Good King Wenceslas looked out,
On the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
Deep and crisp and even.
It’s the week before Christmas and I’ve started feeling really Christmas-y. Last weekend we conducted the ritual hunt-and-slaughter of the conifer and decorated the house. The windows are festooned with lights, boughs, and decorations and I’ve begun to let the best parts of this season wash over me. December is a stressful month, but can be a good one and this year I am focussing on the good parts and letting go of the unnecessary stresses. It’s the end of a tough year and frankly, this Christmas is a celebration of survival for us, as well as an acknowledgement of some important triumphs. Even before New Year arrives, I find myself looking back over the past year and reflecting on everything that has happened and how this journey twisted and turned.
“It has been,” to quote my husband, “the hell of a year.”
John’s right, it has been the hell of a year. We covered more in one year than I had hoped, including a beloved dog dying, a business that represented a hope and plan that we had for our family closing, albeit for really good reasons, the resultant hydra-like heads of stress that have gone with that change, shifting careers, competition experiences that made me rethink some pretty big things and learn a lot about trust and my own worth and judgement, exciting and daunting questions about plans and dreams, confidence loss and rebuilding on several occasions, a child who really started to become a teenager with all the wonder and novelty that this entails, shifting friendships, regional, national, and international competition, travel near and far, big choices about important relationships, decisions about career paths, and a million little daily things that add up to a lot….. It has been like riding a rollercoaster on full-blast, often running from a standstill to a sudden drop at high speed, sometimes strapped in, sometimes not. The days that are quiet and when things seem on track still scare me a little now because I am waiting for the next freefall. Sleep was thin on the ground for some of it, but we managed to bludgeon our way forward when all we had stamina for was treading water.
Now it’s Christmas and I can use the optimism and quiet joy of the season to take a little time to see the good that has come out of this year, because for every frustration or stumble, there has been a major discovery or accomplishment. Somehow appropriately for this year, I’ve got my favourite Christmas carol, Good King Wenceslas, playing in the background (this version by the Skydiggers is my all-time favourite:
If you don’t know the song, it’s not really a Christmas carol, so much as a Boxing Day one. Based on the legend of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia or Svatý Václav in Czech (907–935), this carol is the story of a man who set out to on a mission and the page who went with him on that journey. It’s the tale of how one person’s strength of character and confidence were enough to keep another person who faltered alive and on track.
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather
Life hands all of us some challenges now and then, doesn’t it? It’s funny how when all goes to hell, no matter how superficially or deeply, the thing that seems to matter most is who’s around. It’s not just who’s around to help you piece things back together, but also those who will just quietly drink tea or coffee with you while you do the rebuilding yourself, because they know you can conquer all things, given time, and that what you most need from them is just friendship, company, sometimes distraction, and often simply a shared joy or passion.
Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.
I am grateful for Marilyn, who has that knack in friendship of giving me a firm shake (or a swift and sharp kick) when I need it. Everyone needs a Marilyn to remind them of their intrinsic value to themselves and the world, without making it feel like modesty is called for. This was a year that knocked me down and asked me to refind that worth for myself and when a Marilyn tells you in no uncertain terms to shake yourself off, stand up again, and give it another go, damn it, because you have something worth giving to the world, and they say it with conviction and force, you listen. There’s a quote, “A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words,” and it’s really true. Sometimes it’s just a, “Hey, how’s the day treating you?” or a quiet cup of tea and talking about the rigours of training, renovations, relationships, or whathaveyou, but it’s a person who knows your heart and cleans the mirror when your vision blurs. I am happy beyond measure for the life she is finding and making for herself now and excited about what 2016 holds for both of us. It sure looks good from here.
Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.
One of the cool things that I learned when reading about Good King Wenceslas is that the tune is a medieval Finnish melody. The lyrics were written by English hymnwriter John Mason Neale in 1853, but the melody is a 13th-century spring carol “Tempus adest floridum” (“The time is near for flowering”) first published in the 1582 Finnish song collection Piae Cantiones. I suppose it’s oddly symbolic in a way, since in Finland I had a chance to do a lot of thinking, make some big choices, and decide which way I was going to go with any number of aspects of my life. It was an important crossroads and one for which I am thankful. Travel does that to a person; it lets you step outside of your everyday existence and look at things with new eyes. When you come home again, you’re not quite the same person that left. You’re more because of the things you have learned and people you’ve met or truly seen.
I am beyond grateful for Maria, Stef, and Tom, as well as Michelle, Dana, and many of the women and men of all lifting levels that I have met through competitions and the Iron Sisters strength camp (Jo, Ally, Lisa, Khrys, Lynda, Francis, Linda, Brenda, and so many others that I can’t hope to list them all here). It’s hard to put into words what powerlifting actually means to me. I’ve tried on occasion, but I never quite find the right way of saying it. It’s simply at the heart of what matters to me now, both physically and symbolically, and having people like Maria, Stef and Tom to chat with who implicitly understand this and and share it has been a tremendous gift. Most people don’t “get” what training means and takes out of you and it can be a really lonely experience. It can leave you feeling hollow or drained on occasion, and other times render you ridiculously elated, which can look a little like bragging or arrogance, but is actually just a wave of joy at accomplishing something significant, be it in training or competition. Often this level of training can affect other parts of your life (like your work, relationships, and sanity) in ways you wish it wouldn’t; it takes time and energy beyond just going to the gym and anyone who tells you otherwise is kidding themselves. Having teammates and friends makes it less lonely during the lows and far more joyful during the highs. When one person’s wade through the snow seems harder, the other’s footsteps are there to step into for a time and paths that feel like they’ve never been travelled before turn out to have already been cut, to some extent. Journeys are easier and more rewarding with the right company and it is the people in powerlifting that make this sport truly exceptional.
