A Hiker, Some Bikers, and a Mountain

A couple of weeks ago I was in Los Alamos visiting my sister’s family. It was a gorgeous Saturday in the Jemez mountains, so we planned to attend Summerfest at the local ski hill. The ski lift was taking people up  Pajarito Mountain and we intended to catch the lift, hike the ridge to the crest, then either hike down or take the lift back to the lodge.

Before we arrived at Pajarito, I didn’t have a clear idea of what Summerfest was really about, and I can’t say I did by the time we left. However, by that time I understood it had something to do with mountain biking and craft beers. My first real sense that the bikers were out in force was the line at the chair lift.

Waiting for the chair lift at Pajarito Mountain, Los Alamos, New Mexico

I had never experienced mountain biking in person – really, I’d only ever seen snippets on television on the X-Games. I was fascinated by the sport as I observed it that day at Pajarito, which was no surprise, really, as I find myself increasingly interested in biking-related events these days. I was momentarily transported to my childhood living room, sitting in front of the television during the Olympics, imagining myself an athlete who possessed both the talent and daring necessary to compete in gymnastics, diving, or speed skating (which I loved long before Apollo Ohno, though even more after). I wished I had a bike and the right garb to fit in with the rest of the crowd. As a result, I watched the bikers carefully, noting their activities whenever I saw them or our paths crossed on the mountain. It turns out, mountain biking, and the riders, had several important lessons to communicate that day – at least, they seemed like lessons applicable to my life. I thought I’d share, in the event they have any usefulness for you as well!

Lessons This Hiker Learned from Those Bikers on Pajarito Mountain:

#1. Why struggle uphill the hard way, when an easy way is readily available.

I didn’t see any mountain bikers attempting to ride UP the mountain. They were all in line for the ski lift. Which isn’t to say that there is never a value in the uphill struggle. There can be. But all too often, in daily life, we make things needlessly harder for ourselves. For example, I briefly considered climbing up on foot, out of fear of heights on the lift. My sister, Chris, who rode with me can attest that I wasn’t comfortable with the ride, however, taking the easy way up preserved my energy for the demanding trip down!

#2. Others can help, but you are ultimately responsible for your own stuff.

A worker loads a bike on the chair lift.

Most of the bikers were right there, checking that their bikes were properly loaded on the lift before allowing them to be sent up. Riders then rode behind the bikes, keeping an eye on them on the way up. If a bike had fallen, the lift operator would probably have felt bad about it – but the owner would have been truly bummed. I, for one, am guilty of trusting that people who know more than me have watched out for my safety, my technology, my health and not doing my own due diligence. Chair lifts, for example, are basically safe – barring an “act of God”, unforeseen mechanical failure, AND as long as you don’t screw around too much. Even though it was humbling, I had never been on a lift before so we asked the operator at the top to stop it while I got off – which they gladly did. I figured falling on my a$# would have been more humiliating! Its a good rule of thumb to keep in mind that strangers, no matter their experience or knowledge or basic good will, won’t be the ones experiencing the consequences if things aren’t done correctly.

#3. Make sure you’ve got the right safety gear.


My photo doesn’t do justice to the sheer amount of protective gear being worn by these mountain bikers. Most had the basics (long sleeves, helmet, shin and knee guards) but many were wearing what appeared to be a form of full-body armor. How often in life do we find out the hard way that we didn’t think to gather the right safety gear? My friend, Colette, can attest to the fact that even a quick bike ride without a helmet may not be a good idea. When I was contemplating resigning from my job without another lined up, I did my best to enumerate the financial and personal commitments that would require advance planning and to line up appropriate solutions and supports for these. Time will tell whether I was thorough. But knowing that I’ve arranged for continuing health coverage, for example, allows for some peace of mind as I, like these mountain bikers, approach the jumps and stunts just ahead.

#4. Make some noise.

The mountain is multi-use, meaning the bikers don’t own the paths despite the creation of jumps and hazards meant to increase their enjoyment of the ride back down Pajarito. They made noise to catch the attention of hikers who might be on the path ahead. They also let loose with whoops of enjoyment. I, for one, appreciated both kinds of noise. I am learning that giving others an idea of what you are doing, where you are heading, is the best way to garner both emotional support and concrete offers of assistance (as well as receive responses which help you round out your plans or find glaring ommissions!). Keeping my hopes, dreams, plans, goals to myself is a self-protective reflex which keeps me from feeling vulnerable or judged if I should fall short. But making some noise and sharing what I’m doing has so many more tangible benefits – not the least of which is that others can walk beside me while I struggle to create something new in my life. Finally, there is no substitute for a well-placed celebratory “Woo-Hoo” if you’re enjoying the ride!

