Discovering A Passion

One summer, between my 5th and 6th grade years, my parents bought me a bike: a bright yellow 10-speed with racing handlebars and thin tires that flew over the pavement. I rode that bike to the pool, to the soda bottler’s little convenience store, and as a getaway bike when my friends and I decided to run off with Suzie-Q’s without paying for them. The faster I went, the better. I had little to no fear. Until the day a kid who was making a career out of annoying me ran out into the street just as I was picking up speed going downhill. He pushed me from the side, and I went down. Hard. Some older boys in the neighborhood saw it happen. I never found out what they did to that poor kid, but one of the older boys came by my house later to assure me the pest wouldn’t be bothering me again.

Even though I wasn’t seriously hurt, that incident took some of the joy out of my riding. I was suddenly, viscerally, aware of how easy it was to get hurt at fast speeds. The spill, coupled with the fact that it was a time when teenaged girls were encouraged to give up such active pursuits, caused my bike riding days to dwindle to a close. The yellow ten speed was around for years after I stopped riding it – I’m not sure when my parents finally got rid of it.

A couple of years ago, my friend Sue and I decided we were in need of a real vacation, and picked a resort in Michigan right on the lake hoping for long hours on the beach. But the gnats and biting flies were so bad we could only take short bursts of time on the lounge chairs. The resort had bicycles available for check out, and even though it had been 25 or more years since either of us rode, we decided to take a couple bikes for a spin. We were wobbly and easily winded, but both had so much fun we returned to our respective homes and bought bikes.

The rest, as they say, is history. Last summer I upgraded to a better bike, a Trek hybrid, and trained for something I’d always wanted to do: ride a portion of RAGBRAI. I spent every spare moment all summer riding. I travelled hardly at all, in favor of getting more time “in the saddle”. You can read my two-part post about my RAGBRAI experience, if interested, here and here. It was amazing.

But after RAGBRAI, I found myself making excuses not to ride so much. Fall came and went, with barely an additional 75 miles on my bike’s odometer. In December, we had such mild weather that I was able to ride twice the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Now, our early spring has provided a couple of weeks of sunshine and warm weather perfect for cycling. At first, I had to negotiate with myself to get out by promising  myself a reward. I wondered if I had not really enjoyed biking as much as I told myself – I mean, this reluctance to get the bike out must mean something. Perhaps I had just liked the idea of liking an activity that well, or I enjoyed talking as if I was an enthusiast. Or maybe I just liked the challenge of RAGBRAI, and once that was checked off my bucket list I stopped needing to ride.

Then I rode.

To say that I enjoyed that first 28 miles is a true understatement. Here’s a partial list of the things I’ve discovered since getting back on my bike this spring:

  • I love the fluidity of cycling, the grace you begin to display as you grow more attuned with being on the bike.
  • On a bike, I am fiercely competetive – but only with myself. The other cyclists can do what they can do. Some are stronger and faster than me, others aren’t. But with the aid of attention to my body and my on-board “computer”, I can gauge how I am doing from one ride to the next. I can up my effort to see different results, I can privately crow with delight when my MPHs are up by an average of two miles. I can see my technical competence improving (I now know a lot more about using my gears than I ever thought I would, for example). On a bike, I am an athlete.
  • Bicycling has helped restore my love of the outdoors. The other day a snake crossed the path right in front of me. Trees that were budding on that ride were in bloom on my next ride a week later. The nature trail I primarily ride takes me along the river, and through woods. Yesterday, I felt something alive inside my helmet and reached up to brush it off me. That’s when I discovered it was a bee…even being stung didn’t dim my enjoyment of riding an easy 18 mph with a strong wind at my back.

I never expected to find a physical activity which is at once both challenging and deeply spiritual. I know many people feel this about running, or about yoga. In my adult life, exercise and physicality has usually been work, occasionally accompanied by a feeling of accomplishment. Never joy, until now.

