I Am Hungry

As I sit here, staring at a blank computer screen, my stomach has most of my attention. Why? Because I’m hungry.

There is food in my house, but I am deliberately not eating it right now. I’ll explain why in a few minutes. First, a trip down memory lane….


Mornings at my house when I was a kid were chaotic. They started quietly enough: my dad would get up first and put the coffee on.  Dad would wake my mom with a steaming hot mug of joe. She would sit up in bed and have her first cigarette of the day with her first coffee.  This was Mom’s sacred time, and we were not to bother her before the second coffee/cigarette combo. From my bed in the room I shared with my three sisters, I would hear Dad in the bathroom, brushing his teeth, doing deep knee bends at the sink (I heard these because his knees crackled the whole way through each squat), shaving. Around this point in the day’s progression, all six of us kids would finally be roused and sent scurrying to get ready for school or to eat breakfast. Weekday breakfasts, before school, were invariably cereal and milk. We fought over who got to have which box in front of them as we spooned the sugary goodness (Honeycombs, Sugar Smacks, Rice Krispies, etc.) into mouths which appeared to our parents to be perpetually open.

Once the older kids were done with breakfast and our school uniform attire had been at least cursorily inspected by Mom, we took off running to St. Raphael’s Cathedral Grade School, about a mile away. At school, the BVM sisters and a few lay teachers provided excellent, if strict, instruction. Our lunch program was uninspiring, made up of surplus commodities (such as the driest peanut butter ever produced) and casseroles that were easily prepared in large quantities. We were not allowed to leave the cafeteria for recess until our plates were clean – not a hardship for me because, truthfully, it never occurred to me NOT to eat every bite I was served.

After school, my sister Chris, my brother Jeff and I would make our trek home. The good sisters at the Mary of the Angels Home liked little boys, so if Jeff went to the basement kitchen window they would sometimes hand him a treat – a homemade cookie fresh from the oven perhaps. Sometimes he even shared with his sisters! Then we’d stop at the Post Office, take the elevator to third floor, and drink from the hallway water fountain (the coldest water in town). A few blocks further along, we might stop at the corner bar where they had hard-pack ice-cream – if we had scrounged up a dime to purchase a cone, or if it was report card day (they gave us a free cone if we had A’s). Two doors down from the bar was a bakery. We stopped most days and asked after any “day olds” they wanted to get rid of. Sometimes they charged a reduced rate (a nickle for a snack pie) and sometimes they just gave them to us. Once, they gave me a whole pie because of my stellar report card.

At home, snacks were regulated, and were generally homemade. We always had to ask before helping ourselves to any food item. Some afternoons we were told to wait until dinner (which, if our begging up and down the streets on the way home had yielded few results, seemed almost unbearable). Dinners were always delicious, served relatively close to 5:30 p.m. Many times, they consisted of one pound of ground beef, a package of some sort of pasta, and a can of tomato sauce (remember, this entree served 8). There was always bread and butter and a canned veggie of some sort to round out the meal. 

In the evenings, we didn’t always snack, though Mom or Dad would often pop up a roaster pan full of buttered popcorn. On special occasions, we got to split a bottle of Pepsi – one bottle, six kids. To make it appear that we had more pop in our glasses Dad simply added some water. We all considered it a special treat.


I’m not quite sure how my parents did it – feeding and clothing eight people on my dad’s salary, plus all the other expenses associated with management of our family’s life. We kids were aware that money was a concern, but it didn’t occur to us to think of ourselves as poor. And while there sometimes wasn’t enough food to feel completely satisfied, there was always more than enough to prevent us from experiencing real hunger. One time, a few years back, my siblings and I were reminiscing about our circuitous route home from school, and my brother Jeff suddenly exclaimed, “Oh my gosh – we were ragamuffins!” It was the first time it occurred to us that, perhaps, the kind people working at those businesses where we routinely stopped for handouts actually saw us as poor, hungry children in need of a handout. It was a humbling realization.

