I didn't think the recovery would take so long. Even now, seven months after diagnosis, I am still easily overdo it. I'm still not able to jump much. This weekend, with C gone on vacation with his family, I sit at home, eat my calcium tablets, and dream of dancing.
Springtime creeps through slowly, this year. The trees and plants bloom lushly, yet some chill lingers in the breezes that come across the coast. I waited, binoculars and Sibley guide in hand, for spring migrants that never showed up. I armed myself with Mr. Clean and Soft Scrub and Windex and attacked the flat surfaces of my apartment, scrubbing until rooms reeked of bleach and lemon. I rearranged my room, hung plants on my wall. Occupying myself with the small things, I passed the days.
Now it is Memorial Day weekend, the official start of the summer. Uniformed service women and men flood NYC for Fleet Week. My friends fire up their grills.
Work always slows a bit with the approach of summer, and it is a welcome reprieve from the tidal wave of March through May. Interns arrive in Tanzania soon; the APW staff becomes preoccupied with settling them in. Fiscal years are finished, websites updated with brand new corporate responsibility content, PDFs are uploaded. Last weekend as I rode the Staten Island Ferry with friends, I looked west toward the fading daylight and our lady Liberty and felt the merciless hook of wanderlust. Maybe I've been reading too much; books set in Beirut and Rome and Kerala aren't helping.
Next weekend, though, I'll be on the shores of Lake Geneva for a family reunion. It will be the first time in almost a decade that I have seen most of my dad's side of the family. My Aunt Lin is the only one who knows the Chin family history, who has visited the ancestral village of my father's parents. I do believe that we cannot truly know ourselves without knowing first where we came from. I also believe that all of us from immigrant families (no matter how far back) have something in us that seeks, that causes us to leave what is known and look for opportunities and adventures. I can't wait for the flight to Chicago, to alight in that glistening city by the shores of Lake Michigan, to be in in the circle of family.
A mentor recently suggested, "Live by wants, not by should-haves." Doing what I think I should be doing, or what other people think I should be doing, will never make me satisfied. I can pursue wholeheartedly the things that I want, to revel in the life that I have.
It's been four and a half months since diagnoses, since October 16. My foot is finally feeling strong (enough) to dance nearly every day, more or less full on. But it hasn't gotten easier. Nationals is close. C and I are feeling pressure to make up for lost time, to play catch up with ourselves, and it begins to take its toll. I lose sight of joy.
So I go back a year and begin reading my posts from when we first started dancing together. I think in some ways, my becoming more familiar with C has made me more acerbic, too. He stops me sometimes, "you're not listening." Is it true? How fully am I embracing and applying his feedback? Have I begun to take my talented and wonderful partner for granted?
I remember before rounds last year, Vlad told us, "There's a reason you dance with the same person for a long time. It takes time to learn about each other, to know how they will react in every situation, to understand how to tackle difficult moments together." Although a year of dancing together can feel like a long time, it really isn't much at all, and what we are facing now post-injury is new territory. Sometimes lack of experience can feel a lot like lack of ability. We mustn't confuse the two.
In the field of psychology there is this idea of mindfulness, which deals with how we observe and control the way we react in the present, "the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one's attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment". Over the summer last year I deliberately practiced mindfulness, along with gratitude. Every day I made a list every day of the things I was glad I had. Dealing with my injury took away many of those things, and I became bitter about losing them. The bitterness seeped into other aspects of my life, and my work, dance, writing - all these happy passions - began to become stressful. Not only that, but my injury revealed to me my own weakness and took the air out of me. Looking at myself now from a mindful distance, I see all the signs of unraveling. My laundry constantly undone, my workspace and bedroom a mess, my schedule all over the place... I don't recognize the Jen that I most enjoy being.
But now it is March. Spring is on its way. Our National competitions are coming. It's time to stop using my injury as an excuse for the way I've been feeling and acting, as a reason for having failed myself in being the person I would rather be. My dad used to say to me after I'd been stupid, "Don't apologize, just don't do it again." I think now would be the perfect time to apply his wisdom.
Cold car driving down a cold road to Bethesda. C and his mom chat quietly together in Polish, and I am feeling the weight of this winter pressing down upon me. Tomorrow by this time, my foot (and our stamina) will have been tested by the first competition we are dancing since August. I've been on the sidelines so much lately that I can hardly understand how it will feel to be back on the floor again. I'm nervous, I worry I won't be able to enjoy it, I worry my foot will give out on me, that my stamina is completely shot, that…..and on and on.
