Everyone, And No One, Is Alone

Last week I went with friends to see the movie “Into The Woods” at the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis. Afterwards, as we walked from our cars into a restaurant for dinner, one friend began making up her own silly lyrics to “No One Is Alone” a song from the musical. We laughed and sang made-up snippets for a few minutes. My contribution was “But I am alone! Regardless of your lyrics‚ĶWe are ALL alone!” After we all chuckled at that, I surprised myself by launching into a bit of a tirade on the subject.

“That song’s a crock, anyway!”, I exclaimed. “The truth is, everyone is alone. Everyone. We are all alone. That’s the reality of the human condition.” But we were in happy moods, and my outburst came across as humorous and less bitter than it might under other circumstances.

We ate dinner, talking and laughing – just enjoying the company of good friends. Later, when our waitress sensed we were finished with our meals and preparing to leave, she stopped at our table to ask how we would like the bill. I indicated that it should be split, my friends’ charges were together, while mine were separate. As she walked away from our table, I sang softly, “I will pay separately because…I am alone!” ¬†We erupted into laughter again.

After dinner, my friends and I parted, returning to our own homes. I felt full of the good fortune that comes with friendship and laughter, fueled by tasty food and energizing conversation. But as I prepared for bed, my thoughts turned to more sober reflections on aloneness. Underneath the evening’s laughter, I rediscovered a core paradox:

We are, each of us alone…

‚Ķwe are on our own when it comes to making the daily choices and decisions that define who we are – no matter how connected to others, only we can choose whether to be true to our deepest selves as we go about living each day; we can never truly know another person’s heart or mind, housed as we are in the solitude or our own, seeing with our own eyes through very personal filters; and (as I learned in existential philosophy courses in college) facing the end of our days – the great transformation known as death – is the ultimate solitary endeavor.

Yet we are, none of us, alone…

…we humans are built with a need for connection and community; we reach out in love and friendship toward others Рwe have families and tribes and neighbors; even when we are without direct interaction we have writers, artists, musicians whose work speaks to our hearts, whispering that we are understood; in moments of fear or despair, we often find unlooked-for hands reaching out to help or to soothe; and we have an internal urge to seek out an enlivening Spirit, sometimes known as God (which I learned in existential philosophy courses in college is a fallacious crutch, but which I have experienced as very real) a presence in our universe that accounts for countless moments of grace and giftedness is our lives.

That night, I dreamed a recurring dream I sometimes have.

In my dream, I have somehow come to be at the foot of a rocky wall of boulders and sheer cliff faces. On the plain atop the wall, is a place – and people – I need desperately to reach. The only way to get there, without miles of detouring on foot, is to climb. Even in my dreams, I have a healthy fear of heights. But there are many good hand- and foot-holds, my dreaming mind reasons, and I should be quite able to reach the top. And so I begin the arduous climb. As I pick my way upward, the climb seems to grow longer, becoming an endless upward path. Now that I am fully engaged, and more than partway up the scree, I have no choice but to continue climbing. My muscles fatigue, my body becomes weary and drenched with sweat. Just as my spirits flag and I begin to despair of reaching the top, I look up to see that I have finally progressed past the halfway point. This renews my energy, reminding me of the urgency of my quest. I climb with vigor, and feel myself equal to the task. However, in the first flush of self-congratulation, I look up a final time and see, to my sudden dismay, that the lip of the wall has extended out over the rocks I’m climbing.

I stop moving, clinging to my spot on the rocky slope, so close to my destination that I could touch the flat plain, except for the barrier that now extends over my head. I am flooded with disappointment, which quickly turns to despair. When I have dreamed this dream in the past, I have had to face the choice of climbing back down or of attempting a feat of physical prowess and strength that even my dreaming self knows is beyond me. Often, I wake at this point, my heart beating erratically and my breath labored.

But this night, something different transpires. As I cling there, scanning the rocky lip of the canyon, I notice a spot off to my right where the lip of smooth rock is broken. Under this spot are a couple of jagged rocks that, if I wedge my foot against them just right, might afford me the ability to reach the lip and haul myself up. Suddenly (and miraculously, as things sometimes happen in dreams) I remember that I have a bar towel in my back pocket. I remember a friend handing it to me in a flash of dream memory that hadn’t existed until that moment. I might, I reason, be able to fling the towel around some purchase at the top and use it to pull myself up the last bit. Though moving across the rock face is daunting, I now have a plan and my towel – so I face down my fears and scrabble sideways. Watching myself in the dream, I know it isn’t pretty as climbing goes. But it works, and I make it to the spot I have zeroed in on. Taking the towel from my back pocket, I look for some bit of rock or vegetation on the edge of the plain. Seeing none, I decide to blindly cast it up, an end in each hand like a very short jump rope. To my surprise, it catches! Relief sweeping through me, I lean away from the wall, my weight held by the towel, and pull myself up and onto the plain. The last thing I see before I wake from the dream is what the towel has caught on: not a rock or a stunted tree, as I had envisioned. But a human hand.

