outward thrust of joy

21 07 2016

You know who you are – those of you waiting for something to change in your life in order for you to feel happier, better understood, more passionate. Those of you who feel stuck in a place you never really intended to be. Those of you who feel called to…something else, even if you don’t quite know what that is. For each of you, I want the more you’re longing for. The future you don’t quite know how to reach. And I promise you two things. First, I promise that I will continue to hold your heart’s desire  in my thoughts and in my prayers. Second, I promise that whenever the opportunity arises to offer something tangible – and within my power or ability to give – by way of support or encouragement to another late-bloomer (like me, like you) I will.

–from Jenion, August 2, 2012

A few weeks ago, I led a cycling retreat with a colleague. In preparation for the retreat, I reread several of my blog entries related to cycling, bikes and RAGBRAI. I came across the post I published after a grueling ride from Mt. Vernon to Anamosa, Iowa. That morning, I saw more riders quit than on any other day of RAGBRAI I’ve ridden, a vicious head-wind making forward momentum – and even breathing – extremely difficult. Riders flagged down the sag wagons in record numbers, some in tears. Those of us who persevered were required to dig deep for any intrinsic motivation we could find that would keep us cranking the pedals. Finally, words of encouragement began to filter back from those ahead of us. “Take heart! In half a mile the road turns 90 degrees and you won’t be facing directly into the wind!” We held on, moving forward slowly and with grim determination.

Re-reading what I wrote about that ride took me back into the moment. I easily recalled the incendiary joy I experienced when we made that right angle turn and (shortly thereafter) arrived at the mid-day stop in Springville. It all came rushing back to me: the sights, the sounds, the crowd of jubilant dancers in the street. Rumi says that when you do things from your soul, you “feel a river moving in you, a joy”. That July afternoon, thousands of us suddenly found ourselves floating in that river of joy together.

Remembering, I wondered – why is the experience of joy always such a surprise?

By joy, I don’t mean happiness – and I don’t mean to put happiness down, either; just to make a distinction. What I mean when I talk about joy is that more rare emotional experience that begins in your very core. It pushes upward, through your gut and your heart; up from your chest into your head – radiating through your skin, shooting out of your fingertips.

Joy has an outward impulse. It can be overwhelming, fierce, freeing – it makes you want to open your arms wide to encompass everyone – embrace everyone – in that energy flow. Perhaps that is partly why we are so often taken by surprise when we experience joy: we are surprised to find ourselves suddenly free of our “me-centeredness”. Whatever anxieties and fears have weighed us down disappear and are replaced with a higher-frequency vibration that lifts us. It’s natural expression is a desire to share, to lift others with us. (Such was the force behind the passage I wrote and quoted, above.)

If joy not only feels that amazing to us, but also finds its best expression in reaching out to others, how might our lives and our world change if we intentionally created the conditions that might lead to it? Every day can’t be a peak experience, like that day on RAGBRAI. But there are elements of it that can be incorporated into my days more frequently: challenging myself to attempt something that stretches my skills and abilities; engaging with others in reaching toward or building something that matters in our communities; being out in nature and experiencing my own self as creature, and as such, part of this great creation we call Earth.

Couldn’t we all use a little more joy? Wouldn’t our world flourish if we each radiated a bit more high-frequency energy? Here’s what Parker Palmer has to say about it, as he reflects upon a Mary Oliver poem:

For me, late one night, it was seeing a full moon through the latticework of winter-stripped trees. I don’t know what it will be today. But I do know that keeping my eyes and ears open for something that will “kill me with delight” is — to quote Mary Oliver again — “to instruct myself over and over in joy, and acclamation.” There’s always something, and it’s a good way to live.

It requires no special talent or effort to look at our world and point out the things that numb us, or dumb us down, or depress us. In fact, it’s a no-brainer! But becoming keenly and consistently aware of what’s good, true, beautiful, and life-giving around us and within us demands a discipline: we must open our eyes, minds, and hearts. And we must keep them open.   — Parker Palmer, “To Instruct Myself Over and Over in Joy”

Perhaps if we manage, as Parker Palmer and Mary Oliver suggest, to instruct ourselves in joy, we will no longer find joy so surprising. Instead, perhaps we will begin to experience it as a welcome and frequent visitor – one that opens us up and makes us so much more available to others and the earth around us.





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.





