‘If it doesn’t break your heart it isn’t love. If it doesn’t break your heart it’s not enough. It’s when you’re breaking down with your insides coming out. It’s when you find out what your heart is made up of.’ ~ Jon Foreman
I tied myself to my pulk at this tiny airport covered with so much snow that the whole landscape looked like a plain white painting with only a few Scandinavian dark red houses and a plane standing out. I tried to pull the pulk with my body and just in this very moment, as we were about to start our cross-country skiing expedition in the North Pole, I realised that I wasn’t strong enough to pull the heavy sledge carrying my equipment and supplies that would sustain me for the next ten days.
I went to Greenland with lots of dreams in my mind. I was dreaming of seeing the vast snow-white immensities, the Northern lights, the polar bears, the icebergs, the Inuits. I wanted to see the ice floe as I had agreed to work on an artistic project for a group of French arctic explorers prior to making this trip. The objective was to help raise awareness of the disappearance of the sea ice in this region and I wanted to see it and experience it for myself before starting to work on the designs.
My dreams nearly came to an abrupt end before the adventure even begins. I will always remember this moment when me and my small group of six fellow adventurers left this minuscule airport on the East coast of Greenland. We had just started to embrace the white frozen immensities stretching out in front of us, and I knew immediately my sledge would be too heavy for me and that contrary to what I had imagined it wouldn’t just simply glide on the snow. I got extremely anxious because I knew that by venturing onward I would definitely struggle… and suffer. But unfortunately for me, at that point, there was no going back.
There is so much I could say about this Arctic adventure. It has been an experience like no other. I shared some snippets of it on Instagram, but today, in this diary, I would like to share with you what has perhaps been my biggest personal learnings or realisations from this trip. It came from a place of suffering mixed with my dreams of seeing a place on this planet that doesn’t resemble anything else. Unexpectedly, it made me both more vulnerable and stronger than I could have ever imagined and to this day it still helps me navigate the ups and downs of life like nothing else ever did, simply because it made me go beyond myself.
So, let’s dive into it, shall we?
I started this polar expedition with a real physical handicap. I had done difficult hiking trips before but that was the first time I was faced with such an intense physical struggle, and it didn’t feel good at all. I felt bad to not be strong enough despite my physical preparation, I felt bad to hold the people who were travelling with me, I felt bad to have to ask a husky dog to help me pull my sledge. My physical weakness even prompted some people I admired to bully me which made the situation worst and what was supposed to be a dream trip became a constant fight for survival in an extremely cold environment where we had to endure temperatures below -40°C and where there was no rest and no escape. I had to adapt, reconsider my priorities, and quick.
Now, it is not because I was weaker physically that I didn’t have any other strengths and nothing to bring to the table. I was still standing on my two feet and I pushed on all my resources to achieve the expedition. I was passionate, driven, resilient and strong psychologically and I tapped into this to progress each day. I established a very close relationship with the husky dog, Nina, who helped me pull my sledge and we ended up being quite the pair. I was team-oriented, and I contributed to all our everyday communal tasks just like everyone else. I am also a very positive, adaptable and caring person which helped during the trip when other people struggled for other reasons.
“Our strength in life shows itself when things get hard”
This wouldn’t make up for everything of course, and I would still go through a lot of hardship during the trip, but I believe it is important to put things in balance. We are never defined by just one thing unless we let it define us. At the end of the day, character, what you’ve got in you, matters a lot. Our strength in life shows itself when things get hard. It is how we behave, how we react, what we do at our worst or in difficult situations that determines the quality of our future and how great our life can be. It is when we decide that no circumstances will ruin us at our core and when we choose to keep our chin up and find our way through it despite the pressure, the criticism, the uncertainties, the fears, the pain, that we are victorious.
In our societies, we might be led to believe that it is better to hide or reject our weaknesses, failures and imperfections as if they were ugly, dirty little secrets. We might be led to believe that we need to fit in a mould and only show strength and boldness at all times. When we don’t, we can feel like we are not good enough and that something is wrong with us. We fear judgement and it can make us feel really bad and uncomfortable. Of course, it is important for our own growth to strive to be the best version of ourselves and not stop at our struggles. But denying them, as much as holding onto them, doesn’t make them disappear and I strongly believe it hinders our own growth and flourishing.
Many times, I thought about this adventure in the Arctic. Many times, I thought about the extreme contrast that exists between the incredible beauty and the incredible harshness of this environment, both cohabitating at all times, together on a constant basis. I have been as much dazzled by its breath-taking magnificence as shocked by its ferocious bite. When writing about it these past weeks, I came to realise that, we, humans, are no different.
“As much as we want to avoid the pain, there will be painful moments”
We (our journey) are made of light and darkness and in our time on Earth we will experience both no matter what. As much as we want to avoid the pain, there will be painful moments. But it is in these very moments that we will be able more than ever to show our true colours. Obstacles give us the opportunity to step up. Our weaknesses and imperfections are not as remotely important as what we do with them. They can be a platform for growth if we decide to grow from them as counterintuitive, confusing or scary as it may feel.
The next step where it leads us might be like nothing we had envisaged for us in the first place, but this is exactly when we need to let go of our utopias and be open to serendipity, and the experiences and learnings that come with it. We are very brainy animals and we tell ourselves stories on a constant basis. The truth is we can change our stories, we can give them new directions at any given moment according to circumstances and what we feel is best for us. It is not all already written for us. In our life, we will be faced with many situations that will challenge us but also present new opportunities that will be up for grabs.
We are also fluid beings, changing and evolving on a constant basis. Nothing is set into stone, nothing is set to stay the same. We need to remember that. We have an incredible power of creation and transformation and the world around us is malleable too. The Arctic, for me, was like this blank, virgin space, where there was nowhere else to go, where there was no distraction. I was only faced with myself and the difficult situation of what I was living, something I had not anticipated would happen. In a way, I had no other choice but to step up and tap into all my resources if I wanted to survive. As abrupt as it may sound, it was the reality. The Arctic is not an environment you can mess up with and it is very unforgiving.
“We do not have to apologise for not being 100% all the time”
So, if you are going through something difficult at any point in your life know that it is a moment in time and that this moment in time might actually be very important to help you pause and reflect and give a direction to your life which will allow you to step up and eventually make a difference and become a much bigger, better version of yourself. We do not have to apologise for not being 100% all the time. We do not have to feel bad for not living up to a so-called perfect stereotype, or for not being the smartest, strongest person ever. Nobody is. NOBODY IS.
There is this saying that I like: ‘don’t be the smartest person in the room’. At first, when you hear it, it can seem counterintuitive because we can be so used to competition and striving to be the best. We compare ourselves so much and we have these ideals in mind we look up to even when they have nothing to do with us. In reality, it is a very humbling statement. It invites us to look within and without. It invites us to look at who we truly are and be honest with it. It shows us that we still have a lot to experience, that life ahead still holds many adventures, and that along this journey we are not alone. The relationships we form are very enriching and we can learn so much from one another.
Bowing to life is accepting to learn and grow from it. When I was in the Arctic I could only bow to this environment. It was far stronger than I was physically, it showed me my limits and I had to accept it. It made me extremely vulnerable, but by doing so it also made me go to places in me I didn’t know existed. To be able to achieve this trip, I had to tap into all my resources and dig deep. I had to dig the best in me, what lighted me up and mattered to me the most – my passion for travelling and the beauty of our planet, my desire to create an artistic project linking to climate change, my family and my desire to create a family. It carried me. It also made me see how important it is to have these positive things in your heart that you can tap into when you need it.
This trip in the extreme cold has been very brutal for me, but paradoxically it also helped me magnify everything that was sweet like my relationship with our wonderful husky dog, Nina, the kindness of the woman who was sharing my tent, or cocooning in my sleeping bag with a few chocolates during the night, covered with so many layers of clothes that I actually slept very well! We have this expression in French that says ‘un peu de douceur dans ce monde de brutes’. It means something like ‘a little softness, warmth, kindness in this tough, cold, brutal world’. This couldn’t embody better what I have been living in the Arctic.
“Don’t let the toughness of this world make you hard”
We all have difficult times to go through in our life. But no matter the difficulty of what you are living, don’t let the toughness of this world make you hard. Learn to bend, not to break. Cultivate sweetness. The most beautiful thing that can happen to us is to flourish and this goes through growing the seeds of what lights you up no matter what. It doesn’t come from putting an armour on that is so thick that it becomes a shield impervious to whatever good could come from the inside out or the outside in. It can be easy to get caught into a negative mindset, focus only on what feels wrong. But we are so much more than that.
Life is a journey with many stops and experiences. We need to remember to keep moving along that journey and not get paralysed or stagnate because we believe we don’t have what it takes, because we fear we are not good enough, because we feel out of place or that it is too hard – whatever the reasons may be. You are good enough, you have what it takes, you are not alone, and in your own perfect imperfect uniqueness you are bringing something to the table that someone else doesn’t. The most important is not about your fears, it is about conquering them, going beyond the judgements and febrility, and showing up in the best of what you have to offer. Getting through the experience of it. Otherwise what is the reason of your very own existence?
I started this trip in Greenland with a physical handicap, but I must tell you I also finished it with a bigger one. As I was constantly covered with clothes, it is only when I went back to this tiny airport and removed my gloves and clothes that I realised that my feet and hands had swollen so much that they were the triple or quadruple of their normal size. I had pushed so much physically that I suppose it was a normal body reaction. No wonder I couldn’t put my boots on or simply progress on my skis anymore at the end of the trip.
I had to wear large slippers when I got my flight back to London - I had quite the look (!) - and then I spent the next months trying to heal. I couldn’t drive as my hands were too swollen, but most importantly for me I couldn’t draw anymore. I was also exhausted, not only physically but also psychologically. It took me months to recover, but it forced me to slow down and look after myself. It also made me consider and understand what was the most important to me in my life and the direction I wanted to give to it.
As a result, I changed a number of things when I got back. I resolved to spend more quality time with my family and let go of past tensions. I realised I didn’t want to continue this journey through life on my own and that sharing it with someone else would be a lot more enriching and fulfilling. I drew a much better balance between my work life and my personal life. I made sure to make time and indulge in things that made me happy. I knew already that drawing was utterly important to me, but with this problem with my hands it made me see this was something I really didn’t want to lose and that I really wanted to make something out of it and be able to express myself through this medium.
We all have something valuable to give to the world and this goes through feeling good with ourselves. As much as I felt bad for not being strong enough when I started this trip in Greenland, it brought me to where I am today and I can say without a doubt that I am in a much, much better place than where I was when I did this trip. I can also say that I had to face other big challenges since that trip, and I know there will be more to come, but I am also in a much, much better place to face them and deal with them. Sometimes I forget about it, because you tend to forget, but it has been very good to remember it by reliving this trip.
“Our vulnerabilities are to be embraced.”
Life is short. Life is messy. Make it sweet. Make it yours.
Take a leap of faith and shine your light as bright as you can. Because you’ve got this.
It is much better to keep moving forward, weaknesses-failures-imperfections and all, rather than not moving at all. And at the end of the tunnel, we’ve all got wings.