Who am I?
I feel like I have been asking that question a lot lately. Perhaps this is normal, given who I am. I mean, what else does an introspective young writer like to do with her time?
When I ask myself that question, a very standard response pops into my mind. It’s one I’ve often given to people I am encountering for the first time. The order may change on any given day, but the answer goes something like this: I am a hand balancer. I am a writer. I am a hand balancer who writes, a writer who loves to stand on her hands. The details of this description, of course, have shifted slightly over the years – but their essence remains the same.
No matter which way you put it, I am a doing. I am defined by the things I do and the things I aspire to do in the future, something that will inevitably change time and time again as I grow through life.
Life is a series of experiments: there are so many things one can choose to do or explore or become. As a young person, all these options can be quite overwhelming, yet somehow, society tells us that by the time we graduate high school we should’ve already chosen one. Growing up is confusing enough as it is, and the pressure to define who we are by our aspirations only adds to the pressure to get it right the first time around.
I am not sure when exactly I became a doing, or how I came to be that way in the first place. All I know is that this method we’ve developed for defining ourselves is entirely unreliable, which leads me to believe we should reach for a new way.
I am very good at letting others know they are so much more than what they do. When it comes to myself, however, I struggle to apply this same truth. If I am not a hand balancer, then who am I?
I have been doing circus and acrobatics for three-quarters of my life – for me, to be upside down IS to be alive. I spent my childhood at my mother’s circus studio and my grandparents’ gym. Many of my best memories and most defining moments happened there.
When I wasn’t walking on tightropes and swinging from the bars, you could almost certainly find me doing a series of cartwheels across the lawn of my elementary school. For my seventh-grade talent show, I performed a piece on the aerial silks. I missed school functions for gymnastics training and circus productions as opposed to the other way around. I was never like anyone else in my school, and so they never understood my discipline or devotion to my sport. As a result, I almost always felt separate, somehow left out.
In eighth grade, I discovered how to hold a handstand; because they take up almost the same amount of space as if I were standing, I could do handstands anywhere, anytime. And so, in typical Maia-fashion, this became my new obsession. Anytime I was bored in gym class or if a teacher left the room, upside down I would be found. Upside down was my favourite way to be. I felt safe upside down.
There have been times in my life when this part of my identity was taken away for a time, and I struggled to find any sense of grounding without the thing I defined myself by. These were some of the hardest times of my life so far – I felt as though my world had dropped out from underneath me and did all I could just to get my head above water once again.
When I was eleven, I injured my back and had to take a break from training altogether. Food became my solace, and I spent the vast majority of my time watching videos and reading magazines about gymnastics, plotting the path of my comeback and rise towards my Olympic dream. I gained a lot of weight during my time off, and coming back was hard, much harder than I’d anticipated. A year and a half later, however, I started to see some success. Gymnastics was still the thing that defined me. I can do this, I thought.
When I tore my ACL five years later, I spent the first six weeks convinced nothing bad had happened. It was just a sprain, a minor setback, and I would be able to compete in three weeks, just as planned. I may have been determined, but determination will only get you so far when it comes to a legitimate injury. When I finally saw a doctor, it turned out I’d been wrong – I had torn the ACL and damaged the meniscus, and I would need surgery to repair both. I was devastated and terrified for many reasons all at once. In an instant I knew this one truth: it was time to move on.
So I left the sport for which I had lost my passion and pursued circus full time. Circus had always had a playful energy for me, and I didn’t realize how intense it could become at the time. You can put unnecessary amounts of pressure on yourself anywhere, and over time my relationship to circus grew strained. I clung to my craft with fear, fear of who I would be without it, that I would lose the body I’d worked so hard to maintain.
When the pain in my wrist became unbearable, it had already been hurting for many months. I was overtraining with bad alignment and not enough strength training to support the skill-base I was working to build. And so for two months, I couldn’t do any handstands. Maybe it was good for the partner work I was doing, but I felt as though I’d lost a piece of myself. Who would I be without handstands? How could I ever be good enough?
Each time I was forced to step away from my “doing,” I spent the whole time focused on doing everything I could to get back what I’d lost. I never allowed myself to pause, to feel remotely happy for any reason – how could I with this piece of me gone?
I realize now this created a clinginess, an energy of fear that made my training an obsession as opposed to something I truly enjoyed. I grew so attached to this doing and becoming I never took a moment to step back and learn who I am at my core.
About a month ago, my body started talking loudly again. I’d been ignoring a nagging pain in my right upper body for about a year, and my body was telling me it’d had enough. At first, I was deeply upset – I’d made so much progress, wouldn’t I lose it all and be forced to start from the beginning again? I began seeking treatment and inevitably, have had to take a break from hand balancing again.
This time, the process is no less scary than it was before, but my approach to my healing is a significantly different one.
I’ve decided to give my body the space and rest it needs to heal, truly heal from everything it’s been through over the last number of years. Sitting still is not my forte, but I am learning – your body will tell you what it needs if you only listen. My entire right shoulder is shifted up, higher than the left; this lack of blood flow and strength has caused a tilt in my body that will not go away on its own.
Indeed, I do need to go back to the basics and teach my body how to move again. Frustrating as it is, I know this process will enable me to continue to do what I love for far longer than I would if I kept training on a maligned joint. I am learning to be patient because I know it will be worth it in the long run.
I tell myself, love, love, LOVE. I love you, even when you feel broken. You are healing, and you will be stronger and even more beautiful for it, just like those Japanese pots that have shattered and been pieced back together with liquid gold.
I am approaching my healing from a place of love: loving my body and all it does for me every day, love for my craft and who I am at my core. I can still be happy without all the doing and aspiring and becoming. I can be happy right here, right now because life is pretty damn beautiful, no matter where you are.
Last week, I faced that question once again: who am I? Doubt and Fear lingered like shadows around the edges. Who am I, if I’m not a hand balancer? Would people still like me and respect me and want me in their life? Or am I utterly worthless without this skill?
So I began looking for answers. I genuinely do believe we are worth so much more than what we do, I’ve just struggled to define what that means for myself. Often when we let a problem sit in the back of our brain, the subconscious mind will come up with answers. A few hours later, my mind submitted a few tentative answers. A little later, I had a few more.
Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you make them feel.” It’s not always the doing that has the most enduring impact – sometimes it’s the simplest little things that count the most.
So who are you, deep down in your core? I challenge you to stop your doing for a second and just sit with this question. Because I promise you, doing things is important in life, but it’s not everything – there’s something more.
Something that has helped me in the past: VIA Strength Finders Test