A Little Liver for Thanksgiving

26 11 2015

Today is Thanksgiving, and as I sit in my kitchen drinking coffee, I am not thinking about turkey, dressing and pumpkin pie. Instead, I can’t stop thinking about liver and onions.

When there are eight people seated around your dinner table every night, most of them growing children (but one of them a fairly picky adult eater), and your grocery budget is woefully tight, you rarely cook a meal that you love. Instead, you make a lot of meals that spring from your creative imagination and a combination of hamburger, tomato sauce and pasta. This was my mother’s nightly conundrum, for more years than anyone cares to count.

Which is why it was such a big deal the night she made liver and onions. My mother loves liver and onions. The entree plate was brought to the table, and as Mom carved the liver into portions for each of us, my father cleared his throat. “Now kids,” he intoned in the voice he used when we were expected to pay attention. “Your mother worked hard on this meal. This food is good for you, and I expect every one of you to eat it without complaints. Is that understood?” Six sets of wide eyes looked around the table at one another soberly (even Matt, the baby in a high chair, looked solemn). We passed our plates around the table until each one had a serving of liver sitting pristinely in front of us.

My mother began eating. The baby, whose goopy food we surreptitiously eyed longingly, ate. But the rest of us sat quietly, attempting to figure out a way to meet my father’s dictum without actually consuming the liver.

Until my sister Chris, the oldest and boldest among us, spoke up, “Dad, why aren’t you eating any liver?”

My parents’ eyes met down the length of the table. My mother’s held a challenge, while my father’s looked slightly panicked set above the embarrassed flush that had bloomed on his face. He reached out with his fork, stabbed a piece of liver off the serving platter, and plunked it onto his own dinner plate. Cutting off a large bite of the meat, he put it in his mouth and chewed.

And chewed. He kept chewing for minutes. All activity at the table stopped, every set of eyes focused on my dad’s chewing mouth. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, he attempted to swallow. And gagged instead. Despite several valiant efforts, he simply could not swallow the well-masticated liver. Eventually, he got up and spit it into the wastebasket. Turning back to the table, he declared, “Shirley, you will never serve liver to this family again!” Six kids, including Matt, whose baby face was wreathed with uncomprehending delight, erupted into victorious cheers.

And so, despite her own love for liver, my mother never served it to us again.

I’ve told this story many times – I can’t remember if I’ve shared it on this blog before, but chances are I have. Every family has its defining moments, the stories they tell over and over that are evocative of who they are, what their shared story might be. For the younger kids in my family, the liver story is likely what it seems to be: a story about how we conquered the dread enemy, liver. But for my parents and the older ones of us children, it has a number of layers. Layers we don’t explore when we tell the story, laughing around holiday tables when we are all together.

First, there’s the layer of my mom’s sacrifices to her family. Liver is symbolic of the many things she gave up, without complaint, in service to her family. Not that she never complained, she’s not an actual saint after all. When she did complain, though, it usually wasn’t about what she gave up (liver, a winter coat, nice things). Instead, when she complained, it was generally in response to an unwillingness on the part of others in our family to cheerfully acquiesce to the family’s greater good.

Then there’s the layer of my young father, trying to do what was right but underprepared to head a household so large in times of change and upheaval. His sense of fun was a joy to us kids, but his ideas about being a husband, a parent, a “patriarch” as my sister named him, required aging. Like the proverbial fine wine, he mellowed with age and into his role. In the years while that was happening, it was sometimes a wild, raucous, ride.

There’s even a tiny layer of ambivalence about liver. After all, throughout my childhood we happily ate braunschwager sandwiches and the liver spread served on appetizer trays at the supper clubs of the day. Apparently, onions weren’t enough of a disguise. Liver with cream cheese…well, cream cheese (like a spoonful of sugar) makes lots of things go down better.

A layer that runs deep underneath this story is one about money and hunger. My folks worked hard, every single day. They took care of us kids, they loved us and each other through the chaos and incredible noise levels, and they even managed to stay involved and contribute to their community and their church. And they did all of this while balancing precariously on the edge of a precipice – the chasm of poverty right there, where one toe inched in the wrong direction found only air rather than solid ground. Fear of that chasm informs much of my family’s story, especially in those early years when we were all young.

