The Sunday Roast: Guest blog by Cindy Petersen

Today is our second post in “The Sunday Roast” Series. Cindy Petersen is a May graduate of Mount Mercy University, and her story is truly an inspiring one. Cindy is currently the owner/publisher of Iowa’s newest community newspaper, The Hiawatha Advocate (click here to check it out). The newspaper industry is a struggling one, but Cindy is living her dream right now. If you have a business and/or the financial wherewithal to help support her dream, please check out the advertising and subscriptions page – a full year subscription is a mere $30. Cindy also publishes regularly on her blog, “Write to the Point” if you are interested in reading more of her work!

Cynthia Petersen, graduated May 20, 2012 from Mount Mercy University
in Cedar Rapids, IA with a BA in Journalism

Graduating from college at 49 is nothing spectacular. People much older than I have done it. But changing the course of my life is. And that is what I believe I have done.

Some people talk about fate, and destiny, and believe that ”everything happens for a reason.” I, for one, believe that we are the creators of our own destiny and that life is what we make it. But I didn’t always think that way.

Seven years ago, I looked at where I was and I made up my mind that I wanted to make my mark in this world. I wanted to do more than just exist. I wanted to do something spectacular.

I spent years taking life as it came, raising 4 children, and dealing with life’s little tragedies.  But I learned how to remain calm in a crisis, and I became a problem-solver. I learned how to manage my money and how to make ends meet. I was a mediator, a counselor, a housekeeper, a chauffeur, and everything else that a mother does.

Now I realize that I was preparing for something spectacular.

I wanted to be my own boss and so I thought opening a restaurant was the way to go. I spent hours upon hours on the computer researching how to write a business plan, and why a marketing plan was so important. I chose all the plans for my restaurant; what I would name it, where it would be located, who my customers would be, what my menu would entail, how much everything would cost. I did everything I needed to do to make my restaurant a success. But in the end, it came down to a lack of funds.

And though it hurt me to have to give up that particular dream, I can see now that I was still only preparing for something even more spectacular.

As I got on my knees and prayed to God for chance to see my dream come true, I included that if this didn’t work out, I would go back to school and get a degree. (My father had said to me one day after reading an article I wrote, ‘Forget the restaurant, go back to school, become a writer.’)

And the rest is history. I graduated Sunday with a BA in Journalism. But not only did I graduate, I also received the President’s Award from Mount Mercy University’s president, Dr. Christopher Blake, one of the top three awards given to graduating seniors. I was also nominated for two other awards; Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities, and the Sisters of Mercy Award.

Getting the award itself was nice, but the satisfaction that I had done something to change the course of my life was what I really received that day. This was what I had been working for the past four years; that I had done something spectacular.

And I’m not done.

Most of you know that I started my own business last year and began publishing a community newspaper in February this year. Every lesson I have ever learned has prepared me to take on this huge undertaking.  But I still couldn’t have done it without going back to college. It was the last piece to my puzzle.

Something spectacular? You bet it is.

But it doesn’t stop there. It has only given me more reasons to find out what else life has in store for me and what I have in store for life.

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Words That Changed My Life: Intention

Note: This is the first in a series exploring words that have had an impact on my life, either by changing my perspective or by helping me to grasp a concept I had struggled to understand. The series will appear periodically, interspersed with other posts. For those of you thinking about a guest post for the “Sunday Roast” series, one option is a post about a word that changed your life !
 
From the gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.”

I am a word person. I always have been, though for much of my life I relegated the power of words to my heart – by which I mean that I understood their power to affect my inner life and to stir emotions, but I didn’t fully comprehend them as vehicles for the outward thrust of energy. I didn’t know that some words could affect my daily experience.

In graduate school, we spoke about the need for educators to create “intentional” programs, designed to challenge and support our students in their personal development. Rather than throwing together a hodge-podge of experiences, think and plan carefully with a particular goal or goals in mind.

Goals. I learned how to write them, how to operationalize them, how to assess progress toward them. I just couldn’t get the hang of actually having them.

