Channeling Lizzy

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Mill City Ruins, January 11, 2014

It was not till the afternoon, when he joined them at tea, that Elizabeth ventured to introduce the subject; and then, on her briefly expressing her sorrow for what he must have endured, he replied, “Say nothing of that. Who would suffer but myself? It has been my own doing, and I ought to feel it.”

“You must not be too severe upon yourself,” replied Elizabeth.

“You may well warn me against such an evil. Human nature is so prone to fall into it! No, Lizzy, let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame. I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soon enough.”

— from Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

Mr. Bennet (above) facetiously observes that we are are prone to be too severe on ourselves. Had he been written in the last decade (as opposed to two centuries ago), he might have appended the word, “NOT!” to his statement. One of the reasons I’ve always appreciated Mr. Bennet’s character is just this: he may fail utterly due to a weak will, but he is clear-sighted enough to be aware of his own failings.

The reason I have loved his daughter Lizzy more, though, has always been her self-efficacy and willingness to change.

As I considered what I intended to write about this week, I heard Mr. Bennet’s voice first. His “mea culpa” in the scene above has stayed with me over the years and comes to me when I am feeling particularly – and rightly – self-critical.

This post began when the photo I shared above popped up on my Facebook memories (though its subject has been hovering, unspoken, for a while). The picture is from a particularly memorable weekend in January 2014. The day of the photo, I worked an 8-hour shift on my feet, biked fifteen miles in the snow and cold for fun, attended the mayor’s victory party (another several hours on my feet) listening to speeches by people I admire like Senators Klobuchar and Franken. The next day, my friend Mike and I bundled up for another wintry bike ride, this time to – and on – Lake Calhoun, followed by coffee at Spyhouse.

That weekend was indicative of the whole year that followed – jammed full of new experiences, standing in crowds of people listening to folks I admired (mostly musicians, rather than politicians), shift-work on my feet, miles and miles logged by bike and on foot exploring and laughing with friends. By the time the year was over, my average mph by bike had risen from 12 to 16. My feet always hurt but the rest of my body felt amazing – by January 2015, I was in the best shape of my life.

Seeing my photo of the Mill City Ruins brought it all back. Looking so closely at my memories from 2014 into 2015, I could hardly avoid the sharp contrast with where I am today – a mere two years later. There has been, in those two years, a spectacular failure of will – mine. I’ve stopped riding or walking, I’ve stopped making time for new people and experiences, I’ve stopped paying attention to my food intake. I am now seventy-five pounds heavier and in horrible shape. My feet hurt, my heels hurt, my knees hate me. Like Mr. Bennet, I need to own it, need to feel it. Though moments of self-recrimination have popped up occasionally, even the worst of these passed by without effecting any real change in my behavioral choices.

And now, I’m worried that I’ve left it too late. What if I’ve backslid so far I can’t fix it? I haven’t written much about it here, even though this whole blog began as a record of my weight loss journey – and this certainly qualifies as part of that long travail. I haven’t written about it because  I have been too ashamed. Not embarrassed by a number on the scale – I’ve truly learned not to measure myself or anyone else based on that. Rather, ashamed of my self- neglect. Ashamed of my almost willful lack of self-discipline.

So, this is probably the moment to call upon my inner Elizabeth Bennet, rather than her father. Lizzy could have allowed her pride to carry her forward, refusing to be seen as fickle in her opinions or wrong in her assessment of character. In doing so, she certainly would have saved herself some moments of extreme embarrassment – imagine having to admit to virtually everyone in your community that you were the complete opposite of right! But there’s a good reason Lizzy is a beloved heroine to generations of women who’ve read Pride and Prejudice: Lizzy chose to grab her chance to be happy even though it meant admitting her mistakes, standing up to those who wished to belittle her (especially that bully, Lady Catherine deBourgh), and working to set right the damage her behaviors had inflicted.

This is definitely the moment. But, I can’t help wondering, is there enough of Lizzy’s fortitude in me? Getting healthy and in shape the first time around required all of my attention and energy, plus most of my non-work time. It also sucked up oceans of support from loving friends and family. Now that I’ve pissed all of that away, can I find the strength to do it again? I honestly do not know. But it is about time to find out.

May I have the courage today

To live the life that I would love

To postpone my dream no longer

But do at last what I came here for

And waste my heart on fear no more.

   — John O’Donohue, from “A Morning Poem”

 

 

The Landscape of Love

“If you know one landscape well, you will look at all other landscapes differently. And if you learn to love one place, sometimes you can also learn to love another.”
― Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces

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I walked the long block in the rain. The only other people I saw were in cars driving past, on their way to work at 7:50 a.m. The door to The Boiler Room stood open, and as I walked in I was greeted by Michael, the owner and sometimes barrista. He asked, “How many days left?” When I said, “Three,” he replied, “Wow! That went fast!”

He doesn’t even know the half of it! Michael was referring to the brief weeks since I’ve known I would be leaving Minneapolis. But his comment made me think about the entire two years I’ve lived here and how they have flown past. Time is such a strange and fickle construct – after all, the first winter I was here was one of the longest, coldest, snowiest on record. Every moment of that winter time seemed to crawl miserably by. Yet now, it all feels like a flash of light passing ever so swiftly before my eyes.

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I arrived in Minneapolis just in time for the Fourth of July holiday weekend. Mike and I spent two days celebrating: a Twins game, riding bikes back and forth across the Mississippi River, eating great food at local restaurants. The other two days were a marathon of driving, loading, unloading and more driving to get me officially moved. Once that weekend was over, though, Mike went back to work and I was left to my own devices in a new and, mostly, unknown city.