Special RAGBRAI Edition: Sunday Roast (A Conversation Between Friends)

25 07 2013
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NOTE: Occasionally, I’ve invited guests to blog on Jenion. The feature has typically been posted on Sunday and in addition to my Thursday post. This week, however, I am riding my bicycle across the state of Iowa. Today’s guest kindly volunteered to cover the weekly post so I wouldn’t stress about it while on the ride!

Today’s Guest Blogger: Mike Beck

I can’t believe I actually said it out loud.

Last Thursday evening: “Are you going to blog while riding RAGBRAI?” I asked Jenifer.  “I don’t know.” She replied with some hesitation.  “Maybe I’ll guest blog this week!”  (This is where I should have bit my tongue. Hard.)  Her reply? “OKAY!”

 I’m Mike.  I’ve been mentioned occasionally in Jenion, so the name may seem familiar.  Actually, I’ve been mentioned more frequently than what may be obvious, but often, it is in single statements with no names; lines repeated from past conversations where only I know that she remembered something we shared.  You see, Jenifer and I share a lot.  When we’re together, we gab.  And when we’re apart, we text and email each other frequently.  We cover any array of topics.  Nothing is off limits.  We speak ironically.  We delve into deep discussions.  We often laugh with abandon. We’re close friends. 

 I met Jenifer in the fall of 1979.  I was a sophomore at Loras College, Jenifer a freshman at Clarke College, both in Dubuque, Iowa.  A mutual friend brought Jenifer along to a gathering at the Loras Christian Center, a place where many of us found the foundation of our faith, the freedom of our young adulthood, and the bonds of what would become life-long friendships.  Oh, and folk music!  Lots of singing and guitar playing took place there.  (We were so cool!) 

I have learned so many lessons from the people who used to hang out at LCC.  But the most important lesson, and one I’ve tried to carry with me throughout my entire life, is that friends are precious, deserve to be cherished, nurtured, and celebrated.  I have been blessed with many wonderful people in my life just because we took the time to get to know each other a little bit, and decided the investment was worth it.  My relationship with Jenifer is clearly one I intend to hold onto as long as she’ll put up with me.  (I’m not too worried since she recently relocated to my city of Minneapolis and lives in an apartment in my building!)

And ever since she landed on Franklin Avenue, we’ve spent a considerable amount of time together, grocery shopping, bike riding, and hanging out with my visiting family.  It just seems natural that we knock on each other’s door as we pass in the hall and check in, coordinate trips to Kowalski’s or Target, and plan our new favorite thing: night bike rides around the city’s amazing bike trails!

Then she left to ride in RAGBRAI, a week-long bike ride across Iowa.  I texted her the first day she was gone: “I’m bored.”

 And that is where the blessings of having friends kicked in.  The boredom lasted about five minutes.  My friend JC was laying sod in his yard Saturday morning and I offered to help.  Just as we got the last of the grass installed in the back yard, I had to take off.  I was meeting FA for lunch downtown and needed a shower.  As our sunny summer rooftop lunch ended, my youngest son texted and wanted to have dinner together.  JW texted in the middle of my pulled pork sliders to see if I had dinner plans.  Yes, but we were going to head back downtown for the Aquatennial fireworks.  Please join us!  (Which he did.)  In between, EP called and wanted to go for a bike ride.  Not tonight, but how about tomorrow?  On Sunday, SB joined us and we rode the entire chain of lakes.

Monday evening, I had a relaxing time with three other friends catching up over a glass of wine on a backyard patio.  Tuesday night, I made it to Moto-I for a roof top happy hour with a large group of other friends.

So, even though I knew I was going to miss having Jenifer around for a whole week, I was also reminded of how important it is to have close friends, people I care about deeply, who remind me what a privilege it is to be part of their lives.  A text from Jenifer put it in perfect context: “When you start really living your life, people want to be part of it!”

So, as I hijack Jenion for this week only, I would humbly propose that we repent our anemic understanding of love, and actually get out and do something, anything, with our friends, not because we need them in our lives, but because we want to be part of theirs. And frankly, it’s simply how we have been called to live.





Good Omens

4 07 2013

“Factual information alone isn’t sufficient to guide you through life’s labyrinthine tests.  You need and deserve regular deliveries of uncanny revelation.  One of your inalienable rights as a human being should therefore be to receive a mysteriously useful omen every day of your life.”  —Rob Brezsny

“There is no such thing as an omen. Destiny does not send us heralds. She is too wise or too cruel for that.”  — Oscar Wilde

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

On the day I arrived in Minneapolis, two small things occurred which seemed to be signs that I had made the right decision to come here.

