Monday, August 31, 2009

Changing Minds

Friday was Dad's 78th birthday. We did a birthday dinner that night, but yesterday was the real celebration.

Last Sunday we noticed that the bike shop in Rocheport rents a contraption with four wheels and chair-like seats--perfect for taking Mom and Dad on the trail. We knew Mom would love it and hoped Dad would agree on that basis. He agreed, but he didn't like the idea.

On Saturday, he drew me into a discussion of all the things that could go wrong. We had all those bases covered. He followed up with, "Our meals will get messed up. Your mother needs to eat every two hours."

"No problem. I'm making a picnic for the ride over and we'll eat again right after we ride."

That satisfied him for about five minutes.

"What about the dogs? We never leave Tuffie alone for more than a couple hours. She can't be alone all day."

"No problem. Evan's going to come play with the dogs and let them out."

He finally ran out of problems and, once again, reluctantly agreed to the plan.

On Sunday, he dragged his feet every step of getting ready but eventually got into the car. The first thing he had to do when we arrived was go to the bathroom. Inside, he dropped his hat. When Brendan went to retrieve the hat from the bathroom floor, someone had peed on it. Deb bought a new ballcap to solve the crisis.

After a great deal of commotion, we got all three bike/carts on the road--Brendan pedaling for Dad, Meghan for Mom, and me for Deb. Jim and Liz followed on regular bikes.

We clattered down the trail toward a 25-foot tunnel bored through the rocky cliff. When we made it through the tunnel, we turned to go back along the cliffs above the river. When Brendan and Dad passed us, I asked, "Are you having fun, Dad?"

"Not yet. I'll let you know if any fun happens." The look on his face was slightly less grumpy, but only slightly.

When we reached the cliffs, Dad's head was hanging back in amazement. When we reached broad vistas of the river, he nearly fell out, straining to see as much as possible. We stopped to see an old mine shack built into the cliff (the railroad once stored explosives in these shacks/caves) and he insisted on scrambling up the rocky trail to peer inside.

Brendan and Dad stayed at the mine shack longer than the rest of us. We pedaled on at a brisk clip for a bit, then turned to see Brendan pedaling furiously to not only catch but pass all of us. Sweat was flying off his red face and his legs were little more than a blur. Beside him, Dad looked like he was riding in the Popemobile. He gave each of us a huge, benevolent smile and a parade wave as he passed. We didn't catch them until we turned around a mile or so later.

"Now I'm having fun," Dad said.

Back in town, our first stop was the bathroom again. Someone waited for Dad while we took the bikes back. When we gathered at the cars, Dad held up one hand for silence. When everyone settled, he announced, "I was wrong. You guys were right. This was wonderful, and I'm glad you made me do it."

Dad wants us to take them again in a few weeks to see the fall colors. Apparently, leaves aren't the only things that can change.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Fair State

Nancy took my daughter—our daughter—to the MN State Fair yesterday. They both love the state fair. (I do not.)

When they discovered their mutual love for food-on-a-stick and barns full of critters, they talked about going together but Katie hadn't mentioned anything about it recently. Yesterday, she called when she got back to describe their day together. It was the first I'd heard of this adventure.

Every other time they've gotten together, I've played some part in the planning or execution or something. I've known beforehand and helped Katie think things through or work things out or get ready. Now, they're handling all that for themselves. That's how it should be—I am not and should not be part of the relationship they're building.

Even though I understand that and even though I tried my best to remain semi-sane, something hot and green and scratchy rose in my chest as Katie told stories about the fun she and Nancy and Marilyn (Nancy's mother) had together. I am genuinely happy for her at the same time I'm miserable for myself. I got through the conversation normally but gave in to tears the moment the phone snapped shut.

When I stopped crying, I decided I was hungry and picked up the phone to order a pizza. Something deep inside me said no to that plan. I cried some more while searching the pantry for chocolate. My hands were full of butter and chocolate when recognition set in: Chocolate cookies cannot transform me into my children's only mother.

My one-word text to Jim was an SOS: Ride? His "Sounds good" was a life raft.

Within 10 minutes, I was pedaling furiously down the highway, racing the rain and the pain and the clock. When I reached the relative safety of the trail, the tears rose again. A few stray raindrops and beads of sweat and tears of self-pity streamed off my face, into a wind I hoped would carry them to "where the river meets the almighty sea," that place where "all the clouds are taught to fly" and "in our hearts we'll understand." I do so want to understand.

At the park, Jim graciously ignored the state I was in and followed me down the trail. We cruised back to the car an hour later with just enough light to get the bikes racked safely. He dropped me at home and went off to his Thursday night poker game.

