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.





Defining Moments

14 06 2012

I have a friend from college who is on an extended vacation in Berlin. His Facebook posts paint little scenes for us, snippets of his experiences. He writes of many ghosts: in the apartment where he is staying; in the old graveyard where half the plots are tended and the other half are (mysteriously) overgrown and wild; the whispering voices of history on the Reichstag lawn at 2 a.m.

Tonight, I have my own voices from the past whispering in my ears.

Today is the anniversary of the 2008 floods which swept through Cedar Rapids, the worst natural disaster in Iowa’s history. I’ll never forget it. For more than a year beforehand, my colleagues and I had worked to put together a campus crisis/disaster plan. That planning team, and our many meetings, is where some of my best friends and most valued colleagues were cultivated. And when the flood hit our town, and the plan we had created was enacted…I was hiking in the desert southwest.

That day my parents and I were in the mountains visiting a chain of remote national monuments, old Spanish missions. At each stop, the ranger at the information desk would ask, “Where you folks from?”, and my Dad would say, “Albuquerque. But our daughter is visiting from Cedar Rapids.” And every single person asked, “Isn’t that where they’re having that terrible flood?” Each time, I felt my sense of panic ratchet up a notch. I was not where I needed to be.

It’s interesting to look back at your own life and find those moments just before something big changes. Just before your perspective shifts, creating a new way of looking at the world around you.

There were many changes to Cedar Rapids, to the lives of people who live here, brought about by the flood. I would never want to minimize the difficulties and ways people suffered. For me, though, the flood changed something deep inside: for the first time, after living here for years, I thought of Cedar Rapids as my home town. And myself as part of this community.

I’ve written about perspective before (here): how hard it is to keep, how it can be regained in a moment of stunned reaction to a major life event. It is especially difficult to maintain perspective when we live cocooned in the false notion of self-reliance. When we think we are in “it” by ourselves, whether “it” is our job, raising our children, living through a serious illness, or simply trying to get through the day. The truth, hard as it is to hang on to when we feel alone, is that we are not alone.

This sense of being part of a community has only grown in me over the years since the flood. I didn’t suddenly start seeing Cedar Rapids as my dream city, or the only place I could ever live. However, I’ve come to understand that community transcends place, while it is also grounded in a place. We call that place “home”.





Andy Warhol, Goethe, and Me

22 03 2012

“They always say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”

                                                                                                                                              — Andy Warhol

 

They always say…

Even though we can’t name them by name, can’t even generally define who they are, we all tend to have an amorphous “They” who exert extreme influence over us. They will think I’m stupid. They will judge me. They will be sure to spout all kinds of ridiculous opinions which cause me to question myself.

Don’t even get me started on the “always-es” and the “nevers-es”. They are full of those polarizing words, too.

They don’t know how to stop talking. Never mind how often it is in the voices of real people versus how often it is voices in our heads. They always have something to say to put us in our place.

…time changes things…

Time is such an interesting construct.

If you stand still, it will act like a stream which flows around you, the water moving, things floating past, but you stay in essentially the same place. Other things change, but you do not.

If you think of Time as a stream, and you try to move with the current, you may find you have moved but you are still surrounded by the things that you started with, because they moved with the same current. Nothing is essentially different, except that years have passed.

Time can also be a riptide, pulling you along in whatever direction it is moving. You have to be aware, not panicked – deliberate in your movements – in order to move where you hope to go, rather than where time is taking you. What time changes is mostly external to you. Internal change is like learning to swim out of a riptide.

…you actually have to change them yourself.

This is the daunting truth. The truth that stops us from actually creating change in our lives – we have to do it ourselves. And we know it will take hard work, sacrifice, and a willingness to stay the course when we are mostly used to taking an easier path.