This morning at the gym, just as class was beginning, one of the women said, “Jen, you’ve convinced me: I’m buying a bike!” I was touched, because I haven’t spent a lot of time trying to convince anyone to do anything – but I have spoken about what cycling has brought into my life. When we discover passion in our own lives, it has a way of igniting excitement, and sometimes igniting a kindred passion in someone else. My hope, today, is that each of you has the opportunity to feel and share a similar passion in your life, especially you fellow late-bloomers out there. Because a life on fire with delight is a wonderful thing at any age.

Of Photographs, Memories and Hope

As our plane left the ground, I watched our ascent – marveling at the sheer number of blinking lights, like strange red sparks, buzzing around us in the dark sky. I worried for a brief moment that we would collide, but we were well-choreographed by unseen air-traffic controllers. I relaxed. Suddenly, a scene of spectacular beauty appeared, perfectly framed in my window: the lights of Dallas spread out below as far as the eye could see; above them, the blackness of the night sky was pierced only by the blue-white sliver of the crescent moon. I was transfixed.

I thought, fleetingly, of the camera safely packed in the bag wedged under the seat in front of me. But I immediately knew two things. First, I would never be able to get to it in time, and the moment would be lost. Second, even if I did manage it, no photograph could capture what I felt about the expansiveness of the universe as I looked out that little window.

And that moment, dear friends, exactly mirrors my experience as I sit at my computer now to write about the  past year and look forward to the coming one. I cannot begin to capture the wonder, joy and sheer fun of the events comprising 2011, or the quality of hope I am feeling for 2012.

2011 has been a banner year for me: I turned 50, which feels not at all like my younger self imagined it would (thank you, God!). This was the year I fell in love with cities – Philadelphia, Denver, Chicago, Minneapolis. For the first time in my life, I travelled alone and explored with curiosity and excitement but without fear. At home, I renewed my love affair with the eastern Iowa landscape, viewing it with awe from the saddle of my bike (my bottom comfortably cushioned by chamois) both on training rides and RAGBRAI. March and April saw a renaissance of my passion for ideas and translating them to my daily, lived choices – especially as they relate to my vocation. I brushed elbows with activists who are impacting local, national and international communities – and was reminded that to act from my core beliefs is the important part of having core beliefs. I experienced the sheer joy of putting my arms around friends I hadn’t seen in decades. Looking back, I cannot believe the incredible experiences packed into this year!

More importantly, I am astounded by the gifts showered upon me in 2011 – the love of family and friends, the opportunities to learn more about this world we share and about the world inside of me. I learned about the single-minded-ness required to push past physical limits, and (strangely enough) I now understand a fraction of what true athletes experience. I’m learning to keep my heart open in spite of hurts; letting go of shame over what I feel; learning to speak my truth without riding roughshod over others and the truths they hold deeply. I am learning that all kinds of energy can, and likely will, come at me in a given day BUT I can hold my center and respond from my authentic self. Of all the insights from this incredible year, that is the most freeing and empowering one.

Given the fullness of my life, and the giftedness of 2011, it seems almost criminal to hold out my bowl crying, “Please, sir, may I have some more?” And yet, I hold out that bowl with hope, not demand, in my heart. I pray for healing where illness and despair currently reside. I pray for us to be awake in our lives, rather than sleepwalking through them as our modern culture so encourages. I humbly ask for the wisdom to act rightly in my life, and to recognize the incipient gifts in each moment, each challenge, each joy. May 2012 be a year of growth, happiness, and true spirit for each of us.

Happy New Year, friends!

Acquired Tastes

The other night, I joined friends for Indian take-out. The selections included two kinds each of lamb and chicken curry, sag paneer, samosas and two flavors of naan. I had some of each curry over savory rice, plus a samosa and the garlic naan. A couple of the dishes were quite spicy, but the flavors were rich and layered. I loved all of it.