At 5:00 p.m. on Monday, I exited I35W into downtown Minneapolis, four lanes of busy traffic surrounding me as people began the mad rush home from their workdays. I was listening to local radio Cities 97 and, as my tires literally crossed from the freeway to the exit ramp, Sara Barielles“Brave” – my unofficial theme song for the summer – came blaring through my car’s speakers. I was singing along, buoyed by the lyrics, “…Maybe there’s a way out of the cage where you live, maybe one of these days you can let the light in, Show me how big your brave is…”, when the car in front of me in the left turn lane died. The light ahead turned red. I looked in my rearview mirror, to my right, and felt the claustrophobia of being hemmed in by hundreds of vehicles along with the certainty that I’d be stuck there all night. My car was loaded down with stuff from my storage unit, my bicycle dangling off the back end, and I made a split second decision — before the light changed, I was going to signal my intent. I cranked the wheel, flipped on the turn signal and nosed slightly into the next lane. And when we got the green, I was able to smoothly pull around the disabled vehicle without eliciting a single honk or appearance of road rage from the other drivers. Good omen number one – check.

My new landlady, C., is friendly and kind and fairly conscientious. Also quite a talker. It took well over an hour to go over the apartment, the lease, and the Minnesota tenant/landlord requirements. By then, we both forgot the exchange of keys that was to take place! Luckily, once outside the house, C. put a hand in her pocket looking for her car keys and discovered mine. When she came back, there was a tutorial about the keys – I didn’t want to seem impatient, but seriously, folks: after a long career in residence life on a college campus, I am a flipping key expert and can easily handle the four new ones (garage for bike storage, mailbox, security door, apartment) she gave me!

In the middle of my time with C., Mike arrived home. Mike – who went from long-distance friend to upstairs neighbor and lifeline with my signature on C.’s lease – helped me finish unloading my car. We separated to shower, then met up again for dinner to celebrate my first night as a Minneapolitan. We went to a wine bar/restaurant I had never been to before and, as it was an incredibly beautiful evening, snagged the last outdoor table. As we sat there, sipping our fruit water and waiting for our healthy “small plates” orders (which, as is our habit, we intended to share so we would both enjoy the collard greens, arugula, pancetta and Spanish cheese) we lapsed into a companionable silence.

My mind began to range back over the previous two months – from submitting my resignation through to that entire Monday – and I was completely overwhelmed by the number of seriously, profoundly, joyful moments encompassed within that time span. Heartfelt and sincere exchanges of love and respect with colleagues and friends; the most deeply soul-satisfying farewell celebration with friends at Molly’s; the safe travels and great times with my family in New Mexico; the quick visit back to Cedar Rapids and quality time with the Dennis’ and several friends (none of which felt crammed or cramped into the four days I was there); coffee and lunch with my brother Jeff’s family in Cedar Falls on my way to Minneapolis. The past two months have, quite literally, been the most amazing and beautiful time of my entire life. I feel almost greedy in, looking forward, hoping that this wonderful streak will continue through the move this coming weekend and RAGBRAI at the end of the month, and on to finding a job so I can really settle into my new home.

Obviously, people can debate forever whether omens and portents truly exist. If you know me, or have been reading Jenion for a while, you know I am an inveterate reader of signs. I believe that our intuition often knows better what is right for us than our thinking brains. Our egos and personas, filled with the “shoulds” and “oughts” we’ve internalized over the years, can often be just so much static, preventing clear signals from penetrating to our core. Intuition can sometimes help by taking us beyond the fear and paralysis that our “practical” brain (and its tendency toward circuitous thinking) leads us into. Which isn’t to say I believe in jumping into things based on a hunch and no careful thinking or planning. Only that both pieces are important in putting together the puzzle of our choices to make a full picture of our lives.

When I came back to the present after these recollections and musings, our al fresco dinner was finished. We hadn’t actually licked the plates clean, but it was close! Mike and I both felt like ambulating, so we drove over to Lake of the Isles for a walk. At the lake, the lovely hush of summer dusk was in full swing. As we got out of his car, Mike said, “Jeni, look up!”  When I did, the late evening sky was a breathtaking and deep violet-blue. And there, right in the middle of the sky, framed by the trees ringing the lake, was an X formed by criss-crossing jet contrails. I couldn’t help it, I immediately cried out, “X marks the spot!”