#5. The most direct route isn’t always the best one.

Riders tack back and forth on the steepest part of the run.

My nephew, Tim, who grew up skiing on Pajarito, was my companion on the hike back down. The path we followed was actually a ski run. It was quite steep, and at the steepest portion very rocky. We were concentrating on the placement of each step, when Tim (who was taking it slow on my account) looked up and saw a bunch of bikers below us on the run. The two riders in the foreground of the photo, above, look like they are just riding sideways across the path. In fact, they are following the path established by other cyclists before them as a means of safely traversing the slope. Tacking may seem like a waste of time and energy, but it keeps their speed manageable until the pitch lessens (and you can see riders heading forward at the top of the picture, as the path diverges into the woods). In elementary school I learned that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. I have kept this one math rule in my head all my life, and often allowed it to inform my life. Just ask anyone who has driven with me – I’m all about the shortest distance between two points! The problem is, life doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes, even though we may not know why, we take a circuitous route, or find ourselves backtracking. AND THAT’S OK! This summer, I am taking the extra time to tack a bit myself. After leaving my job, I took time for a long visit with my family, and in July I am taking a week to do RAGBRAI (in between, taking the time to ride in preparation). I feel the decompression – and once I arrive in Minneapolis the acclimation – time is necessary after the emotional and spiritual energy expenditures of leaving my job and home. We all have times when the acceleration of heading straight down a steep path is too much, and a little meandering is called for.

#6. If you insist on being unique, be prepared for some extra sweat.

A unicyclist mountain biker!

If you are observant, you may note that the orange-shirted unicyclist can be seen in both the picture above and also in the preceding one (tacking across the ski run). We saw him throughout our hike, sometimes far ahead of us on the path and at other times behind or immediately in front of us. The truth is, he had a rough time on the rocky terrain of Pajarito Mountain. I have several photos of him attempting to traverse a particularly stony portion of the path – he fell off the unicycle about every third revolution of his pedals. What impressed me the most, watching him, was that he didn’t just pick up the unicycle and walk to a less rocky part of the path. He got back on and rode for three more revolutions. Paths are the way most of us make our way through life – we follow the track someone else has made. That’s fine. But if we choose to be a pathbreaker, or (like the unicyclist above) to take a unique approach to the path, we need to be prepared for it to be harder work. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.

#7. It isn’t always about racing to the finish.

I figured these mountain bikers would be all about racing each other down the mountain. And while that was likely true for some, there was a lot of other stuff going on. First, there was a lot of learning happening, as each person made their way through the forest, ski runs, and the many “enhancements” to the hiking trail meant to test the cyclists’ skills. There was also a lot of teaching/coaching happening, as more experienced riders took the time to explain their approach to the less-experienced. And there was plenty of sharing of stories, designed both to relive the excitement of the individuals’ experience but also to create a shared lore of the day. Part of me has been anxious to get going on settling in and finding a job in Minneapolis, while the rest of me is trying to take the time-out I knew I needed. My friends keep admonishing me to “enjoy this time”, “don’t be in such a rush”, “just let yourself relax”. And their advice is absolutely right. Our lives are rushed enough, without turning every day into a race to see how much we can accomplish – then comparing it with how much others managed to do. Sometimes, the thrill of a beautiful day on a mountain, testing my own skills or strength, learning from someone else’ story – any or all of these – are enough. And we need to understand the necessity of slowing it down. Warp speed is no way to live this one life we’ve been given.

#8. Always take time to celebrate your hard work and achievements.


For many, the day of derring-do ended with great bluegrass music and some mighty fine craft beers. Not a bad way to end a day of hard recreation! The atmosphere reminded me of the final town each night of the week-long RAGBRAI ride – people relaxing, telling their stories, pausing from their exertions to whoop it up a bit.  Which leads me to my unofficial lesson #9: Bike riders have more fun! In all seriousness, though, I’m learning that the celebration afterwards is one of the most important parts of life. Being with others in a moment of easy camaraderie, sharing our stories and our laughter (sometimes healing tears, too), allowing ourselves that very precious present – that’s what makes the effort of our exertions worth it!