Later, as I drove home, I remembered the first time I tried Indian cuisine. I hated it. What were those pungent smells and earthy flavors? None of it tasted right, all of it was unfamiliar. These thoughts brought to mind other items I disliked at first blush, but grew to like (or in some cases love): country music, bald dudes, the smell of Quaker Oats. Below are a few other acquired tastes that may need a little explanation:

  • Bike shorts: All of my adult life I have joined friends in making fun of people who wear bike shorts. Especially if they are wearing matching jerseys (or, like the couple I saw on Saturday, BOTH wearing the same matching shorts/jerseys outfits). “Really?”, I’ve thought. “You need to wear a diaper in skin-tight spandex in order to ride a bike?”  With the purchase of my first pair of biking shorts this summer, I have had to take it all back. I may still be less than comfortable with the skin-tight spandex, but I am loving the diaper part. Comfortable doesn’t begin to describe it – those shorts have literally saved my butt.
  • Squats and lunges: A number of years ago, when I still weighed close to 350 pounds, my friend Ryan designed a workout routine for me. He included lots of these moves, and I told him I couldn’t do them. He said I could. We went round and round on it, but the truth is, I nearly fell over when I tried a lunge and I thought I looked like a weirdo when I attempted a squat. I gave them one chance, and refused to consider them again. Once I joined Sisters’ Gym, the fitness classes almost always included squats and lunges. I did them as gingerly as possible, and complained frequently about how they hurt my knees. However, this summer I have turned a corner – all the bike riding has strengthened my knees, increased my physical confidence, and allowed me to see that squats and lunges just add to my body’s strength. I don’t wait until my trainer’s back is turned to fudge on them anymore.
  • Top 40 Radio: To be fair, this is a re-acquired taste. I loved it as a teen. I despised it throughout my 40s. Last year, I was exposed to it while riding in a van with Mike and his teenaged sons. I had to listen, because the volume was cranked. I distinctly remember hearing “Magic” by B.O.B. and thinking, “Wow, I’ve never heard this before, but I can already sing along!” When it came time to update the workout songs on my iPod, I turned to the ever-popular popular music for songs which might be inane (Brittney or Ke$ha) but have a good beat (Flo Rida or Usher).
  • Power bars and sports drinks: Back in the days when I was always looking for the most delectable snackfoods, I thought these were terrible. The bars were sticky and tasted like sawdust, while the beverages were sweet with a strange aftertaste. Also, when you never break a sweat, they seem dumb. Now I know better. Early morning physical activity benefits from food intake, but I just can’t do breakfast sometimes. And long bike rides during severe heat advisories are just safer when electrolytes are replenished. I have come to appreciate (yes, even like) these items. 
  • Movement: There was a point in my life when I avoided things that required extra movement, or really any movement. My mother often commented on my strange talent for finding a way to complete household chores while seated. Sometimes, I was actually jealous of the people on motorized chairs in the grocery store – why did they get to ride while I walked? When friends needed help moving or completing work projects in their homes, I usually volunteered to bring food rather than engage in the labor. Now, some days I feel lazy. But most days, I need to fit in some kind of physical activity, even if the day is a long one, in order to feel truly well. It turns out, I like moving. A lot.

I didn’t include any people on my list. However, experience has taught me that first impressions should not be allowed to determine the course of relationships. I have a number of treasured friends whose personalities or styles were an acquired taste for me – and I am certain that the same is true for them with regard to me. I know all about the research on first impressions, their tenacity and the lightening speed with which they are made. But I also know that first impressions can strike deceptively far from the truth. The important thing, whether I’m talking people or curry, is to keep an open mind. Like most important life lessons I’ve learned, this one bears repeating. Luckily, the opportunities for having it reinforced are many!

A RAGBRAI Story – Part 2

(When we left the story at the end of Part I, the Mustangs were living it up at the beer tent in Homestead, Amanas: sweat-drenched but smiling, and just a little cocky about being “almost done” with the day’s ride)

And so the Mustangs mounted up and began what can arguably be called the most important part of the experience. Tricia and I decided to ride together, and this was the pivotal decision of the day for me. The ride from Homestead to Oxford, a 5.8 mile stretch, was a little hilly, but do-able. Tricia and I commented on the beautiful scenery. It must not have been too difficult a ride if we were still noticing something other than our burning quads and gasping lungs.