That first day, I got on my bike and rode. I found The Midtown Greenway, and rode until I hit the river. Now I know I took the West River Parkway, but then I had no idea where I was headed: I just kept riding as long as there was a trail. Eventually, I ended up at Minnehaha Falls (though I didn’t know how to find the falls and rode right past). I took a photo of the train depot there, and texted it to Mike with the caption, “Guess where I am?”  Looking back, I laugh at the fact that, actually, neither one of us knew where I was!

Before that ride, I was drawn to this city for many reasons. But that was the day that Minneapolis took up residence in my heart. The day I felt for the first time that we truly belonged together. Like most relationships, my love affair with this city has had its ups and downs. During the Polar Vortex of 2013-14, I seriously considered a break up. Often, when I was poor and discouraged by an interminable and dehumanizing job search, I thought that perhaps love was not enough to live on. Through it all, though, there was a thread of joy that kept me feeling that this thing between Minneapolis and I was just “right” somehow.

Here’s some of what I’ve learned from loving this place:

For attraction to deepen into love, you have to see beyond the superficial. Early in my time here, I happened upon a local resident’s blog. The purpose of the blog was to showcase how, in the mind of its creator, the city was becoming uglier every year. While I understood the author’s points and the political statement he was making, I just couldn’t comprehend taking such a negative view. In my response to his blog were the seeds of one of the best things I did over the two years I’ve been a Minneapolitan: my #dailypicofmpls Instagram project. I made it a point to get out and about, both in my own neighborhood and in the larger city, to really SEE things. Big things (like the iconic Stone Arch Bridge) and little things (like quirky messages hand-chalked on sidewalks). I chronicled the sights I saw, indelibly imprinting the city on my heart one block at a time. I tried to embrace it all: the good and the bad; what was ugly and what was lovely.

When you love a place, the issues that matter to that place become issues that matter to you. After the fall elections of 2013, I found myself celebrating representation by people who value similar things to me. For the first time in my adult life, I attended events featuring my ward’s councilwoman; our mayor; the city’s bike and pedestrian coordinator. On a bicycle tour of “The Grand Rounds”, I saw firsthand the unequal distribution of city funding. At Open Streets events I visited both affluent and less affluent neighborhoods, but was able to celebrate the vibrancy and unique character of each. On my own street, I spent time in places where I was the only non-Somali person present, I visited a powerful exhibit of Native American Artists at the First Nations Gallery, and I silently filed past the ghost bike commemorating a cyclist struck and killed by a drunk driver.

Love (like growth and most other worthwhile things) takes seed and flowers when you push yourself outside the confines of your comfort zone. For much of my life I let my introvert tendencies have ascendency – meaning I mostly sat back and waited for things to come to me. Living in a large metropolitan area, working part-time, and knowing exactly four people here when I arrived meant that mode of operation was not an option. So I pushed myself – to attend events, to talk to strangers, to make connections. I went to group bike rides solo. I walked and biked all over, often stopping to enter coffee shops and strange places (a chandlery, a visual arts center, a tiny neighborhood fresh foods market). I tried paddle-boarding, mountain biking, alley-cat racing. I volunteered as a bike parking attendant and as a photographer. I went to odd places and famous venues to see live music by musicians I’d never heard of. I joined a writer’s group and a joyful community of cyclists. Not every experience was wonderful, but each one helped me understand the value of being proactive rather than passive in my own life. And some truly beautiful souls entered my life as a result!

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As I walked back to my apartment from The Boiler Room I thought about the many things I will miss about Minneapolis, then about how little effort I made to love Cedar Rapids during the seventeen years I lived there last time. While there are many people I love(d) in Iowa, the only patch of ground I made any effort to care about was the hill on which Mount Mercy University stood.

I know now that I have to extend my own boundaries in ways I never did before I came to Minneapolis. I’m willing to concede that my failure to love Cedar Rapids as a place may have been a failure of my own imagination rather than a failure of the city to have anything to offer. More than that, I never invested myself there as I have here. Hopefully, I’ll be able to put what I’ve learned from my sojourn in Minneapolis into action in Cedar Rapids.

In the meantime, I’m going to let the rain today express my sadness about leaving the City of Lakes. Don’t misunderstand: I am excited about the new opportunities opening in my life. But for a little while, I need to feel the emotions connected with leaving this city I’ve grown to love so deeply. And, because there’s no equivalent to The Boiler Room in my new neighborhood, I may have to brave the downpour for another Americano.

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Our bikes outside The Boiler Room, Thanksgiving Day, 2013

 

Digging for Treasure

On Sunday, I texted a friend about plans to go on a group bicycle ride to kick off #30DaysofBiking. The weather was gloomy and expected to get worse. I wrote:

“I’m at the laundromat. Planning to re-evaluate when I get home and check weather radar. Feel bad if I bail, but not really up for riding in deluge and high winds.”

When I got home and checked the weather, I felt reassured that we were expecting light rain for a brief period. The wind was supposed to pick up as the afternoon progressed, but I reasoned that I’d be home before it was too bad. So I layered up, put on my helmet, and took off to meet the other 250 or so riders at Gold Medal Park.

It began sprinkling as I rode. The entire time we waited at the hill for the group to gather, then to have our official photo taken, I kept up a running inner dialogue. In it, I talked (and agreed) with myself about how reasonable it would be to break from the group as we left the park and ride home. After all, I don’t own rain gear, so I would likely be soaked immediately if the rain picked up. Also, I had a particularly busy week coming up and a Sunday afternoon to prepare would be so much more useful than a ride in the rain. You get the idea.