Managing the Cowbird

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
              –Anne Lamott, from Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

The patio at my parents’ house in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, is one of my favorite places to be. From the front, their house is unremarkable – a neat, cared-for home in a neighborhood of similar (if less-cared-for) homes, in a city in a desert where a three-year drought has turned the entire place into a matchstick waiting to be struck.

Except this back yard.

In the mornings, we get up at 6:30 a.m. and, when it isn’t too windy, bring our coffee onto the patio. The early morning sunshine is warm, and the day’s watering begins almost immediately. This attention to watering is what has helped my folks create an oasis of green in their little postage-stamp sized piece of the desert. I sip my coffee and marvel at the ordered beauty of this yard and patio.

At some point, Dad gets up and tends to the birds. Every day, he fills the feeder next to the bird bath with seed. Almost as soon as he walks away, the birds swoop in. They eat, occasionally they squabble. They take a quick dip in the bath. If the hummingbird feeders are nearing empty, Mom has already boiled the water for the preparation of sugared water that fills them. Soon, the tiny thrumming bodies are zooming around our heads. All kinds of birds come to this yard – finches, doves, robins, thrushes, jays. Humming birds, ruby throated and ferrous. One morning, Mom pointed to the back wall (which is just above waist height) and there was a covey of wild quail, notoriously shy of humans, nervously deciding whether to get any closer to the feeding frenzy.

Anyone who follows me on Facebook knows that, when I’m in New Mexico, my camera is typically attached to my hand. But these morning bird-watching sessions, though offering a great opportunity to practice, have remained unphotographed. My camera, and often also my cell phone, remain inside. I have wanted to keep this time as peaceful as possible, to be fully in it as opposed to having the experience mediated by a camera lens.

The past few mornings, especially, I’ve welcomed this coffee and bird time. It has come at the end of nightmare-filled nights. The dreams have been filled with bugs, betrayals and residual stressors from a job I no longer have. It has occurred to me that my waking self has been avoiding thinking about the enormity of the tasks waiting for me at the end of this New Mexico interlude, though my sleeping self is clearly in touch with that reality. Taken as a whole, the process of starting over feels overwhelming, regardless of the adventure and excitement inherent in such a move. It will be a lot of work to find a job, to move into a place and settle in there. It will take time to establish new relationships and renew old ones. It has been so long, do I even remember how to do any of these things?

When things feel overwhelming or tasks feel insurmountable, there is a tendency to experience a certain paralysis. Not that the will stops being willing, just that the brain stops being able to process it all. Just that the heart quakes a little with fear that you might not have within you whatever it will take. This fear can manifest itself in a variety of ways, from tears “for no reason” to heart palpitations to nightmares like mine. The first step in mitigating the effects of feeling overwhelmed has always been, for me, recognizing it for what it is. The second is learning to break it down into smaller pieces or component parts and creating a plan to tackle those pieces one at a time. This is one situation in which seeing the trees may be more important than seeing the forest – forests are vast, while trees are familiar and huggable (i.e. we can get our arms around them). An important note about creating a plan – for me, having a plan is key. However, sticking to that plan is not – which is a good thing when the way forward is riddled with unknowns. I’m usually pretty flexible and adaptable; I can adjust in mid-stream.

Which brings me back to the birds in my parents’ yard. Some come every day, expecting to be fed. Others happen upon the feast and gladly partake. All of them have to take what comes – whether that is delicious feed or an attack from larger, predatory birds who swoop in and cause the avian crowd to scatter. Each morning on the patio, I watch these creatures respond to what they find, and I am fascinated. Sometimes, the variety of birds that happily co-feed is surprising. Sometimes, the larger birds bully the smaller ones – a few of whom give up right away and fly off looking for a more peaceful breakfast venue. But others are more tenacious. They dart away then back quickly, avoiding the bully skillfully, if cautiously. Some birds approach the food tentatively, perching on the edge of the birdbath to take a look. Maybe I am anthropomorphizing, but it sure looks like joy when they discover the bird bath has water in it, and shower their wings with cool droplets tossed from their beaks.

The Irish writer, Robert Lynd, said “In order to see birds it is necessary to become part of the silence.” Morning coffee on my parents’ patio isn’t silent, but it does offer a pause before the start of the day’s activities for us humans, to enter briefly into that world the birds inhabit. It is impossible not to relax and let the lingering effects of nightmares dissipate in that world. Birds definitely live in the “now”, and when you watch them, you do too. That is the gift “Dad’s birds” offer each morning.

