Chop Wood, Carry Water with Iron John

Three weeks of reconnection

By Ryan Willms

In December 2016 I called my friend out of the blue to see if he was available to model in a shoot I was doing in Alaska. John had been good friends with my brother in high school and our paths had crossed over the last few years when we were both in Vancouver—he was about to do an Ironman around the same I’d started training for a marathon. I needed a handsome man for the final frontier and he’s always up for an adventure, so we reconnected in Anchorage a week later.


When we arrived in Alaska, I’d booked John into my room, to save on the budget but I thought it would be a great opportunity to catch up with him. This was one of the first big signs from the Universe that I could read loud and clear. On my return home to New York I hired ‘Health Coach John’ to start working with me. He’d seen the state I was in physically and emotionally during the shoot in Alaska. On one morning, he’d even had to rescue me from a devastating migraine after the most stressful day of shooting. He thought he could help me, and I was just aware enough at the time to feel that I needed the help. He came back into my life at just the right time.

Before I got back to New York I signed a contract with a big fashion client that ended up taking my overall stress levels to new heights and over the following seven months John’s main role was trying to help me do as much damage control as possible while starting to open my eyes to some of the underlying emotion issues that I’d not been aware of, at all. He introduced me to new ideas, starting with reading No More Mr. Nice Guy, and then he introduced me to an amazing transpersonal therapist, who focused on ‘shadow work’ in our sessions, which was something I hadn’t really heard of but the concept is pretty straight forward. We all have a yin and yang, light and dark and for most part our subconscious runs the dark, our shadow side, and so the goal of doing shadow work is to shine a light into these places we’ve ignored. It was just enough between these first steps towards awakening, and my own diminishing state of well being, that pushed me to the point of making some big changes to my life. If I were going to get to the bottom of the depression, isolation and self-hate that had slowly swallowed me over the past few years, I had to leave New York and take some time off from work to really give myself an opportunity to heal.

It turned out that I needed those seven months after Alaska to dig myself an even deeper hole, that gave John and his wife time to sell their condo in Vancouver and trade it in for 45 acres of beautiful rural British Columbia in the Cowichan Valley. Once again the Universe was speaking clearly and the stars were aligning. My announcement to John came perfectly timed as our schedules lined up so that I would join him on the island at his new home only a week after leaving New York.


Chop wood, and carry water…

That was what John called his beta program that he had put together for me, but the core of our three weeks together was reconnection—to nature, to myself, to love and joy. Pretty big parts of life that I’d ignored successfully for the past few years. Even when I read that short list of words now, I wonder how I could have become so lost and misguided by my own ambitions and ideas. The medicine could not have been better prescribed as we embarked on daily actives from hiking, paddle boarding and mountain biking to cleaning gutters, mowing the lawn and clearing trails on his property. I woke up each day not knowing what was ahead of me for the first time in a long time. Between long talks, harvesting his mini-apple orchard and cold river plunges, I could feel myself slowly returning, to myself.


Just over a year later I think back to that time and I can see just how depleted of my life force had become. While I was in New York, I knew I was tired but it had become my new normal and it’s really only with retrospect and many deep breaths that I really understand how incredible the human body is at being pushed to the limit, but also how grateful I am that I was able to come back through this deeply healing process and the beginning of a deep reawakening. It is common for these awakenings to be sparked by crisis, I’m just fortunate that I was able to recognize the opportunity and make lemonade. John could probably see much more clearly at the time where I was at, and he kept me moving slowly, which is a lesson that I have had to keep learning over and over again, more recently through an ACL tear and subsequent surgery. I’m still learning patience, slowly. I wanted to be feeling 100% after my visit, but 3-5 years of running myself into the ground wasn’t going to be undone in a month. However I knew that I had stepped onto the right path, and I was moving to move at a more sustainable balanced pace with an increasing sense of awareness and connection.

During my time in the Cowichan Valley, I also read Iron John for the first time. It felt like a coincidence that John was also my personal guide, or was it? I still see my John, as Iron John a lot of the time. Also, as one of my ‘Galactico Brothers’, a small group of men in my life that represent a beautiful masculinity—none of them actually know they’re in this club either, it’s something I’ve made up for myself, I’ll let them each know eventually. Anyways, Iron John was the perfect book at the time, worth its own article and deeper dive at some point here, it outlines the hero’s journey and the integration of the golden child, the king, the adventurer and the wild man into what makes up a man. A beautiful story by Robert Bly, it was the first time that I can remember really connecting and consciously learning from mythology in this way and I’ve continued to learn from this book specifically over the last year, time and time again.


My connection with John grew into something deeper than I expected as we worked together, I learnt from him, and I like to think he learnt from me. Over that month and the past year he has become one of my dearest friends and brothers, one of the few people that I see as much with my eyes as I do with my heart. Through his guidance, support and love I began to give myself some of these things again—a pretty powerful gift that I will forever be grateful for. I also have to mention his wife Christina as well, as she taught me over our time together as well and the warmth of their home continues to inspire me and fill up my heart.

I never imagined I would have hired a life coach for myself, of any kind. But I also never thought I would be the type of person to be in a state of depression. So through the fire I went and luckily I found a trusting hand to lead me across the coals—and into a cold plunge—one of John’s favourite pastimes as as he showed in Alaska when he stripped down and eased into the thawing ocean. And so, connection. It’s vital to our happiness and growth, it must be with ourselves, with nature and with our community. For me it was with John initially, and I can’t say enough how valuable it was for me to ask for help and trust myself to surrender on this journey. Finding good help may not always be easy, but I’ve found that being vulnerable and open to the experience is where a lot of the growth comes from. My Iron John has taught me a lot and continues to each time we speak, from his experiences, by simply mirroring back myself so that I can see more clearly, one simply with one of his big hugs. However it works, it has worked and I’m so glad that I decided to jump into the cold water with him on this path.


Photographs by John Huddart
This article was written by Ryan Willms and published on January 7, 2019