To me, those vapory white lines of water crystals in the sky appeared to be exactly that – the destination on a global-sized pirate map. A giant X marking the exact spot where my treasure will be found: Minneapolis, Minnesota. Good omen number two – check.

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Standing in the doorway of my new apartment on Monday afternoon. Photo courtesy of Mike, who wanted to reshoot it once he learned I planned to use it today! But I like this authentic, first day, commemoration!





Get Your Bloom On!

2 08 2012
Springville, Iowa, July 27, 2012.
 
 I am standing in the middle of the main street of town, with my good friend Tricia Borelli and thousands of others, and I am suddenly overcome with emotion. I tell Tricia, “This is what I want for everyone!”

Let me explain what I meant – and it wasn’t for everyone to stand in the streets of Springville, Iowa-though I believe there could be worse fates. We had just finished what proved to be the hardest 10 miles of a 208-mile bicycling adventure (three consecutive days of RAGBRAI). With a sore body operating on little sleep, the 10 mile leg just completed, consisting of lots of climb against a strong headwind, called upon every reserve I had. This middle day of the ride was “supposed” to be the easy one, too. What a betrayal of my expectations!

As Tricia and I pulled into town, the members of our team who had arrived ahead of us flagged us down. We explored the town, grateful for the food and beverage options and for the hospitality of the local Methodist church which allowed us to used their indoor bathrooms. Take it from me: porta-potties used by thousands of bicyclists are not the preferred option. We had some time to kill before our last two teammates arrived, which meant real leisure to soak up the ambience.

People of all shapes, sizes, abilities, ages, ethnicities and backgrounds swelled the small town’s usual population of around one thousand to nearly ten times that. Banners flapped in the stiff breeze, music came at us from every direction, colorful costumes and jerseys caught our attention. The sun beat down on us and sweat caused our spandex-laden clothing to stick to our bodies. I downed a bottle of blue Gatorade with relish – something I would normally avoid as exuberantly as I avoid eating liver.

As I watched the spectacle and felt myself just one more colorful piece of it, I experienced one of those rare moments of clarity in life. This exact moment that I was living in with such joy, I would once have shunned. The July heat. The crowds. The physical exertion. The athletic, ebullient, friendly, happy individuals surrounding me.

Until the recent past, I eschewed entering fully into my own life. I stayed away from situations that called upon either my inner resources or the direct experience of strangers. In that way, I kept my world small and my life manageable. I felt safe but I rarely felt joy. I felt “in control” but never expansive.

All of that has changed, and my life is so much richer for it. Suddenly, standing in the middle of the street in Springville, my heart paradoxically wholly open and completely full, I realized:  it isn’t enough to want these things for myself. It isn’t enough to continue to work on my own growth and development. To know and experience my own “before and after” is to want that for anyone else holding back from fully living their own lives.

You know who you are – those of you waiting for something to change in your life in order for you to feel happier, better understood, more passionate. Those of you who feel stuck in a place you never really intended to be. Those of you who feel called to…something else, even if you don’t quite know what that is. For each of you, I want the more you’re longing for. The future you don’t quite know how to reach. And I promise you two things. First, I promise that I will continue to hold your heart’s desire  in my thoughts and in my prayers. Second, I promise that whenever the opportunity arises to offer something tangible – and within my power or ability to give – by way of support or encouragement to another late-bloomer (like me, like you) I will.

You may feel like a bedraggled weed, but you’re really a beautiful flower. You may not, just yet, believe in yourself or in your ability to change your life. But I already believe in you. After all, I’m just another slow-blossoming flower on the midwestern prairie – if I found a way to fully open my petals and bask in the sun, so can you.





Learning to Shift

12 07 2012

I wheeled it into the shop before work on Monday morning, July 2nd. I remained stoic as the guy enumerated the items that needed to be repaired or replaced. As the cost rose I interrupted him to ask, “Bottom-line it for me – will it cost less to repair this one or buy a new one?” He laughed, assuring me the repairs would fall well short of the price of a new bicycle. I was still holding my own as he consulted a calendar on the wall and said, “I can give you a guaranteed pick-up date of the 13th.”  And that is what brought the tears to my eyes.