And then the idea of “Intention” (and it’s sister concept, “The Law of Attraction”) exploded on the scene. The New Age Movement meets Quantum Physics. I watched “What the Bleep”, read Lynn Grabhorn’s “Excuse Me, You’re Life is Waiting” – there is no shortage of material out there which says that we can create our own reality and attract into our lives the things we want, by “setting our intention”.

I liked these ideas, despite the fact that much of what has been written is tinged with magical thinking and focused on achieving material abundance. Although I’m not bent on earning my first million, I am attracted to the concept that it might be up to me whether any day is a good day. I have tried several experiments with the idea of intention. One notable example ended up with me getting free meat at the grocery store – it was a fun experiment, but the free meat has not been a replicable outcome.

What has and can be replicated is the intention to manage my own choices such that a positive outcome is practically guaranteed. I remember the first time I approached an annual event, one which I had annually dreaded, with this specific intention: “Today, I will be calm and open to every person who approaches me. If there is a problem, we will resolve it with compassion and respect.” I wrote the intention down, and said it aloud. Each time throughout the day that I began to feel anxiety or my composure began to slip, I would remind myself of the day’s intention.

In the end, it was a great day. In the end, I learned that the power of intention isn’t magical at all. It simply requires two things: the intent (in this case a short-term goal for the day) and the willingness to remain consciously focused on aligning your behavior with that intent. Simple, but not easy. Not easy, but what life-changing behavior ever is?

This may be one of the reasons the Gospel of John is my favorite. It’s first sentence “In the beginning was The Word” is perhaps my favorite sentence of all time. Then: The Word was with God and was God, and it was focused outward with a mighty intent. God’s intention created everything – how amazing and powerful is that? And the light created by that intent has not and cannot be overcome by darkness.

In my life, I try to use intention to reflect some small measure of that light. Simple, but not easy. Some days, I set my goal/intention for the day and my focus never wavers. Other days, it unravels or comes apart in shreds as I lose control of my attention, I get pulled in too many directions, I am unable to stay centered. As with every change we try to make in life, practice is called for and perfection is a million miles away. But I have more successfully intentional days now than I did five years ago, or five months ago. And that has, indeed, changed my life.

What Defines Us

I didn’t post a weigh-in today because I didn’t want to share my current weight. The important thing about that weekly snapshot of my scale has always been, in my opinion, the concept of honestly sharing both the ups and downs of my path with others who might struggle with things in their lives, too. Today, I feel like copping out.

For a month now, my time and attention has been elsewhere than on my weight. In some ways, it has felt good to let my guard down a bit, to worry about other things, to enjoy other things, to just not let the central factor of my life be the scale. In other ways, I have felt stressed and out-of-sorts, with various life issues pulling at my focus.

I haven’t made horrendous choices in that time. I’ve continued to work out. I haven’t suddenly begun eating between every meal, or eating outrageous menus or triple helpings. I haven’t given in to temptations such as the Taco Bell drive through to try one of those Dorito-shelled tacos I’ve seen on TV.

But the scale has inched up anyway.

One of my favorite television moments ever was on the Roseanne show. The family is in debt, having trouble paying their bills, and at the end of the episode their electricity is shut off. From the dark screen, we hear Roseanne’s voice, “Well, middle class was fun.” I feel a little bit like that today, “Well, One-derland was fun.”

Except for this: I can choose differently.

Not every family has control over the financial vicissitudes in life. But each of us has control over where we place our attention, the choices we make on a daily basis, and the attitude we bring to each day.  These are the real lessons I’ve been learning via the process of losing weight. And while I can’t say the scale doesn’t have an impact on me, I can truthfully say my weight no longer defines me.

Because I am choosing to define myself.

One of the lessons I am still learning is to never underestimate the power of that. We live in a world that wants to define us externally (using standards set outside ourselves) – by our looks, our weight, our gender, our sexual identity, our politics, our socioeconomic status, our race…so many factors. But none of these is who we are, no matter how central that factor is to our lived experience. Who we are depends on us.

With that in mind, there’s one other thing I’d like to share with you this morning:

Andy Warhol, Goethe, and Me

“They always say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”

                                                                                                                                              — Andy Warhol

 

They always say…

Even though we can’t name them by name, can’t even generally define who they are, we all tend to have an amorphous “They” who exert extreme influence over us. They will think I’m stupid. They will judge me. They will be sure to spout all kinds of ridiculous opinions which cause me to question myself.