The birds offer a lesson, as well as a gift. Their lesson is beautifully captured in this quote from J.M. Barrie, creator of the magical Peter Pan: “The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings.” The future holds what it holds, regardless of your plans, they tell me. This moment holds seed and water and sunshine – make the most of it. Tomorrow, or the next day, there may be a brown-headed cowbird bogarting the seed. You’ll manage the cowbird when it happens: have a little faith, and take things as they come.

Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home


As we were leaving church after the service, slowly processing out in single-file, my mother stopped the man in front of me.

“Mike! Mike! Is this your hat?”, she asked, handing him a straw cowboy hat.

“Yes, ma’am it is. Almost left without it!”

“Did you see my daughter taking a picture of it?,” Mom asked.

“Is that what you were doing?,” Mike asked me. “I wondered.”

“Well, you just don’t see that in Iowa,” I said, referring to the cowboy hats left resting on the adobe sills of many of the church’s stained-glass windows.

Mike frowned. “Don’t they allow hats in the churches up there?”, he asked.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

A brief conversation was all that was needed to explain that most midwestern churches don’t have thick adobe walls and, thereby, deep window ledges on which to rest hats. And that most men don’t have expensive Sunday hats – their feed caps are left at home or in the car during church services. However, as I departed Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church, the cowboy hats sparked a train of thought. I was thinking about the phrase “Any place I hang my hat is home”.

Home. Always an evocative word, but especially so now, when I find myself both unemployed and homeless (albeit both busy and sheltered). Where is home for me now?

At mass on Sunday, I felt at home. Although I am by no stretch of the imagination a practicing Catholic, my spiritual life began in the Church. Despite years of choosing not to participate, I find that Catholicism’s rites are comforting to me in times of upheaval and change. As comforting as it may be, though, I don’t really think the Church encompasses the definition of home for me.

When, as now, I am staying with my parents, I think of myself as at home – though I’ve never actually lived in either this house or in Rio Rancho. The last actual structure I shared with my parents was on Andrew Court in Dubuque, Iowa 30 years ago. Whenever I find myself in Dubuque, I think of it as my hometown. I also feel deeply connected to the Mississippi River, and regardless of which state I am in when I see her rolling waters, I have a sensation of home.

Interestingly, I lived in Cedar Rapids for 17 years and never thought of that city as home. Instead, I thought of the people who populated my life, though they bore no blood relationship to me, as family. Since “family” is what typically populates “home”, I suppose in some sense Cedar Rapids could be considered home. Mount Mercy University probably deserves that appellation, though I’ve definitely left that home in my past.

After racking my brain to answer the question, “Where is home for me now?”, all I was able to come up with were bits and pieces. The truth is, while home may be a physical place, when we say home, we so often mean something more than mere geography. In a 2011 article in The Atlantic, Julie Beck writes, “If home is where the heart is, then by its most literal definition, my home is wherever I am.” When I read it, that statement struck me as the same level of cliché as “Wherever you go, there you are.” Obvious. Literal. True. But missing the point. My beating heart is wherever I am physically located, but my feeling heart is often elsewhere. Despite my best efforts to live in the present moment, I find that I am divided – that my emotional heart has left pieces of itself – among many homes.

In the weeks leading up to my move, I felt courageous and strong. I have rarely felt as grounded and ready for the future as I did at my going away party, surrounded by my oldest, youngest, and many of my dearest friends. Realizing this, I did a quick inventory of the recent past and discovered that, as I have developed stronger and more meaningful relationships, I have also felt less fear in new situations: sightseeing on foot alone in Philadelphia; losing my way on a detour and self-navigating out of Chicago’s Loop; a host of smaller solo adventures. It seems that having a deeply rooted sense of belonging or connectedness, of an emotional home, is key to maintaining a sense of courage and adventure – is central to holding an idea of myself as strong enough to keep venturing into unknown territory.

And having that connectedness for several years now, I was unprepared for the fearfulness I felt this week in ordinary situations I would typically take in stride.  On Monday morning, for example, I was nearly paralyzed with fearful indecision about where to ride my bike. Every choice seemed dreadfully scary.  In the Harry Potter novels, the character, Voldemort, split his soul and placed pieces of it in a variety of objects called horcruxes. These horcruxes preserved his immortality but left him vulnerable. That is how I felt, suddenly. Like I had left a piece of myself with each of the people who gave strength to my sense of self, and who were now separated from me by great distances. I felt very vulnerable. I found myself wanting to cling to my parents, the warmth of their physical presence comforting me.