As we pulled into Oxford, the party was in full swing. It certainly appeared that many riders were already celebrating the completion of a successful ride. I was flagging, but surrounded by that happy, upbeat atmosphere, I felt reasonably confident I would finish. I not only wanted to finish the 75 miles, I also wanted to be able to say I rode every foot of it. I understood that there is no shame in walking up difficult hills, and that many riders do so. But I wanted to stay on my bike.

Within minutes of leaving Oxford for the last (17.7 mile) leg of the ride, I was questioning my determination. The ride from that point forward was one long, steep hill after another. After another. After another. As we approached the crest of another hill, I could hear the riders in front of me cursing, as they caught sight of yet another hill in front of them. Groaning and cursing. But I also heard a paraplegic rider pedaling with his arms, saying to another cyclist, “We’re gonna do it!”. An older gentleman, passing me by and saying, “That’s it, take your time!”. I heard Tricia, waiting for me at the top of the hill saying, “You’re doing great!”

Hill after bloody hill. I thought I was in hell. A rider passed me, carrying a passenger who was playing the guitar. An ADULT passenger, whose only contribution to the effort was music!  A guy in a cape rode by, as did a bride and groom whose helmets were embellished to look like a top hat and veil. Ok, maybe not hell exactly. More like rural Iowa on an acid trip.

Hill. After. Bloody. Hill. Partners and team members were practically pulling each other up the hills with their words of encouragement. One young girl apologized, “I’m sorry, I have no legs.” But her teammates wouldn’t hear of her stopping, and I saw her three hills later, still riding.  Solo riders were cared for, as well, though. One woman, stopped at the side of the road tinkering with her bike was asked multiple times, “Do you have what you need?”  Strangers looked on us with compassion, including a lovely family with hoses who sat at the crest of a particularly difficult hill. I begged them to spray me with the cool water. At several consecutive driveways, families were shouting, “You’re almost there! Only six miles to go!” I’ll never be able to thank any of them for helping me get through.

Riding up those hills, mostly I was just thinking, “Keep pedaling. Keep pedaling. Keep pedaling.” But it was impossible not to marvel at the people around me who were pushing through. Every shape, size, fitness level. Every age. Bike riding is adaptable to all kinds of ability levels, and people with more to overcome than weight and an inactive past were continuing on. Riders whose whole purpose was other-centered (raising money for HIV-AIDS, for a cure for Diabetes or Breast Cancer) were pushing themselves up and down those hills, too. It reminded me that the zeitgeist of RAGBRAI is part rolling folk festival and part pilgrimage. And in this reminder was the realization that I was participating in the kind of experience that, most of my life, I would only have watched from the sidelines. This wave of committed, possibly crazy, humanity helped to carry me forward when I began thinking I couldn’t keep going.

And then, unbelievably, we crested and in front of us was Melrose Avenue! I couldn’t believe it – Iowa City, about to turn the corner into Coralville, our destination. There was jubilance all around us. Waiting for the State Patrol to give us the right of way, another rider’s radio was blaring Vanilla Ice – and Tricia and I broke into spontaneous dancing astride our bikes. Someone in the crowd yelled, “You go girls!”. The State Patrol officer danced with us.

We turned into a lovely downhill run, the road lined with welcome signs from the colleges and universities with officially registered teams. And then, in the midst of celebration, the final test. One more long-ass hill. I almost cried. Other riders were giving up, dismounting in larger numbers than at any other point on the ride. If Tricia hadn’t been there, I might have been one of them. It took every last reserve to ride that hill. And it was slow going. But Tricia and I rode it together, and when I pulled ahead as we coasted down the other side, I waited for her to catch up. She called, “You don’t have to wait”, but I told her, “The hell I don’t! There’s no way I’m crossing the finish line without you.” How could I, when her encouragement and friendship had just pulled me through the last 17 miles?