But when it came time to line up and begin the ride, I found myself queuing-up with friends and riding slowly into what had become a true rainstorm. Ten minutes later, the rain had changed from steady-but-gentle to ice pellets being hurled at exposed skin by 40-mile-an-hour winds. My glasses were useless, but I was one of the lucky ones: my eyewear protected my eyes somewhat from the mini hail pelting us. Others were riding with eyes more than half shut. We slowed to a crawl, miserably hunching into ourselves on our bikes. Occasionally, we passed under a bridge or some other momentary shelter, and shouted encouragement or commiserating comments to one another. But we kept riding.

It turned out the weather forecasters had been correct about one thing in particular: the worst of the weather was of short duration. Eventually, the rain stopped (although the wind remained strong), and intermittent sunshine began to warm us from our pre-hypothermic states. There was high-fiving and self-congratulating throughout the group, one friend going to far as to announce we had all earned our badges in “badassery” that day.

But I am not rad. I am not “bad ass”. And even though I joined in the general air of braggadocio – because it really was epically horrible weather for biking – I couldn’t help but reflect on what qualities I do possess that ended up convincing me to ignore my own inner inclination to ditch the ride that day. I came up with two self-descriptors: stubborn and tenacious.

It would be lovely to honestly assess myself and come up with adjectives I can wear like superhero shields: Courageous! Intrepid! Stupendously Amazing! But even for the purpose of self-affirmation  applying these words to myself feels silly and false. But Captain Tenacious? She may just be my inner (somewhat nerdy) super-hero: not readily relinquishing a principle or course of action; persevering, persistent, determined, resolute, patient, steadfast, untiring, unswerving, unshakable, unyielding. Stubborn.

The moments in life when we need to dig deep within to find the wherewithal, the will or the energy to continue moving forward through literal or metaphorical storms are like an inner treasure-hunt. Instead of quitting, we dig a little deeper – unearthing truths about ourselves we may not have been able to see in the bright sunshine of perfect days. Some people may, indeed, find courage and other heroic traits residing within. I found an inner doggedness. It turns out, I can look back in my life and see many moments when my innate tenaciousness has pulled me through when shinier qualities haven’t been as useful. And I’m ok with that – in fact, I’m willing to celebrate the discovery of this personal treasure.

What about you? What inner treasure have you unearthed on this life-long hunt of self-discovery? Whatever qualities you’ve found, no matter how sexy (or otherwise) those traits may be, I hope you’ll take some time to celebrate them. They are, indeed, what makes you and your path unique.

 

Nothing Is Something*

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Imagine sitting in a darkened theater, a strange and colorful set (such as the one pictured above) on the stage in front of you. You have come to this performance, as have those seated around you, with no notion what to expect: you’ve not read a plot synopsis, you’ve never seen a different production of this play, you don’t know anyone connected with the performance or the theater. The show has not yet started, but it is that moment when the rustling and murmurs of the audience have hushed and all attention has been focused toward the stage. It is the moment of pause before the action begins.

And in that pause is infinite possibility.

Something definitely will happen – but what? It could be – quite literally – anything. You don’t know. The person beside you doesn’t know either. You could begin naming possibilities and never hit upon exactly the one thing that will happen. Or you could guess it on the first try. Who knows?

In our information-overloaded age, with everything we ever wanted to know (and much we NEVER wanted) available to us in a moment, we’ve all become hooked on knowing “the poop” in advance. We have googled it, street-viewed it, tweeted and instagrammed it, asked Jeeves or Bing or Siri to tell us all about it. We rarely enter voluntarily into experiences that we haven’t heavily researched ahead of time.

I get it. There are practical reasons to know what we’re getting into. For example, we can dress appropriately. If we will need to provide our own sustenance, we can pack a lunch. Like all good Boy Scouts, we can “Be Prepared”.

I also understand that there are emotional reasons for getting the skinny on things before we agree to enter fully into something. Our fears are calmed by facts. Our hatred of being seen as socially awkward is assuaged if we’ve researched appropriate etiquette and attire beforehand and follow the norms.

All that said, I want to argue for intentionally seeking those “pauses of infinite possibility”. I want to argue for intentionally allowing organic experience to unfold with our willing participation.

Two years in a row I’ve attended the annual two-night concert event sponsored by our local public radio station to celebrate their birthday. The first year I didn’t have time to research the bands who were performing, the second year I purposely didn’t check them out in advance. I knew nothing about them or their musical genres. Consequently, I entered each performance completely open. My entire brain, not to mention my dancing muscles, engaged. I was inspired, moved, energized, and led to try other new experiences that I would have been otherwise closed to.

As someone who aspires to creative pursuits in my life, I’ve discovered that these moments allow me to access what has been called “beginner’s mind” in a way that I have difficulty doing in the normal course of my life. The attitude of openness that characterizes beginner’s mind is one that defies our need to control by knowing. The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki says: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” When I’m writing a story, seeing myself as the expert who is telling the story is a quick way to kill any glimmer it has. At each decision point in the storyline, I must be open to infinite possibilities or I write my characters into corners they can’t work their way out of.

There are many big and small ways in life to bring ourselves into these moments of possibility – in addition to the many well-researched, well-crafted, well-planned-and-executed experiences we have each day. The most important one, in my opinion, is the practice of saying yes to the unknown. Yes, I’ll see what it’s all about. Yes, I’ll try it even though I may not be good at it. Yes, I’ll do it even though I haven’t stalked it to death on Facebook.

Yes, I’ll sit in a dark theater, before an empty stage, and wonder what is about to happen.

Yes, I’ll enter fully into the pause of infinite possibility.