Molly didn't whisper any answers as we traveled, but she did carry me away from the false comfort of cheese and chocolate. She bore the weight of my sadness. She forced me to maintain my balance despite my fear. For today, that's fair enough.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Mud Pie

The rain won in the end: Wednesday night's ride was more like mud wrestling.

Less than a mile into it, we were dirty; two miles in, we were filthy. By the time we pulled into the parking lot for wine and snacks, my legs, butt and back were nearly covered with mud. I even had flecks in my hair and on my face.

It was wonderful.

Liz and Brendan and I rode together. We practically flew across the trail, collecting sprays of mud in puddles here and there. Then we rode to the bottom of an underpass. Game on. 20 yards of slimy mud, 2 inches deep. Our tires skidded and twisted this way and that. We each managed to get through, but only barely. Mud caked our tires, making them twice as wide and three times as heavy as normal. We turned around, skirted the mud, and started back. When we picked up speed on the first downhill stretch, mud blew off our tires in every direction. My face took the worst of it.

At a bridge, Brendan got mired in a muddy spot. I was following too closely and ended up having to choose between hitting a barricade, some broken beer bottles, or the deck. I put the bike down and ended up flat. Laughing wildly, I stood and surveyed the damage. Nothing broken. No blood. It was all good.

Someone in the group thought to bring hand sanitizer. Not surprisingly, the woman who usually brings dozens of white wash cloths did not trot them out. We cleaned up the best we could and opened the wine.

For the better part of an hour, 25 or so of us stood around the back of a pickup, eating and drinking, talking and laughing. We compared filth levels. We caught up on one another's weeks. We talked about interesting trails nearby.

One woman, a speech pathologist who recently launched a private practice after 20 years in a school system, started working with a young child with autism this week. Last week she mentioned how nervous she was about working with a child so much younger than her typical clients. When I asked how it had gone, tears welled in her eyes. "I hoped you'd be here tonight, and I hoped we'd get to talk," she said. "You don't know what it means to me that you remembered."

We talked for 10 minutes about what she had done and what she hopes to do with this little boy. She beamed almost the entire time.

Full darkness fell, forcing us to clean up and clear out. Brendan and Liz and Jim and I climbed into the truck, still laughing. I still had several hours of work to do, but it didn't matter. I plowed through easily, powered by adrenaline and mud pie.

Happy. Happy. Joy. Joy.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Racing the Rain

The sky was clear and sunny when I decided to ride from Mom's house to mine but clouds had gathered by the time I got everything together. Rolling down the driveway, I considered turning back.

At the trailhead, the clouds were thick and menacing and the air smelled like rain. I pushed hard every inch of the six miles across the trail and even harder down the three miles of highway. Surrounded by cornfields and straddling a hunk of metal, I scanned the sky for lightning. My legs hit a rhythm: round and down, round and down. Harder. Faster. Now. Now. Now.

Stray raindrops bounced off my helmet. The headlights of the cars coming toward me flashed in my eyes. My breath came faster and faster. Another mile. Windshield wipers flapped on approaching cars, but I wasn't getting wet. Turning at the stoplight, leaning farther into the corner than I've ever dared, momentum carried me up the hill.

In moments, Molly and I reached the driveway. I punched the garage door opener in my pocket and rode straight in. The skies opened before the garage door closed—crazy, splashing, driving rain.

I won. I raced the rain and won. Victory is sweet.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Picture This

Yes, I should post pictures. And I will. The problem is that I lost the cable to connect my camera to my computer. Then I bought a gizmo to do the job and now can't find that, either. I specifically remember putting it "where I can't lose it," the kiss of death in my world. Let me put something "somewhere safe," and it will never be seen again by human eyes.

My main set of house and car keys is missing, too—has been since Christmas. I distinctly remember putting the keys down, thinking, "That's a bad place to put those keys. I'll never remember where they are." I don't.

It isn't just the camera cable and the keys that have been missing. I've been AWOL from my own life, lost in a depression so thick and deep I forgot about the light. The forgetting was the worst—you don't look for things you don't remember.

At the end of June when—by some miracle—I got on my bike and rode away, I left a mess behind. The table beside the red leather chair was littered with stuff that had been there so long I'd stopped seeing it as a problem. I couldn't actually walk into my generous walk-in closet or see one square inch of the expansive bathroom counter. I'd stopped eating on the breakfast bar because it was stacked with paper that had been there since February.

With every blow that landed over the last year or so—Katie finding her birth parents and Dad hitting end stage COPD and loved ones getting sick and publishing falling apart—I shrank into my head a little more. I'd left my body for anything but the most practical purposes, like walking the dog or carrying in groceries for Mom and Dad. I ate for comfort, searching for something that simply cannot be found in cheese or chocolate.