The finish line was designed to look like the arched entrances to Kinnick Stadium, home of the Iowa Hawkeyes, with the road painted like a football field. Layne and Kristen, the most awesome and patient road crew ever, were waiting and watching. When they caught sight of us, they jumped up and yelled and cheered, Layne filming us coming in.

I’d like to say that I was overcome with joy, but the truth is, I was exhausted, overwhelmed, dehydrated, hungry and I hadn’t peed in nine hours. I was incapable of joy in that moment. We stopped, and waited for Layne to join us with directions for where we were meeting up with the team. When she arrived, she pointed up the hill in front of us and said, “Go up there to the second stop sign and turn right.” I looked in that direction, and to my shame, burst into tears of frustration. I said, “I cannot ride up another f-ing hill. In fact, I can’t get back on my bike.” Layne hugged me and said, “Its ok. We’ll walk together, and I’ll push your bike.”

I owe a debt of gratitude to a huge community who made my RAGBRAI experience a day I will never forget: The people of Iowa who opened their homes, hometowns, and hearts to the massive river of riders. The cyclists, themselves, who were compassionate comrades on the quest to achieve personal goals. My fellow Mustang riders (especially my girls: Sarah, Colette, Wendy, and Tricia) without whom I would surely have failed – whose love and support held me up throughout the long day. Layne (and her parents for the loan of their truck) and Kristen, the road crew who loved us enough to spend a day waiting, cheering, manoevering through traffic and congestion. They didn’t have the payoff of endorphin highs or self-congratulations at the end – just thankless jobs and a long, sweaty day. The Lange Family, who hosted a reception/party for all the Mustang riders in Coralville, welcoming stinky sweaty strangers into their lovely home.

Each person in a long list vital to the success of the whole. Vital to my success.

The community story is not a story I was expecting, because until I was there, it wouldn’t have seemed possible. There is a lot of hype and mythology surrounding RAGBRAI. Turns out, a lot of it is true. But the magic of it, in my opinion, comes down to love.

I know, some of you just groaned, reading that! Here she goes again, you’re thinking, reading too much into every little experience. I’ll accept that criticism. But I will also say that I am no Pollyanna – ask Tricia, who saw me at my absolute snarliest at the end, after successfully completing the day. Ask Layne, who saw me tensely coiled at 5:20 a.m. when I was worried about the derailers on our bikes being  smashed as we loaded the truck. No Pollyanna visible in those moments, I assure you.

However, throughout the ride, there were moments when I was able to be outside my own fear and self-doubt enough to really see the events and people around me. Those moments were emotional – and more true than the fears. At one point in the day, a rider towing a boom box passed Tricia and I, blasting Martina McBride’s “Love’s The Only House”, one of my all-time favorites. That day, I swear, love was a big enough house to shelter all 10,000 bicyclists.

A RAGBRAI Story – Part 1

A Saturday afternoon, July or August, 1978, Loveland, Ohio (just outside Cincinnati). Flipping through the television channels, my father and I start watching a documentary. It is about a bike ride across the state of Iowa – our home state, which we still love. More of the family wanders in while we watch, and by the end of the show at least my Dad and I are convinced: RAGBRAI (The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) is the coolest thing ever. We SO want to do it (never mind the small fact that neither of us rides our bikes voluntarily.)


8:15 a.m. Friday morning, July 29, 2011. My friend and training partner, Sarah, and I crested a hill on Highway 6, outside of Grinnell, Iowa. Morning fog was just burning off the cornfields covering the rolling hills which spread off in every direction. We looked at each other, grinning, but also misty-eyed. A brightly colored river of people on bicycles, its current weaving and undulating, was visible for miles ahead on the pavement that lay before us. We were finally riding on RAGBRAI!

