Magic and Checklists

A few weeks ago, I wrote about being in a bit of a hard place. By a hard place, I mean a pit of utter despair and self-hate. It wasn’t fun, and I haven’t rebuilt all my confidence yet, but while trying to scramble out I learned something pretty important.

We had an event in London back in May – the Women’s International Parkour Weekend. It was kind of a big deal, and I wrote about it for SheCanTrace. On day one, I joined the beginner group in the morning and the advanced group in the afternoon so that I could experience the event from multiple angles.

Some of the participants in the beginner group were quite new to parkour. Some had only done one or two classes, and some had never tried it before in their lives. We’ve all been there, right? Most of us can remember that there was a time before we started parkour. I know I do, and I was well below average when I first came to a class. I may feel like things are hard now and that I am slow, but when I started I could not climb onto a wall my own shoulder height and I had never balanced on a rail.

My point is not that I have progressed since day one. What matters is that I had forgotten something so vital that no amount of progress in the world is worth a toss without it.

There was a point in the day where we were asked to walk out along a very high wall. I can walk on walls and although I am scared of heights, the wall was very broad so I felt quite safe. Midway along, I looked around at the rest of the group.

I saw terror. Joy. Amazement. Determination. Wonder – the kind of wonder that you only get from seeing the world in a brand new way. All of these things, in one single person and all at once. The sheer indescribable magic of what it’s like to be up that high on a wall for the first time, when you didn’t know you had it in you. That feeling when you see the ground from the top of the wall and it’s much further away than it seemed when you were looking from the ground to the top and you can’t believe you’re doing it but you really, really are.

I had forgotten that magic. And then I realised I had forgotten the magic of being able to perch up on a railing and feel my centre of balance shift, and the wonder of seeing cushions of moss growing undisturbed on top of a surface that most people never get to see. I had forgotten how amazing it is to really feel all the different textures of paving stone and wall and rail and gravel under my hands, and to see the callouses on my palms grow in response.

How could I forget all that? And what had it done to me?

Without the magic, I was left with a checklist of what I can and cannot do. I can check off walking along a high wall, sure – but what’s the point? Who am I going to show that list to? If I get all the things on it done, do I get a shiny badge?

The point was driven home in the afternoon, when I joined the advanced group. Straight after lunch, we were split into little sub groups, each of which worked together to create a route to show to the rest of the crew, follow-the-leader style (for those of you who don’t know, this is when each person adds their own movement to the preceding one, creating a sequence that you all do).

When I don’t know what the hell to do with a railing, and there is space for it, I will kind of spin around it. It’s not hard. You jump up so your arms are straight and your hips are against the rail, you lean forward, still holding on, and you spin around and land on your feet. I see it done quite a lot, locally.

One of the awesome things about training with a group of people from lots of different places is that you all know different things. At least one of the women in this group was not familiar with this particular movement and hesitated. She learned it very quickly – it’s not technically difficult, and she was very capable. But I was quite surprised to see her stop, because I’m so used to doing it that I stupidly assumed everyone else would be too. Then it hit me like a bucket of ice-cold water.

Purely because I was familiar with this particular technique, I had utterly devalued it. I could do it confidently, and therefore it was easy for everyone. Because it was easy for everyone, it wasn’t worth much.

Not only had I reduced the entirety of parkour to a soulless checklist, I had no respect for anything I could tick off on that list. That little rail spin is fantastic. It’s fun to do. It looks awesome. But I didn’t care about any of that, because the only thing that mattered was whether I could do it. Once I could do it, it was worthless. Instead of appreciating techniques, they were things to be acquired and no more.

When you train for a checklist and not for the magic, nothing is ever enough. I could do a step vault over things I couldn’t climb onto back when I started, but it didn’t matter, because I couldn’t kong it. I could get myself up onto a wall that would have given me panic attacks and instead enjoy the view, but it was worthless, because some other guy could get there faster than me. I could have learned a backflip, and it wouldn’t have made me happy because it wouldn’t have been a double backflip.

The thing about being stuck in a black pit is that it restricts your vision. I became so blind that I turned parkour into something quite ugly instead of what it really is. Those women on that wall showed me real parkour that day, and gave me that magic back. Thanks, guys.