Two weeks without a bike in early July when one is training for RAGBRAI is an eternity. At least it is for me – I’m still trying to make up for forty years of inactivity, carrying 50 pounds I should have shed by now. And it was just one more crappy thing on top of a bunch of other difficult things that have made this summer one of stress and anxiety. The one thing that hadn’t, till then, been stressful (except for the two crashes that led to the extensive repairs) was cycling. I was finally getting the hang of shifting to maximize the usefulness of 21 gears. Hills were no longer daunting. Well, not completely daunting. Even crashing had added to my confidence – I got right back on and rode 18 miles, didn’t I?

Anyway, later on Monday I lamented to a friend that I would have to cancel plans for a 4th of July ride out to Ely, and she promptly offered to lend me her bike. I gratefully accepted the offer, and later that night, she dropped it off at my place: bright blue, low, wide handlebars and the fattest tires I’d ever seen. The bike turned out to be specifically engineered for beach riding. I recognized the brand, a nice bike. But not intended for the type of riding I do. Six gears, the lowest of which required the level of exertion I usually used for riding along straight, flat land. Hills were only possible if I stood to pedal, a skill I had hardly used, much less perfected. I shifted gears, and they shifted again on their own, often slipping out of gear randomly. Occasionally, the chain fell off. I learned to enjoy the feel of riding closer to the ground, of the easy manueverability of the wide handlebars, and, yes, even the burning in my quads and hammies.

And then the unthinkable happened. The loaner bike broke and was unrideable. That day’s ride ended in a two-mile walk, pushing the bike along beside me. In 105 degree weather, midday. But the loan and riding of the beach bike had done more for me than build up some new muscles and develop my hill-climbing skills. It had reminded me that I had resources, support, people to help me. So, even before I showered after the long walk home, I was on the phone to another friend, asking if I could borrow a bike from her family.

I picked the big chrome men’s Huffy. Taller than my bike, with a strangely tilted saddle, six speeds but the lowest speed was more like the “granny gear” on my bike. I expected a less difficult transition than I had experienced with the beach bike. But, no, it was not meant to be. At the beginning of a 40-mile ride, I put the new loaner through its paces, and immediately discovered it was incredibly difficult to shift gears. In fact, I wrestled with the handlebar shifting mechanism for a full 30 seconds before I could get it to shift out of 4th gear. First gear, granny. Second, super-easy-almost-granny. Third gear, a grinding clicking sound that did not inspire much confidence. 4th gear, where it had been stuck, wouldn’t work and now ground until it automatically found 5th gear. It was clear to me that 4th was where I wanted to be, but 5th was where I would do my riding. By the tenth mile, I was aware that my knees were not enjoying the added strain. However, it was easy to take the hills, and I figured I could tough it out. And I did, including the two miles I rode without glasses when I lost the lens of my prescription sunglasses.

I’ve learned a lot in these two weeks of my bike being in the shop. Valuable lessons, not the least of which is to take care of my bike and keep it in good repair. More important, though, I’ve learned:

  • We all have plenty of gears, but most of us discover a sweet spot and pretty much stay there. Sometimes, it becomes so ingrained, it’s difficult to shift into a new or different gear. We feel stuck when we try. If we shifted more frequently, and not just when it was forced upon us, we’d find the whole process would go more smoothly and comfortably.
  • And about that “sweet spot”. If we stay in it, rather than try the other gears available to us, we don’t develop skills or new muscle. We just get more efficient at what we already know how to do. Sometimes, stasis is what we’re after; however, growth is both more challenging and more fun.
  • Hills. Every life, every ride, has some. How we handle the climb – not the equipment we use – is what reveals our character. Its easy to psych ourselves out before we start the uphill, to think ourselves into failure. It’s even easier to let ourselves off the hook when we have something outside ourselves to blame (Really? A beach bike is NOT intended to do this…) The truth is, hills are conquered by perseverence and discipline applied with a dash of positude – by internal qualities, not equipment.
  • Equipment may not be what conquers the hills in life. But it does help to have the right stuff in good working order. Take care of what you have, pay attention to what it needs, lube it and wipe it down when necessary. Treat your equipment with loving care and attention, people!
  • Even a small adjustment can bring big changes. Just ask my quads. Shift your perspective and you work differently – you will feel and see different things.
  • Wide handlebars = open arms.This can make you feel vulnerable until you get used to them. And then you just feel open. Open and ready to embrace new experiences.




A RAGBRAI Story – Part 2

4 08 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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