Which brings me back to this morning, and why I am hungry now. Last night, just before I was about to amble out to the kitchen and rustle up a snack after a late bike ride, I stumbled upon this report:  Hunger In Our Schools. It’s a short report of a survey conducted with teachers and school principals, which discusses both what these professionals are seeing in their schools (73% of teachers say they teach students who regularly come to school hungry because there isn’t enough food at home; 87% of principals say they see hungry kids in their schools weekly) and what they are doing about it themselves – teachers and principals spending their salaries buying food for their students – on average $37 a month for teachers and $59 a month for principals  who regularly see hungry kids in their schools.

The report talks about how difficult it is for students to be in school and hungry – the effect on attention, mood, alertness. I wondered, if I didn’t eat a late-night snack, and I didn’t eat in the morning until after I had written this blog post, how would I feel? So, that was my experiment this morning. Kind of silly, since I am not experiencing chronic hunger nor am I spending my morning in a structured environment. But the truth is, I am a little bit cranky. Even more, my brain is foggy and I’ve been easily distracted – which may be the hunger and may simply be me on a hot Thursday morning. But it is difficult to ignore the feeling of being hungry, even in this silly, short experiment. My stomach has my attention, meaning that I’ve already spent several hours on this post and I’m not done yet. I want to hurry it up, so I can eat.

The Hunger in Our Schools report, published by No Kid Hungry/Share Our Strengths, advocates for “Breakfast After the Bell” programs in schools, which have proven to increase school breakfast program participation and which remove the stigma associated with such programs. To me, these seem to be a great stop-gap measure, but they don’t really address the systemic reasons these children are hungry to begin with.

The World Hunger Organization provides a lot of great information. Their website says: “There are two key ways in which you and other people in the United States can help reduce hunger and poverty: understanding— this implies learning— and action. Action can take three key forms: influencing public policy, contributing financially, and working directly with poor people.” (World Hunger Notes)

In the past couple of weeks, I have loved watching the parade of “first day of school” pictures on my Facebook feed. I have enjoyed reading my teacher friends’ posts about getting their classrooms up and running, getting to know their new students. These posts point out that in the United States, such experiences are shared across socio-economic boundaries – by parents, teachers, and children in urban and rural, wealthy and poverty-stricken, public and private schools across the country. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we all did what is in our power to do to ensure that no kid sitting in a classroom tomorrow morning, or next week, is unable to focus due to hunger?

I am hungry for food right this minute. But, happily, this kind of hunger in my life is transitory and will soon be abated. I have a spiritual or moral hunger that is so much greater and more important. It needs to be fed a steady diet of compassion, understanding/learning, and action.

Four of six "ragamuffins". Note, Chris and I are still in uniform skirts, despite strict instructions to change as soon as we arrived home!
Four of six “ragamuffins”. Note, Chris and I are still in uniform skirts, despite strict instructions to change as soon as we arrived home!

Changing seasons, changing perspectives.

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“There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.” 
                      –Leonard Cohen

Summer in Minneapolis has been a delightful discovery. I have rarely experienced such a seemingly endless stream of near-perfect days. People here make the most of the summer – everyone says so – and I witnessed a constant stream of festivals and fairs which suggest the truth of that assertion. It seems like everyone maximizes their time outdoors, at the lakes or cafe tables at restaurants and coffeeshops.

But I have also noticed an odd quirk in my fellow Minneapolitans: they are very quick to declare summer’s end.

“It’s the Uptown Art Fair! That means summer is ending.” (Stated assertively on August 4, as we sweated profusely in the hot sun.)

“Summer’s over, the State Fair begins this week.” (On a bike ride, again while sweating profusely.)

“Its officially fall.” (On a friend’s facebook page, photo of a few red leaves surrounded by vibrant green foliage attached as proof.)

While everyone around me has been declaring the end of summer, I’ve been clinging to it, hoping to make it last as long as possible. This may be a function of 17 years in residence life on a small campus – each of those years declaring summer to be “officially” over as of August 1. Now that my summer isn’t unnaturally truncated by professional responsibilities, I want to stretch out and luxuriate in it until the last possible moment.

That’s what was going through my mind as I set out on a walk in my neighborhood Monday afternoon, another gorgeous summer day in progress. And that’s when I noticed it. A familiar scent, a noticeable rustle underfoot: if it smells like fall and you’re crunching on dead leaves as you walk, it just may be that autumn is arriving.

As I walked and mused on the almost gleeful willingness of my Minnesota peeps to declare fall’s arrival, along with my stubborn refusal to accept what my own senses were picking up, I had one of those moments of mental clarity that generally happen unexpectedly and forcefully, like a microburst in your brain followed by a brief, shining rainbow. I’ll attempt to share the gist of it, however, I’m afraid it’s doomed to be a pale representation:

Thoughts of my sister and my friend, Jason, both fighting/living with frightening health conditions popped into my head. These were followed rapidly by scenes from the wedding I attended on Saturday, where two friends who had been partners for thirty years were finally able to legally marry with their families and close friends in a circle of joyfully tearful support around them. I thought of friends sending their children off (or back) to college, of friends who are dealing with loss and of friends who are preparing to welcome new lives into their families. I was overwhelmed by emotion as this rapid-fire slideshow of people and their hopes, dreams, challenges, griefs and joys flickered through my mind. And instead of seeing, as I often have, the randomness of fate in these harsh and beautiful life events I instead saw the hand of Grace. We don’t get what we deserve in life, we get what we’re given as pure Gift. We don’t always appreciate it – because sometimes it hurts and sometimes it feels unbearably hard. There are people whose whole lives are misery, and that is Grace as much as my happiness in the beauty of a long summer. 

After this storm of firing synapses passed through my conscious brain, I continued my walk in a state of heightened sense-awareness. And when I returned to my apartment, I typed the following question into Google: “What is grace?” I don’t think I’ve ever felt so ready to understand this concept, nor so sure that I had been getting it slightly wrong in the past, when I thought of grace as simply the arrival of nice things I didn’t necessarily deserve in my life. My search turned up this definition, which amazes me:

“Grace is a divine vulgarity that stands caution on its head. It refuses to play it safe and lay it up. Grace is recklessly generous, uncomfortably promiscuous. It doesn’t use sticks, carrots, or time cards. It doesn’t keep score…It refuses to be controlled by our innate sense of fairness, reciprocity, and evenhandedness. It defies logic. It has nothing to do with earning, merit, or deservedness. It is opposed to what is owed. It doesn’t expect a return on investments. It is a liberating contradiction between what we deserve and what we get. Grace is unconditional acceptance given to an undeserving person by an unobligated giver.”  — TULLIAN TCHIVIDJIAN

The fact that Tchividjian is Billy Graham’s grandson was not lost on me. Nor was the fact that I found this explanation on a site called “The Gospel Coalition”. I could worry about what quoting this particular person or site is saying about my theological, ontological, or philosophical leanings, but I won’t because this is what occurred to me whole-cloth on my walk, even though I could not have strung these words together myself.

I now understand something my Minneapolitan friends had already grasped: I can love summer without mourning its passage into autumn. Or, more to the point, I can rejoice in summer while also welcoming the arrival of fall. It is all gift and grace – as long as I remember to see it that way.  Life isn’t about getting what we deserve, it is about finding the gift in what we’ve been given. And sometimes it is important to realize that you (and by “you” I actually mean “I”) have been disproportionately, outrageously, undeservedly gifted with abundance – and to be humbled with gratitude for that bounty.


Imaginary vs Real (or Polyanna vs Jenion)

When you write about your own life and its emotional and spiritual peaks and valleys, you want to find ways to connect that experience to other people’s inner lives so that they will be comforted (“I’m not the only person who ever felt that way”) or maybe even inspired (“It IS possible to achieve/get past/change my perspective on that!). Barring comfort and inspiration, perhaps readers will at least be able to think, “Oh, thank God that wasn’t me!”.  These are things I hope for, anyway, when I post my weekly blog reflection. The problem is that this desire can lead to writing not about my actual life, but about my imagined one – you know, that fictional life where everything makes sense and has some ultimate form of meaning. Before I know it, every post purports to be about some lesson or insight that encapsulates the world, ties up my experiences in little yellow sunshiny bows, and makes me sound like a Pollyanna.

Which I am not.

In my real, as opposed to imaginal, life, I am “hanging in there”. Not being as proactive as I probably should be, but not doing nothing, either. It’s the dry land equivalent of treading water – I’m keeping myself afloat, but not really going anywhere. Because I am especially self-focused right now, I have a tendency to be in close-up view, the scene pulled in tight on me: surrounded by space, arms and legs working hard but staying in one place. If the scene zooms out, there is a huge body of life around me, heavily populated. Some people are moving in swift racing form, others playing around with friends and loved ones, still others battling a rip-tide that threatens to pull them under. Eventually, in this wide-view, you’ll spot me, off by myself, seemingly holding still.

In my real life, I’m lonely a lot of the time. There’s a rabbit-hole that is easy to wander down when you feel lonely. It takes you to a place where you allow yourself to think that other people are responsible for your happiness. And your inner voice becomes petulant and whiny, like the nine year old you once were, complaining that someone “stole” your friend. I hate hearing my own voice sound that way, hate this particular rabbit-hole. I do my best to avoid it, but it isn’t always easy to recognize until I’m in and suddenly tune in to the whining.

In my real life, my old friend, Generalized Fear, arrives at my doorstep most days. He barges in and sits for a spell, even when I tell him in the strictest terms to go away. People sometimes ask which I’m more afraid of – success or failure. I laugh at that question, because I fear them equally, as I fear most things. That’s what GF has taught me over a lifetime of hanging out together (even though I haven’t wanted him in my life).

But here’s another truth about my real life – and I’m not imagining it at all – every day I feel more convinced that I am in the right place.

When I picked Minneapolis, I had good, solid reasons for doing so. My awesome life coach, Charlynn Avery, gave me the assignment of researching which cities met certain criteria based on the lifestyle I hoped to establish. Minneapolis came out at or near the top of every configuration I tried. I also had a gut feeling, based on numerous visits over the past few years, that it would be a good fit for me.

When I opted to take this quirky apartment in the same building as Mike’s, I said I was doing so for expedience – it was a good deal, in a neighborhood that may not be perfect but at least I was familiar with. Mike would be easy to find if I had questions or needed anything. But my intuition also whispered that this was a good place for me to begin.

I’m not always a good one for trusting my gut feelings or intuition. And most of my family and friends don’t trust them either – so there were many concerns expressed and questions asked about my choice. I mostly responded with the facts, rather than get too caught up in a discussion of feelings. I guess I wanted people to think I had thought this through very carefully, weighed all the evidence and possibilities, and chosen the one that made the most objective sense. And I did…but the actual decision was based on my heart – my intuition and guts led my heart to be set on this place.

It is too soon to know how this will all turn out. How hard or how easy will it be to establish myself here. I don’t have any sense, yet, of how or where I will make a living, for example. I haven’t actually made new friends, though I’ve met some cool people and had some great experiences.

I remember being here a couple of years ago in mid-winter, a snow storm raging around me. I bundled up against the below-zero temps and headed to the Starbucks two blocks up. As I drank my very hot Americano surrounded by the Somali cabdrivers who hang out there between fares, I had a vision of myself living here. Walking to markets, to coffeeshops, to little organic restaurants. Feeling at home with the beat and pulse of life in this city. Not even the winter reality deterred the appeal of that vision. But it was just my imagination.

In my real life, late afternoon yesterday found me walking to The Wedge, a grocery coop not far from here. On the way, I discovered a tiny farmers market in the church parking lot across the street from Starbucks. I took a detour to check out a small florist around the corner on Nicolette. As I walked, I knew which cross streets were one way, which had stop signs or not. I watched for familiar sights along the way (particularly some lovely gardens), nodded at other people passing on the sidewalk. I had the sudden realization that I am growing to love my neighborhood – and that my definition of neighborhood is expanding as my comfort level with the area is expanding. I could envision the same walk through the changing seasons. Later, as I ate the nutritious meal I prepared from my purchases at The Wedge, I looked around my strange little apartment and felt at home.

Maybe there IS a lesson here, an insight about trusting our intuition. Real life isn’t always easy, it is sometimes messy and frustrating and lonely. We don’t always like the person we see in the mirror (or hear in our heads). But there are bigger pictures and deeper truths that exist at the same time, within the same space, as all the flawed realities.

And if that ties things up too neatly, or makes me sound like a Pollyanna…then so be it.

Thursday, August 15, 2013


It’s unusual to get the exact same weight two Thursdays in a row, but I’ll take it. I have been attempting to be conscientious about activity and nutritious food intake. I’d much rather hold steady than regain weight I’ll have to work to take off yet again!

Silence in the City

“I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own.”  — Chaim Potok, The Chosen

Friends who have visited my new place have all commented something to the effect of, “Wow, you’re right in the city here!” It’s true, I live at a busy city intersection, minutes from the heart of downtown, surrounded by high density housing and next door to what must be the busiest gas station in town. At certain times of the day, traffic makes it a real adventure to pull into or out of the parking lot of my building. There is a fire station a few blocks away that roars into action down our street multiple times a day. Sirens, flashing lights, honking horns, shouting people and barking dogs…there is always some kind of street noise entering my ground-floor windows.

It is an interesting contrast, therefore, that within my apartment, silence reigns supreme.

Silence, it appears, is relative. As I sit here, I hear the quiet click of the ceiling fan, water running down the pipes as my upstairs neighbor showers, the 18-year-old in Apartment 3 high-tailing it down the stairs. I have become accustomed to the laboring motor on my refrigerator, the white noise of the box fan in the window, the occasional clack of window blinds stirring in a breeze. In the mornings, my coffeemaker gurgles and pops like a symphony until the coffee is brewed, then lets out a long, slow, humid sigh as it finishes. Until I moved here, I didn’t realize that my computer, my Kindle, and my phone all ding at me constantly, day and night.

“Silence is so freaking loud” — Sarah Dessen, Just Listen 

When I say silence reigns supreme, what I mean is that my apartment is mostly devoid of intentional noise. I left my television behind when I moved here. My stereo is an anachronism that remains packed (does anyone listen to CDs anymore?). I am not computer savvy enough to have Netflix or Hulu, though I do stream music occasionally or, if I remember, “This American Life” on Public Radio. I discovered that the local news streams its 10:00 broadcast and I catch that when I can. All of which is to say that there are huge blocks and swaths of time when I am home and it is quiet.

I vividly recall a friendly argument I had with my mother when I was in college. (I recall the content, but it probably stuck in my mind because our arguments were rarely what you’d call ‘friendly’.) We were housecleaning, and I had turned the stereo up as I dusted in order to hear it above the vacuum cleaner Mom was using in the next room. After yelling to get my attention and to “turn that racket off”, Mom said, “Right now, you think you need noise all the time, I was like that at your age. But when you get older, you’ll learn to appreciate silence. Besides, that music just sounds like noise to me.” My response was typical of a snot-nosed late-adolescent know-it-all. It went something like, “I’ll never let myself be that old.”

In this, as in so many things, my mother was right. Its been true often enough that saying those words no longer even sticks in my craw. It turns out, Shirley has known a thing or two all along. For example, that silence allows you to hear your own thoughts. At 18 or 19, my thoughts may not have been worth much active listening, but these days they’re full of interesting things, some of which are worth hearing. That silence allows for attention to the task at hand, rather than distraction from it. That silence is a void into which, given enough time to gestate, creative ideas are born.

Right now, being new to the city and having few established relationships here, silence is my default mode. I usually take it with me when I leave the house, as well. No companions and no ear buds mean I notice more. The aromas of the city: car exhaust, international cuisines, flowers, hot asphalt. The hidden art (mosaics on the alley-facing sides of two buildings, for example). The faces of my diverse neighbors, their rude stares or shy smiles, often a quick nod as if to say, “Yep, we’re both here, in this city, and that’s all good.” The feel of a lake breeze stirring the hair on my arms. Both the sunshine and the rain are an explosion of sensations, sounds, scents, sensations on my exposed skin.

I won’t say that silence and I are always easy comrades. One night I cried like a baby when I couldn’t get the news to load and play on my computer. I just really needed to hear someone else’s voice in real-time. Just needed to know what was going on someplace besides in my own head.  But for the most part, silence and I have become pretty good roommates. We hang out, we read, we think, we communicate through both thought and words (written words-I haven’t yet begun speaking aloud to myself). And we are busy discovering new frontiers together: a new city, a new living space, a new head space. Which leads me to something I never understood when Shirley (Mom) talked about silence: it can be an adventure.

In this city, where silence is mostly found on the internal plane, I have good and bad days. Mostly, though, I am having the adventure of a lifetime – an opportunity to discover new places both out and about the town, and within myself. I am learning that my capacities for inner happiness and for calm are both much greater than I would have believed six or eight weeks ago. That my tolerance for change and “newness” is higher as well. I am learning that constant chattering – whether in the form of radio, television, my own voice – serves to drown out the vital gifts of silence: awareness, presence, and deep listening.

“The world’s continual breathing is what we hear and call silence.” –Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G.H.

Riding Lessons: What I Learned Over 406 Miles and 17,000+ Feet of Climb

The morning air was fresh, though not really cool, as we made our confused and circuitous ride along the Missouri riverfront in Council Bluffs, Iowa. We found ourselves amid other discombobulated riders searching, as we were, for the elusive “Dip Site”. Eventually, we found the patch of sand leading down to the water where bicyclists were dipping their bike tires in the river. If I had known we would spend our first four miles of RAGBRAI 2013 riding in the wrong direction (west) I might have been tempted to skip the traditional dip. On the other hand, I’ve always been a traditionalist when it comes to rituals like this one. So, dipping my tires at both ends of the ride was a must.

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And it was all uphill from there.

Well, at least the first few days were. At the end of day one (Council Bluffs to Harlan –  54.8 miles and 2476 feet of climb), I was tired and sunburned. My brain felt like it had been cooking inside my helmet. The minuscule amount of thought power left for my use was mostly taken up wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into. I was dreading day two (Harlan to Perry – 83 miles and 4239 feet of climb).

Miraculously, day two was incredible! Despite the sun beating down on me, I felt great and my muscles were all cooperative. I rode all but one hill of that climb – and the one hill I walked was too much for hundreds of RAGBRAIers. It was the only hill I walked all week, across the entire state (and I’m here to say that Pleasant Hill isn’t all that pleasant).  When I got off my bike that evening, I felt like I could do anything!

Day three was blessedly cool, overcast and relatively short (Perry to Des Moines, 49.9 miles and 1308 feet of climb). Day four (Des Moines to Knoxville, 49.9 miles and 2920 feet of climb), hump day, was painful. My butt hurt from sitting on the bike saddle, I had serious chafing where my right buttock met the top of my thigh, and my legs were spent. For the first time, dealing with muscle spasms in my glutes and hammies, I wondered if I had it in me to finish. Thankfully, my support team of friends, co-riders, and moms were encouraging and refused to listen to my fears. Layne (who, with her fiance Chris, hosted us for three nights) made us a dinner that tasted like a feast! I will never again underestimate the positive, soul strengthening, effect fellowship with friends over a really good meal can offer.

Day five (Knoxville to Oskaloosa, 52 miles and 2808 feet of climb) was less horrible than I anticipated. I had wisely purchased some chamois cream to help with/prevent further chafing. I rode the entire day out of grim determination and little else. But I finished, and actually enjoyed a pleasant couple of hours in the Oskaloosa town square, people watching and listening to the community orchestra.

Day six, Oskaloosa to Fairfield (52 miles and 1222 feet of climb) we had the flattest, fastest, easiest ride of the week. Woo-hoo, flying along at 18 mph felt pretty awesome!

Day seven, the final leg of the route, Fairfield to Fort Madison ( 63 miles and 2427 feet of climb) had its challenges. But by then, I knew I would finish. The pure adrenalin push to reach the Mississippi got me there well before the route was set to close at 3:00 p.m. This time, the dip site was easy to find – though still difficult to reach due to the press of other riders making the ritual dip at the end of the week. And every single one of those thousands of riders was celebrating a personal victory or accomplishment. Powerful to be among such a crowd!

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And that, my friends, is the recap of the week. However, there is so much more to share. There were moments that took my breath away, when I was overcome by the beauty surrounding me and the grace of being alive. Every morning’s ride held at least one completely perfect mile. On the first day, I raced a train coming out of Council Bluffs and left it in my dust! Crossing Lake Red Rocks on a mile long bridge. The morning Sarah rounded a bend coming out of Pella and almost hit a deer, only to have a spotted fawn trot out onto the road right in front of us. I rode with friends (Colette, Tricia, Tammy, Ryan and of course Sarah who rode the whole week with me); unexpectedly ran into friends (Mark, Andrea, Joe, Mary Beth); stayed with friends (Molly,Layne, Chris, Ari, Sara). And, of course, made new friends, most notably Ma Botkin, Sarah’s mom who travelled as our support and team mom through the hardest part of the week.

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Last summer, I shared the lessons I learned through some mishaps while preparing to ride three days of RAGBRAI 2012 , ( “Learning to Shift” which you can see, here).  Virtually everything about my life is different from what it was a year ago: no job, new city, a vacation that has lasted all summer. The RAGBRAI 2013 experience also taught me some valuable lessons – the kind that resonate with life experiences off the bike as well as on. It seems only appropriate to share them:

Know why you’re riding.

Everyone has their own reasons for attempting a ride like RAGBRAI. They range from having a week of raucous partying to raising money or awareness for an important cause. And that’s fine – I’m not about to judge. But what I do know is that I had to be clear with myself every day about my reasons for being there – or on the hard days, I would have just given up and flagged down the Sag Wagon. On Monday (Day 2), pedaling up yet another interminable hill, the silence nearly drove me batty. By the end of the week, those uphill climbs were some of my favorite moments: the shouts and laughter quieted, and the only sound other than birds was the occasional click and whir of shifting gears or another rider huffing air as we passed each other. It was in these moments that I had the most clarity of purpose – I was there to fulfill a promise I made to myself back in 1978. There were no external factors involved, only a need to prove to myself that I could do it. I never overheard anyone declaring their intention to quit while coasting down a hill – but there were plenty such conversations taking place halfway up seemingly endless inclines. Those hills were a crucible of clarity for many of us.

Is feels obvious to me that this maxim is true throughout our lives. Clarity of purpose is so important to staying the course. When I left New Mexico in June, preparing to move to Minneapolis, my dad said this: “There are gonna be days that are hard, when you’re lonely and frustrated and you wonder why the heck you did this. At those moments, try to remember how you felt back in February. That will help you weather the tough days – knowing you had good reasons for making these changes.” Already this has helped me weather those brief moments of panic and anxiety. I turned 52 the day after I finished RAGBRAI, and this is the first time I’ve truly appreciated the gift of clarity.

Every hill is unique.

Since the first time I rode a bike as an adult, hills have presented a challenge to me. RAGBRAI offered me a unique opportunity to learn how best to manage them. Over the course of the week, we rode every type of hill imaginable, and what I learned is that no two are the same. Yes, you have basic strategies for conquering hills, but the truth is, the hill you think you see as you approach may, in fact, present very differently when you’re actually riding it. Sometimes, I thought “this one will be easy” or “this one is gonna take everything I have” – and I was often wrong. You have to take each hill as it comes: adjust for the wind and momentum and freshness of your legs, find the sweet gear that works for both you and this particular hill, take it as fast or as slow as necessary to make it to the crest.