It was not an unfounded fear. Most nights, the hamburger-tomato-and-whatever casserole was served in a dish that would more reasonably feed four. It was supplemented by white bread and peanut-butter (some years, the peanut butter and blocks of cheese were provided via cheap government subsidy). Each night, we took turns passing the food from my Dad to his right or to his left, so that no one was consistently at the end of the line, when the serving remaining was a bit meager. Sometimes, we drank milk made from powder and orange juice made from powder (years later, when we could afford to purchase real orange juice, my younger siblings complained that it didn’t taste right – they wanted their Tang back!)

In spite of all of this, we always had a bountiful meal for Thanksgiving. I can remember my mom purchasing items well in advance, one or two things each pay period in order to spread the cost out. Happy were the years when Dad’s company or one of his vendors was giving away turkeys or hams as part of a holiday bonus! Our excitement over the feast – over the honest-to-God-more-food-than-we-could-eat meal, knew no bounds. Our anticipation was exquisite. And it was born of the knowledge that this was special, outside of the daily tightrope we walked between enough/not enough.

Today, as I sit in my apartment remembering, I am incredibly thankful for all that I had and all I now have. In particular, I am grateful for the times in my life I’ve lived at the edge of that chasm of poverty – close enough to know how lucky I was not to fall in, far enough not to have grappled with the true reality of hunger.

Today, as I sit in my apartment anticipating a feast later, surrounded by loved ones and worried about over-doing it, I can’t help but think about the world we live in. A world in which those with enough are seemingly filled with fear of those with not enough. A world in which the two eye one another as if they are alien, rather than also human beings. A world in which we are busy protecting what we have from those who have not. I can’t help thinking about that, because that isn’t what my parents taught me. They taught me to care about the greater good, not just my own satisfaction. They taught me to remain open to growth and change. To appreciate a little good stuff mixed in with the liver. They taught me to act well in spite of fear and the anxiety of what that chasm next to us might hold.

These are the layers of my family’s story that we don’t talk about when we tell the one about the liver. These are the layers that make me want to do more and be more. The layers that make me want to call out the false ideologies being espoused all around us. These are the layers for which I am truly thankful today.

Happy Thanksgiving.

 

 

 

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Knitting Spoons?

17 04 2014

“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” – Brene Brown

I want to share a story about something that happened at my knitting group last night. But first, you should know one thing about knitting group: I don’t knit.

You might think that fact would somehow preclude me joining such a group. And in other circumstances, you would probably be right. But I was invited to join the group late last fall, at a time when I was hungry for human contact – and I was grateful that these very nice ladies were willing to include me. I immediately discovered that, although the group is self-described as a knitting group because knitting is something most members do (and it’s easily done in a social setting in a coffee shop), most of the women who attend also love beads and beadwork – a serendipitous connection that allowed me to feel less self-conscious about my yarn-free lifestyle. My second discovery was that no one really cares what I bring to work on, in fact, last night I showed up basically empty-handed.

To say no one cares gives the wrong impression. I should say, no one judges. They clearly care, because whatever I have brought has occasioned curiosity and interest. Like most loosely affiliated groups, the attendance at these gatherings ebbs and flows, so in the three or four monthly installments I’ve been able to attend, the faces have varied. I’m not yet entirely sure of everyone’s names, and last night was the first time I met the infamous Anna (who brought a treasure trove of handmade beads for show and tell).

The day had been a busy one for me, and I arrived at knitting group still in the clothes I had worn for a late-afternoon job interview (also why I was sans project). After everyone had caught up and most were beginning to work on the projects they had brought, I started to excuse myself saying I needed to get home to write my blog post for today. One of the women, Anne, asked me what my blog was about. I’m never certain how to answer that question. What is this blog about?! So my friend Kathe, who was my connection to this group, piped up and shared her thoughts then said, “Jen, tell them how your blog got started.”