The joy that I’ve discovered, though, is this: the internal voices, the imagined “they”, may clamor loudly at first, belittling your desire to change. But the external voices, the real people around you? They will come forward with a generosity of spirit that takes your breath away. They appear from unexpected quarters to cheer you on, to support your effort, to be part of the positive difference in your life. I know this both from personal experience, and from the many others who have shared with me their own experiences of bringing big change to their lives. They, your giving supporters, may not be the people you anticipated would be there for you. They may, in fact, be people you thought of as incidental to your life. Nonetheless, a new crowd of voices will develop to uplift you and to combat the negative voices you listened to in the past.

The second, almost magical, truth about deep change (especially if you are a late bloomer, like me) is what it does for your concept of time. You begin to learn that time doesn’t have to be a stream or a riptide. It can be a deep pool, in which you float in a relaxed but aware state. There is no past, there is no future, there is this moment. Every moment, as you live it.

If you are wondering whether you can change, whether there is a way to create a life more in line with the one you dream of living, the answer is simply YES. And yes, you actually have to do it yourself. But the first step, the beginning, is the hardest part. And many things will come together to assist you once you set your step to that path in a committed way.

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!”
                   — W. H. Murray, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition




Compliments and Doubts

15 09 2011

Most days, someone tells me I look great. Usually, it is someone I haven’t seen in a week or two, sometimes longer. After many years of rarely being told this, it felt really good at first. Then it began to make me uncomfortable. My internal pendulum keeps swinging, from delight to chagrin at the number and level of compliments. Mostly, I try to acknowledge the compliment and move on to other topics, knowing that the compliment-givers are expressing care and support, wanting to celebrate my successes with me.

Lately, though, I have begun to think about this surplus of compliments and a new discomfort is surfacing: I wonder what I will feel when they stop coming?  Inevitably, I will come to the end of this seemingly endless weight loss marathon (hopefully by reaching my goals). I will stop looking different to those who haven’t seen me for a few weeks or months, my “new” self will become my “old” self.

How much have I come to enjoy these favorable comments on my physical appearance? How much have I been relying on them to feel good about myself and my slow progress? How much energy have I been focusing on my outward appearance? Too much? Am I more vain than I used to be?

Having spent most of my life being unhappy in my own skin, feeling dowdy or fat or just plain unattractive, I’ve taken refuge in thinking I’m above all that superficial stuff. “Looks don’t matter, its what’s inside that counts.” “I’d rather be smart than pretty.”  I might be fat, I’ve sometimes thought, but at least I’m not shallow. (No, never shallow!)

One day, not too long ago, I wore new clothes to work. I thought I looked pretty good, as I conducted that last quick check in the mirror on my way out the door. But no one commented on my new outfit, or how I looked in it. By 11 a.m., I was wondering if I was wrong. Maybe the new clothes weren’t as flattering as I thought. Perhaps they were in bad taste. Maybe I actually looked hideous, and people were kindly refraining from telling me so. I hurried to the restroom, the closest mirror that would show me more than whether lipstick had gotten on my teeth, to see. And there I was, looking the same as I had in the mirror at home. Was that good or bad?

As I’ve grappled with this concern – am I becoming more superficial and vain – I’ve come to a realization. Even though I went decades without feeling good about my own physical appearance, I was always focused on it to a degree. I live in and am part of a culture where this matters. We all do: Spanx, padded bra manufacturers, and Ulta stores are banking on that, for sure. Accepting that, the issue then becomes one of degree. To what degree will I allow my physical appearance, and the comments of others about it, to determine my sense of self-worth and satisfaction?

It feels good to feel good about how I look. I don’t need to look perfect, nor do I allow how I look on any given day to determine my agenda anymore – no more skipping things I want to do because I don’t want people to see me a certain way. (Maybe even if the event involves bathing suits.) And when it comes to compliments, I’ve been paying closer attention to my emotional response and I’ve discovered that my response mirrors the depth of the compliment. So, perhaps, my ego is taking things in stride, after all (as opposed to becoming a voracious compliment-hungry monster). I’ve also noticed that I am more likely now to compliment others on a wide range of things – from kindnesses I witness, to their successes, and yes, their appearance. Everyone appreciates being recognized and congratulated for things they’ve taken pains with.

