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.

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And it was all uphill from there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Know why you’re riding.

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

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

Every hill is unique.

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

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

Everyone needs support…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Goodbye Girl

23 05 2013

In 1977, the movie “The Goodbye Girl” was released. The movie starred Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason, who mostly didn’t screw up the screenplay or Neil Simon’s characteristic fast-paced dialogue. To top it off, the movie’s theme song was written and performed by David Gates – that’s right, David Gates of the supergroup “Bread”. There was not a thing about the film (or the song) that my 16-year-old self didn’t love.

One of the reasons I loved the film so much was that I identified with the title: The Goodbye Girl. My family moved around – not a lot, but more frequently than most of the kids I knew, who had been going to the same school, with the same kids, since kindergarten. I saw myself as the girl who was forced to move on just about the time I got good and settled someplace. I was always saying goodbye, and it was usually permanent. In the movie, I didn’t really care for Marsha Mason, but I completely saw my jaded, highly defensive, young self in her character’s self-protective snarky-ness.

Given this self-concept, a song lyric that promised, “Goodbye doesn’t mean forever”  was pretty appealing. I can remember singing it with my friends, Pam and Steve, as we hiked back to our car one night in Cincinnati after attending an England Dan and John Ford Coley concert. This was just a couple of weeks prior to my family’s move from Ohio back to Iowa at the end of my junior year in high school. “The Goodbye Girl” lyrics were our promise to each other – “Goodbye doesn’t mean we’ll never be together again” – and it was our theme song from the day I told them of the impending move until the day I left town. I wanted it to be true, a promise I wouldn’t break. But in my heart, I suspected otherwise.

After returning to Iowa, I lived in Dubuque for seven years. Then Iowa City for nine. But even though there was continuity in the towns, I changed locations/homes and occupations frequently- college, graduate school and my first few professional positions meant a continuation of the goodbye theme. People were always coming and going in my life. I thought I was pretty good at goodbyes, and I maintained a certain stoicism through “goodbye” moments which I took as evidence of my skill.

What I didn’t understand until much later was that I wasn’t good at goodbye, I was actually good at never saying a truly open “hello”. After not letting anyone get too far under my skin, too close, when it came time to say goodbye, I could just let go. And I was really good at that.

Then I came here. Two years, the duration I originally signed on for, somehow became nineteen. And while there have been plenty of goodbyes – it is a college campus, after all: a fresh crop in each fall and a mature crop out each spring – there has been a great deal of stability, as well. Facebook, twitter, texting have all exploded during this time, impacting the ease and affordability of staying connected. I’ve changed in important ways, including intentionally opening myself to close relationships, even bringing some of those people I “just let go” of in the past back into my life.

All of which begs the question, as I prepare to leave, am I still The Goodbye Girl?

Of course, the first and most true answer is no. I never really have been. I’ve gotten it wrong in the past – refusing to get too close so goodbye won’t hurt isn’t a good or life-affirming coping skill. Burrowing in and creating a warm cocoon that I refuse to leave despite every part of me – head, heart, soul – urging me to move on isn’t a great approach either. And the truth is, I’ve been stuck in this warm, loving, cocoon for a long time: an incipient butterfly afraid to test my wings. Afraid that goodbye really does mean forever.

In the movie, Richard Dreyfuss’ character gets an acting job that requires him to leave to do a film on location. Marsha Mason’s character believes he is leaving her forever, and she tries, fiercely, to accept that and to stave off hurt. Then she discovers that he has left his prized possession (a guitar) behind – a sure sign that he will indeed return to her. Two weeks from today I expect to be on the road. I will have said my goodbyes to the campus, to the  women at Sister’s Health Club, to my colleagues and acquaintances. To my friends, to the families I am part of here, I will have made promises: to stay in touch, to come visit, to not be afraid to ask for help if I need it. I will be taking my prized possession with me though – this open, trusting, healthy, whole Jenion that you have all helped me to become. So it comes down to this: I know I’m not the girl I used to be. I trust that I will be able to stay centered within myself even when I am no longer anchored to this place. And I trust that the people, who make this place so important to me, will not disappear from my life like a puff of smoke – I have different, better, coping skills now. One of these is the knowledge that my home is right here in my heart, and it comes with me wherever I go. And those of you who populate my home do too. So I take courage and comfort from the words of the incomparable David Gates:

“Though we may be so far apart, you still would have my heart. So forget your past, my goodbye girl, cause now you’re home at last.”

(Note: for those of you who don’t know the song, here’s a link. It is way too sappy to actually include in the post! The movie is a classic, if you haven’t seen it.)




Learning to Love Rain

18 04 2013
“She enjoys rain for its wetness, winter for its cold, summer for its heat. She loves rainbows as much for fading as for their brilliance. It is easy for her, she opens her heart and accepts everything.”
                          –Morgan Llewelyn

I used to be very selective about which seasons I enjoyed. Spring was too wet and muddy, summer too hot and humid. Fall was perfect and Winter was endurable. When I got active and lost weight, suddenly my experience of the seasons opened up. I began to love summer and winter, as well as autumn. I discovered that I love being outside, that my body can do a lot to regulate its internal temperature so I don’t need to be inside a climate controlled environment to feel comfortable anymore. Turns out, I don’t mind sweating that much, and braving the cold presents a challenge and a gift.

But Spring is still a difficult season, primarily because of that pesky weather condition known as RAIN. Springs in Iowa are characterized by one of two possibilities: no rain or too much rain. Last year was a spring with no rain. We moved from winter almost directly to summer, skipping the renewing season of spring. Springs with no rain are characterized by anxiety about crops (or gardens and lawns, if you live in town). And drought weighs heavily on the psyche of a state known primarily for its corn and soybean production. I remember feeling a dismay akin to loss when, on RAGBRAI last year, we rode on highways bordered on both sides by dead or stunted fields, parched and thirsty.

The dry weather continued, right through most of this winter, leading to drought forecasts for another year, with cities and counties rolling out their drought plans – water conservation being a less common concern in Iowa than in California or New Mexico, where my family have routinely practiced water austerity measures. In Iowa we are, sometimes shamefully, profligate with water.

And then the rain started. And now, instead of drought forecasts, we are listening to flood warnings (and believe me, since 2008, flood is the “F” word in these parts). In the past 24 hours, rain totals have been high, 3-5″ throughout eastern Iowa. Many people love thunderstorms, but last night when I calculated that it had been thundering and lightening for the better part of 18 hours, I was pretty much over it. As I listened to my house, dripping water from a leaky roof and down the chimney onto the hardwood floor in my living room, I couldn’t bring myself to have cheerful thoughts about the rain. I’m tired of gray skies, tired of the hemmed-in feeling of fog and clouds.

I share all of the above to make the point that, like most people, I experience weather at the practical (if selfish) level of “How does it affect me today?” I like days when the weather doesn’t adversely affect my plans. It has been a lovely gift that, in recent years, the number of days when weather doesn’t adversely affect my plans has been broadened because my tolerance has broadened. But in regard to this earth we inhabit, it is my goal to become like the woman described in the quote opening this post: “It is easy for her, she opens her heart and accepts everything.”

As another Earth Day approaches, I am taking stock of my openness to the natural world and finding pockets of resistance, like my aversion to spring and intolerance for more than incidental rain. This is important, because our cultural movement away from direct experience of the natural world, away from stewardship, has led us to a place which is dangerous for the earth itself. It is also dangerous for our spiritual survival, as well. When I set out to lose weight, I didn’t realize that what it would take was healing the emotional separations I had fostered – between my head and heart, between my body and my soul, between myself and others. And as I reflect on what it will take from me, personally, to participate in the healing of our planet, I realize that I have to heal this unnatural separation between myself and the planet we all call home.