It is Valentine’s Day weekend. There is this card that my savings bank sent me last year. It says, “What a difference a year makes.” This was my first competition back as an amateur last year. Since then I've traveled abroad for lessons, competed across the country, and remade a foot bone. This past week my coach gave rare praise, “your activity is so much better now than a year ago; there is not even a comparison.”
Upward and inward go I.
In the past weeks I have sometimes tried to take stock of where I am. I somehow imagined, back in October, that my foot would be completely healed by now, that I would be able to step onto the floor as some new incarnation of myself. Wiser, stronger, and better. That I would be able to write here and expound upon all the lessons I've learned. But it isn't like that. Instead I am struggling everyday to eat at least 2800 calories, to try and push healing energy to my foot, which is still weak and aches after every practice. I avoid this blog because I truly cannot yet verbalize how this injury has changed me, if it has at all. Our coaches keep checking in, but even they have started shaking their heads about how long it is taking.
On the other hand I can't say that I have not progressed. I tried many new types of shoes, and found that the wide width Supadance shoes are an incredible amount more comfortable than my normal ones. I will be dancing in competition heels this weekend. My amazing support group of fellow dancers and friends, are always checking in with a hug and a kindly, “how’s the foot?” and I feel I am giving them better news each time. Three days ago I was able to find a place where I completely gave in to dancing, and even that little corner of my mind that seems to always scream “no! Your foot is not ready for this yet!” finally shut up.
I very much want to find my joy in dancing again. I've felt so much pressure to be whole again, and I found that the pressure has sapped much happiness from me. I hope that tomorrow, when I feel the lights on me, when my feet caress the familiar competition floor, when that music begins and asks us to move, that my heart will rise to it and I will find myself again, unbroken.
It's been a quiet week, with lots of long working nights. But it has also been a great week. My PT cleared me to continue dancing (no bone damage from the hike apparently, just muscle strain), and this week she wrapped my foot up and it's been so effective that I was able to dance full out today in my lesson for the first time in months. It feels amazing.. to be able to trust that my foot will be there, and actually find new places in my body to work through.
Slow and steady will win this race.
Oddly enough my dancing with C has improved significantly in the time we took off, almost as if the time away allowed all the good information to seep in, and the bad habits to disintegrate. He's been so great through my whole recovery, keeping me laughing when I get down about my recovery, and now that we're back to the floor (albeit at something like 25%) he demands my best.
My new roommate, Heather, has also been wonderful. Leaving me brownies on my desk in the morning, checking in with me about my foot, cheering me on. And despite her insanely busy schedule (she works and goes to school full time), offering to run errands for me!
It feels like real winter at last in New York City. We had a midnight snowfall, followed by rain, and yet this morning was still replete with the sound of shovels and snowplows scraping the sidewalks and streets. We're scheduled for more snow on Monday and Tuesday. As much as I like the warmth of summer, the city in snow slows down, and feels like steadiness. It's also in this weather that it feels most comforting to hunker down in my comforter and read.
Two steps forward, one step back - so goes the hustle of healing. Last Sunday I go for a hike.. we take a wrong turn and end up going very much further than anticipated. And so I'm set back.
Over the holidays I'd been easing back in to more strenuous movement: A little bit of jumping. Some solo practice for tension-free strengthening. Lots of P.T. exercises. I felt reacquainted with my legs, the floor under my feet, my muscles working against gravity, the return of sensation.
But now it's back to stillness. My foot ached constantly for three days and it's post-hike-day-five now. Although it doesn't ache anymore it feels fragile, untrustworthy. I try to just rest, rest, rest. On the bright side, this new setback has somehow led me to track correctly across my injured foot for the first time in two months. And my amazing P.T., Emily, tells me I probably just overused it and that I could try to dance a bit today.
So there's that.
This morning I wake early, assemble my usual breakfast (bacon, two eggs over-easy, spinach, a mug of coffee, a mug of almond milk, bone health supplements), and read the NYTimes (a Christmas gift from Robert and Julia). I put KT tape on my foot. The steam radiator fizzles busily and I am warm wearing a tank top. Later, I'll bundle against the cold, swipe on some sunscreen in defiance of the unflagging winter light, and take the bus to Jersey. A horde of California-dancer-friends have descended upon the area for the Manhattan Amateur Classic, as well as some displaced-to-the-east-coast-California-dancer-friends, and it will be a very sweet reunion.