For every rider on RAGBRAI, there are two narratives: one that is purely individual and another which is all about community. The individual narrative is about the motivation, preparation, and determination required to successfully complete what can be a physically grueling test of endurance (even for someone, like me, only riding one 75 mile day of the week-long event). In all of my training rides, every mile I rode leading up to that morning’s start in Grinnell, I thought that this individual story was the story. I was completely inside my own head.  Had I progressed far enough away from the 350+ pound sedentary couch potato I once was to successfully complete this challenge? At 50? For me, this individual story is an important one – but it pales by comparison to the other narrative – the one about community that took me by surprise and brought me to tears numerous times throughout the day.

The second story began at 5:16 a.m. when I was standing in my driveway, in my bike shorts and Mustang jersey, trying not to freak out because my ride and the other bicyclist embarking with us, weren’t there yet. Then I heard a honking horn and my friends, Layne and Kristen, shouting “Yeah, Mustangs! RAGBRAI here we come! Woo Hoo!” Did my neighbors appreciate this serenade? Doubtful. But it brought a smile to my face. We loaded my stuff, and my friend Tricia’s, into the back of the borrowed pickup truck, then rendezvoused with the two other trucks loaded with our team and their bikes.

Once we arrived in Grinnell via gravel roads (the main access to town was blocked due to RAGBRAI), it was time to wipe off the road dust, pump up the tires, and meet the rest of “Team Mustang” at the park in town. Before leaving the park, our “road crew” got out the sharpie markers and wrote on our legs, telling the other 10,000 riders that I was celebration turning 50. Talk about a birthday celebration – nothing like having hundreds of birthday wishes shouted to you by passing strangers! Anyway, at 8:02, it was time to mount up and take off. We rode through town to the cheers and well-wishes of Grinnell’s citizens.

There are so many details of that day etched in my mind. I would love to share them all, but in the interest of time, I will share those which most illuminate the story about community. My friends Colette, Wendy and Tricia chose to participate on the ride primarily to join me in the celebration of my birthday. They, too, have their own individual narratives about the ride, but I know that they chose to put themselves through the experience in support of me. Sarah spent countless hours with me, the slow-but- slowly-improving rider, leading up to the day. While we were separated on the road, it helped to know that, somewhere in that sea of polyester and spandex, were people who love me.

We met up with our support team again in Marengo (the halfway point) for lunch and some much needed companionship – not to mention rest. I was daunted by the morning’s ride. Not ready in any way to give up, but very unsure if I had the reserves to finish the day. Truthfully, after the initial happiness of seeing the group together again, we were all a bit sober – having discovered that the day would be harder than we anticipated. But the hour we spent, eating and laughing on a stranger’s front lawn, reminded us that we were in it together, no matter how alone we necessarily were in pedaling our bikes. We left Marengo in a pack of matching blue and gold jerseys, to the cries of “Go Mustangs” from passing cyclists.

After lunch, I lost Tricia, who had been my riding partner most of the morning. I rode the entire first leg of the afternoon on my own. The road from Marengo to Homestead, Amanas, was a long, flat one. It wound through a valley so beautiful that I could not believe my good fortune – no hills AND the best of Iowa to look at! My spirits lifted, and I was so overcome by gratitude, I pulled out my phone and called my parents in New Mexico just to tell them how amazing it was. I wanted my Dad to know that we were right, back in 1978 – RAGBRAI is the coolest thing ever!

Heading into Homestead was a long hill, but I could hardly complain after the miles of flat terrain just completed. I shifted into low gear and took as long as I needed to crest the hill. Just as I did, my phone rang – my friends were in Homestead and waiting for me in the beer tent!

In front of the concession tents were hundreds, maybe thousands, of bikes. Some were very expensive, most had bags attached crammed with valuable items for the ride. Not one was locked. Such was the community feeling. The party in the beer tent was one of the happiest I’ve ever participated in. Not one person looked anything but sweaty, dirty, tired and completely exuberant. As the Mustang team congregated, the live band performed “Mustang Sally” for us. Amid the dancing and cheering, every 50 year old woman in the tent found me to wish me a happy birthday and offer me a drink (which I politely declined because I don’t trust myself to drink and ride). Serendipitously, I literally ran into a college friend, Sue Sweeney, whom I hadn’t seen in 30 years. But it was the hugs and congratulations of my teammates and friends that put joy in my heart. When Ryan Scheckel, who had been sleeping off the effects of the previous day’s ride (and party) finally caught up with us, proudly wearing his Mustang jersey, I thought the day was complete.