The other day, a colleague came up to me in the dining room at work. She said, “I don’t know if I’ve had a chance to tell you this, but you look amazing…just so happy and so healthy! It is wonderful to see you like this.”  This particular comment really touched me, because happy and healthy are what I’ve been striving for and working so hard to achieve. Looking better, though also nice, is just a side benefit!





A RAGBRAI Story – Part 1

3 08 2011

A Saturday afternoon, July or August, 1978, Loveland, Ohio (just outside Cincinnati). Flipping through the television channels, my father and I start watching a documentary. It is about a bike ride across the state of Iowa – our home state, which we still love. More of the family wanders in while we watch, and by the end of the show at least my Dad and I are convinced: RAGBRAI (The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) is the coolest thing ever. We SO want to do it (never mind the small fact that neither of us rides our bikes voluntarily.)

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8:15 a.m. Friday morning, July 29, 2011. My friend and training partner, Sarah, and I crested a hill on Highway 6, outside of Grinnell, Iowa. Morning fog was just burning off the cornfields covering the rolling hills which spread off in every direction. We looked at each other, grinning, but also misty-eyed. A brightly colored river of people on bicycles, its current weaving and undulating, was visible for miles ahead on the pavement that lay before us. We were finally riding on RAGBRAI!

For every rider on RAGBRAI, there are two narratives: one that is purely individual and another which is all about community. The individual narrative is about the motivation, preparation, and determination required to successfully complete what can be a physically grueling test of endurance (even for someone, like me, only riding one 75 mile day of the week-long event). In all of my training rides, every mile I rode leading up to that morning’s start in Grinnell, I thought that this individual story was the story. I was completely inside my own head.  Had I progressed far enough away from the 350+ pound sedentary couch potato I once was to successfully complete this challenge? At 50? For me, this individual story is an important one – but it pales by comparison to the other narrative – the one about community that took me by surprise and brought me to tears numerous times throughout the day.

The second story began at 5:16 a.m. when I was standing in my driveway, in my bike shorts and Mustang jersey, trying not to freak out because my ride and the other bicyclist embarking with us, weren’t there yet. Then I heard a honking horn and my friends, Layne and Kristen, shouting “Yeah, Mustangs! RAGBRAI here we come! Woo Hoo!” Did my neighbors appreciate this serenade? Doubtful. But it brought a smile to my face. We loaded my stuff, and my friend Tricia’s, into the back of the borrowed pickup truck, then rendezvoused with the two other trucks loaded with our team and their bikes.

Once we arrived in Grinnell via gravel roads (the main access to town was blocked due to RAGBRAI), it was time to wipe off the road dust, pump up the tires, and meet the rest of “Team Mustang” at the park in town. Before leaving the park, our “road crew” got out the sharpie markers and wrote on our legs, telling the other 10,000 riders that I was celebration turning 50. Talk about a birthday celebration – nothing like having hundreds of birthday wishes shouted to you by passing strangers! Anyway, at 8:02, it was time to mount up and take off. We rode through town to the cheers and well-wishes of Grinnell’s citizens.

There are so many details of that day etched in my mind. I would love to share them all, but in the interest of time, I will share those which most illuminate the story about community. My friends Colette, Wendy and Tricia chose to participate on the ride primarily to join me in the celebration of my birthday. They, too, have their own individual narratives about the ride, but I know that they chose to put themselves through the experience in support of me. Sarah spent countless hours with me, the slow-but- slowly-improving rider, leading up to the day. While we were separated on the road, it helped to know that, somewhere in that sea of polyester and spandex, were people who love me.

We met up with our support team again in Marengo (the halfway point) for lunch and some much needed companionship – not to mention rest. I was daunted by the morning’s ride. Not ready in any way to give up, but very unsure if I had the reserves to finish the day. Truthfully, after the initial happiness of seeing the group together again, we were all a bit sober – having discovered that the day would be harder than we anticipated. But the hour we spent, eating and laughing on a stranger’s front lawn, reminded us that we were in it together, no matter how alone we necessarily were in pedaling our bikes. We left Marengo in a pack of matching blue and gold jerseys, to the cries of “Go Mustangs” from passing cyclists.