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The lesson in this is that each challenge we face in life is different from the previous challenges we’ve overcome. We can’t lull ourselves into a false sense that today’s challenge is a piece of cake because we’ve overcome such challenges before. No two will be the same. For example, I’ve moved before, and those moves have been harder or easier depending on a variety of factors. I’ve never moved at 52, without previously arranged employment, to a large metropolitan area. This move won’t be the same, though there may be some similar features. Just as you can’t anticipate exactly what each hill will require, you can’t anticipate what each life challenge will call for from you. And that’s ok – because you can’t ride up a hill you haven’t come to yet! You can’t meet life’s challenges in advance, you have to meet them as they present themselves. And each one will be unique, and call forth a unique response.

Everyone needs support…

There were a few lone rangers out there, bicyclists who towed their tents, camping gear, and clothing with them. But they were few and far between. Most riders had support teams – Sarah and I had Ma Botkin, who dropped us off each morning at the starting point, then met us at the (roughly) halfway point with food and cold beverages. At the overnight towns, Ma Botkin was there, waiting for us to roll in. She took really good care of us, anticipating our needs and generally mothering us. We also had Layne and Chris, offering us air conditioned sleep, private showers, sustenance and the love of a giant yellow lab named Ari. And we had Tammy, Tricia and Curtis who kept our support vehicle following us after Ma Botkin had to return home to Illinois. Most of all, I had Sarah – who was the mastermind of the trip plan and who, as the stronger rider, waited for me at each stop. Every time I rolled into a town, the first thing I did was seek out her jersey. And it was there, every single time, in a patch of shade, waiting patiently for me. Talk about steadfast and loyal – I can never articulate how much that means to me, or how happy and/or relieved I was each time we met up.

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The support I felt while on RAGBRAI is only one example of the amazing support I have had throughout the recent major changes in my life. Every single day since I tendered my resignation has brought a message or action of love and support from someone. And every day has been filled with goodness, light and love – even the slightly crappy ones. It overwhelms me with gratitude – and reminds me how important it is to be on other people’s teams myself. To return the gift of unconditional support whenever/wherever possible.

…But in the end, you pedal your own bike.

While support is awesome and a necessity for most of us, no one else can actually pedal the dang bike for you. Whether on flat ground, snailing up a hill or sailing down one – the bike is powered by your steam and no one else’.

One day on each RAGBRAI offers a Century Ride – an extra bit of road called the “Karras Loop” – which allows motivated riders to get 100 miles done in that day. Upon completion of their “century”, riders get a patch celebrating their accomplishment. Curiously, I heard riders talking about some others who cheated on the century ride – they found, and took, a shortcut which shaved 10 miles or so off the ride. And yet, they picked up century patches alongside riders who completed the entire loop. The people discussing it just shrugged their shoulders and shook their heads. They weren’t outraged, they were perplexed. And I agreed with them. Why would you proclaim an accomplishment you hadn’t earned? There are no prizes, most of the world knows nothing about century rides or RAGBRAI, it won’t get you a better paying job. Worse, you will always know it is just a patch that actually means nothing.

Some days, the Sag Wagon did a huge business. People had lots of reasons for not finishing a day or the week – bike trouble, injury, fatigue, heat exhaustion, or they just hit their limits. I would never call that cheating. Every mile of that ride, especially the truly painful ones, were a test of my willingness to accomplish something that really only mattered to me. I crossed the entire state of Iowa using only my own power to do so. I had a team without whom I never could have undertaken the challenge, but I was alone on my bike, mile after mile, pedaling.

In life, we don’t live well without others supporting and challenging us. But this life we’ve been given is ours to live day in and day out – no one else can live it for us. There’s no point in trying to cheat our way through it, but honest failure isn’t something to be ashamed of. Our truest successes, in the long run, are those that live within our hearts and matter most to us, not to the rest of the world.