When what you need is a hug and what you get is chocolate chip cookies, how many does it take? I can't count that high.

Molly rolled me into a breeze that blew away the cobwebs. With clearer eyes, I see the problems and I'm working on the solutions. It may not be magic, but damn—it's magical. And when I find the cable or the gizmo, I'll show you.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Beautiful Katy

Yesterday was not a typical summer day in MO—clear blue skies, almost no humidity, and a high of 77 degrees. About 11:00 am, I hatched the idea of driving the 120 miles to Rocheport, MO to ride part of the Katy Trail. Brendan and Liz, Deb and Jim and I were on the road by noon. (Deb's still slightly S-shaped and can't ride, but she was fine to come along.)

The Katy Trail, which runs across Missouri from St. Charles to Clinton, is the longest rail-to-trail in the country. The guidebook says it's a flat, straight, easy ride. The guidebook does not lie.

The guidebook does not do it justice, either. You ride at the base of 100-foot limestone cliffs filled with caves and fascinating structures. Above you, springs drip from rocks covered with deep-green moss sculptures; trees twist out of solid stone, rooted to almost nothing and stretching to the sun; the woods turn primeval beyond the sunny borders. Below you, the river roars and rumbles, tosses and tumbles toward the sea.

In the first mile, we spent as much time taking pictures as pedaling.

I've hiked and biked and explored a lot of North America in the last 15 years. I've been in more majestic places, more breathtaking, but haven't seen much that's flat-out prettier than the Katy Trail from Rocheport to McBaine, MO. If the weather and circumstances are with me, I'm going back next Sunday to ride the opposite direction. We hear you travel through a 250-foot tunnel bored into the hills.

Last night I dreamed I was back riding that narrow ribbon between earth and water—a flying dream, really. It had that same fearless power, the thrilling freedom, the effortless rush. The thing is, this dream is real and the feeling waits for me on the Katy Trail.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Friday night we rode 11 miles to a favorite Mexican restaurant for dinner.

Saturday morning we rode 10 miles carrying a picnic breakfast--fruit and nuts and mini-muffins I baked at dawn.

Today we're riding 22 miles, stopping for lunch at the 11 mile mark.

Do you think our destinations be the reason I'm not losing much weight, despite all the riding?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Putting the S in Sister

My sister is shaped like an S again.

Deb has a congenital weakness in her back and has to be careful with it. Moderation does not run in our family, and it's particularly shallow in her veins. This means she ends up flat on her back from time to time. Last summer she had the worst bout ever, one in which her head and shoulders appeared to be walking beside her hips and legs—a distinct S. She was in terrible pain and could not get out of bed for almost two weeks.

From the time she started riding with me in July, her goal was to ride as far or farther than I do. When she worked up to 5 miles the first time, she braked at the end, turned to me and said, "I could ride all the way to your house. Just like you. I could do that." First words out of her mouth.

Last year, Deb's son Brendan taught us to play poker. I didn't really get it and didn't enjoy it. Deb, on the other hand, couldn't get enough. That first night she stayed up until 3:00 am, determined to win one hand. She could not got to bed until she beat him once.

That's all I could think of when she wanted to ride the 8 miles from Mom's to my house, something I do almost daily. She was not going to be able to rest until she did it.

Truthfully, it irritated me just a little. And then I remembered a bowling outing we had at the publishing company where I used to work. Every time it was my turn, I burned with embarrassment. All I could think of was how bad I am at sports and how much of a klutz I am. I hated standing alone in the lane in front of everyone. I hated waiting to see what pins fell. I hated the score coming up on the big lighted screen for everyone to see. Every turn seemed to confirm my inadequacy.

When we got to the end, someone added up all the scores and ranked them. Out of 20 people, my score was third from the top. I had no idea. None. I'd spent the whole afternoon trying not to be the worst, with no idea I was one of the best.

And so, when Deb wanted to make that trip, I heard her not wanting to be the worst. I knew she shouldn't push it, knew she wasn't ready to ride 8 miles after riding 5 only once. I also understood why it was so important to her.

We made the trip a week ago Friday. She hasn't been able to ride since. This Friday, she got out of bed shaped like an S again. The doctor said she had pushed too hard and told her not to ride for another week. He thinks riding is a very good idea, just not so much so fast. She's in pain and I feel terrible.

Friday, August 21, 2009

500 Days of Summer

Do yourself a favor--go see 500 Days of Summer. Don't go expecting great art or a lasting message or a life-changing event. Just go ready to laugh and commiserate. Admire Zooey Deschanel's crazy blue eyes and fabulous dresses. Wonder why Joseph Gordon-Levitt wears one pair of shoes into a party and another pair out.