Don’t even get me started on the “always-es” and the “nevers-es”. They are full of those polarizing words, too.

They don’t know how to stop talking. Never mind how often it is in the voices of real people versus how often it is voices in our heads. They always have something to say to put us in our place.

…time changes things…

Time is such an interesting construct.

If you stand still, it will act like a stream which flows around you, the water moving, things floating past, but you stay in essentially the same place. Other things change, but you do not.

If you think of Time as a stream, and you try to move with the current, you may find you have moved but you are still surrounded by the things that you started with, because they moved with the same current. Nothing is essentially different, except that years have passed.

Time can also be a riptide, pulling you along in whatever direction it is moving. You have to be aware, not panicked – deliberate in your movements – in order to move where you hope to go, rather than where time is taking you. What time changes is mostly external to you. Internal change is like learning to swim out of a riptide.

…you actually have to change them yourself.

This is the daunting truth. The truth that stops us from actually creating change in our lives – we have to do it ourselves. And we know it will take hard work, sacrifice, and a willingness to stay the course when we are mostly used to taking an easier path.

The joy that I’ve discovered, though, is this: the internal voices, the imagined “they”, may clamor loudly at first, belittling your desire to change. But the external voices, the real people around you? They will come forward with a generosity of spirit that takes your breath away. They appear from unexpected quarters to cheer you on, to support your effort, to be part of the positive difference in your life. I know this both from personal experience, and from the many others who have shared with me their own experiences of bringing big change to their lives. They, your giving supporters, may not be the people you anticipated would be there for you. They may, in fact, be people you thought of as incidental to your life. Nonetheless, a new crowd of voices will develop to uplift you and to combat the negative voices you listened to in the past.

The second, almost magical, truth about deep change (especially if you are a late bloomer, like me) is what it does for your concept of time. You begin to learn that time doesn’t have to be a stream or a riptide. It can be a deep pool, in which you float in a relaxed but aware state. There is no past, there is no future, there is this moment. Every moment, as you live it.

If you are wondering whether you can change, whether there is a way to create a life more in line with the one you dream of living, the answer is simply YES. And yes, you actually have to do it yourself. But the first step, the beginning, is the hardest part. And many things will come together to assist you once you set your step to that path in a committed way.

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!”
                   — W. H. Murray, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition

Reframing

When my sister and I spoke for the first time about her second breast cancer diagnosis, she told me that considering her husband’s cancer, and  hers, there had been just too many times when they had to put their lives – all their plans – on hold in order to deal with a pressing health issue. She said, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be learning from this, but I clearly haven’t learned it. Whatever it is, I need to get it this time, because I’m tired.” I heard her discouragement, couched though it was in self-deprecating sarcasm. My response to her was, “Perhaps you need to turn that around. Maybe you and Dave have learned to do it with such grace that you are asked to do it again to show others how. Maybe you’re not learning, maybe you’re teaching.”

Why is it so much easier to see different possibilities when we look at the lives, issues, concerns of those we love than it is when we look at our own? Reframing is an awesome tool I first learned while a graduate student, and I’ve used it in my work or when assisting friends and family who find themselves stuck. Often, as in the conversation with my sister, the shift in perspective immediately feels “right” – I know I’ve learned so much from watching her and, more important, others have told me they have too. Learning or teaching: I suspect she is doing both. It’s just that it’s easy to lose sight of the active/positive side of the equation when we’re staring straight into the reactive/negative side.

As you all know, I have been fighting to get my weight under 200 pounds. It is both a goal and a deep desire. But for two months now, I’ve been pushing and pushing and my body has been holding on tightly to each pound. The more tightly I grip my resolve (and track every calorie eaten, every calorie burned, turn down evenings out with friends, refuse a beer with my buddies at karaoke) the more tightly my body holds on to the weight. Today, I woke up after a restless night, thinking “It’s Thursday. God, I hope the scale is kind to me this morning.” It wasn’t until I was finished with the obligatory morning trip to the bathroom that I realized something was bothering me. The rings I wear all the time, and which in recent weeks have floated loosely on my fingers in danger of falling off, were cutting into my flesh. I could pry the one off my left hand, but the ring on my right hand wouldn’t budge. Severely. Bloated.