As the saying goes, shared joy is increased, shared pain is lessened.
In his master’s steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
I’ve spent the last couple of years learning about getting stronger and I’ve been extremely fortunate; I have had very good teachers. It’s not easy being a coach. You have to care a great deal about the progress and well-being of another individual, teach them as much as you can in a multitude of ways (because not everyone learns the same way), learn and improvise when (not if) you encounter obstacles, and then stand back and watch as they translate what you have tried to teach onto the platform during competition. And deal with whatever comes from that.
Those last parts are hard because so much is on your shoulders, but out of your hands. It’s not easy to coach athletes because you’re dealing with human beings who are driven, strong, passionate, independent, determined and hard-working, but also fallible and often stubborn, as well as occasionally weak in unpredictable spots at inconvenient times. I think I’ve said it before, but in case I haven’t and because it bears repeating, thanks, Nick, for sticking with me through it all this year and for helping me to learn what I need to become a better lifter and for the energy and passion you bring to training. Powerlifting wasn’t even remotely in the plan when I first came to you for help with “getting in shape,” but I’m grateful for what you know, have shown me, and continue to become as a coach; I’ve learned a tremendous amount from you.
The thing about training is that it isn’t a straight and firm road. Every program, every training cycle, every competition is a series of lessons and experiments and the variables of life, health, work and so forth can teeter the balance precariously at times. There’s a meme on the Internet, “Either I win or I learn,” and it’s pretty accurate. This year I did a lot of both and while it’s often easier to dwell on the learning portions (they really aren’t always fun and tend to stick with one), this year was filled with successes, too.
What did I learn this year? I learned:
- Beginnings and endings are exciting, but hard work. So are middles. Really, it’s all hard, so suck it up and keep going.
- Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it can’t be fun
- Videotape your lifts and check for rule adherence
- Turn your toes out, damn it.
- Rest is as important as training – know when to take it
- Life outside the gym is critical to success within the gym – don’t spend all your time in the squat rack
- I am a good athlete. Maybe I can eventually be a great one.
- The fact that I am a good athlete has nothing to do with anyone else’s abilities and is not relative to anyone else. There will always be lifters with better numbers or technique and this does not diminish me in any way.
- Powerlifting is a passion, but there are other parts to life that matter every bit as much. Some that matter more.
- Mentors are critical. Find several. Learn different things from each. Listen. Make your own decisions. Make mistakes. Try again.
- The people closest to you shape you. Chose wisely. It’s okay to add people to counterbalance others. That’s just good sense.
- Don’t lift everything that comes your way, either literally or metaphorically
What did I win?
- The knowledge that comes from all of the afore-mentioned learning experiences
- Friends, remarkabl ones, on multiple continents
- A chance to travel to new countries
- Improvement in a sport that I love
- Increased knowledge and experience
- A chance to be something that I really want to be and am good at
- A pretty damned cool kid of whom I am incredibly proud
- A continued wonderful marriage to a truly decent man
When I said, “for better or for worse” almost twenty years ago, I really had no idea at the time what that meant. I mean, I thought I did (everyone thinks they know what they’re in for), but I didn’t. Not really. Marriage is an act of faith and a gigantic risk all at once, but the same things that hold true for lifting weights really work for marriage as well. You have to pay attention, you need to look for ways to enjoy it, you must *be there* consistently and put in effort, and you can’t let fear of change stop you. The trick to marriage is not just about sticking together out of habit and doing the same thing day-in and day-out, it’s about looking for new ways to live together as things change in life, searching for love in that same person and accepting that there are layers to this loving and living thing that you find, learn, and add through the years. You have to create those layers by giving attention to the other person, working on communication, thoughtfulness, and consideration and by having fun together. Marriages don’t make themselves; they are deliberate constructs. I have a good one to a really wonderful person and this matters more to me than just about anything. Looking back on the year from where we sit now, there’s no one else I’d rather muddle through it all with than you, John. I’m sorry about the times when all I could do was fall asleep at the end (or in the middle) of a day of training, about the weird food when I was cutting weight, about crumbling when training hit me hard, and about the bumper plates in the front porch. And the laundry – thank you, thank you, thank you for doing the laundry. And for making me laugh. And the hugs-on demand. And believing in me. I’m glad you’ve been here through it all and are here to sit with me now by the Christmas tree lights and the fire. If I left you til the end to mention, it’s best-for-last syndrome; I couldn’t do what I’ve done without you and you complete me. Thanks for being my best friend.
Good King Wenceslas looked out,
On the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
Deep and crisp and even.
The year is drawing to a close. 2015 was a full one and even though we’re still in the middle of a bunch of changes and challenges, the balance sheet is tipping toward black for us in all the important ways. I’m not sure precisely what 2016 will hold, but life from here looks full of possibility.
“Deep and crisp and even,” indeed.