At matinee prices, the could-have-been-cheesy-but-turns-out-delightful scene where Joseph dances down the street is worth the price of the ticket.

Overlook the convenient ending.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Wednesday night is my new favorite night of the week.

We ride back into the parking lot, hot and sticky. Moments later, one of the riders opens a cooler filled with frozen wash cloths.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Along the Way

Twelve miles this morning, six on a well traveled highway. The trash lining the ditches caught my attention. Twenty-seven Bush Light cans, dotted about every 100 yards, all new looking, all crunched in the same strange way. (The implications of that aren't scary at all.) One box from a 72-inch big screen TV. Two used condoms. Eighteen McDonalds cups. Three banana peels. Dozens and dozens of plastic bags.

Pepsi drinkers seem to have less respect for the environment than Coke drinkers—3 to 1, I'd say. Missourians still drink a LOT of bottled water. Someone in eastern Jackson County is missing one brown sock.

Pink Boots Guy emailed a few weeks ago to invite me to a gathering of friends at his lake cabin next weekend. I politely declined. He wrote again today, offering to send me a plane ticket. I declined again, but tonight, as I crawl into a solitary bed in a silent house, I wonder about the things I've tossed out along the way.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Just a Bucket

One black sandal. Set aside and hope to find mate.

Two paper cups. Toss in trash.

Three mismatched socks. Put in laundry and hope to find mates.

Four chrome contraptions of unknown origin or purpose. Hide in bottom of trash and try not to feel guilty.

Five gallons of dirt. Commit vandalism.

9:00 pm Saturday night. I hoist a bucket of dirt into Paula's back seat and drive out into the rain. Two years ago, I dug up a spot to plant a couple perennials and didn't know what to do with the dirt. At the old house, I would have dragged it down to the marshy land behind the house.

Here, manicured grass runs down to the bank of the pond. I put the dirt in the bucket and the bucket in the garage and tripped over it for two flippin' years. No telling how many times I've looked at that dirt and missed my old yard, my old life. It became a symbol of not just how different life is now but how stuck I felt about it all. I didn't know what to do, so I did nothing.

It is way past time to deal with the dirt. I drive to a field beside a neighborhood under construction (or at least, a neighborhood that was under construction when things were still being built) and park on a paved street as far as possible from the street lights. I sit for a few minutes, heart pounding, watching for cars in the distance. Nothing but blackness in every direction. I pull the key, open the door, and slide the seat forward. Hauling the bucket from the back seat, I pinch my finger between the bail and the door and bite my lips to keep from squealing.

Three steps past the curb, I dump the dirt into the weeds. Such a small heap. It's nothing. No one could possibly care about such a little mound of dirt in a field that still needs to be graded. I could have done this two years ago. I should have done this two years ago.

The bucket makes a hollow thunk when I toss it back into the car. I leap in and pull away quickly then slow down, afraid of drawing attention. Half-way home, lights stab my eyes from the rear view mirror. I shrink down into the seat and practice my speech: "Just a little dirt, Officer. From my garden." But nothing happens. No red lights. No siren. No problem. When the car turns off, I breathe for the first time in several minutes.

Back home by 9:10. I wash out the bucket and put it on one of the new shelves, no longer a symbol of anything. Just a bucket.

Score Another One for Molly

In the Great Transition, I bought my house in Missouri in November of 2004 but didn't move here until July of 2005. It was actually cheaper to own the house down here for that time than to put my stuff in storage while we lived in an apartment after we closed on the old house.

Some of you may remember that I moved here after buying a salon and spa in partnership with my sister. Some of you may also remember that the experience did not go as I hoped and I've been a little...shall we say...disappointed in some of what I've learned about my sister.

It started before I even got here. Deb called one day and asked if I'd mind if she stored a few boxes of shampoo in my garage. Given that I didn't live here yet, there was no reason not to use the garage. But the next time I came down, I couldn't even walk through my garage. Every square inch was filled with bags and boxes and storage racking she'd removed from the retail side of the salon; buckets of hooks and shelf hangers littered the floor; a display piece for makeup we no longer sold hovered in one corner.

Surprised but not terribly annoyed, I presumed she had a plan for getting all that mess out of my garage before I moved here. I was wrong.

For the first six months I lived here, I parked in the driveway because my garage was still crammed with junk. After someone broke into my car and stole my laptop in my own driveway, I had a slight meltdown and insisted Deb and her son Brendan (who put the stuff there in the first place) come help me move at least enough stuff that I could park in the garage.