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*Note: the title of this post, and the stage in my photo, are in homage to the Open Eye Figure Theatre of Minneapolis’ production “Nothing Is Something“. This production, created and performed by LIz Schachterle and Noah Sommers Haas, directed by Joel Sass, is a fascinating, magical exploration of a mysterious workshop. The show is fantastic, and if you are in the area, well worth seeing. Click on the link to learn more!

X-asperated: Can I Change My Generational Affiliation?

To begin, it sucks being born on the cusp. The definition of cusp, “a pointed end where two curves meet”, makes this clear. The cusp is an uncomfortable place and I was born squarely on that point – my birth year falls into the dead zone argued by researchers – some claiming I’m a Baby Boomer, others that I’m Generation X.  Its no wonder I’ve never felt like I really fit anywhere. Like there isn’t any breathing room because members of those two big-ass generational curves are taking up all of the oxygen.

Add to that the fact that I’ve always thought of myself as a late-bloomer. My whole life has been one long game of catch-up: to my siblings, to my classmates, to my coworkers. Fashion trends? My brand-new clothes are inevitably so last year. Social trends? If I notice them they’ve progressed so far past the tipping point they’re lying on the floor ready to be walked over by the next new thing. I have always thought this the likely reason I feel so comfortable with people who are younger than me – I’m marginally ahead of them in life experience!

Taken together, these two factors have had me, since moving to Minneapolis, thinking a lot about generational differences. Minneapolis is a happening place, a city with a young population. It has been named one of the best cities for new college graduates to find employment. It certainly appears that Millennials have already been handed the keys to this particular kingdom – but more about that later. Suffice it to say, my Gen X butt has been handed to me a few times since moving here. Or, as Jeff Gordinier describes it, I feel as though (along with the rest of my generation) I’ve been “shuffled off to some sort of Camp Limbo for demographic lepers”. (X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything From Sucking)

“We’re equipped. We’re wary enough to see through delusional ‘movements’; we’re old enough to feel a connection to the past (and yet we’re unsentimental enough not to get all gooey about it); we’re young enough to be wired; we’re snotty enough not to settle for crap; we’re resourceful enough to turn crap into gold; we’re quiet enough to endure our labors on the margins.”

                                   —Jeff Gordinier

According to Gordinier, Generation X, smaller than either generation it is wedged between, was destined to be marginalized from the start. Our formative years were marked by national failure – the Vietnam War and the Nixon presidency. Our coming-of-age was marked by the stock market crash of October 1987. In fact, he says our generation was destined to be “bushwhacked” by bad economic conditions repeatedly. By way of comparison, Gordinier claims, “the Boomer and Millennial viewpoint is ‘I want to be in the fucking spotlight’. Gen Xers are uninterested in the spotlight. They’re more interested in dodging it and doing good work quietly. I think theres a sort of comfort in the margins.” (from Helaine Olen’s interview of Gordinier on AlterNet)

The more I’ve read about Generation X, the more I’ve been forced to reconsider how well I fit. Turns out, I was most uncomfortable with the slacker stereotype of Gen X (because I’ve never been a slacker). The rest of it sounds…well, familiar. Gordinier believes that Gen X is “doing the quiet work of keeping America from sucking.” Gordinier’s book, ultimately, takes a positive view of the generation, as does this somewhat hokey clip from Karen McCullough:

Most of the literature finds praiseworthy attributes in Gen X, including creativity and innovation on a large scale – after all, Google, Amazon, Wikipedia (to name a few) had their genesis in Gen X.

But that still doesn’t mean I’m happy about being Gen X, despite finding I actually fit in. Dodging the spotlight and doing good work quietly, acting and being comfortable in the margins, is an apt description of me, my professional life and my choices. And while I have been most comfortable in the margins, it turns out that it has perhaps done me a disservice to live there. That kind of life does offer internal satisfactions – I have earned respect from people who matter to me, feel I have made a difference to those I’ve served, and believe I’ve continued to learn and grow as a person. What taking comfort in the margins does externally, though, is create room for others to take advantage of or take credit for, misunderstand or belittle, your work and accomplishments. And forget the Millennials’ obsession with building their personal brands; margin-dwellers are the opposite of branded or self-promotional. We’re a generation of wall-flowers, hoping that our quiet good work will speak for us.

And perhaps it does, though often not loudly enough to be heard over the cacophony of “spot lighters”. It is one thing to choose to operate on the margins, and another thing altogether to feel you are being pushed there by people or forces that don’t value what you have to offer.

Where is this generational navel-gazing taking me, you may wonder. Many of my age-mates and fellow Gen Xers, who grew up being overshadowed by Boomers and bitching about it, now complain about Gen Y, the Millennials. Incessantly. I am not one of the complainers. But in this city abounding with Millennialism, Gen X sensibilities always seem to be a step behind. There’s no denying the energy created by Millennials – and the desire to be part of that energy is contagious. It all leaves me wondering whether I can adapt – use my late bloomer qualities to flower in this zeitgeist. Can a person switch generational affiliation? I can’t change my age, but is it possible to change my way of thinking to be more Millennial? And do I want to?

Note: In my next post, in an attempt to answer those questions, I’ll be introducing you to some awesome Millennials I’ve met and sharing what I’ve been learning from (and about) them.

 

 

 

Bare

Until last night, it had been weeks since we’d taken a night ride around the lakes. But last night’s relatively mild temperatures were too enticing to ignore. So, when my evening meeting ended, Mike met me at Common Roots and we took off. The moon was large and bright white, illuminating our way as we rode down the Bryant Avenue bike boulevard to Lake Harriet.