Except that we still had 25 miles to go. And the final 17 were expected to be the hardest, with over 1,000 feet of uphill climb.

(Tomorrow: Part 2)

In My Tribe

Back in the ’80s, the phrase “In My Tribe” was most closely associated with the band 10,000 Maniacs, fronted by Natalie Merchant. The album of this name contained songs I can sing along with, word for word, today – many of them “issue” songs: child abuse, military conditioning of young men, depression, domestic violence.  I loved this album for many reasons, not the least of which is that its songs mirrored my political leanings as well as the issues I was in graduate school preparing to address. I had joined the 10,000 Maniacs’ tribe, for sure.

Today, I watched a TED talk by Seth Godin, here, in which he posits that tribes are what matter now, groups of people connecting and coming together over shared ideas. He says each of us has the ability to find something worth changing in the world, then assemble a group of people who share that vision. This group will, in turn, assemble another group and pretty soon, we have an agglomeration of groups affiliated with one another via this shared idea. And this new tribe of like-minded souls can change anything. Godin gives a nifty 3-step process on “How to Change Everything”: 1. Challenge the status quo. 2. Build a culture (connect people, develop a language that allows members to recognize each other, etc.) 3. Commit. At the end of his talk, he challenges the audience to take 24-hours (what Godin claims is all the time needed) and create a movement. If you have a few minutes, watch him, its definitely engaging whether you find yourself agreeing with him or not.

This week I am in an introspective space personally, and I find myself especially drawn to this concept of tribe. Particularly, the idea that one person might belong to several such groups, since they are idea or issue based.  I belong, for example, to the tribe of people who are concerned about where our food comes from, how it is processed and engineered, how it nourishes us or harms us. I am a new member of the tribe of bike-riding enthusiasts. More particularly, over the past couple of years, I feel like I have been working with a few committed others to build a tribe in our workspace. While it has taken us much longer than the suggested 24-hour time table proposed by Seth G., I like to think that our tribe is, in fact, changing the world (albeit slowly and one person at a time).

This tribe began as a group of strangers who happened to be hired to work together. I had been here for more than a decade, while the others were new to this environment. You always hope that you will connect with coworkers, and we did. However, something a little different than the usual work-related friendships began to develop. We began to challenge one another to reach for and embody what we value and what gives meaning and purpose to our work. We offered one another support, but we also challenged each other to live our best professional lives. One woman put it succinctly: holding up one hand at waist height, she said, “Most of us and the people around us are living here.” Then putting her other hand up at forehead height, she said, “We want, and need, to remember to live here.” High energy, high intent, high sense of values and purpose. As a result, we’ve created some amazing relationships, opportunities, programs. We have challenged and encouraged not only one another, but also our students and our institution, to strive for that higher plane. Has our work been perfect? No. Are there other tribes accomplishing good things here as well? Absolutely.

Ultimately, what makes this, or any tribe, special is the quality of the people and the vibrancy of their shared vision or cause. On the bike trail, I find a tribe of friendly, enthusiastic and welcoming others moving 10-30 mph. In the sustainable food tribe, I find others who put their food dollars where their mouths are (farmers’ markets, CSAs, organic, local) and who work tirelessly to educate themselves and others about their concerns. But in my tribe of colleagues, I have found people who sustain me, who push me, who comfort and mentor me. And I know they find those things in me, as well. And as we engender passion and compassion in one another, we pass it on to others with whom we come in contact. I have to believe that this is how we, in our small way, are changing our world.

(NOTE: This week, today in fact, my dear friend and valued colleague, Tricia moves on to the next phase in her life and the life of her family. She has been pivotal in creating an environment in which our tribe has flourished. We are all sad to see her go – Tricia may be most sad of all – but that is one of the great things about the idea of a tribe. Our connection is about the ideas and passions we share, not about our physical location.)