For three years, I've been annoyed by that garage. Every time I come in or out, I invest a few moments in irritation—ranging from mild annoyance to outright outrage. When I can't find something that should be in the garage or I don't have a place to put something that would ordinarily go in the garage, I work myself into a fine froth about the lack of consideration and general crappiness of the situation. Several times, I've asked Brendan to bring his pickup and cart away some of the stuff we know we'll never need or use. He always says he'll be glad to do it, but nothing ever happens, and my mental list of grievances grows.

Until Friday. Evan called and asked if I needed help with anything. He didn't want money or anything else, he said. He just wanted to help me in some way. (Gasp!) We hung a couple grids and put up three shelves on one wall in the garage. It was the first time in his life Evan has offered to do something for me without asking for something in return--a real high water mark.

On Saturday, Mom and Deb and Liz (Brendan's girlfriend) went to Kansas to pick blackberries. I really wanted to go but had a previous commitment. When I stopped by Mom and Dad's later in the afternoon, Mom handed me a large bag of gorgeous berries. "Debbie picked these for you," she said.

In the weeks we've been riding, Debbie and I have fallen out of a long-standing cycle of irritation and recrimination and into a cycle of kindness. I bought a bike shirt for her, and she later presented me with a darling jacket. We work out logistics and take up the slack for one another. She picked berries for me.

When I got home with the berries, for the first time ever the mess in the garage didn't look like anyone's fault but my own. From 3:00 yesterday afternoon until 1:00 this morning and then again from 8:00 am until now, about noon, I cleaned the garage. And while it's true that filling my garage with junk wasn't a good idea, neither was stewing over it for nearly four years. Turning a completely blind eye to my own hand in the mess didn't help, either. I don't even want to tell you some of the stuff I found in there.

It took hours, but I consolidated the bags and boxes and buckets of hardware into plastic tubs and stacked them on one wall. All the junk's still there, but it takes up so much less space without the resentment. When everything was sorted, stacked, and organized, I swept the floor and parked Paula smack in the middle of the open space. Then I put my helmet on a peg and rolled Molly to a place of honor. She looks good there.

Beautiful, in fact.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Bits and Pieces

Deb and Jim and I rode from their house to mine on Thursday morning. That's about eight miles--by far the longest they've ever ridden.

When I cut off my hair and got out my bike at the end of June, I was riding alone every day. Often, I rode from my house to Mom and Dad's, which is practically next door to Deb and Jim's. When I dragged into the house and collapsed into the floor, they all shook their heads and wondered aloud how this could be good for me.

In mid-July, when I hatched the idea of getting the rest of the family riding, my nephew Brendan (Deb and Jim's son) agreed to help. We planned a trip through the Missouri wine country, riding the Katy Trail, sure that if we made reservations and committed money to the scheme, the others would join us. They did.

The first night Deb rode, I seriously thought she might have a stroke at the one mile mark. Her face was scarlet, her breathing rapid and irregular. Her neck pulsed. It scared us both.

We've been riding about five weeks now, and the difference in Deb is almost unbelievable. When we got to my house Thursday morning, she cruised up to the car and hoisted her own bike onto the rack without missing a beat.

Sunday morning, the whole crew is gathering to ride from one end of a local trail to the other--about 12 miles. By the end of September, we need to be prepared to ride as much as 26 miles a day. I think we'll make it without any problem. Collectively, we're stronger and closer than we've ever been. Every day, we share water bottles and small acts of kindness. We juggle cars and schedules. We watch the sun rise and follow each other through the woods as dusk gathers.

To quote my darling Katie at about 4 years old, "We's has'n an adventure."

Friday, August 14, 2009

One Ringy Dingy....

My brother-in-law called me yesterday.

Jim has been my brother-in-law since I was 17 years old—38 years. This was one of less than a dozen times he has called me for any reason and the first ever other than to ask about logistics for some family gathering or activity.

After all these years as family, we're beginning to know one another as individuals. Jim rides slower than the rest of the group and I hate for him to be left behind all the time. I often drop back and ride with him on group rides. We talk and laugh and watch for wildlife together. We admire cloud formations and dew shimmering on spider webs. Last week he got a new bike for his birthday, and the two of us met shortly after dawn the next morning to road test it. Riding bikes is the only thing the two of us have ever done together without other family members.

Jim called because he and a group of work colleagues were trying to figure something out, and he thought I'd know the answer. Mercifully, I did.

What a strange and wonderful thing it is to develop a relationship with someone you've been related to most of your life.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Gone but Not Forgotten

Mom called yesterday afternoon, sobbing. She dreamed her mother wrote her a letter. Thrilled, she woke up and ran out to the mailbox.

Mom's mother has been dead 40 years.

Mom was heartbroken that she didn't have a letter, then devastated she woke before learning what her mother wanted to tell her. Her longing for just one more word from her mother reminds me to listen as often and as long as I can while I have the gift of this mother in this life on this set of circles round the sun.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Don't Be a...