Clearly, I was not going to see a number on the scale that would make me happy.

What am I supposed to learn from this? More to the point, how can I reframe this to see an active/positive side to this frustrating situation? It wasn’t until this morning that I finally understood what my wiser friends have been telling me for weeks – I need to relax. I need to let my body do its thing and stop trying to manhandle it into submission. I need to stop seeing 200 pounds as the fulcrum point – above 200 and I am lacking, failing, still a fat girl; below 200 and I am replete, successful, thin. I need to let it go. (Which, by the way, I need to remember is not the same as letting myself go.)

As I often do in these moments of internal crisis, I looked for comfort from a favorite poet. So, I will end this post by sharing a poem – after nearly 350 posts, I can’t remember if I’ve shared this one before (sorry!). It reminds me that all I really need to do today is…be.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

–Mary Oliver

Living With Abandon…Who? Me?!

“If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?”, she asked, as if that was a question to which I would have a ready answer. I stared at her, speechless. Then, to stall for time, I asked, “One thing?” Luckily, she let me off the hook, allowing me two or three things, if I found it too daunting to name just one.

This snippet was a tiny piece of a wide-ranging conversation between me and my new life coach. We met in a wonderful coffeeshop I had never frequented for our first session last Saturday. It is a little strange for me to say that I have a life coach, for a number of reasons:

1. I have a counseling degree, and have used it in my career – but I have never seen a counselor for my own life issues;

2. within the last year, I’ve toyed with the idea of becoming a certified life coach myself – though I had never actually seen one in action;

3. I have been reluctant most of my life to seek assistance (there’s an entire blog post to be written about why this is the case).

I have been a classic case of “physician heal thyself”. There’s a simple reason we’re not supposed to do that. It doesn’t work.

Which isn’t to say that I have been unable to make changes in my life through my own action and determination. Actual change only takes place because I do the work. I’ve learned this, interestingly, by working with my fitness trainer, the ever-supportive Kylie Helgens. The hard work and sore muscles, the determination to show up at the gym day after day, these all come from me. But Kylie offers the expertise to make the most of what I am putting into it, as well as the challenge and encouragement to keep me coming back. Some days, I am willing to let myself down by not showing up, but I don’t want to let Kylie down. Trusting someone else’s expertise, and allowing them to assist in my development, is a powerful experience – and one I am ready to broaden outside the fitness realm.

Which brings me back to the life coaching session. If I am completely honest, I will admit that it was fun to spend a full hour talking about myself with someone whose purpose in being there was specifically to let me. No glazed eyes, no need to be reciprocal as might occur when meeting a friend for coffee: free reign for my inner narcissist! However, that wasn’t the only reason the session was a positive experience. In answering her curious questions about me and my life choices, we both learned a lot. Doesn’t that sound funny, coming from someone who spends a fair amount of time in self-reflection? Apparently, I know more about what I want for my life than I’ve been admitting to myself.

In the past days, as I’ve let her questions revolve in my mind, the answers I gave have been germinating and proliferating. And the answer to her question about what one thing I would change has been revealing itself to me:

If I could change one thing about my life, I would live with abandon.

Doesn’t sound like a very concrete goal for change. But it feels like a good way to explain what the concrete changes would be about.

If you look up the word abandon, you will find a definition something like “careless disregard for consequences” and synonyms like recklessness, thoughtlessness or (heavens!) licentiousness. I will never be a person whose life is defined by those words, it just isn’t in my make-up. But abandon also means freedom, spontaneity, and uninhibitedness – words I’ve often wished could be associated with me. I can be, I think, someone who has brilliant – or creative or at least good – ideas and acts on them. Abandoning myself to that moment of action, rather than holding back out of fear or self-derision – THAT’S what I’m talking about. A-typical for me, but possible.

One session into my life-coaching experience is early to know what may result. However, I already suspect that seeds have been sown which may yield unexpected fruit. My first homework is an assignment to dream…and I am attempting to dream with abandon, in the hope that I will eventually learn to live that way as well.

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.