After lunch, I lost Tricia, who had been my riding partner most of the morning. I rode the entire first leg of the afternoon on my own. The road from Marengo to Homestead, Amanas, was a long, flat one. It wound through a valley so beautiful that I could not believe my good fortune – no hills AND the best of Iowa to look at! My spirits lifted, and I was so overcome by gratitude, I pulled out my phone and called my parents in New Mexico just to tell them how amazing it was. I wanted my Dad to know that we were right, back in 1978 – RAGBRAI is the coolest thing ever!

Heading into Homestead was a long hill, but I could hardly complain after the miles of flat terrain just completed. I shifted into low gear and took as long as I needed to crest the hill. Just as I did, my phone rang – my friends were in Homestead and waiting for me in the beer tent!

In front of the concession tents were hundreds, maybe thousands, of bikes. Some were very expensive, most had bags attached crammed with valuable items for the ride. Not one was locked. Such was the community feeling. The party in the beer tent was one of the happiest I’ve ever participated in. Not one person looked anything but sweaty, dirty, tired and completely exuberant. As the Mustang team congregated, the live band performed “Mustang Sally” for us. Amid the dancing and cheering, every 50 year old woman in the tent found me to wish me a happy birthday and offer me a drink (which I politely declined because I don’t trust myself to drink and ride). Serendipitously, I literally ran into a college friend, Sue Sweeney, whom I hadn’t seen in 30 years. But it was the hugs and congratulations of my teammates and friends that put joy in my heart. When Ryan Scheckel, who had been sleeping off the effects of the previous day’s ride (and party) finally caught up with us, proudly wearing his Mustang jersey, I thought the day was complete.

Except that we still had 25 miles to go. And the final 17 were expected to be the hardest, with over 1,000 feet of uphill climb.

(Tomorrow: Part 2)





In Recovery

12 05 2011

On university campuses, May is a time of dinners, receptions, celebrations of many stripes. It is also the time when colleagues, holed up in offices all winter, emerge blinking in the sun, and greet one another with exclamations of “I haven’t seen you in so long!” At one such occasion the other night, I was happy to see the wife of one of our Deans, whom I hadn’t seen in, well, so long. She said, “You look fabulous! How have you done it?”

Normally, when people ask me that question, I assume they are interested in a short answer – diet and exercise OR bariatric surgery. So I generally respond, “The old-fashioned way.” For some reason, on this particular occasion, I launched into a longer and less clear explanation. I found myself telling her that I had refused for many years to take a real look at WHY I was fat. That, in fact, I preferred to believe that the only plausible reason was that I was engineered that way. I definitely wasn’t one of those people who was overweight for psychological or emotional reasons. I told her that I finally had to take a hard look at myself and evaluate my irrational thinking.

Last night, I attended a presentation being offered as part of our pre-finals “Stress Buster Week”, in which a panel of guests shared their personal stories of alcoholism and recovery. As I listened, for the first time it struck me just how much my relationship with food mirrored their relationships with alcohol. One panelist stated, “For most people, a few drinks quenches their desire or need for more. For an alcoholic, a few drinks just makes you more thirsty.” Substitute “food” for the word “drinks” in those sentences, and they will be true for me. In the same session, I heard the panelists say:

  • I knew I wasn’t normal. When I was drinking was the only time I felt normal.
  • Teachers and speakers told us alcohol was evil. But alcohol comforted me, so I wasn’t willing to do anything about it.
  • I drank in secret whenever I could get away with it. As long a no one saw me drink, I didn’t have a problem.
  • I was so ashamed.