In the summer months, the tree-lined path around the lake is incredibly dark at night, offering a sometimes harrowing riding experience for those riders (like us) whose headlights are sub-par. In the time that had elapsed since our last ride around Harriet, the trees had lost their leaves, rendering a wholly different riding experience. Without foliage to block it, the path was lit by a combination of moonlight and streetlights. We could not only see the path at all times, we could see the lake, the neighborhood surrounding it, each other. Everything looked and felt different. We followed the trail around Lake Harriet, then over to Lake Calhoun, where we were stunned to see the Minneapolis skyline virtually the entire time. We couldn’t stop commenting on both how beautiful and how clearly visible is was.

One doesn’t live in the upper midwest without developing at least a passing appreciation of the changing seasons. Like my neighbors and friends, I’ve watched for the usual signs – the first orange and yellow hues among the green, the first snowfall, the first crocus in spring. Before this year, though, I have never spent such concentrated time outdoors nor have I striven so earnestly to develop a sense of place as I have here. So the changes in view, landscape, light wrought by the mostly bare trees stuns and excites me.

Curiously, at the same time, they leave me, like the city itself, more exposed.

Its a strange paradox: to pay (as one does this time of year) such close attention to layering, to bundling up for warmth, while concurrently feeling more bare to the elements: of life, if not of weather. I go around covered up and protected, yet feel completely permeable. There don’t seem to be boundaries or protections for my emotional body these days.

Here’s an example. I stopped for coffee the other day and, walking past a restaurant to return to my car, I happened to catch some fluttering out of the corner of my eye. I looked, and seated in the window of the trendy eatery, waving frantically to get my attention, was a former colleague from Cedar Rapids. She waved me in, where she introduced me to her dining companions, alumnae (one a former board member) from the college where I worked. These lovely women asked about my life, and we spoke of the difficulty of life transitions. Their warmth and compassion was palpable, and I found myself sharing my deepest fears with them – something I would never, typically, do with strangers.

I walk around the city, and every beautiful fall of light or tragic sight of poverty moves me. The older man busking on Nicollet Mall, with his clarinet and saxophone, brings tears to my eyes. A stranger I follow on tumblr posts “Will someone come over and watch this movie with me?” and I almost respond.

What do people around the city see if they happen to look at me? I don’t know, but I feel like the skyline, rawly visible without the shield of my usual foliage.

In their book, Becoming a Life Change Artist, Mandell and Jordan discuss the idea of “mindful floating”. They describe it as one way of embracing the uncertainty that comes with significant change. They say,

“Mindful floating is a form of surrender to the inescapability of uncertainty…When engaged in mindful floating, we suspend self-judgment. We allow ourselves not to be tough on ourselves. We don’t force a premature resolution to our situation; rather, we allow ourselves to follow the current, emotionally and intellectually…When we are floating mindfully, we do not so much ask questions as tune in to the undercurrents, the ups and downs of the ocean swelling and receding, undulating. We pick up subtle changes such as the water temperature. We look skyward and notice the direction of the sun or moon and stars. We realize we can use the ocean’s undercurrents to husband our energy and nature’s reference points to identify possible directions. We are moving in tune with nature, not against it…

“Mindful floating, though, does not mean being passive. Rather, it means we assume a different perspective from which to view the various parts of our lives…a tool that enables the creative skill of seeing. We begin to understand that the elements of our new life are all out there. We simply need to find a new way to make sense of them before we rearrange them.”

When I float, I try to become one with the water. The feeling of being bare to the world around me is similar to, if more emotionally volatile than, the calmness I associate with floating. But this new bare-ness feels somehow right, like an internal change of seasons. I’ve been a tough onion to peel, holding on to my fears and my emotional isolationist tendencies even in the midst of attempting to create something completely new of my life. I’m learning that there are always new layers to be shed, and am hopeful that this latest shedding will bring me one step closer to seeing a way to arrange the pieces.

Before the Snow

“Fall colors are funny. They’re so bright and intense and beautiful. It’s like nature is trying to fill you up with color, to saturate you so you can stockpile it before winter turns everything muted and dreary.”
— Siobhan Vivian, “Same Difference”

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Before the snow, I headed out to walk along Minnehaha Creek. The weather reports had been unequivocal: “Winter (i.e. snow) is coming!” And even though I knew when I chose to come here that winter would be bigger living in the north, the reports surprisingly filled me with dread.

Lately, when I ‘ve needed air and movement, I have gravitated toward neighborhoods and city blocks where urban life fills me with its bustle and energy. New views of the skyline, new shops to gaze into, new places to order a large Americano and observe my fellow city dwellers. Or I have looped the lakes – spectacular in their poetic beauty, sailboats bobbing on waters silver or blue, glass-smooth or frothy, depending on the mercurial light and wind.

Somehow, I knew I needed a quieter landscape this time.

I had ridden the bike trail along Minnehaha twice, both times with Mike. First, in the high heat of August, on the home stretch of a fifty-mile circuit of the city. Then, its lush green shadows felt like an oasis. The second time, we rode on a cool night in mid-fall, with only our cheap (and not very illuminating) headlights to guide us. That time, the depth of its shadows filled me with terror and the short moonlit spans with wonder.  As I thought where I could go, the adjacent walking path which meanders alongside the bike trail, mostly between it and the creek, came to mind. Trees and shadows and hidden spots would do nicely.

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For most of my adult life, I had very little appreciation of nature – similar to the way I sometimes felt about humanity, I appreciated it in the abstract: individual people, and the actual outdoors, were not always my cup of tea. Now I find that being outdoors is the best way to clear and focus my mind, or, when necessary, to alter my mood. In this pause before the snow, I knew my thinking was jumbled and my emotions were all over the place. I just didn’t have clarity as to why. The moment I set my feet on the path, I felt I had come to the right place.