When I finished sharing what I hope was an abridged version of the hunger challenge/weight loss journey chronicled on Jenion, Anne spoke up again, sharing that she had participated in a hunger-related charity called “Empty Bowls“. For the fundraiser, Anne made a copper-enamelled bowl which raised over $2,000 for the organization. She said, “I was at a friend’s house who does copper-enamelling and she asked what I wanted to do, so I made three items. The first was the bowl, and I’d like you to have whichever of the other two you like.” With that, she handed me two enameled pieces strung on thin leather chords. Both were lovely. I didn’t know what to say – I was so moved by her generous impulse. I removed each necklace from it’s protective plastic bag. As I turned them over in my hands, trying to decide, Anne commented that the larger of the two reminded her of a spoon, which was a fitting connection to both the hunger issue and the Empty Bowls fundraiser. The piece was crafted with a beautiful iridescent enamel, and two holes for findings to connect. The bottom one has a simple piece of leather chord attached, but Anne said, “You can attach whatever you want to the bottom of it.” And next thing I knew, Anna of the wondrous bead display had plopped a glass lamp-worked bead down in front of me, saying, “This one would look perfect!”

And that’s how I left knitting group with a beautiful piece of handmade jewelry that I will always treasure.

There are so many lessons for life contained in this story. The first is about openness – mine AND that of the knitting group. When I told Mike I was invited and planning to participate in knitting group, he asked me in surprise, “Do you even know how to knit?!” I just laughed and shrugged my shoulders – not being a knitter seemed surmountable, whereas remaining lonely and disconnected did not. That the women in the group have been open and accepting of someone who shows up with odd projects unrelated to knitting (or none at all)  is cause for gratitude.

The second lesson I see in this story is one of true connection – which only happens when you are able to get beneath the surface of things. Kathe is a great one for nudging me to share authentically in a variety of ways. She rarely allows me to leave things at an off-hand comment. Had she not encouraged that I share more than a surface-y response to the question about my blog, Anne and I would not have discovered our connection to caring about hunger issues.

The third lesson is about freely sharing our gifts. Kindness and generosity are traits that come naturally to some. The rest of us need to cultivate them with mindfulness and attention. Sometimes those gifts are tangible, like the gorgeous handcrafted items I held in my hands as I left knitting group last night. Other times, the gifts are intangible but deeply felt, like the gifts of friendship and connection that I carried home in my heart.

The spoon-shape of the necklace brings to mind a story I first heard at a youth group meeting in high school. The story goes that, in hell, everyone sits at a table set with an incredible feast. Permanently attached to their hands is an impossibly long-handled spoon. All at the table are invited to eat to their hearts’ content – however, they find the spoon handles are so long that they can’t actually bring food to their mouths. So they sit at a feast, frustrated, starving, and unable to eat. In heaven, the story continues, the scene is set in exactly the same way: a table groaning under the weight of a sumptuous feast. Each person has a long-handled spoon attached to their hand. The difference: in heaven, the guests at the table use the spoons to feed each other. I love this metaphor, not so much as a story about heaven and hell but as a way to approach life today: be open to the opportunities to be fed by the generosity of others. At the same time, be as open to expressing your own heart through generosity toward others. That reciprocal flow of energy can, I believe, not only benefit the direct participants, but will also add to the measure of good in the world. Every time I wear my new necklace, I’ll be reminded of this and spurred to act accordingly!

 

The two pieces haven't been united yet, but here you have an idea (and can see the generous gifts from Anne and Anna)!

The two pieces haven’t been united yet, but here you have an idea what the final necklace will look like (and can see the generous gifts from Anne and Anna)! Trust me, the photo doesn’t do justice to the enamel-work.

 

 

 

 

 





Lessons from The Valentine’s Day Box.

13 02 2014
Heart-shaped stone, found at Peace Garden

Heart-shaped stone, found at Peace Garden

Remember when you were a kid and required to give valentines to everyone in your class, even kids you didn’t like? That was never particularly hard for me because I always felt sorry for kids I didn’t like. If I didn’t like them, no one did, right? They deserved my pity, obviously. Besides, the first person I remember seriously disliking was in sixth grade, the last year we handed out valentines in the classroom. I disliked her because she was mean to me and publicly named me a loser. But I survived placing a valentine in the decorated box on her desk just fine.