 

Lying in bed, the emotional residue of the dream floating in the atmosphere of my dark room, I  realize the Truth embedded in my dream: we are all alone in our climb, but none of us makes it successfully to the top without grasping the hand of another. Looking back at my own darkest moments, the light that appears and offers both help and hope is always shining from the face of someone else. Whether that light comes in the form of a helping hand, an unlooked-for gift, or a simple card reminding me that I am loved, it shines with enough power to illuminate a way forward or, at the very least, a way to regroup before the next push.

And because it is true that I have needed the help of others to survive and thrive, that I have relied on the hands that have stretched out toward me, it is vitally important that I strive to sometimes be that hand for someone else. I may not be able to fix their problems. I may not think I have applicable skills to offer “real” (or concrete) help. But I can offer something, even if only a friendly presence, encouragement, emotional support. Or more simply stated: love.

And this paradox, I see, is the truth of the human condition (though I doubt anyone will ever learn it in an existential philosophy course in college): we may be alone, but no one need be alone. A simple, but powerful, truth.

 

 

 

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

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 Р 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 Р83 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.

From Half to Whole

People¬†magazine’s annual “Half Their Size” issue is out (here). I noticed it while in line at the supermarket, then picked it up to take a closer look. The women who made it on the cover look good, having lost 137 and 126 pounds respectively. The subheadings read, “No surgery!” “No gimmicks!” I contemplated purchasing a copy, thinking, “Wow, I wonder how they did it?”

This question was not one of idle curiosity. The people being highlighted in the “Half Their Size” stories have accomplished something spectacular. I imagined reading their stories, ¬†learning the secrets of their successes, and finding something useful that would rub off on me.

And that’s when I stopped myself.

What was I thinking? My own weight loss total is 154 pounds (give or take a couple pounds on any given day) – a bigger number than either of the cover women put up. And I did it without surgery or gimmicks, too. This doesn’t mean I should no longer be interested in or celebrate other people’s weight loss journeys. What brought me up short, though, was the realization that I had just been thinking of these other people as “successful” and myself as “not”.

The reasons for that are complex, and I’ve been trying to sort them out in my head. One time some young friends asked me to help them untangle the embroidery threads they were hoping to use to weave friendship bracelets. Unpacking my thoughts and reactions to the “Half Their Size” issue has been a lot like untangling the mass of threads those kids handed me. So far, I’ve managed to separate a few threads from the rest:

  • Comparisons are at the root of discontent. Looking at what someone else has/has accomplished is a sure-fire way to feel less satisfied with what you have/have done. Not only does the grass look greener over there, but we are not privy to whatever is lurking below the surface. This is very true for physical appearance issues like weight – the women on the cover of People look great. When I look in the mirror, I see rolls and flab and the pounds that still need to be shed. But it is also true for our inner selves. Many people appear happy, positive, well-adjusted and relatively problem-free – in comparison to us.¬†When we look at our ourselves, we see the inner struggles, the warts and blemishes, the imperfect whole – and we end up feeling like an inferior mess. Comparing ourselves to others is a red-herring. It diverts our attention from our true focus, which is being our best selves.
  • Perfectionism derails a sense of accomplishment. Our culture regularly proclaims the importance of cultivating a relentless pursuit of excellence. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t strive for excellence. However, this push can cause us to denigrate “pretty damn good”, as if the only acceptable or worthy-of-cheering result is perfection. And if we do achieve something praiseworthy, we celebrate quickly and move on to the next challenge – “Woo hoo! What’s next?”
  • Failing to self-reflect keeps us in deficit-thinking. In our hurry to move on to the next thing, we don’t take the time to incorporate our new skills, achievements, recently discovered strengths into our self-definition. When we face a new hurdle, we forget that we have assets we worked hard to attain. Instead of seeing our real strength(s), we continue to operate from a sense of self that is outdated and underdeveloped.
  • Success and happiness are not the same thing. We often trip ourselves up by thinking that this thing or that accomplishment will make us happy. The truth is, we can be very successful at something that we don’t enjoy. We can also be very happy without meeting outward measures of success. The reason for this? Success is about what we do. Happiness resides in who we choose to be.

So, in the face of People’s “Half Their Size” issue, who am I choosing to be? I am choosing to be someone who can celebrate others’ success without downgrading my own. I’m choosing to remember that, regardless of what goals I have set for myself, I am already whole and valuable as I am. And I am choosing to find happiness inside my own heart and inside this present moment. I hope you are choosing well for yourselves, too!