The afternoon was damp and gray, but the woods were glowing. I’ve always loved the special quality of yellow and gold in autumn woods and fields. On sunless days, these plants radiate light almost as if in the long days of summer they had stored the sun’s actual rays and now – just as we are beginning to keenly feel the sun’s loss to winter – they give it back to us. I walked along the paved path, pausing as I crossed the bridges to watch the creek flow over rocks and into still pools. Though I followed the markers for the walking trail, I came to end of the pavement.

As I stood, indecisively wondering if I should turn around or take the unpaved path that beckoned me forward, a woman and large shaggy dog walked up, nodded, and continued past me onto the unpaved trail. I stopped to take a picture with my phone, then took off after them, thinking I would catch up, but they had disappeared. The woods were beautiful, silent and still – and I was definitely alone.

Suddenly, I found this a little frightening. I was unfamiliar with the area, I didn’t know where the path was going, and I was in the woods alone. And in that moment I realized that the internal disquiet I had come here to parse out was just a new manifestation of familiar life issues: uncertainty and expectations. When I moved here, I thought I came without preconceived ideas of how things would go. I thought I was ready to live with and through the uncertainty of creating something new for my life. I stopped walking and stood quietly as the synapses in my brain fired. What I realized, listening to the soft sounds of the creek and the woods was this: I had un-articulated expectations, with an associated time frame, that weren’t being met.

Before the snow, I had expected to be employed. Perhaps not perfectly so, but enough so that the fear of utter failure and destitution would have been alleviated.

Before the snow, I had expected to be equipped to face the winter – appropriate attire, new snow tires, the ability to winterize my bike so I could keep riding. Without the employment expectation being met, the likelihood of meeting this expectation was diminished.

Before the snow, I had expected my new life to be enriched by new friends and the opportunity to take advantage of some of the non-free things this city has to offer (classes at the Center for the Book or The Literary Loft, for example).

But most importantly, I had apparently expected that, before the snow, I would have traversed the path through uncertainty and come out on the other side with a clarity of purpose and a more firm sense of my life here. Instead, I was lost – both figuratively and literally. Despite my best efforts. And the snow was upon me.

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Once I realized what had led to my disquiet, I found I could think more calmly about my physical location in the woods. I took several deep breaths and looked around. Bright yellow leaves were dropping like confetti from the branches of trees. They covered everything: the ground, fallen branches and boulders in a spectacular, mottled carpet.

Uncertainty and unexpected detours from the path sometimes take us to magical places almost in spite of ourselves. If I hadn’t felt panic at the impending storm, I wouldn’t have experienced exactly this configuration of light and color. Also, I may not have gained clarity of thinking to know why I was troubled. Most importantly, I might not have been able to put my fear in its proper perspective: uncertainty sucks but I’m moving through it, not standing still. And if I let go of expectations and remember to take one step forward at a time, I will find a path. It may not be easy, it may not lead anywhere I ever thought I’d go. But it will be MY path. And isn’t that what all this was about in the first place?

Postscript:

Mike and I had planned to meet for a late dinner that night at our favorite restaurant (we had a Living Social coupon that was about to expire). We sat at the bar, catching up on our days and sipping wine. I was warm, surrounded by candlelight and interesting people, anticipating a delicious meal. My seat was turned slightly toward Mike, which afforded me a view of the front wall – all windows – and the fat snow flakes falling outside. It was absolutely gorgeous, this first snowfall in my new home. And I felt not a smidge of panic.

How Do I Love Thee, Minneapolis?

Love, when it comes, is often a surprise. It takes us by storm, fills our hearts and our thoughts to overflowing with the object of our affections. Requited or unrequited makes little difference with regard to the degree of our obsession with The Beloved. All we know is that we love.

Despite all that, I didn’t know this could happen to me. I mean, sure, I liked Philadelphia a lot. I was extremely infatuated with Dublin, and wouldn’t mind seeing her again. But I had never realized just how profound and deep a love could develop so quickly for a city until I moved here.

I’ve pondered how this happened. I mean, I was attracted – obviously – or I wouldn’t have moved here. Perhaps it has been the time and space I’ve enjoyed to explore. Perhaps it has been the joy of discovery by bicycle and on foot – remove the automobile from the equation and you can have a direct and visceral experience of the city, an experience that fills all of your senses to overflowing. Perhaps I was longing for something to fill a void and Minneapolis happened to be here. All I know is that I am in the midst of a passionate affair that has the potential to deepen into a lifelong, abiding love.

Let me, with all due respect to Elizabeth Barrett Browning (who may object from the grave that I am applying her famous lines, written for her husband, to something as seemingly impersonal as a city), count the ways:

 
 
 
How do I love thee, Minneapolis? Let me count the ways:
 
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I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
 
 
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I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
 
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I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
 
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I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
 
 
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I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
 
 
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 I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints.
 
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I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death. 
                
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Jumping the Tracks

“The enormous lake stretched flat and smooth and white all the way to the edge of the gray sky. Wagon tracks went away across it, so far that you could not see where they went; they ended in nothing at all.” — Laura Ingalls Wilder

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No one tells you, when you’re young, that there are choices you make that set you on a road from which there will be no deviation. Or at least from which you will not know or feel you can deviate. A woman who counts the days (in years) until her kids graduate so she can quit the job she hates. A man who has created two lives, his public one and his private one, who always feels divided within himself. Another who randomly got a job in a lucrative field and has never been able to walk away. Me, working my ass off in a job that was fulfilling but also usurping, leaving almost no space for me in my own life.

Sometimes, I resisted change out of love – love for the mission and mercy of the institution I worked at, love for the students whose lives I was privileged to participate in, love for my colleagues whose hearts and souls were so amazing. Sometimes, I resisted change out of fear – of failing, of being too much or not enough of the “right” things. Whether out of fear or love, resistance kept me on the track I was on, moving forward as far as my eyes could see into a future that held more of the same. Resistance, when we give in to it, is  an insidious form of self-betrayal.

Resistance is self-betrayal because it manifests in these ways: it causes us to be silent when we need to speak; it  justifies dishonesty about our true selves; it effectively hoards our gifts and talents when they exist to be shared. Marianne Williamson has, famously, said “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” So we hide, we make ourselves small. Not to prevent us, in my opinion, from outshining others, but to prevent us from being seen when our true shining selves are revealed. What we love and what we fear cause resistance because they both carry the price of vulnerability.

So, what is it like to jump the tracks? I wondered for a very long time. Years of agonizing soul searching. Years of excuses. Years of making my friends listen to all of that soul searching and excuse-making. (Obviously, I have the most incredibly supportive friends!) And in all that time, I didn’t do any real planning. Any real preparing. I felt incapacitated until the thought of remaining on the tracks, the resistance, became more prominent and painful than either the fear or the love keeping me there – and I just jumped.

Here’s what it is like: it is like being a new soul again.

I cannot contain my curiosity. There is so much to see and read and learn, so much content and innovation, so many ideas. I read and explore on-line until I can’t see anymore.

Then I go outside and explore my city. I knew I didn’t care for the city I lived in and called home for almost two decades. I didn’t realize how stifling I found it. I don’t mean to dis Cedar Rapids – it is objectively a great place. It just wasn’t for me. This city makes me feel expansive: the diversity of people, of neighborhoods, of opportunities.

I am in love with creating. When I unpacked my boxes, I discovered fifteen unopened artist’s sketchbooks – which definitely says something about what my heart knew I should be doing (not necessarily drawing, but creating). I’ve been busy taking photographs, writing, creating recipes from delicious food. Here’s the thing about allowing your creative self the freedom to breathe after years of pushing it down inside – you’re a newbie and you suck (not so much with the recipes, they’re tasty. But with the writing…oy!) Even sucking feels pretty good right now because I am writing.

I have two primary fears: not finding a job, and conversely, taking one out of necessity that recreates the “tracked” lifestyle. Out of fear, and a whole new set of loves, I still betray myself via resistance – I hold back, I worry about acceptance rather than experience, I allow discomfort with the unknown to stop me. I am also discovering that the world in general prefers when we are on the tracks. It makes more sense to people, they know how to define us when we’re on a specific track in life. There is a subtle pressure to get back on, to resume that endless trip toward a gray horizon.

I probably could have jumped the tracks sooner. I could have chosen a different means or method of doing so. I could even, probably, be doing this trackless exploration differently right now. Perhaps in the future I’ll look back and think, “Wow, that was a dumb way to do it!” The only thing I know for sure right now is that I can breathe more deeply than I have in years. That each day seems to be so brimming with possibilities it is often difficult to choose from among them. But I’ve always been a hard worker, it’s in my DNA. So I am gradually buckling down to the work of self-discipline – which is vastly different when the things I am being disciplined about feed my soul and don’t just earn a satisfactory performance review and a heap more work.

It is a strange thing to realize that I have had these choices all along. No matter what I was told, or what I grew up believing. No matter what pressures I felt internally or externally. It is strange to know that I will continue to make some choices out of fear or love or resistance that may not be the best choices for me. It is especially strange to realize that I took comfort from the very tracks that steered my life away from being the life, and me becoming the person, that was meant to be. When you jump the tracks, that false comfort is denied to you. You have to find your own stride in the trackless wilderness.

And that seems a fitting way to describe where I am today: I jumped the tracks, and now I’m finding my own stride. I can’t quite see the features of the horizon, but it isn’t gray. And my tracks won’t end up going nowhere at all – they’re heading somewhere of my own creation.

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Night Joyriding

Today’s post was written jointly by Mike Beck and me. Since my arrival in Minneapolis in early July, one of our favorite activities together is cycling at night throughout the city. While we both enjoy nighttime riding, we came to it from different places, and our experiences are our own – hence the format of the post. In the end, we hope you’ll be encouraged to get out on your bikes – especially after dark!  
          –Jenion
Minneapolis By Night, photo by Mike
Minneapolis By Night, photo by Mike

M: I love riding my bike – I always have.  When I was a boy on the farm in Iowa, my siblings and I escaped into made-up worlds on our bikes.  As a father of young boys, meandering on suburban trails with the tots was always pleasurable.  Now, biking is more than just fun; it’s a way to get outside, be active, and a key component in my quest for a healthier lifestyle.   But, with a full-time job, and other activities that often book weekend days, the ONLY time I have to ride is in the evenings.  And it’s still fun, especially when I have someone to ride with.

J: Biking has been such a significant part of my life these past several years that I considered a bike-friendly culture one of the “must haves” for any city I finally chose to settle in when I left Cedar Rapids. By all accounts, Minneapolis fit the bill. When I arrived here, I couldn’t wait to explore the bike trails and greenways I had read and heard so much about. And I looked forward to doing so with Mike – we had talked about cycling for years, but living in different states made it impractical for us to ever actually ride together.

M: Introducing Jeni to her new city has been one of the things I enjoyed most this summer.  I have lived in Minneapolis since 1993, and I know the town quite well.

J: That’s an understatement, by the way!

M: But, as I was saying before I was interrupted, biking in Minneapolis is relatively new to me.  I started riding my bike last fall, after a long hiatus, and I usually stayed close to home.  But now that Jeni lives here, we want to ride as often as possible.  As I mentioned, the only time in my busy schedule is late evenings.  This posed a difficulty though:  Jeni was adamant that if we were going to ride in the evening, we were going to stay put on designated bike lanes and trails.