16 miles yesterday. 1 indigo bunting. 1 white cat. 9 wild turkeys.

The wild turkeys came in bunches of three—a tom and two hens, each time. Toms are much bigger than hens, and their coloring is much more complex. When a tom struts onto the path, the word resplendent comes to mind. With hens, the word is meek and it's a walk, not a strut.

With each group, from a distance I could see the tom herding the hens along, bossing and directing them. Those toms were large and in charge until danger approached. The moment they perceived me, each one turned (resplendent) tail and made a mad dash for the deep weeds, leaving those little hens to face the invader alone or get out of its way on their own.

The first one surprised me. The second disappointed me. As I got close to the third group, inside I was begging, "Please don't be a...


Monday, August 10, 2009

Squeaking Through

Sixteen miles yesterday; eight already this morning. As of today, I weigh less than I have in two years--still 30 pounds more than I'd like but getting better every day.

Concrete barricades guard the trailheads on the path I ride most often, placed far enough apart to allow bikers and hikers to get through but close enough to keep out ATVs and other motorized vehicles. These darn things scare me every single time. I feel too big to fit through the opening.

A week or so ago, I followed my brother-in-law through the barricades. Jim, who outweighs me by 100 pounds or so, fit through with room to spare. Logically, it follows that I would fit, too. Sadly, logic and I have little more than a passing acquaintance.

Shortly after following Jim through the barricades, I realized that I stared at the barriers as I approached and decided to concentrate on the opening instead. For two weeks, I steeled myself to watch only the open space, figuring I'd attend to what I wanted rather than what I did not.

Still squeaked through with a dangerous wobble each time.

This morning, I got the idea of focusing on the path beyond the barriers. Low and behold, I made it through with nary a bobble. I'm sure there's a cosma-rama lesson in there somewhere but don't care too much. I'm beyond the barricades now, and that's enough for today.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Don't Tug on Superman's Cape

You know that breeze you're so thankful for on a hot day? The one that breaks up the humidity and makes the heat bearable? Well, you can have it. At least today, that is.

The last 3 or 4 miles of my 8-mile morning ride was straight into a 20 mile-per-hour wind. It totally kicked my butt. My mom was meeting me to go to the farmer's market as soon as I got home, and I seriously considered calling her to come get me on the road. At one point, I stopped pedaling to see what would happen, and the wind pushed me backwards. Seriously.

It got me thinking about how hard life can be when you're fighting the nature of things. Lord knows, if my house had been in the other direction, the wind would have practically carried me home. On the very same road, the forces of nature could work to my advantage or resist me every inch.

So there I was, thinking and pedaling and panting as I crossed a stretch surrounded by open fields. I decided to ride as far as the trees ahead and see if I could manage the rest or should throw in the towel and call Mom. The difference was obvious the moment I reached the trees. The going was still tough, but manageable. "Hello, friends," I called out.

In that instant, the lessons became clear: Go with the flow as often as you can. If you're hitting constant resistance, you may be going the wrong direction.

If you simply must head into the wind (like...if that's the only way to get home), surround yourself with friends who will break the wind and shade you from the sun. The road may still be tough, but you'll manage.

Friday, August 07, 2009

But for the Grace

A dozen squad cars and three news trucks surrounded Mom and Dad's neighborhood yesterday afternoon and a helicopter hovered overhead. The air crackled with the static of walkie-talkies and police-band radios in a mobile command center. SWAT teams prowled the streets and barricaded both entrances to the neighborhood.

For four hours, negotiators tried to coax a man from his parents' house. The man was armed and threatening suicide. He also threatened to murder his parents, but they escaped and sought shelter at a nearby convenience store. It's the third time this has happened this year.

The man is in his 50s; his parents in their 70s. After the first incident, he was hospitalized for 30 days and released. He had nowhere to go, so his parents took him in again. The neighborhood erupted in angry gossip and HOA meetings, but nothing came of it.

The second incident was smaller--6 or 8 squad cars, but no SWAT teams or helicopters. Yesterday's incident was the biggest yet.

Eventually, the police led the man from the house in handcuffs. Who knows whether or how long he will receive treatment this time. The neighborhood is sure to go crazy again: People don't want this man living among them.

My heart bleeds for the parents. God alone knows how long they've struggled to find help. And God alone knows how frightened and embarrassed they must be.

If you've never faced such a situation, it's easy to imagine a safety net exists, that it's possible to find doctors or hospitals to help someone with significant mental health issues. If you've been there, you know that no matter where you turn or how you try, no one is willing to help until you need squad cars and helicopters.