I also didn’t mind that the pile of valentines I brought home each year were given to me under duress. I was pretty sure that, left to consult their own feelings, most of my classmates would choose to bestow their valentines elsewhere. On the whole, I thought it was better to feel included – even if it was a sham.

All these years later, I am thinking about the lessons inherent in those classroom valentines. I know there are people who likely disagree with such practices, thinking children shouldn’t be taught to expect a world in which everything is fair and everyone gets the same number of valentines as everyone else: all grownups know this to be patently untrue. Better that we don’t set children up for later disillusionment.

However, that perspective only takes into account what it means to be on the receiving end. The greater lessons reside within the giving part of the transaction. And they are lessons, I believe, it would be good for us to regularly revisit as adults.

1. Kindness, generosity, empathy, and compassion are easy to bestow upon people we already love. Stretching ourselves to share these qualities beyond our own small circle is much harder – yet it is what best allows us to express these qualities. It is also what allows us to expand our capacity to bring them to a wider world so very much in need of them. It is important for each of us to pay attention to the things that activate these impulses in our hearts: things we see in our neighborhoods, hear on the news, observe in the lives around us. Then take some action, big or small . In The Great Work of Your Life, Stephen Cope writes, “Each of us feels some aspect of the world’s suffering acutely. And we must pay attention. We must act. This little corner of the world is ours to transform. This little corner of the world is ours to save.” The point is to act, to respond from your generosity or compassion – not to wait until you figure out an action that is guaranteed to change the world. That you bring light into someone else’s darkness is enough.

2. Be willing to speak of love, and open your heart to it, even when the situation involves people you don’t care for or don’t really know. Even, as in the case of my 6th grade nemesis, when the situation involves anger and hurt.

Just over a week ago, a young bicyclist named Marcus Nalls was struck and killed by a drunk driver down the street from my house. (The driver has been charged with vehicular homicide). Marcus had just moved to Minneapolis in January, transferring from Atlanta for his job. Very few people in this city knew him. But on Saturday, the cycling community held a memorial ride for him. Over 200 cyclists rode most of the route that Marcus would have ridden heading home from work the night he was killed. We rode in silence on the city streets. We dismounted and walked our bikes past the ghost bike memorial that has been placed at the site of his death. His coworkers wept unabashedly as we filed past, as did many of us. Were we angry? Absolutely. But I believe this memorial ride touched us all so deeply because we agreed to make it about solidarity and community, not about anger. We embraced Marcus as part of us, even though we hadn’t had the chance to know him – and we allowed ourselves to publicly mourn the lost opportunity of that. In the months to come, as the man who killed Marcus is brought to trial, my hope is that we will continue to place community and love at the center of our response, working toward increased safety for all.

3. Just as we were required to give everyone a valentine, regardless of our feelings about them, we must learn to feel gratitude for what life brings us – regardless. You might ask why – as I often do – should we be grateful for the bad or crappy or even the boring and mundane? The easy answer is that to be alive is to experience these things as well as the good, happy, peak moments. Bottom line: being alive is better than the alternative.

There is a certain complexity concealed within that “bottom line”, however. Life is a process of becoming, of refining our gifts and discovering meaning and purpose. A process of becoming the person we were created to be. We know the milestone markers for development in babies, toddlers, children. But in adults, these milestones are unique to the individual because they take place on an interior emotional and psychological level. When we reject or disown aspects of our experience, we disown pieces of the self we are meant to be. Am I happy, for example, to be a 52 year old woman who has never once had a “significant other” on Valentine’s Day? Not really. Is that fact an intrinsic part of the woman I have become? Absolutely. And I refuse to reject that part of myself, even though embracing it means embracing the sadness and loneliness I sometimes feel because of it. Embracing that part of me activates my compassion in many ways – both toward myself and toward others. For that, I am truly, deeply, grateful.