I often go out and troll the internet for information or quotes to support the theme I’m writing about in a post. This morning, I thought I’d look for a Joanna Macy quote to end this post. Macy, an environmental activist and scholar, has been thinking deeply about these issues for a very long time. Serendipitously, I came across the paragraphs below on the first Macy-related page I clicked on. She says what I mean in a much more eloquent and complete way, and I’d like to close with her words (apologies to my friend, Martin, who hates it when I use long quotations):

“In the first movement, our infancy as a species, we felt no separation from the natural world around us. Trees, rocks, and plants surrounded us with a living presence as intimate and pulsing as our own bodies. In that primal intimacy, which anthropologists call “participation mystique,” we were as one with our world as a child in the mother’s womb.Then self-consciousness arose and gave us distance on our world. We needed that distance in order to make decisions and strategies, in order to measure, judge and to monitor our judgments. With the emergence of free-will, the fall out of the Garden of Eden, the second movement began — the lonely and heroic journey of the ego. Nowadays, yearning to reclaim a sense of wholeness, some of us tend to disparage that movement of separation from nature, but it brought us great gains for which we can be grateful. The distanced and observing eye brought us tools of science, and a priceless view of the vast, orderly intricacy of our world. The recognition of our individuality brought us trial by jury and the Bill of Rights.Now, harvesting these gains, we are ready to return. The third movement begins. Having gained distance and sophistication of perception, we can turn and recognize who we have been all along. Now it can dawn on us: we are our world knowing itself. We can relinquish our separateness. We can come home again — and participate in our world in a richer, more responsible and poignantly beautiful way than before, in our infancy.”





Pulling a Forrest Gump

15 11 2012
Forrest Gump: That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run. So I ran to the end of the road. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d run to the end of town. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d just run across Greenbow County. And I figured, since I run this far, maybe I’d just run across the great state of Alabama. And that’s what I did. I ran clear across Alabama. For no particular reason I just kept on going. I ran clear to the ocean. And when I got there, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well turn around, just keep on going. When I got to another ocean, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well just turn back, keep right on going.
 

Lately, I’ve been thinking I’ve lived my life, in some ways, a lot like Forrest Gump – at least during his running phase. In the movie, Forrest claims he just felt like it, so took off running and kept going. Until he didn’t feel like it anymore. Plain and simple, just like the character of Forrest Gump himself.

Those of you who have known me for any length of time are likely wondering in what possible way I have been like this image of Forrest – I rarely run, after all. And I am hardly considered simple (recent descriptions have included cantankerous, introspective, difficult and an overthinker – not one simple in the bunch).

As I look at my life and ask, “What next?”, I can’t help but look back and wonder – what the??? How did I get here? It is as if I just jogged along the path of my life, for no particular reason continuing on the same trajectory. When I came to a roadblock or a turning point, I made a minute course correction and kept jogging. I figured that since I’d gone this far, I might as well just keep going. This is how Forrest crisscrossed the continent, and it is how I passed a lot of my days. I just kept going.

Aside from the obvious oversimplification – there were, after all, moments of soul-searching, difficult decision-points, days when striking out in a different direction was a near possibility – this is a fairly accurate description of my adult life. It is only relatively recently that I’ve learned to recognize the truth – the downside of over-identification with your career, your social milieu, your physical condition or your whatever is not that others define you by it. The downside is that you define and limit yourself. You are so far “in”, you can’t even see that there is an “out”.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a place for “staying the course”, for commitment. But Forrest just ran. He thought he “might as well”, which is hardly the same as commitment. And while he ran, a series of events and adventures happened around him. But they didn’t actually happen to him. They happened because other people were seeking meaning, looking for answers, trying to discover a purpose or a passion. (In the movie, others mistakenly assume that these things will be found by running with or after Forrest. We are meant to see these others as pathetic, but I think that’s open for interpretation. At least they are searching for something.)

One day, Forrest stops running and begins a new phase of his life. Who can say why, for sure? The same thing happened to me. One day I realized that I was just mindlessly running on a treadmill and calling it “my life”. I decided to stop doing that. Many people have asked, primarily wondering about my weight loss. “What was different? Why did it ‘take’ this time?” I don’t have a ready or easy answer for that. The day I stepped on the scale and decided 352 was a really high number felt, otherwise, like any other day. So did the day I started working out. I refused to begin with a solid statement of commitment, “This is the day I change my life!”, because I’d done that before and it hadn’t been true. I began with more of a “Meh. Maybe I’ll give this a shot.” I might as well.

If that’s how it began, very much in the vein of Forrest’s running phase, that’s not how it continued. Stepping off the treadmill I’d been running on took daily effort, and continues to take daily effort. I wake up in the morning and decide to exercise. Decide to eat more veggies and less dessert. Decide that I can go one more day without pizza. And in the other areas of my life, my emotional and professional and spiritual selves also have to make active choices, set goals, decide. There is no room for “I might as well” or “for no particular reason”. Because that old treadmill (or hamster wheel if you prefer) is still in working order and, even after several years of wakefulness, it is easy to step onto it and forget to choose. To just jog along with the status quo, to somnambulate at pace.