Other than that, I have been passing the days carefully. The holidays were calm and easy; I spent all of it with family. Even now the memories are turning into the nostalgia that remains: love, sunlight, shared time. My grandmother called me on Thursday, and it was so sweet to hear her voice. We chatted a little bit, and laughed, and she said, "you really are like me." My adventurous, wise, strong grandmother..I would be happy to grow up to be like her.
But for now, I am just me, fragile and still healing.
New Year's Eve spins into view again. The past week has been calm, filled with sunlight, and love. How quickly Christmas passed, with its wrapping paper and family time and feasting, and then I am walking out of a coffee shop with a friend, who gestures at the fresh blue sky and asks me, "How can you not miss this?" And I do. But then my tenacity kicks in, and I recall the decisions I have made that took me away from California. I have much waiting for me in New York, and I remain faithful to that.
I used to detest the December 31st looking-back exercise, finding it contrived. I felt we ought to always be making resolutions, always be learning from where we had been. But this year, I feel I have already spent an inordinate amount of time looking back at what was, feeling the sting of regret and longing, the choices I made, trying to find behaviorial patterns I didn't like and fix them, gazing back at all my experiences and figure out my strengths and weaknesses. And so I'm glad of December 31st, this year, because at when it ends, I will allow myself to be swept up in the global exercise of looking forward.
As wonderful as it was to ring in 2014 with strangers and friends in the blocks-long party of Times Square, I wanted this year's new celebration just to be with my parents, my brother, my sister-in-law and her family, my niece. So it will be. We are certain of each other. We are brimming with gratitude and joy and grace. This is life at its best and most sweet. This is how my new year will begin.
A quiet day and still day, this Friday was. I work in the morning and afternoon, then cook and tidy throughout the evening. It's all a little bit lonely until I find Christmas cards in the mail. Sweet Sue sent me an amazing treat-filled holiday package and I buzz from the chocolatey toffee bars that I cannot stop eating. When I finally tire of cleaning, the apartment smells like roasted butternut squash, and scented candles, and Lysol - it is surprisingly pleasant. I paint my nails, drink a mug of tea. For the first time in many months, I feel a weight lifting.
And the foot? It is so much better these days. Over the past weeks, I've had my first days back in the studio and am dancing now in practice shoes. Just four hours a week, but adding hours every week.
I wish I could tell you that the return was some kind of triumphant moment, but in fact it has been an equally slow and frustrating process. I keep thinking of this quote by former Duke president Terry Sanford, "No matter what mountain you climb, there's another mountain waiting for you." I cannot go full-out as the muscles around my calf, ankle and foot are still very weak. And perhaps part of it is mental, too; I worry about pushing myself. My PT exercises take me an hour every night and involve a lot of foot doming, circling, pointing, flexing, eversions, and releves. I find them utterly frustrating, they are boring and there is no immediate reward. I'd rather be doing pretty much anything. But I learned discipline in my early life (playing scales on an instrument, anyone?) and so I diligently apply myself.
Perhaps this is the best stage of my recovery though, because I am completely mobile, and yet not back on a full dance schedule. I am seeing my friends in the studio again, even if just a couple days a week. I can run for the bus, carry heavy things up and down stairs, and walk long distances. Which means: I have the time and the ability to finally go to NYC's parks and museums, go look at birds, and run around the boroughs visiting friends. Today was the last day of sadness. I am coming back to life!
I'm so sick of not dancing. It's different now, from the beginning of the injury, because now the pain is gone and I am full of energy. But still I have to wait, because when I try to stand on the ball of my left foot, the muscles shake and want to give way. There is so much work to do to come back to where I was.
Last night, Dora and I went to Joe's Shanghai and ate soup dumplings and pan-fried rice cakes for Thanksgiving dinner. This year's meal was so different from last year's. Last year it felt like tradition - I made my mom's bread, Ben made the turkey, Dora made stuffing, we all made pies, and we served up an enormous feast. Last year was the Thanksgiving dinner I grew up with, warming the house with the meal and the conversation, piles of dishes to do afterward, stuffing ourselves and feeling like family. This year felt like an intimate and sweet adventure, two friends catching up, no fuss, just the easy joy of each other's company and conversation.
Perhaps it is the days after the holiday that are harder. Quiet, normal days when others are busy with their families and selves. I work, clean the apartment for the umpteenth time, do laundry, cook healthy and simple meals for myself. I finally manage to get off Facebook.
