Re-learning My Limits (again)

There’s a Buddhist story about a frustrated student who asks the retreat leader how many times she has to learn a lesson before she can move on. The teacher pauses, thinks, and says, “As many times as you need.”

Sunrise from Yavapai Point, Grand Canyon Sunrise from Yavapai Point, Grand Canyon National Park

I think of that story because I am learning (again) the limits of my energy. Meaning what I can actually do without hurting myself, as opposed to what I think I can do.

My recent 12-day, 3,300-mile drive to central California provided the latest iteration of that lesson. I planned my itinerary carefully to not exceed my daily energy budget, spacing the drive out over what I thought was a reasonable amount of time for a sustainable trip. I was wrong.

Not about my stamina. The drive was reasonable–if everything worked. I forgot that life rarely goes as planned.

Snowdrifts on the South Rim, not what I expected in late March. Deep snow on the South Rim, not what I expected in late March.

Which I found out the second night out, when I arrived at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to camp and found snow. A lot of it. I took a long walk on the rim trail anyway, and cooked my simple dinner with my little stove on Red’s tailgate as I watched the sun set over the canyon, purple shadows rising from the depths as the sky flared gold and orange and then faded to rose and violet. All good.

By the time I crawled into my cozy sleeping bag inside Red’s topper, stars littered the black heavens and the temperature was plummeting. I reassured myself I would be fine and went to sleep. When I woke before dawn, I was curled in a ball in my sleeping bag, frost sparkled on the inside of the topper and the thermometer read 18 degrees.

I headed for the Rim, boiled water for my oatmeal with my little stove, and ate my breakfast as the sun rose. After which I set off for southern California, knowing that by the end of the day I’d be in the Mojave Desert, my convulsive shivers a distant memory.

A carpet of golden wildflowers in the Mojave National Preserve, California. A carpet of golden wildflowers in the Mojave National Preserve, California.

As I drove south and west, I shed layers. By the day’s end, the cold was indeed a memory, but the ache in my lower jaw was not and I was exhausted, never a good sign.

Both the ache and the exhaustion got worse. By the time I reached San Francisco several days later, the lymph gland under my jaw had become a hard lump, and the left side of my face was swollen and tender. My immune system was clearly unhappy.

On Saturday, I participated in the Geography of Hope Conference in Point Reyes Station, throbbing jaw and all. During lunch break, I walked out to my truck, and stopped to talk to Inez, an herbalist/healer.

She looked at my swollen jaw. “May I give you a sound therapy treatment?”

“Absolutely,” I said. “Please.”

Inez took a tuning fork out of a velvet bag (the fork tuned to middle C, if you’re curious), struck the fork and then touched it very gently to my left shoulder, where the clavicle meets the shoulder joint. She let the tuning fork rest there until it quit vibrating, then struck it again and touched it to my right shoulder.

By the time Inez finished, my headache had vanished and my jaw was no longer throbbing. A day later, the swelling was much reduced, and by several days later, almost all of the pain had vanished too.

I wish I could say the lesson ended there and well. But this is real life.

California poppies blooming just off Highway One. California poppies blooming just off Highway One.

The swelling, it turns out, stemmed from an infection in the root of one of my front teeth, an infection aggravated by the stress of a solo trip that was overly ambitious even though it was also incredibly rewarding.

Once again, my body reminds me that I’m not Superwoman. When I push myself too hard, there are consequences. In this case, those consequences include an appointment with an endodontist in the city this Thursday, and the prospect of very expensive dental work.

Perhaps those consequences will finally teach me the lesson about limits, so I won’t have to repeat it. Again and again….