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The joke turned on me with a rather stunning swiftness.
My brother and I had just set out on a three-day hike of the Mdaabii Miikna trail in Puckaskwa National Park on the northeast shore of Lake Superior. He had bought new boots for the occasion. I was wearing a pair of old faithfuls.
“I hope you don’t get blisters” I told him as we started walking.
Within an hour and a half I was asking for the first aid kit.
By lunch both blisters had popped.
By the time we reached our campsite, the heels of my socks were red.
For the next two days I walked with angry, loonie-sized sores on my ankles, doing everything I could to keep them clean, stuffing my feet down as far as they could towards the toe of the boot in an effort to keep the heel from rubbing. This was made rather difficult when so much of the trail was uphill.
The mornings were the worst. I wore sandals around the campsite, which provided some relief. But every morning I’d put my foot back in those treacherous boots and my body would have to get used to the pain all over again.
But here’s the remarkable thing. It did get used to the pain.
The first hour or so wasn’t fun. I hiked rather slowly, muttering and cursing under my breath as we climbed and scrabbled over logs and rocks and up the side of a ridge. But soon I noticed the pain seemed to be receding. It became more manageable. Still there, but not noticeable to the point where it was all I could think of. Only in moments where my foot jammed against something, or I had to take an awkward step upwards, did I feel a sharp and present pain. On flatter surfaces, or those blessed downhill treks, I could almost forget the blisters were there.
I don’t know enough about how the body works to fully understand how this happens. All I know is it felt like my brain had said, “Oh, so we’re gonna keep doing this? This walking with blisters thing? I guess we’ll adapt then.”
Which is pretty remarkable. Astonishing, really, the ways our bodies adapt to a situation so we can carry on, keep moving forward, keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Bookending this trip, as I drove through Michigan and along the coast of Lake Superior, I listened to Educated by Tara Westover. I listened to her tell stories of growing up in a chaotic atmosphere, how her father would push her and her siblings towards danger instead of protect them from it, how her older brother would fly into a rage and physically harm her before he came crawling back filled with regret. I listened to her describe how her brain accounted for all these things, how she told herself stories to rationalize it all, to protect herself, to enable her to keep moving, keep putting one foot in front of the other, so she could try to carry on as normal, pretend nothing was wrong. And she’d be able to, until the next rage, the next accident, the next family crisis brought the pain back with a jolt.
That’s a big trauma. A lot of pain. More akin to a broken femur than a blister. Eventually it came to a point where her attempts to adapt were no longer successful, and she was forced to confront the problem head on.
In camp I read a novel: Writers & Lovers by Lily King. The main character, Casey Peabody, is an aspiring novelist struggling with self-doubt, grieving the recent death of her mother, waiting on health test results, looking for a stable relationship, and amidst it all becomes prone to panic attacks. She muddles on, trying to hold it all at bay, trying to keep moving, to just put one foot in front of the other. Telling herself it’s all okay, forcing her body and brain to adapt to each new situation in an effort to carry on, because, as she tells the therapist she finally ends up seeing, “if I can’t handle this right now, how will I be able to handle bigger things in the future?”
The therapist looks at her and asks, “What’s bigger than this?” He recounts everything she’s going through, has been through, and concludes, “I don’t know, my friend. This is not nothing.”
And I wondered, as I hiked the Mdaabii Miikna, what “not nothings” we’re all carrying. A blister isn’t a major injury, isn’t debilitating to the extent that a broken bone or even a sprain would be. Most of us can read a book like Educated and not begin to fathom how one carries on in the face of such trauma.
But a blister isn’t nothing, either. Small, hidden, not as evident to someone looking at us, but still effecting our every step. And many of us, I imagine, are walking around with blisters. From Covid, from our past, from an incident that seems small in the grand scheme of things but has stuck with us, a perpetual little pain in the back of our heel that we can’t seem to shake, so we’ve simply learned to live with it.
Do we give ourselves permission to stop and peel off the socks and put some ointment on the wound, cover it with a bandage for a while? Our crises might not be Haiti or Afghanistan. They might not be forest fires or earthquakes, abuse or mental illness. Maybe for some of us it is these things.
But if it’s just that we’re weary of figuring things out, or the idea of making decisions about mask mandates again is just too much, or this last year and a half has affected us more than we thought; if it’s a friend who’s betrayed us, or a belief we hold about ourselves because of the words of others, or a grief we’ve been holding for a long, long time – these things are not nothing.
And even blisters need to be given the time and space to heal.