This is not the life I thought I would have but I think I'm finally learning to leave expectations behind. Dora and I spoke yesterday of how easy it can be to rush and label things. Label people's relation to us, label periods of our lives, label who and what we are. And with those labels come identities, and expectations, and disappointments. If I can, instead, release myself from such labels, I become free.
When I first injured my foot, one of my coaches told me, "These things happen for a reason." In my cross-training and off-time reading, I have found a new awareness of my body and a new approach to cultivating the dancer's mind. I was forced to take the time to walk slow, live slow, and rebalance, and to think long about my life.
As a teenager, my first months completely away from home happened when I studied abroad in Spain. Torn away from everything familiar, I was able to build myself however I wanted to be. I could not rely on anyone's guidance to tell me how I should be or act. I sifted through my habits, kept many, discarded many. When I came back to the States, I remember feeling that I'd come to know myself for the first time. Not only that, but this process of making connections had turned my mind on - I left a B student and came back to straight A's.
These days in New York, when I cannot be a dancer, when in these holidays I am not around my family or a boyfriend, I find myself lost again. I recognize this place, though, and even though it can feel lonely and uncertain and difficult, I know how good it is for me. I know that this is the space I have so desperately needed - in this space, I can sift through who and what I have been, I can come to know myself. I have so often envied people who were able to say, "That's not me." "I'm not like that." I felt I could never really say what I was and wasn't; sometimes I felt myself a chameleon, able to fit into every and all situations. And while this made me perfectly agreeable nearly all the time, it also meant I was constantly living a sort of lie in which I was always hiding how I truly felt.
I believe that people can be who they want to be. I am thankful for this "white space" that drifts in the wake of my injury, and for all the loved ones who have helped me to take advantage of it. New Year's is still to come, but I feel that I have already been handed a new beginning.
Well friends, it has officially been one month since my diagnosis. This morning I had my follow-up appointment at Harkness, and while the doctor wasn't super jazzed that I wasn't still wearing my surgical shoe, he did delare me "clinically healed." He had me march in place flat footed, then on my heels, then on my toes, before moving my foot around quite a bit - crunching my toes and pushing on them, picking my toes upward and pushing on them, torquing it left and right. He also pushed on my second and third metatarsal bones. I did have some sensitivity on the second metatarsal where the fracture was, as well as pain on the third met to which he casually said, "well maybe you have a stress fracture there too." WHAT! But he quickly said, "It's fine, the treatment would be the same anyway" and basically told me to rest one more week before heading in for PT.
That would take me to right about the six week mark. Also important to note - if you let your stress fracture go too long before ceasing activity, it takes way longer to heal.
The best part is he said, "Don't come back to see me unless your pain spikes." And then gave me clearance to gradually resume normal activity in the next couple weeks.
The dance fitness therapist stayed with me afterward to answer some of my other questions about how to get back into activity. Specifically, she said I should start scrunching a towel with my toes. In many of the resources I've been reading, which are targeted toward runners, they recommend increasing activity by no more than 10% every week. In particular, many people point to this 6-week stress fracture recovery plan. At my appointment, she said that dance recovery is of course a bit different from runners. But the basic principle to follow is to either increase intensity of activity every week or else length of time.
In other words, if you're a ballet dancer, - start out with a beginner class and just start with the barre portion. Then the following week go to an advanced class and just do barre. The next week add the adagio pieces, then floor work and finally basic jumping. The key is to stay in tune with your foot. Pain = bad. Localized pain = particularly bad. Soreness or stress is okay as long as it isn't localized on the bone, since the muscles and tendons need to readjust to movement.
She also recommended that I start dancing totally flat, and then gradually move to a very low heel, then increase height slowly. She also told me to make sure to take my ballroom shoes with me to PT (my first appointment is December 2) so that the PT could work with me on exercises to do while actually wearing them - particularly on exercises to strengthen the hip and knee.
Quickstep is the dance I am most worried about, since it is the dance which was causing me the most pain before my initial diagnosis. For this, she recommended using ballet classes, which are extremely structured, to ease me back into being able to handle the forces that jumping places on the bones and feet - it can be up to three times one's body weight.
Finally, she said that I should make sure to cycle and swim to keep my cardiovascular system healthy, particularly now that I have a new nutrition plan (this post is coming soon, I swear). That way, once my muscles and bones are strong enough, I won't be dying from the exertion when I try to jump.
As for the timeline, she said it totally depends. Of course, it takes longer to get back up to 25 hours a week than it does to get back to 4 hours a week. But she seemed to think I could be worked up to a normal level of activity by mid-January. It looks like I'll be watching from the sidelines in the next couple of months to cheer on my friends!
The journey is far from over, but at this point I'll be transitioning from healing to rehab!
The cold, clear mornings are a shock after days of drizzle and fog; the city bustles in poofy jackets and turns her heaters high. The long winter has begun.
Indoors, it is shorts weather, accompanied by the cheerful hiss of our leaky radiators. I stay long in my bed in the mornings, answering email and working with my feet propped up.
Tomorrow is my hospital follow-up visit for my foot. Although I'm back in normal shoes now, my body remembers too well the sensation of injury. I feel my limp has become a part of me. At night, when I am trying to visualize my routines, it seems that my imaginary body belongs to someone else. How long does it take to forget how to dance? 35 days. I admit that I feel afraid to come back, knowing things won't be the way they were. Over time, I hope I will be even better, but the return feels so full of expectation, as if I'd be able to pick right up where I left off. I'm having to learn to walk again. And soon I'll have to learn how to dance again.
And so when I walk, I walk slow, thinking about rolling the same way on my left foot that I do on my right. Master Li told me yesterday that I need to keep my foot particularly warm during this time of year. That the intense cold will make it more painful, and more difficult to heal. "Forget about fashion, forget about any high heeled shoes, just wear the warmest boots that you can." And I'm still soaking it religiously, at least 20 minutes every night, in water as hot as I can stand. I try to pass the time by reading magazines, they curl a bit in the steam, and I find that I enjoy the forced downtime.
Last weekend I went to Atlanta to visit my best friend Steph. It was wonderful to see her in her own space, upon seeing her lovely apartment I exclaimed "You're a real person!", to feast my eyes on an entirely new city. We went to the HIgh Museum for Cezanne, and to the Center for Civil and Human Rights to learn about the bravery of men and women fighting for equality. And of course, we consumed large amounts of biscuits. I felt so happy just to be there, to see Steph's workplace and her life, and this made me somehow more content in myself.
I read an interesting article yesterday about the Dalai Lama and have been thinking a lot about this excerpt of the story. In it, a waitress has come up to the table where this particular report and the Dalai Lama are sitting:
She spoke with complete seriousness. “What is the meaning of life?”
In my entire week with the Dalai Lama, every conceivable question had been asked—except this one. People had been afraid to ask the one—the really big—question. There was a brief, stunned silence at the table.
The Dalai Lama answered immediately. “The meaning of life is happiness.” He raised his finger, leaning forward, focusing on her as if she were the only person in the world. “Hard question is not, ‘What is meaning of life?’ That is easy question to answer! No, hard question is what make happiness. Money? Big house? Accomplishment? Friends? Or …” He paused. “Compassion and good heart? This is question all human beings must try to answer: What make true happiness?” He gave this last question a peculiar emphasis and then fell silent, gazing at her with a smile.
Yesterday, someone asked me, "Can you have it all?" and left it up to interpretation what "all" really meant. At some point during B-School I decided that yes, you can have it all, but not all at once. We must design our lives to have the things we want to have in the times when they are most appropriate to focus upon.
Master Li says the imbalances and bad habits of our youth only manifest themselves as we age - we cannot feel them now. His words encompass both emotional and physical imbalances. He says it is the responsibility of our parents, coaches and elders to guide us away from such habits so we can live better future lives. That is it our responsibility also to seek that guidance (aka "mentors" in the business world).
I am still thinking about what I have learned from my foot injury. I learned quite a bit about future injury prevention (entry coming soon on nutrition!) It has certainly "taken me down a few pegs" and given me some sorely needed humility. But despite all my thinking, I haven't been able to come to any conclusions yet about where my happiness comes from. One of our goals out of the COLE Leadership program at Fuqua was to find ways to live a more deliberate, thoughtful life - to always be planning how we would get from point A to point B. In my life, I have become an expert at this method of attacking problems, of clear-headed planning.
I cannot plan for everything. So what is left, in the absence of plans? More plans? Contingency plans? After a while I think it is impossible to consider all possible events. I posit that the only things left are: The guidance of and my love for those around me. My connection with who I am and what I believe in. My confidence in whether I can rely on my ability to uphold my values. And, my ability to maintain that which I have defined as happiness.
I think the next weeks will continue to be dedicated to healing, but also to understanding what I have discovered in the absence of plans.