When Evan was 13, he spiraled out of control for many months. At one point, he scratched his arms with a wire hanger and wrote threats in blood on his bedroom walls, then jumped from a third-story window. He was not hurt physically, but the mental and emotional pain was unbearable. We admitted him to a mental hospital for evaluation, and they kept him 7 days. After that time, they released him to me with the advice that I call 911 if he became a danger to himself or others.

I sought help in every possible way but there was none. Doctors, hospitals, the school, the county, the state--they all gave me the same answer: "If he becomes a danger to himself or others, call 911." The phrase still makes me feel vaguely ill.

At my request, the local police sent a community liason officer to the house--I wanted to have a plan in place. The officer was very kind but firm as he told me not to count on the police to keep us safe. With three officers to cover I-don't-remember-how-many square miles, it simply wasn't feasible.

A few days after his release from the hospital, Evan had a meltdown. He was in the street, banging his head on the pavement, screaming, "Help me. Help me. Help me." My mom and dad, who had come to stay for a few days, helped me carry him to his bedroom. We dug the gravel out of his forehead and put cool cloths on his head. I sang to him until he finally fell asleep, then I called the hospital to tell them I'd be bringing him to the emergency room as soon as he woke up.

The nurse flatly told me not to bother, they would not admit him. "If you can transport him yourself," she said, "it's not an emergency."

"But he was screaming and crying and smashing his head on the street," I repeated.

"Then you should have called the police," she answered. "We cannot admit him unless he presents an immediate danger to himself or others."

That moment was the lowest, the most helpless of my life. My son was in terrible pain and I had nothing to offer him but my love, which clearly was not enough. I was afraid for him and of him, and no one would help either of us. It took months of concentrated effort from me and everyone I knew, but we eventually found a therapeutic boarding school that saved Evan's life. I was lucky to find it and lucky to have the resources to pay for it.

It's been 14 years since that day, but the flashing lights and the riot gear and the rifles with scopes swept me back down that fearful rabbit hole. We did not end up with squad cars on our street and SWAT teams in our yard. Our neighbors did not hold secret meetings to drive us from our home. We did not see ourselves on the evening news. But we could have.

I recognize the danger of the situation, but all I can feel for these folks is compassion. They're old and they've got to be frightened and desperate. The question shouldn't be "How can we get them out of the neighborhood?" but "How can we help?"

After all, there, but for the grace of God, goes each of us.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Blooming with Molly

Yesterday was a mess: dead car batteries and paperwork issues and deadlines. Plus, I still felt rotten. When the time came to get myself together for a bike ride, I very nearly gave in to the rotten. I didn't think I could dredge up the energy to get myself to the parking lot, let alone ride with the skinny chicks.

My nephew's new girlfriend is a living doll. Her mother's sisters and a bunch of friends gather at a park near my house every Wednesday night for a bike ride and tailgate gathering. I've been invited several times but haven't gone, partly because I've been intimidated by all these gorgeous, skinny, cool women. But one of the many ways biking has rescued me is by widening my world, and I didn't want to miss an opportunity to make new friends.

So, I put on my big girl panties and dragged myself over there. (That's a lie. I don't wear panties under my bike shorts--can't stand the VPL. But you know what I mean.)

Liz (the girlfriend) and I rode about 6 miles. I don't know exactly how far others went, but we were happy with our ride. When we coasted back into the park, I felt 100% better than when we pulled out. I don't know what the magic is, but everything changes when Molly and I hit the trail. It's not like she carries me away from problems—more like toward the truest version of myself, someone who meets the road when it rises and gives thanks when it falls.

As everyone finished, twenty or so folks gathered around the tailgate of a pickup. Someone set a cup filled with sunflowers and zinnias in the center of the truck's bed. Lovely trays and bowls appeared, filled with things like heirloom tomato and mozzarella salad, cherry pineapple cake, and homemade salsa. I pulled out my offerings and a bottle of wine. Five or six other bottles appeared along with stemware and napkins.

In various groups, we talked about books and travel and life. We laughed. And laughed. And laughed. Several people asked to exchange email addies. This is exactly what I've needed since I moved here: a broader circle of friends, people who love books and music and celebrating life, people who put sunflowers in the bed of a pickup and drink wine from beautiful glasses in the middle of a parking lot. Illogical. Impractical. Infused with YES!

Every day feels like an adventure waiting to happen with Molly and me. We be blooming, all right.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009


I felt rotten yesterday afternoon. Nothing was really wrong, I just felt rotten. It was the first day I've felt anything but great since I started riding regularly, more than six weeks ago. One rotten afternoon and more than 42 good ones: damn good ratio.