Thankfully, I’ve learned that when fear and anxiety begin to ratchet up, it’s best to take a time out and practice some good mental hygiene. So I spent some time in reflection, thinking about the difficult nature of transitions. After some quiet thought, prayer, and deep breathing a couple of simple truths occurred to me. First, I’m already mid-leap. The time for fear, if there was a time, was before I quit my job, packed all my belongings and stuffed them in storage. If my life were a game of poker, I’d already be all-in.

Second, the horcrux analogy is flawed. I haven’t left pieces of myself behind with the people I love. We’ve spent years building those relationships, binding our hearts to one another’s with cords that are flexible (and stretchy), but incredibly strong. And while I am vulnerable because of these relationships, it is the ordinary vulnerability that we all risk when we open our hearts to another person, not a fatal flaw like Achilles’ heel. This kind of vulnerability is, paradoxically, necessary to the development of strong relationships – and to the development, at least for me, of a strong sense of self-efficacy.

After I realized these things, I could once again think about the concept of home without panic. So what if I don’t have a physical location to designate as “Home” at this very moment? Maybe it is cliché to think that if home is where my heart is, wherever I am is home. What’s so wrong with being cliché sometimes? I’ve brought the strength that I receive from the love and support of friends and family with me, as surely as I arrived in New Mexico with a framed photo of the extraordinary women who make up my book club. Their smiles remind me that, while I may be required to face my fears alone sometimes, I will be loved whether I meet with success or failure. And isn’t that part of home, too? They’ll take you in, at home, no matter whether you succeed brilliantly or fail miserably.

After all of these musings about the nature of home, and its meaning for me during this moment of transition in my life, I had to smile when I received a text from Minneapolis, a city I’ve never lived in. It contained a photo of kites and the line, “We are so doing this when you get home.”  Still smiling, I grabbed my bike helmet (the closest thing I have to a hat) and headed out the door to face my “scary” biking options.

I guess, after all, it’s true what they say: “Any place I hang my hat is home.”

Will There Be Starlight?


“Shake to hear hopes, dreams and wishes. Or just to remember close friends and family. Inside are the stars of your little angels.”
                                          Love, The Dennis Girls

When things go unexpectedly or spectacularly awry in life, people often say, “Be careful what you wish for…”, as if the wisher could possibly have foreseen what would come to pass. I find myself thinking the line as I sit in my living room on a camp chair, next to a camp cot, and surrounded by a bunch of stuff I will be packing in my car for the long road trip ahead.

The long road trip that begins today.

Be careful what you wish for…

… I wished to move, and here I am – Moving. If I didn’t know before, this round of farewell gatherings and coffee dates has taught me what I am leaving: a home and a life among incredibly loving friends. (Katie Dennis, one of my little angels, made the origami box and tiny stars, above, as a going away gift – making it oh so hard to actually go away.)

…I wished for change, and a powerful wind of change has blown through my life and swept everything into new configurations. My belongings are divided and being stored. My house is nearly empty. I don’t even recognize my own heart, as it appears to be responding to change in ways I never expected. For example, the going away party Sunday evening that I expected to be bittersweet felt only sweet. Walking away from my job was accomplished without a single faltering step. (Unless you count the fact I accidentally deleted my annual report and had to recreate it one hour before I left for good.)

…I wished for the courage to take a leap of faith. And here I am, finally in the air with no real certainty where my feet will land.

Be careful what you wish for, because wishful thinking is powerful stuff! I got these things I wished for, and now I’m wondering what comes next. Will the second half of my wishes also come true with such sweet ease? What will my life and livelihood look like a month or a year from now? Sunshine or storms or (most likely) a combination?

On my last day at work, I drew a final angel card and the word written bold across it read: Adventure! I don’t even have to wish for it, the adventure has already begun!

Will There Be Starlight by Michael Burch
Will there be starlight
while she gathers
and lilac
and sweet-scented heathers?
And will she find flowers,
or will she find thorns
guarding the petals
of roses unborn?Will there be starlight
while she gathers
and mussels
and albatross feathers?And will she find treasure
or will she find pain
at the end of this rainbow
of moonlight on rain?

Thursday, June 6, 2013


Image 1

New phone = clear shots on weigh-in day! Also, the pedicure isn’t bad for my first attempt to do my own! Now, if I can just manage my calories in/calories out balance such that a calorie deficit results in weight loss! Not worried, though – focusing on healthy balance and the rest will take care of itself.