It has been a lot of years since I last decorated a box for my classmates to stuff with their valentines. Valentines Days have come and gone, each one different, each one finding me different. This year I have a plan – get up and live my life keeping in mind the lessons above. And one more lesson, a simple, eloquent one from one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver:

“Instructions for living a life. 
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

Box of milagro-covered hearts, Santa Fe, NM

Box of milagro-covered hearts, Santa Fe, NM





In the midst of the city, discovering the village

30 01 2014

It was late evening  on a bitterly cold Sunday. Mike and I had gone to the gym, and were returning home. As we passed the Simpson Church homeless shelter, we were waved down by several men standing on the corner. I wasn’t sure what was going on, as Mike slowed to a stop and pressed the button to open the drivers side window. It was dark, I was cold, and I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to stop so I asked Mike to please move on. But he didn’t.

One of the men approached closer to the car, his hands held in the air, open palms toward Mike. He asked for directions to the overflow shelter downtown. His language, his posture, the way he held his hands were all meant to reassure us that he intended no harm and I realized that we weren’t being scammed or victimized.  These men were simply in need of a warm place to spend the night; a little assistance. Suddenly, I was grateful Mike had been driving, instead of me.

Life is full of these moments – the ones where a seemingly small choice is required of us. Sometimes, the moment seems insignificant to the degree that we don’t even realize there’s a choice being made. Smile or not at the slow grocery checker? A word of caution to the person behind you to take care, the sidewalk is slick just there. Offer to take a photo so the happy group of strangers can all be in it. Other times, the moment calls for something more significant – an investment of time or cash, an emotional commitment, an inconvenience to ourselves. In these moments, we not only know we’re making a choice, we know the choice is bigger than the moment. Still, the choice is ours.

It has, famously and truthfully, been said that “it takes a village to raise a child”. The need to be part of a caring and generous village doesn’t end at childhood, though. Successfully navigating this life – whether you are five or fifty – takes a village. We don’t discuss this much. We live in a culture that prefers to believe the myth that hard workers will be successful – and people who need help are weak, or lazy, or just trying to get something for nothing. And if things have mostly gone well for us, we begin to think that we are self-sufficient and will always be able to rely on our own resources (internal and external) to handle whatever comes our way.

In my life, there have been enough examples to teach me otherwise. One Christmas when I was a teen, my father’s wallet –  which contained the holiday bonus he had just cashed – was stolen at the dentist’s office. Imagine the feeling of that loss, with six children at home awaiting the usual hoopla. But the next day at work, the cash was magically (and anonymously) “returned”. Or years later, when my beloved brother-in-law entered an experimental cancer treatment program and my sister needed to stay in the hospital with him – in Houston, a city they didn’t know, with two young boys. Their friend, Angela, travelled from Ohio and cared for the boys in an apartment sponsored by a local church. The treatment took six months, and Angela stayed for the duration. Or when my good friends (who would prefer to remain nameless) loaned thousands of dollars to other friends to start their dream business – then turned around a couple of years later and did the same for a sibling. It wasn’t that they had extra cash just lying around. It was that they were willing to accept small hardships themselves in order to help people they loved build their dreams.

Still, with these examples (an many more), I somehow came away seeing only one side: when I am able to help others I should do so. And I’ve tried to keep that in mind in both big and small ways as I’ve lived my life. I completely missed, however, the flip side of that lesson: that there would be times of real need in my own life. And in those moments, I would have to both rely on others to care and to actually ask for help. In missing this side of the lesson, I grew to believe in my own myth – that I was a helper, not a needer. A giver, not a taker. An offerer, not an asker.

This winter is teaching me otherwise. I have needed emotional support, logistical help, financial assistance, rides, a welcoming place to spend Christmas – the list is long. Friends have given me cash (both anonymously and directly), paid for nights or lunches out, given up garage parking so my car wouldn’t die in the extended seriously negative temps. If I hold on to our cultural myths, this neediness will crush my self-esteem – a by-product those who have helped me would never want. Instead, I’m learning to let go of the myth, to develop a proper humility (i.e. “the quality or state of not thinking you are better than other people : the quality or state of being humble” per Mirriam Webster). And with that humility comes deep gratitude.