Anti-Rage Road

My alarm went off at 5:50 this morning, and I only hit snooze once.  I quickly dressed for the gym, grabbed my water bottle and bag, and headed out the door.  It was crisp and cold, very dark with a barely orange line on the eastern horizon.  Inside my car, heat blasting and radio up, I heard several hateful and factually incorrect campaign ads (from both ends of the political spectrum) within minutes.  I drove as if my speedy arrival would save a life, when in reality it merely ensured I would arrive on time for my morning fitness class, “Whole Body Torture”.  Other drivers kept getting in my way, moving slow, braking when the wind picked up.  I caught myself thinking the most terrible things about them — name calling in my head in a way I never do unless driving.  I mean, really vicious thoughts about people I would never voice under any circumstance…except when they piss me off while I’m driving.  The environment in my silver Saturn was toxic with the invisible smoke gushing out my ears like an old Yosemite Sam cartoon, a telltale sign that my head was about to explode.

Now, some might say this was an inauspicious start to the day.  Others that I need to exercise better self-control. Still others might just consider this normal, workweek angst.  I took it as a sign that today would be one of those days: the kind where external messages coming toward me from the world get magnified, and reflected back.  Vile and hateful messages on the radio, viler and more hateful messages in my head.

Today many people chose to wear purple as a statement against anti-gay bullying and the recent suicides of youth who couldn’t live with the bullying any longer.  Though I was heartened by the number of people I saw sporting purple attire, I was discouraged by the need for such a gesture.  I couldn’t shake the many images that came to mind of young people I have cared for who have lived with these experiences.  I couldn’t shake the anger that flared inside me — nor could I stop myself from resorting again and again to violent thoughts and name calling toward the bullies.

As I was leaving work for the day, my friend Sarah mentioned her intention to go for a bike ride and I weaseled my way into her plans.  I ran home, changed, and within minutes our bikes were in the back of Big Red, Sarah’s truck, headed for the Boyson Road trail access.  The trail was sparsely populated with a mixture of runners and cyclists.  The first four miles are paved, winding through suburban back yards and crossing streets busy with families returning home after work and school.  Once we flew through the tunnel beneath County Home Road, we hit the unpaved section of the path, otherwise known – tonight at least – as Nirvana.  If I could have gotten the camcorder on my phone to function, I would have taped the road ahead of me.  Sun trickled through orange, red and yellow leaves still on the trees and scattered on the trail.  Suddenly, the view would open to rolling fields still being harvested and a sky first blue, then pink and blue, then pink and gold.  Sarah rode on ahead as I fumbled with my phone/camera, leaving me alone and surrounded by beauty.  I rode in silence, soaking up the sights and smells and quiet sounds of the woods and fields.  Geese honked overhead, my tires hummed below me.  When I turned around, heading back only because of impending darkness, I marvelled at the sunset on my right hand, the moonrise on my left.

In his treatise on beauty, John O’Donohue writes, “The wonder of the Beautiful is its ability to surprise us.  With swift, sheer grace, it is like a divine breath that blows the heart open.”  And that is what happened, beauty cracked me wide open.  All day I had been like a balloon, filled with gas almost to the breaking point, impermeable mylar skin causing me to be buffeted about.  Whenever I entered a space containing some external emotional currents I would float in that element and become part of it.  At last, the stale air inside me escaped and dissipated in the cooling breeze.  Any lingering morning rage, any purple haze remaining from the day, disappeared.  And I became permeable, no longer reflective like a mirror.  I could feel gratitude, and hope, and love.  I could feel the beauty surrounding me, and knew that I could take it inside myself and use it to learn the art of thought control — because violence done inside my head is still violence, still adds to the measure of rage and unrest in this world.  And I don’t want to be part of that anymore.  I prefer to add to the beauty of this world, and am making that my path through the woods of this life.