I was in a long distance relationship for over four years. Very few of my friends understood why I kept at it for so long. They wondered how it was sustainable, how it was fulfilling. I could sort of answer those questions with the explanation that I didn't have time for a "real" relationship (which was true), or that I was still healing from a past breakup and wasn't ready to be "all in" (also true), or that I needed to learn how to be alone (without really being alone) (kind of true). The harder conversations would come up when asked "okay, but what are you guys going to do?" and "why is it taking so long?"
I never had an answer for those questions. I was okay with not having an answer for those questions, which only occasionally kept me up at night.
Those 4+ years involved a lot of driving the 800 mile round trip from Boise to Portland, and sometimes the 400 mile round trip from Boise to Pendleton (the halfway point). Somehow, even all the driving became okay--people asking "Aren't you SICK of that drive?" my answer usually along the lines of "I actually really like it." I could listen to an entire book on the drive that I otherwise wouldn't have made time for. Or I could just sit in rare silence for a while, that was nice too. The landscape from point A to point B became a sort of metaphor, driving from the dry and seemingly barren high desert into the lush Columbia river valley made me feel like one of those dried up brown plants that turns green and opens up before your eyes when you put it in water. That kept me going. I made friends along Interstate 84 too: herds of bighorn sheep that I would see every time I made the drive--no matter what time of year. Those magical guys kept me going too.
The bighorn sheep is pretty much my spirit animal. Growing up with a mom like mine, you learn to instinctually look up "animal medicine" when you come across an animal with any regularity. Bighorn sheep medicine says:
Bighorn sheep’s message is that of new beginnings. If you have this animal for your power ally, have confidence in your powers to land safely on your feet, in most circumstances. The spiral horn symbolizes your creativity, energy, and endurance. You can initiate new projects and have the strength to complete them. Defend your territory and test your strength, but do not lock horns just to prove your point. Think before you act. Stay in balance with your environment by hiking, walking, or climbing. Take a class to expand your mind and use your imagination to reach new heights of achievement. Seek new opportunities in your work and relationship areas. Now is a good time to make changes. You can accomplish a lot if you are prepared. (Source)
Those guys REALLY kept me going.
Sometimes I'd see a bighorn on an impossibly steep cliffside, balancing on the tiniest ledge, acting like it was no big deal at all. Sometimes they'd just be chilling in a grassy meadow. Sometimes I'd see a super cocky one at the top of a peak silhouetted by the setting sun looking majestically into the distance. Sometimes there were baby ones. Sometimes there were so many I couldn't count. Sometimes I'd think I missed them altogether, but then see one of their white butts in my rearview mirror. Such good medicine.
If you have ever made the drive between Boise and Portland, you know about the long stretches of unending foothills, beige all year except for like one week in Spring when they are alive with grasses and wildflowers, a week in Winter when they are white with snow, and occasionally black from a late Summer wildfire. There are a few nice winding parts of road that are fun to drive, but mostly it's pretty bleak. To make up for the desolation of the landscape, I have to admit that sometimes I drove fast. Like, too fast.
The speed limit on I-84 in many parts of Idaho is 80, which means you can safely go 85. 85 is fast. Probably too fast. So you're driving 85 for the first hour of your 7-hour drive, and you feel yourself getting closer to the thing you're driving towards, there's this momentum propelling you towards it. And then you cross state lines and the speed limit goes down to 65. 65 is a reasonable number of miles per hour to drive, but it doesn't feel like it when you're racing to see a face that you haven't seen in 3-6 weeks, or in contrast to just having sped through the Idaho desert at 85.
In 1995 I got a $500 ticket speeding through Baker City. I was a young, broke college student and when I pleaded with the Oregon DOT to reduce the amount, they said my only other option was to have my driving privileges revoked in the state of Oregon for ten years. I went with option B. I lived in Olympia, Washington at the time, and the drive from there to Boise is about 80 percent through Oregon. Apparently the consequences of driving without privileges were a game changer for me, so I dutifully had other people drive (speed) that whole stretch, every time, for the full ten years. Even when I'd go to visit Portland for a weekend, I'd have other people drive my car, me a nervous wreck in the passenger seat, feeling like I was committing a crime just being there.
On that same trip, about a half-hour before the speeding ticket, it started raining suddenly as I was speeding around a corner. My car hydroplaned and we spun around 360 degrees, narrowly missing being smashed by oncoming traffic. Without a scratch on the car (or ourselves), we were a little shaken, but got right back out there, doing 90 on the open road, invincible.
A few years and thousands of miles into my long distance relationship, I was driving to Pendleton. I was descending from the summit of the blue mountains, which opens onto this sweeping vista, huge curves in the road, perfect for driving fast, especially when you can see Pendleton right at the bottom of the mountain, the Wild Horse casino glinting in the setting sun. The sunset was spectacular--but not colorful--there was a sort of mist in the air that just lit up forever, the sky was gold and the clouds were silver. As I made my way down the mountain I soaked up this moment, giddy from the anticipation of seeing my love in just a few more minutes, when something occurred to me: I wasn't speeding. I was, for maybe the first time, obeying speed limit signs around those big curves, where it drops down to 45. I set my cruise control at 65 once I got onto flat ground, and began unpacking this new driving style I had just adopted.
I was thinking about the word fearless. I thought about how I was always doing things that I was scared of doing just to prove that I could. I'm afraid of the usual stuff: being hurt, rejected, abandoned, misunderstood, unseen. Very real things that could and probably will happen to me to some degree, at some point. I was scared of this relationship I was chasing--of the vulnerability and softness that it brought out in me, of the unanswered "what are you going to do?" and "why is it taking so long?" questions, of the growing potential for heartbreak. But here I was, driving towards it anyway. At the speed limit.
"Fearless" doesn't mean I'm not scared! It just means I'm gonna do it anyway!
I realized that driving fast wasn't fearless. I hadn't learned to fear death by car accident, nor had I learned to fear really expensive speeding tickets from my experience 20 years earlier. But it wasn't so much that I wasn't scared, I think that to some degree, I didn't care. Driving fast was not fearless, it was careless. Experiencing real fearlessness--diving openhearted into an unknown thing--taught me the difference between being fearless and careless, and taught me to slow down a bit in the process. I found myself hyper aware of my driving--of the traffic around me, the sound of my car, the surface of the road, the weather, my own breath. I realized that's what being careful feels like. Attentive. Present. Not overly cautious, but certainly more aware of the fragility of the whole system. Ready and willing to protect myself should the situation arise.
"Careful" doesn't mean I'm scared! It just means that I care about doing this thing right!
I'm still learning how to be careful. Being careful is about pausing--even for a nanosecond--to consider the consequences of my actions. It's about patience--with myself and other people, realizing that we all have sensitive parts that need to be honored and seen instead of brushed off or disregarded. Being careful is about slowing down and knowing that I will get there, eventually.
If I were to write my own animal medicine proclamation, it would go like this: When bighorn sheep climb steep rocky mountains, they are both fearless and careful. They take calculated risks and they plan strategically, yet they also trust their instincts and allow their bodies to lead the way--feeling their way from foothold to foothold. Bighorn sheep medicine is about embracing both the joy of freedom and the comfort of safety, at the same time, all the time.