You see, in a village, the streets go both ways. The neighbor who offers help today is the neighbor in need of help tomorrow. There is a flow of energy back and forth. It does us no service to tell ourselves otherwise. I can’t say it has been an enjoyable lesson or shift in perspective. But I can say, even though I am still in the midst of it, that it has been necessary. Life is about growing, learning and evolving. Sometimes, moving forward is neither easy nor painless. Yet move forward we must if we value making the most of this precious life we’ve been given. In moving to a big city, I’ve discovered my citizenship in a village – a village of which I am proud, and grateful, to be part.





The Post that Almost Wasn’t

26 12 2013

In all the years since the inception of this blog , I have never come this close to NOT posting on a Thursday. The reasons for this are both simple and complicated.

On the simple end of the spectrum, it was Christmas week. A week that did not go according to plan, so was more rushed than intended, but was also wonderful in spite of a few set-backs. The busy week meant that I had not written a post in advance of this morning, so when I awoke at 3:20 a.m. nauseous and chilled, the next eight hours of physical illness and discomfort did not really lend themselves to sitting at a computer capturing my thoughts in words. When I felt well enough to sit up and log on, I also felt empty. Which leads to the complicated reasons for almost missing a Thursday post.

Had I found the time to write on Monday, I would have written about the incredible example of patience and acceptance provided by Mike. We got on the road at 6:45 a.m. Monday, intending for Mike to be at an important appointment for his son, leaving directly from there to head to Iowa for Christmas. We blew a tire less than four miles from home, during rush hour on I35W. Not only did he remain completely calm while maneuvering  out of traffic, he was remarkably sanguine about missing the appointment, despite the fact his son had made it clear he wanted Mike there. While I was starting to ratchet up toward hysteria, he refused to be flummoxed, reminding me there was no point to drama – there was nothing we could do but make the best of it. Through a long morning of waiting for the vehicle to be road-worthy, missing the appointment, and eventually getting on the road, his calm demeanor remained intact. Even though it meant missing dinner and an evening hanging out with his sisters, Mike entered fully into our stops in Cedar Rapids, visiting friends who had newborns to show off. Not once did he attempt to rush our time with friends in order to get back on the road, no matter how much he may have wished to. Yes, if I had found the time to write on Monday, I would have written about patience and gratitude, and the deep examples of each from that day.

If there had been time to write a post on Tuesday, I would have written about being cared for by family – even though the family was not my own. From the delicious home cooked breakfast, to a Christmas Eve celebration 27-people strong. Laughter ruled the night, dinner was direct from Pizza Hut, and love was expressed in hugs and words and hijinks. While I missed my own big family, there is something recognizable as “home” in spending a chaotic night with any loving, large family. Had I somehow, miraculously, found time to write on Tuesday, I’d have written about the spirit of love at Christmas, and how wonderful it is to bask in its glow.

Then there was Wednesday, Christmas itself. If I had found the time, between bouts of sitting and chatting in three different homes, between moments of sharing and silence, I would have written about kindness and generosity. I would have written about the happiness of watching someone you love relax completely and be at home. I would have written about a surprise Christmas gift that touched me deeply. I would have written about how little it mattered that we never showered – after all, there was a phone call which said, “Come over, I’m frying eggs”, but which meant, “Come over and I’ll show how much I love you by cooking for you.” A shower doesn’t rate next to that. If I had written yesterday, I definitely would have had plenty to say.

To say I feel empty today is only half true – physically, my body rebelled against and rejected all of the rich indulgences of the past few days and emptied itself in the early morning hours. Emotionally, I feel flat, not empty. The rich experiences of family and friendship over the past few days make today seem flat by contrast. But the reality is so much more complex. All of the amazing feelings and examples of the past few days – the love, kindness, laughter and generosity – were not fleeting. They are abiding and real. That we don’t taste, touch, see, feel them daily is our human failing.

So, when I finish writing today’s “post that almost wasn’t”, I am going to put on some Christmas music and sing along. I’m going to reconnect with the many feelings of the past few days, and I’m going to celebrate them all. Why waste a whole day feeling empty and flat when I can feel  filled with light and joy?!





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

1 08 2013

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.

Image 4

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.





