the ordeal singing and smiling, my laces and I.

I put my boots in my cupboard after returning home.  I left them, still caked in the blood of a faraway land.  It made me happy to see them standing there whenever I reached for another more practical pair of shoes.  It reminded me of the adventure we shared together.

A year and a half ago armed men held my mother and I up in our home. While one man held a gun on us, another went upstairs to my bedroom to find something to tie us up with.    He returned with two long thin brown and black laces he had pulled from my hiking boots which he had found in the cupboard.  Those laces were as flexible as they had ever been on the mountain as he looped one around my wrists and bound my hands behind my back.  I felt them burn into my skin as he pulled them tight with a jerk, in a similar way to how I had tied my own knots on those mornings when I was trying not to think about the day ahead.

He bound my mother with the second lace, and those knots were true.  They held so fast and tight that we both enjoy nerve damage to this day.  Our captor had found a small thing to do.  He had done it carefully and he had done it well.

When help finally arrived I was the one who cut those laces away from my mother’s hands where they had bitten in deep enough to bleed, after having my own cut away by a response guard.  Those thin strong laces were hard to cut though, and I suppose I could have tried to untie them, to save them, if they really did matter to me in the way I thought they did.

Instead I let them fall to the ground and didn’t look at them again.  I focused instead on my mother and the pieces of our broken world.

In the days which followed I was able to turn to friends who I never knew the value of, until I saw them shine for me, under the worst of circumstances.

I sometimes allow things to become important to me, when they help me, to get through a difficult situation.

Like the people who love me.

We can achieve amazing things on our own, with just the strength of our will.  We are particularly good, if we allow ourselves to be, at attaining goals which we have set for ourselves – like climbing mountains.  I put myself in that place, and I wanted to get to the summit very badly.  I wanted to prove to myself I could.  I used the knowledge I had regarding my own wiring, to help me attain my goal.  I am the type of person who works best if I am able to eat my elephant in small chunks.  I am the sort of person who is validated by achieving small goals consistently (surviving a day of hard hiking), which give me the confidence to work towards bigger goals (getting to the top of the mountain).  I am the sort who enjoys routine and structure – things I can rely upon – (tying my shoes the same way each morning to start my day) which provide a framework for coping with other things which by their very nature are less predictable and reliable (the rocky road to the summit and getting separated from the group).

I was very proud of my achievement, and in no small part due to the fact that I had relied upon no one but myself to get it done.  No one had helped me train.  No one had booked my trip.  No one had stood at my side encouraging me.  No one had hiked it for me.  It was proof to me at the time, how I was capable of doing anything I put my mind to.  On my own.  With or without the help of others.

But what about the challenges life throws you, for which you have not planned?  What about the goals you wish to achieve just as badly, but which you didn’t set or wish for yourself? (like making it through a hostage situation alive).  Life does not always provide you with a reliable and secure framework in those situations.  It becomes incredibly difficult to eat the elephant in chunks, when you don’t know the size of the elephant, or if there is another elephant right behind that one.

you have tied me up, not controlled me.

My coping mechanisms of the past – do these things, in this order – were no longer valid when I found myself on the other end of a gun.  Working towards your own goal is empowering.  Being a part of someone elses requires a new approach one in which the outcome is not guaranteed simply because you worked really hard to earn it, or because you did everything right.

The things I had controlled in my mountain climbing challenge, (which up until the hostage situation I had called the hardest thing I had ever done in my life), were controlling me in the next one.  Those darn laces.  Just pieces of string in the end.  A one hour at a time approach wasn’t going to help me either.  Bravely enduring did not ensure a happy ending.

Someone died that night.  You can do everything right and still not get the result you want.

I have learnt all I can control about that night is my reaction to it.  I am able to put it behind me knowing we all did the best we could.  I do not consider myself a powerless victim of my circumstances, but I also no longer think I am the sole true master of my universe.  I own my behavior that night, but I cannot own the behaviors of the men who held guns on us, motivated by their own goals and needs which were in opposition to mine.  I am strengthened and comforted by my family and friends, and I need them for doing many things more important than climbing mountains.

I am part of an ecosystem of cultures and personalities.  It keeps its balance by giving us all a bit of the good and a bit of bad, and we need to gear up and cope with it.  Life is not vindictive, nor is it kind.  It is.

I am comforted by being both powerful and weak at the same time – being human, and I will keep doing my best.



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