Wow. These statements were all eerily familiar to me as well. I know there is a group called Overeaters’ Anonymous, patterned after A.A. I never considered joining, and when it was suggested to me periodically, I always said, “I’m just not a joiner.” Denial much?! And, if I am completely honest with myself, I wanted to distance myself from all those fat people. After all, I wasn’t one of them. I may have been fat, but that didn’t make me like those other people – I was smart and educated and never bought more than one value meal for myself at McDonalds. The fact that I looked upon others who struggled with the same issues as me with such repugnance is a testament to the irrationality of my thinking, and to the power of my addiction. I didn’t want to give it up, and if I admitted to having problems, I would be forced to face that food was just my drug of choice.

Another thing the panelists said last night that made me nod in agreement:  “The whole forever thing really tripped me up. To get better, I would have to stop drinking for the rest of my life. No way I was going to do that!” In order to truly face my addiction to food, I knew that the lifestyle changes I  needed to make would have to be lifelong. I read in one article that overweight women my age would need to work out 60-90 minutes a day, every day, for the rest of their lives to lose the weight and keep it off. Talk about a daunting prospect. Plus, I would need to maintain a change in my relationship to food – no more whole pizzas or whole bags of cheddar goldfish in a single sitting. In fact, I may have to forego some foods altogether if I couldn’t learn to control the portions. Yes, I definitely saw myself in the panelists’ struggle to come to terms with their addictions.

But here’s the really amazing thing: each member of the panel HAS faced his or her addiction, with incredibly positive and powerful results. Listening to their stories of living in recovery, and the positive changes that have taken place across all facets of their lives I started nodding along. I recognized myself in this part of the story as well. As I sat there, I was suffused with an overpowering sense of gratitude for each of our stories. I almost said, “for the happy endings to each of our stories”, but if I’ve learned anything (either in the last couple of years or from last night’s speakers), there is no happy ending to our stories. Our lives continue as stories being told one sentence at a time. One of the panelists summed it up, perfectly, “I take it one day at a time. Because I know that if I succeed today, tomorrow will be better.”





Collected Works

29 07 2010

Potlucks.  I cannot say how many times in my life I’ve inwardly groaned at the thought of attending one.  And not only because I’m too lazy to make a covered dish to bring, though I am.  The thought of eating a mish-mash of food I generally wouldn’t serve at home, and making small talk with a bunch of people crammed in a room somewhere…well, you can tell from my description that I haven’t been much of a fan of the whole potluck experience.

That may be changing.

Today, my little house was filled to overflowing with people who arrived in a swarm (like a plague of benevolent locusts?!), set out food and condiments, made themselves at home and generally settled in for a good, old-fashioned eatfest.  Except that the food included delicious salads, fruit, low-fat key-lime pie, and fresh corn dip (alongside the traditional brownies, better than sex cake, pulled pork sandwiches, and chips).

Ok, so I was actually hosting a potluck (to celebrate my own birthday, nonetheless).  But as I looked around, at friends and colleagues talking and laughing, all jammed in the living room to be together rather than spread out in the small seating areas I had arranged throughout the main floor rooms, I had a moment of clarity.  Potlucks celebrate community, and the community seated in my living room is one we have been creating for a long time.

We have shared road trips, disasters (both natural and of human creation), births, traumas, bike rides, weddings and karaoke nights.  We have shared the range of human emotions, we have offered words of comfort and support.  We have made each other laugh when feelings of anger, sadness, or hopelessness threatened to overwhelm.  Not each person in the room has been part of every one of these events, but that’s how communities work: they share the load — whether that is the work of preparing food or the effort of finding a smile on a tough day.

Not to worry, I didn’t spend all my time lost in introspection — mostly I enjoyed the event and the moment I was in.  But later in the evening, in Iowa City, Wendy and I wandered into a shop which sells a line of greeting cards that really appealed to me.  One spoke to me in a particular way about the day’s events.  It says, “Some people call them decades — I prefer to call them my ‘collected works’.” (Curly Girl Design/Leigh Standly)  And it struck me that being a part of my community of friends, being one of the weavers of this large web of relationships, is a part of my “collected works” I’m both proud of and immensely humbled by.  And I will take every opportunity to celebrate this — even if it means becoming a fan of the traditional potluck.