The Very Things

28 03 2013
“We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.”
― Cynthia Ozick

Who hasn’t had weeks or days like this? When it seems that everything that can go wrong does. When every item that lands on your plate is a challenge to your ethics or your knowledge or your compassion. When your plans are derailed time and again by forces outside your control: the weather, mechanical difficulties, other people. At times such as these we have few options other than to just do our best as we find a way through. Even though objectively I know I can only do my best as each challenge presents itself, subjectively many times my best feels woefully inadequate.

So when I came across the quote, above, from author Cynthia Ozick, it seemed like a good idea to take a few minutes in the midst of this week to be grateful for some of the things I take for granted.

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Healthy, fresh food: This was my Sunday brunch, a frittata made with sweet potatoes, asparagus, onion, grape tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese and eggs. With a rich cup of French roast coffee to wash it down, of course! When I stop to think about the fact that I have both the means and the access to acquire the freshest, healthiest ingredients – and how many people in this country, this world, don’t –  I am truly humbled and grateful. At the same time, if I really think about this, I am also energized to find ways for all people to have this simple abundance.

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Natural beauty, even in winter: This photo of the Cedar River was taken in February on a day when I just needed to have a calming moment of stillness. I drove out to a rural access point, and spent a while just gazing at nature (mostly from inside my car, as the temps were dropping rapidly that afternoon). I have, only lately, come to appreciate nature and its direct impact on my mood. It seems miraculous to me that we live in a world where such beauty is, literally, just around the corner.

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Kindred spirits: On a recent trip to sunny Florida, I optimistically wore sandals to the airport, despite the bitingly cold wind here. I knew it would be in the high 70s when we arrived at our destination. My friend, Molly, saw my toes and asked if I had recently had a pedicure, which I had. Turns out, so had she – and we had selected the same shade of sparkly orange polish! One of the things I value greatly about my friends is that we are all so different from one another – in age, temperament, experiences – yet on a level deep beneath the skin we “get” each other. The love and respect inherent in these friendships with my kindred spirits is such a gift – one that I rely on heavily in difficult times. Sometimes, it is hard not to take them for granted due to the ease and natural fit of our friendship. I need to remember that my friends and family are people to treat with true appreciation on a daily basis, as that is how often they lighten the burden and increase my joy in life.

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Sunshine: It is March. In Iowa. Every moment of sunshine is a little miracle that needs to be appreciated.

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Serendipity: It just so happened that I arrived at the Merritt Island Bird Sanctuary on the morning after something or someone had trashed the bird feeders next to the observation deck, spilling the bird seed on the ground and offering a veritable feast for a variety of species. Including these painted buntings – which the volunteer at the sanctuary informed us were a rare sight. Another example of serendipity: my friend Wendy gave me a gift certificate for a 60-minute massage (she gave it to me for my birthday in July). I realized several weeks ago that the certificate expired at the end of March, and scheduled the first available evening appointment – which was last night. Not knowing, at the time I scheduled the appointment, what would be happening this week, the massage could not have come at a better time. Appreciating these moments when the confluence of events creates just the right and needed experience to salve my soul is an important form of gratitude. These are the moments that remind me that all good things come as gift and grace, rather than through my own deserving.

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Simple Silliness: I tend toward the serious most days. My work involves people and their life issues, which are serious business. When moments arrive which allow the freedom of letting go of all that seriousness, it is a big deal to let go and relax into them. I love that Mike captured this photo of me engaging, with silly abandon, in a misguided attempt to make a snow angel on the hard, crusted snow covering Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis a few weeks ago.

So, there are six things that I tend to take for granted which are richly deserving of gratitude. There are many more – education, clean water, fresh air, family – the list may, in fact, be endless. Endless, because I suspect the truth is that gratitude should be the center from which I live into each moment of this precious life I’ve been given. Each moment experienced as gift – I wonder how that would change my perceptions? My interactions? My creativity and flexibility when faced with life’s challenging and emotionally depleting days? What if I could also add my own imperfections to the list of items I am grateful for? Wow, that would likely be a game-changer. Imagine saying, “Thank you for my fear.” “Thank you for my confusion.” “Thank you for my flawed nature.” Hmmm. That, my friends, may be fodder for another post!

Note: I invite you to share in the comments some thing(s) you take for granted but would like to be grateful for – I would love to hear your thoughts!