Steve Jobs famously stated that you can never connect the dots moving forward in your life. You can only connect the dots looking back. We still have to move forward, trusting that the dots WILL connect. There are periods when living consciously is exciting – we feel our own forward momentum and it is exhilarating. And there are periods when making deliberate choices day in and day out feels really hard. Sorry, Forrest, but as endearing a character as you are, I don’t want to be like you anymore. I would rather choose the hard way and stay awake, live with purpose, than look back at my life and say, “I did it for no particular reason.”





Walking in the Dark

11 10 2012

Almost the first thing I notice: nothing looks the same. Though, normally, I have a strong internal compass, suddenly I lose my bearings easily and often. Shadows and pools of light transform even the most familiar streets into alien territory. At corners, I move up close to the street signs, shining my little key-fob light at the words, verifying that I’m someplace familiar, in spite of appearances.

Walking in my neighborhood at night, I notice little things like the discarded banana peel I almost stepped on (imagine what a story that would have made!), or that a surprising number of motion-activated flood lights pick up movement in the street. And I notice big things: the dearth of sidewalks; streetlights shining up into the orange leaves of the sugar maples. I notice clouds scuttling across the bright white harvest moon, blown by the freshening winds of autumn.

Recently, I have been grappling with issues and transitions in my life. Mostly, I have been unable to share them in this blog for two reasons. First, some stories are not mine alone to tell. Second, there are practical considerations which prevent me talking about some of these processes for now. But this blog has become my way of inviting others to share my journey, and your companionship on the road has truly motivated and inspired me to keep moving forward. To be bound to silence for the time being – this has truly been difficult.

Add to that the discomfort we all feel at the thresholds of new places, when we know we want to enter but are unsure of what awaits us – and I am all verklempt. Inside, I roil. Emotion threatens to overwhelm me. An impetus to speak, to act, to move pushes outward from my core – yet I am in a moment of stasis before the rapid acceleration I am certain is to come.

When I must do something, I head out into the night to walk. Up and down streets I’ve taken for granted for years. Past houses full of neighbors I’ve never met, past dogs in yards begging for attention, past fallen leaves and trash cans set out for the morning collection.

As I walk, I talk to myself. Admonitions. To-do lists. Corrections to my faulty thinking. Snippets of poetry. Half conversations – some real, some my lines in imaginary dialogues. Occasionally, I check that this running-at-the-mouth is truly internal, that I haven’t started actually speaking out loud like the mentally-ill homeless woman who alternately breaks my heart and frightens me.

The parallels between the metaphorical road I am walking in my life and these actual night walks are not lost on me. In both cases, I am treading familiar/not familiar territory. Change is surrounding me, from the physical changes of autumn to the emotional and psychological changes required by liminal moments. I have to move forward, with determination and without fear (hello, since when have I not been afraid of the dark?). Focus is required to avoid tripping and to keep from psyching myself out. I am treading both paths alone.

I walk until my shoulders start to ache, usually the first sign of fatigue, which slows the mental synapses and causes my internal voice to grow quiet. My mind is finally free to notice the big and little things I mentioned earlier. I begin to hear the sounds occurring outside my own head: the scuttle of a squirrel chase, the frantic tinkle of windchimes, a distant siren’s wail. I lean into the wind and breathe deeply. Finally…finally…I relax. Finally, I can stop trying to force things. I can let go of the need for specific outcomes, and just lean into the now. Lean into the perfect red-orange of a fallen leaf on the black asphalt at my feet.





Authentic Personas?

27 09 2012

I read this piece on The Living Notebook blog about artists creating personas in their work. He discusses a number of reasons artists might work with a persona – from exploring a new voice to gaining some distance from their subject matter. We all know of famous, successful, uses of personas in literature, art and music (John Berryman’s Henry in The Dream Songs, or Nicki Minaj’s Roman Zolansky). There have been a few quite public backfires: Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines? Anyone?