J: I had my reasons for insisting. If any of you have ever lived in a city that is unfriendly to bicyclists, you’ll understand my reluctance. I had been shouted at, honked at, and had motorists purposely swerve toward me only to pull away, laughing, at the last moment – all as I crowded as far into the gutter or alongside parked cars as I could. Other times, motorists were just so unused to cyclists that near-misses occurred. In that environment, why would one EVER get on the street – especially at night when visibility is even further reduced?! It was a sign of trust that I allowed Mike to talk me into it.

M: We live on Franklin Avenue, a busy street morning, noon and night.  For us to get to a designated bike lane, we have to maneuver off our own street first.  Fine.  We can do that!  Just a few blocks west we can catch a dedicated bike lane on Blaisdell Avenue.  That will take us to the Midtown Greenway, a bike “freeway” that connects to just about every trail in South Minneapolis.  From there, we can connect to the Chain of Lakes where the trail is not only exclusively for bikes, but also one way.  Thus began our foray into night bike rides!  We could get a short ride in just by circling Lake Calhoun, or if we had enough time, we could also ride around Lake Harriet and Lake of the Isles.  This was quickly our routine, and safe and easy for my reluctant partner to navigate.  Plus, it gave us a few opportunities to “practice” street riding.  We had to obey traffic rules on Blaisdell, lest we get taken out by a right-turning vehicle.  We had to leave the comfort of our dedicated lane so as to make a proper left-hand turn onto 29th Street to get on the Greenway.  As beautiful as the lakes route was to ride, though, it quickly became as boring as it was routine.  But I was patient, and that patience paid off!   Imagine my excitement the night Jeni said “Let’s head downtown instead of to the Greenway.”

J:  I won’t lie: that first ride in the dark, guided only by the spot of light offered by my headlamp, was scary. But it was also strangely exhilarating. Like all new experiences, it took a while to develop a comfort level with riding after dark. The night city has a very different look and feel than the day-lit one. On our second circumnavigation of Lake Calhoun, Mike nearly collided with a silver fox, its coat irridescent in the moonlight reflecting off the water, as it streaked past. Where, during the day, you smell suntan lotion and picnic lunches, at night the exotic scents of flowers and rich soil are noticeable. It wasn’t long before I was hooked. And I wanted to experience much more of the city than just the chain of lakes, as wonderful and beautiful as they are. We began to take different routes about the city, revisiting spots we had both seen before, but not at night or by bike. One wild Friday night we headed to the newly opened Dinkytown Greenway and, with road construction and detours, ended up in unexpected neighborhoods. We didn’t have a map, but somehow a bike lane or part of a trail always opened in front of us. In one incident of serendipity, we were in what I would describe as a “sketchy” neighborhood and we hadn’t a clue what to do next. We found a sign for the Greenway, but when we followed it we discovered the trail gated and locked securely. Suddenly, I saw a  woman emerge from a weedy lot about a block ahead of us. I felt certain we would find a path there – what woman walks alone in a random weedy lot at 10:30 p.m. on a Friday night in the city? Sure enough, it was a paved trail, and it took us over the interstate and back downtown…

M: … where we navigated traffic departing the Metrodome after the first pre-season Vikings game.  The streets were clogged with drunk suburbanites, most of whom didn’t have a clue what a bike lane was.  (That’s the first time I heard Jeni actually yell at a motorist!)  Our dedicated lane wasn’t remotely passable, so we zigzagged through the traffic jam and found a cross street out of that mess…and straight towards the Guthrie Theater where the evening’s show had just ended.  Now our nemeses were taxi cabs picking up theater-goers dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns.  Dodging that mess, we headed into the heart of downtown, where out-of-towners apparently assume people riding bicycles on a Friday evening must know their way around.  We were stopped and asked directions several times.

J: And, of course, Mike always knew how to direct them!

M: Anyway, that evening sealed the deal for Jeni.  She had now grown fond of our night bike rides, and had taken it off the trails and into the streets!

J: Ok, so that makes it sound like I went from a Nervous Nelly to an Adrenaline Junkie in one crazy night! The truth is, I had learned some important things about riding in this city. First, with the exception of the out-of-towners, assorted cab drivers and pizza delivery persons, motorists here both understand the laws of sharing the road and they respectfully adhere to them. Second, you develop “eyes” for night riding – essentially, you develop a comfort-level with using the combination of your headlight and ambient light available from the city. Third, most of our night rides end with a stop at our neighborhood Spyhouse Coffee. I love the arc of these rides – the excitement of choosing a new path, riding and spontaneously adjusting as we go, then – whether we’re refreshed or sweating buckets – a coffee and chat before the last blocks home.

M: For me, night riding is about getting outside after a long day at work.  It’s doing something active, and it’s sharing time with a friend.  It’s an opportunity to bond with our city, from a perspective we don’t see from our cars.  And it’s being part of a unique, vibrant community.  We are never alone on our night rides.  Minneapolis cyclists are loyal and dedicated kinfolk and it’s not uncommon to share a greeting or a brief conversation with fellow riders when our paths cross.

J:  Agreed. But some nights, riding is for the pure experience and adventure of it; a celebration of the spirit of biking. It makes me feel the way I did in junior high when I raced my sunshine-yellow ten-speed all over the small town of Hastings just because it was fun, and I could. In adult life, those reasons are rarely considered sufficient for activity – which makes me wonder: why not? We night joyride – because it’s fun and we can. You should join us sometime!

A night ride must: Spyhouse coffee before heading home, photo by Mike
A night ride must: Spyhouse coffee before heading home, photo by Mike