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Linda Noble Topf Headshot

Where the Impossible Becomes Possible

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When you're in a wheelchair, there are so many things you can't do that it's easy to get lost in regrets. But what can you do? Given your particular situation, your current limitations, what is possible? What is within reach?

Then comes the next challenge -- focusing on the achievable. To do that, you will have to accept who you are, the way you are. You will have to work with what you have. That's tough to accept, but worth trying, because one single accomplishment within the realm of the possible is more powerful than a dozen wish-lists that focus on the unattainable. Setting one goal, and meeting it, is deliciously rewarding.

I remember one incident several years ago where I made an uplifting choice that helped me recognize that I could be free to do what able-bodied people do, if I really wanted to. I had always loved the beach -- taking long walks, splashing at the ocean's edge, running and jumping in the waves. As my legs got weaker, there became no way to be on the beach without being carried. Several attempts at rolling a conventional wheelchair onto the sand for beach experiences resulted in sinking wheels and tears of frustration -- which only increased my longing to be where I so loved to be.

In my own mind, I added this to the list of all the things I once loved but could no longer do -- dancing with my husband, going for long walks, sailing... The list went on and on. And now, with my "failure" to get to the beach, here was something else! For a while, I was stuck with that. "Going to the beach" took its place on the list of the thousands of things that I couldn't do.

Despite the frustration, when I looked at the logistics, I thought, "You know, Linda, this shouldn't be on your list of can't-do's. Getting down to the beach should be possible." The problem seemed so elementary: My narrow tires were getting stuck in the sand. So what? There had to be a solution. Find a boat launch and get my husband to roll me down to the water? No, I wanted a real beach, with waves, a place where I could sit by myself again and soak in the sights and sounds of the shoreline. Well, what about rigging up a set of planks leading all the way to the waterline? That was conceivable, but not practical: I would need a whole team of construction workers to get everything in place.

And yet... and yet... I knew there had to be a way.

One summer I heard of a new type of all-terrain wheelchair that was designed specifically to bring people in wheelchairs closer to life outdoors. From the description, it sounded just right. It had large plastic pneumatic tires that rolled easily over sand, gravel, grass and other outdoor surfaces.

The search began. Finally, my husband and I tracked down this chair. And in that summer on the beach, for the first time in nearly 20 years, I experienced the freedom of dangling my feet in the ocean while sandpipers, egrets, pelicans and hundreds of other sea birds and creatures surrounded me.

In an instant, the whole, vast list of things-I-couldn't-do suddenly diminished in importance. By focusing one thing that was possible -- and making it happen -- I felt reborn. This chair became a miracle for me.

Ever since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (in 1981), I have found myself facing choices like this again and again. Like many people, I was taught to believe that if we want to find joy in this life, we have to work at it. I had never thought about how I would live my life if I didn't have perfect health, but as I entered my 30s, I slowly began to come to terms with my illness and started to think about life and death and how the two were connected. I began to explore how attached I had been to my life and how I thought it "should" unfold. Living in present time became my intention. What I learned was that life takes on a new meaning when we commit ourselves to living in the present. As I thought about the finite time I had left, I asked myself, if I were to die tomorrow, was I living my life today the way I truly wanted to?

I opened myself up to possibilities. If I couldn't hold a paintbrush and work as a visual artist or creative director as I had in my 30s, I was going to find different ways to create, and to alter people's perceptions of what it's like to be in a wheelchair through my experience.

Although the process isn't always pleasant or easy, without being objective and honest about things that represent the past, you won't be able to free any space for growth and move forward. For example, if you are unable to visualize what might be possible and blame your circumstances, life gets stalled. Clinging to old thinking -- the stagnant, the irrelevant -- holds you back rather than letting you explore creative alternatives and share thoughts and ideas with others. It can confine you to a space that no longer fits, denying you the opportunity to be your truest, best self. And if you're afraid to move forward, you'll stagnate in the present, limiting your ability, passion (and opportunity) to achieve the change and spiritual altitude you want.

By releasing your attachments to obsolete thoughts, feelings, and assumptions, you gain the energy and clarity to make shifts to live your best, find your passion, and deal with the transition of designing, embracing and choosing your life's path.

For more by Linda Noble Topf, click here.

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