Reading the article made me wonder: have I ever used a persona in work I’ve created or on this blog? Since I am on a quest for authenticity in my life, one part of me says a resounding no to this idea. If I speak in the voice of a created character, how can I also be authentic?

Then another part of me remembers picking Flo Rida’s “Club Can’t Handle Me” as my 50th year theme song. The reason I loved that song was that it allowed me to express a side of myself that usually doesn’t see the light of day – audacious, self-confident, desirable. I would generally not be able to express these qualities in my own voice as I would be both too self-conscious and too doubtful of their reality. But when I sang along with Flo Rida, I became the part of myself that felt those things. I wasn’t Flo (or is it Rida?) – I was me.

Just for fun, I’ve been thinking about the various personas it might be possible for me to explore while remaining authentically true to myself – not overlaying an imaginary person on my frame, but drawing forth a piece of my personality not usually expressed openly. Below, I’ve dreamed up three candidates for my own persona, along with a little of what they might have to say…

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“Cheeks”: an athletic and geared-up woman. Outdoorsy. Her enthusiasm for life results in those who listen to her speak imagining lots of exclamation points and air quotes.

Dude! I woke up to the worst leg cramps EVER! I’ve been sore before but nothing like this! My first official endurance trail race totally took everything I had and then some!!! I can only say “WOW‘! My new motto: “If something doesn’t hurt, you’re not giving it enough!” I just didn’t expect “everything” to hurt this much. I thought I understood “discipline” and “hard work” before, right?! But now I know I’m capable of so much more. Man! I have to hold myself to even more stringent standards to reach my “athletic potential”. As for actually competing – Holy crap – what a rush!!!!!

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Sasquatch: Imposingly tall and muscled, S. is clad only in long, matted hair. She makes little to no eye contact when speaking. Her voice and demeanor are both disconcertingly soft and gentle.

I am here today to share my real-life experience of being a yeti among humans.

The first thing you need to know to understand the yeti experience in common society is this: yeti’s like people, but you scare us. We will do anything to maintain the safety of our solitude and to stay separate from those around us. We hide out. We keep to the shadows. Why? Because you people have great potential to hurt us. You get close and then you blab about us, exploit our vulnerability. And yetis do not like being hurt. We strike out in response – and we are powerful enough to really hurt you in return, which frightens us immensely. Hurt or be hurt – its a terrible choice. So, for the sake of all, let’s just stay apart, keep a safe distance between us. Let’s preserve our aloneness and separateness.

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Shirley: A middle-aged woman with salt-and-pepper hair. She speaks only after taking a sip from the cup of black coffee seemingly welded to her hand.

I know what you’re thinking. I have the same name as Jenion’s mother. Well, too bad for me – that’s life. In case you’re wondering, it doesn’t really matter what I say, I will end up being blamed for everything anyway. See? Life isn’t fair.

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Hmmm. Perhaps it takes a more skilled writer than me to actually pull off this persona thing. Jenion/Cheeks does not equal Hemingway/Nick Adams! On the other hand, as I said last week (here), we need to reclaim the parts of ourselves we’ve rejected, the parts we’ve disowned. That includes both the parts we are happy to reclaim (an idea of ourselves as capable of things we didn’t realize, a la Cheeks) and the darker parts we don’t like looking closely at (the inner yeti whose fear and shame makes us want to hide from others). Imagining these pieces of ourselves as various personas, we can learn so much about who/what they are. Who and what we are. My inner Shirley may be a bit cantankerous at times, but she is also realistic and practical – two qualities I’ve tended to shun in favor of projecting a more creative and airy self-image. Is that a trade-off I want to continue making?

Allowing these inner selves  to speak can be a very powerful means of working towards authenticity and congruence – a way of bringing the scattered parts of ourselves back together so that we see their gifts as well as whatever liabilities caused us to disown them in the first place.

For now, though, I think I’ll stick to a strictly internal dialogue with my personas!

P.S. Thanks for being a good sport, Mom!




The Top of Our Lungs

20 09 2012
 
 
“…We want access to the top of our lungs, where the shouts and the holy hosannahs are, the whoops and wails and hullabaloos — not just the bottom of our lungs, which is reserved for whispers and polite conversation, for things said under the breath.”–Gregg Levoy Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life
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