When I was ten, our school held a running race in which I was eager to participate. I knew one girl was unbeatable, but I still had my chances to be on the podium. During the race, I was a solid second and a turn away from the finishing line, I was envisioning the silver medal around my neck. But, while passing behind the last line of trees away from the spectators’ eyes, I felt something abnormal in my back, as if someone was pushing me. I fell flat on the ground and I vividly remember the amount of feet jumping over me, annoyed to be slowed down by a crawling obstacle. I wasted precious seconds trying to get back on my legs. As giving up was not an option, I sprinted to the finish line and managed to arrive fourth — the worst place: good effort, no medal

Untitled (Remembering Sunset Runs) woven painting, 27*42 cm, 2022

I recall the hurting feeling of injustice, emphasized by the fact that no-one had seen my fall expect for my peer-runners, yet none of them said anything to the organizers. I ended up convincing myself that it must have been an accident, that obviously this girl didn’t push me on purpose. Yet, this episode made me stop running, thinking I was not good at it, or too weak to deal with unpleasant competitors. I then signed for tennis classes, where I would not get kicked out of my side of the court, at least.

But was this a real choice? Don’t get me wrong, I love playing tennis. But I was fast to draw conclusions because of an unfortunate experience. Emotionally it was just too much, I felt deceived in myself, frustrated and sad. And just like that, I decided running was not my thing. And for thirty-five years, I believed it.. until last year when I decided to give it another go. (see my post here)

This story is an example of many sour experiences partially buried in our past, those little incidents which end up orienting our choices more significantly than we think. This leads me to wonder how many opportunities we’ve thrown away because of a misinterpreted situation? How many of our passions died out before they could even start sparking?

I am currently reading “Maybe You Should Talk with Someone” by therapist Lori Gottlieb. In one of the four patients’ stories, a young newly-wed woman, Julie, learns that she has terminal cancer. To help her make the most of the remaining time, her best friend offers her the essay “Welcome to Holland” by Emily Perl Kingsley. This essay is a metaphor of the author’s reality of having a child with Down syndrome and it compares the thrilling experience of expecting a baby to preparing a trip to Italy.

When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip – to Italy. You buy a bunch of guide books and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.
After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, “Welcome to Holland.”
(…) It’s just a different place. It’s slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around…. and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills….and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.*

First, Julie is furious, finding it insulting and indecent to be asked to see positive sides in her tragic situation. She’s in her thirties, freshly married, yet dying and grieving the life she won’t have. I’m only half-way through the book, so I can’t say what will happen to her but it turns out that “Welcome to Holland” did have an influence: she started changing her thoughts and do things she felt were meaningful in the present-time. 

I had never heard of ”Welcome to Holland” so I was curious to read the essay, and whether it’s a coincidence or not, it came at a moment when I needed it. Indeed, six weeks ago, while running by the sea, I did a U-turn at half-way of my programme and couldn’t avoid the electric scooter behind me. I didn’t seem to be injured at the time, except for a big bruise at my ankle and my shoe which fell apart — I even managed to run back home! The following weeks, I continued my training as usual steadily increasing the mileage, but I started to have more and more unpleasant sensations on the forefoot. Until in the middle of what I now call “my last run”, a sharp and insisting pain let me no choice but to stop it right there.

I’ve been limping for the last month, trying to adapt, but I developed a few inflammations (tendon, ligament, trapped nerves) which heal very slowly, ever so slowly. My rehab programme (rest, salt baths, massages, feet and balance exercices, little segments of walking, home-bicycle) is very far from what I dreamt to achieve by now in running — I was on my way to 10k! To go back to the essay, I’m trying to find some beauty in Holland, I keep on looking for windmills and tulips on the road to healing. Yet, I do get frustrated and impatient, even if I know that this experience will teach me something at the end. I also have dreams at night where I have a couple of injuries and need to have my eye (or my “I”?) cut-open while it’s lying on the table; or, where I’m screaming at the top of my lungs without any sound coming out. Surely, my confidence has been shaken ever so slightly.            

Emily Perl Kingsley’s essay has become widely famous and helped many people in distress, but it also met a few criticisms. Among them, it’s been accused of being too ‘feel-good’ sometimes at a cost of not allowing enough space for grief. For me, where “Welcome to Holland” is powerful, is in its call to remain curious and to welcome the big scary unknown (at least, try). I encourage you to read it and see for yourselves.

Let 2022 be surprisingly good. Proost! Salute! Cheers!

Love, Ethel

* “Welcome to Holland”, read the full text here

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