Barb and I went riding again last night. It took all her strength to get around the duck pond twice. The second time I had to push her bike up the little hill, but still...she made a valiant effort, and she had fun.

Barb is so very ill, but she keeps getting up every day. She keeps trying in every conceivable way. We got to the picnic shelter, and she rested a bit. Later, I set about taking both bikes to the car, but she wanted to take hers. It was only 20 yards, but she'd been completely tapped out less than 10 minutes earlier. Somehow, she called forth the strength to do one more thing.

The secret to life is knowing when to give in to the rotten and when to dredge up the strength to push the bike to the car. If any of you find the formula to that compound, please write soonest.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

My sister is the first born in our family. She needs to be the strongest, the smartest, the one in charge of every activity. When I first talked her into riding a mile or two with me, she struggled. She hasn't done any kind of consistent exercise in 20 years; she has issues with her lungs; she's overweight; she's 56; her bike was ancient. She went along, but she was always far behind me, no matter what I did. Each time we reached our destination, she seemed ready to collapse. She was not having fun.

And then Deb got a new bike. The first night with the new bike, she kept up throughout the ride. I stopped to call our dad, who was picking us up at the park, and she never looked back. If it had been dark, I could have found the park by the light of Deb's smile, which is a rare sight. She was first again, and she was having fun. Now I routinely find reasons to stop somewhere along the path, and she arrives first. The difference this makes in her can scarcely be believed.

My brother is the only boy in our family. He and my sister butt heads in big ways because Jeff, too, needs to be the wheel horse, the strongest, the leader. On Saturday when we rode together, I started off in front of him. He hadn't ridden a bike in a decade and had never been on a trail--it only seemed natural. A mile or so into it, I'd heard nothing from him but snorts and aggravation. Nothing big or rude, mind you, just small signs that he was not enjoying himself. I slowed down to evaluate a cattle guard crossing, and he yelled, "Just go, damn it!"

After the cattle guard, I pulled to the edge of the trail. "Do you mind going first?" I asked. "I'd rather follow you across the guards and bridges."

His attitude did an immediate 180. He graciously pointed out ruts and small obstacles. He shouted back advice about some of the tricker bridge crossings. He was clearly enjoying himself from that moment on.

On the way back, the path was a very gradual incline, and I could see him gasping for air and struggling to keep going. "Can we stop in the next shady spot?" I yelled. "Sure," he answered. Five minutes later, after he'd caught his breath, he wiped his face and neck and asked if I was okay to go on. "I think so," I said. (We went a total of 12 miles. I do 15 much tougher miles nearly every day.)

I don't know what any of this means—their need to be first and best or my willingness to be last to make them happy. I do know that not needing to show my strength does not mean it doesn't exist. And I know it costs me nothing to let others show theirs. Maybe the rest is just details.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

First Evangelical Church of Schwinn

Saturday morning I met a dear friend and her husband for breakfast. She was out of town for a week and has been sick since her return, so we hadn't seen one another for two weeks.

"What have you done to yourself?" she cried when I walked up. "You look like a different person!"

We talked about biking and all the ways it's changing me. We finished our breakfast and drove straight to the bike store, where she bought a beautiful blue Electra Townie. I scooted home to get Molly (my bike), and then Barb and I rode around a duck pond near her home.

Barb is very ill. She can barely sit up through a meal. She struggles with extreme pain. She weighs an ounce less than nothing. But for a little while, she left all that behind as we pedaled past two lesser egrets and a muskrat and sparkling water. We only rode half a mile, but it was a whole victory for her. We're going again on Tuesday.

Early this morning I drove down to my brother's house with Molly belted into Paula's back seat. Paula had to go topless to accommodate Molly's back tire, but with a yoga mat beneath the frame, the whole set-up was pretty stable.

Jennifer Berezan singing in the background, I prayed for 180 miles--prayers for my sister-friend fighting breast cancer, for my dear friend fighting lung cancer; prayers for my father, my children, my self; many friends. Although I was completely alert to the road and the traffic, the music and the prayers also lifted me, took me somewhere higher and lighter and more joyous. I felt the leaping greenly spirits of trees (thanks to e e cummings).

It was as close to perfect happiness as I've been in years--maybe ever--driving beneath cummings' "blue true dream of sky," as the mists writhed in the valleys and the sun climbed over the hills.

By noon, my brother and i were riding a rail trail through the woods, dodging tree branches and aiming for the high spots on washed-out sections. We listened to the creek beside us and cows in the distance. We laughed at ourselves and each other. We had fun.

Happiness is so simple and so complex--everything and nothing at all. The harder I've chased it through life, the more elusive it's been. I've never been able to run it down, but it bucks a ride as I pedal my bike, giving thanks "for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes."