It’s Like Riding a Bike

Who cries when they buy a bike?

Me.

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I cried when I bought this used southwestern-goldish-color 5-year-old Schwinn Voyageur 2 at a local bike shop on Monday. AND I cried when I got her home and hoisted her off the bike rack I bought (that cost more than she did) and the handlebar smacked me in the cheek. Happy tears/pain tears…either way, I now have a bike-friend again.

My previous bike-friend was a men’s Giant hybrid I called Bike. (Creative, I know.) We were together for 7 years. I knew all her idiosyncrasies. Bike gave me confidence. Strength. She helped me think. Bike made me feel less lonely and isolated after my divorce. We went on adventures to places I’d never gone alone before. She encouraged me to take chances.

The last time I rode Bike was in March 2013. I rode 3 miles on my favorite trail when my right knee gave out. It just…stopped working. I’ve had surgeries, I’ve had babies, and never have I felt the kind of pain I felt in my knee that morning. I was on crutches for a week, but when I felt better, I was afraid to ride again. Bike stayed perched in the garage, ready for another adventure, but I ignored her.

I moved in January 2014 and stored her in my boyfriend’s barn. But I was beginning to feel optimistic about riding again when I wrote “I Believe” on January 29, 2014. I was so sure that I would ride Bike again.

Four days later, Bike burned in a fire that destroyed the barn. Gone with Bike was a bike rack, helmet, lock, odometer, trail maps, tubes, tire levers, air pump, and the $5 and package of Kleenex I kept in the bag.

This is all that’s left of Bike.

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In spring 2014, I developed hip pain and I reasoned that was why I didn’t go biking. Truth was, I was mourning Bike and I didn’t have it in me to test drive a different bike. What if I failed? What if it hurt? What if I made a fool of myself? Bike would have told me to try anyway, but I couldn’t.

I had my hip replaced, which took away the reason I “couldn’t” ride. A local trail runs parallel to a road I frequently drive on and when I saw other people biking I got that twinge in my heart, that yearning to be them. Still, I wallowed in feeling cheated. My hip, my bike, poor me. It got to the point of ridiculous. It was a month ago when I went for a short walk on another beloved bike trail that I climbed out of the self-pity enough to ask, ‘What if?’

Like a person you love who dies, I believe Bike would want me to do what it was that made me happy. Given my propensity for adopting shelter pets, I went to the bike shop and test rode that somewhat beat up Schwinn. The minute I started pedaling, I felt free. I could see joy. It’s like I had a physical purpose again and a partner who would challenge me to take down that “I can’t” wall I’d built.

That evening, I practiced taking my bike on and off the new rack on the back of my Jeep. I researched local trails and decided on one not far from me. Tuesday morning, I drove to the trailhead, nervously watching my bike bob up and down on every bump in the road.

I felt like I was on a blind date. I tried to be cool by unloading my bike like I’d done it a thousand times. I attached my water bottle, loaded my bag, calculated my computer/odometer thingy, locked up the Jeep, only…when I got on my bike, I had no idea where I was going. I followed the signs, and after a stint on a road and a turn on to what the sign said was the trail, I rode slowly up a moderate incline. At the top, I saw this:

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Another steep grade…only steeper! Weeeee!!!! Yeah…but I’d have to come back up eventually.

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I negotiated briefly with my id and super ego and decided to give myself permission to walk my bike back up the incline rather than ride up, even if someone was watching. Judging. I hate that part. Defeated, I acknowledged that A) it’s been over two years since I’ve ridden a bike, and B) I’ve gained a new hip and a few pounds and I have not been exercising like I used to. My body’s in a different place and so humility was my best friend at that moment. Swallow it and move on.

The temperature was about 84 degrees and the humidity was at least 1000 percent and the trail was mostly exposed with very little shade. Plus, I’d selected to first ride the uphill part of the trail, but it was a little more uphill than I had bargained for. I got 1.5 miles in and decided it was best to turn around. I felt sad at first; betrayed, embarrassed. And then I stopped in this place and had a little talk with myself:

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“Lynn, here’s the deal. You have to push yourself slowly because you’re not in the same physical condition you were in two year ago. No, you won’t break any land speed or distance records, and you won’t be saying ‘passing left’ anytime soon. You’re starting from the bottom. You have no place to go but up.”

I had to think through the real reason that I love to ride a bike: it’s not for physical fitness as much for psychological fitness. I need to ride a bike. Without it the last few years, I’ve become more of a small self, an isolated self, an egoic transient wandering from fear to fear. I crave the movement, but moreover I crave the butterflies, the dragonflies and the indigo buntings, and swerving to avoid the chipmunks who skittishly venture out on the side of the trail. I crave the smell of the woods, the feel of the humidity clinging to my arms, the breeze that cools my skin. I need these things, and now, I am again part of them.

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Today I went to a new trailhead. On the West Penn Trail I experienced that exhilarating fear of wild, of no one around, of a bear could come out of nowhere and I was completely alone. I rode without my headphones, listening to the air and staying hyper aware of my surroundings. I heard every bird and every crush of the limestone beneath my tires. Three miles in, I turned around, even though I ached to go another two miles. I knew my legs would question that choice on the way back, and I wanted to do what was best for all of me. I put in my ear phones and turned on “…some music to start my day…” “More Than A Feeling.” Great tune.

When I got back to my Jeep, I was totally high. So happy and sweaty. A man was securing his bike on his car’s bike rack and he offered to help me load mine. I declined, thanking him and telling him that I had to get used to doing this again. We talked about the trail for a few minutes and I was reminded of another reason I love biking. People on the trails are usually really nice people. I’ve missed that camaraderie of like-minded people. We are like ships in the night. “Good morning!” we say as we pass each other. “Passing left!” It’s like a secret handshake.

I’m still part of the fraternity/sorority of people who love bike trails, even though my thighs, arms and neck are asking me why. I just rub them and say, “You’ll get used to it.” I will press on because I am not the same person I was three days ago. I am my old biking self. I am the person I’ve missed for two years. My goldish-color bike isn’t Bike, but I think Bike would approve of her replacement.

I need to give a name to this oldish-new friend. “Salvager,” perhaps. God knows she’s gathered all that was missing, and has assembled the bits and pieces of my former self into a funky collage. We have places to go tomorrow and I’ll think more about her name, but she’s truly earned her status of BBFF (best biking friend forever).

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Good Gravy

In the All Saints Episcopal parish cemetery on Pawleys Island, South Carolina, Dorothy M Elerbe is immortalized with the words: “She made good gravy.”

I’ve heard some pretty boneheaded things when someone dies. My “favorite” top two are: “God needed another voice in his choir” (barf!) and “He/she wouldn’t want you to be sad/cry” (liar, liar pants on fire!). Name ONE person on this planet who honestly doesn’t want to be mourned when they die? To know that there will be at least some small demonstrative expression of grief from those who care about them most?

I do! I want tears! Lots and lots of tears. I want Kleenex stock to go up slightly when I pass.

However, I know that to be worthy of another’s tears, I need to have made good gravy while I was alive.

Like many of us, I often spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about or acting upon things that don’t really mean a lot in the grand scheme. Given this truth, my tombstone would look something like this:

“She lost a lot of weight…a lot of times.”
“She intended to write a really good book.”
“She thought about volunteering.”
“She hated winter.”
“She rarely left the house without makeup on.”

Not exactly the kind of stuff that brings tears to people’s eyes.

As anyone who practices mindfulness or meditates or prayers for insight knows, “practice” comes with a price. An often sticky, uncomfortable price. It was recently – through being present with someone I love very much and listening to his words without thinking of my response as he was talking – that I became aware that I’ve been keeping spontaneous joy and love locked up tighter than gold at Fort Knox. Whether it’s been for the sake of pride or out of fear of vulnerability, I’ve become less trusting of my feelings and more influenced by chronic pain and what others think of me. I love those who are easy to love and don’t engage the tender parts of those who are difficult or those who could hurt me.

How simple it is to pick up and snuggle 18-month-old Audrey when she runs to me, or read to 3-year-old Mae while she sits on my lap. That stranger in line at the grocery store who is struggling to use her debit card? No love for you! Those far-away loved ones whose opinions or actions differ from mine? No compassion for you!

This isn’t to say I spend every day judging or waving my cane at the neighbor kids: “Get off my lawn, you little bastards!” But I could certainly use Dorothy M Elerbe’s gravy recipe to help me open up and love a little more than weight, makeup, intentions, or even “Downton Abbey.”

There’s a dry board on my refrigerator on which my niece used to write uplifting phrases. Before she moved back to Minnesota, she wrote: “Never give up on something you can’t go a day without thinking about.” I will to keep that there because it reminds me to stick with my novel. But above it, I am going to write, “She made good gravy.”

About Last Night…

There have been moments in my life when I’ve sensed the presence of a deceased loved one. While warm and bittersweet, I understand those feelings to be resurrected memories of the connection we had when they were alive; me consciously sating some need I perhaps hadn’t completely identified. I don’t believe those vague presences stem from a visit by their spirit.

That’s why I can’t explain what happened last night.

I often employ the “Just ignore it, it will go away” approach to healthcare. But after a months-long battle with hip pain – in which the last few days I’ve been barely able to walk – I finally mentioned it to my doctor. She ordered x-rays, and as I wait for the results, I’m living with limited mobility and a crap-ton of pain which makes me feel trapped, angry, alone, and scared, bordering on the edge of self-pity. And I hate self-pity, especially in the middle of the night.

Jim and I were at my house last night, and he fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. My bed tends to envelop us like a taco and I knew my hip would not be comfortable within such limited space, so I got up and limped to the spare room where I lay awake, playing Canasta on my phone.

After a few hours, I found a comfortable position on my side, facing the wall. Hugging the top of the body pillow I’d tucked between my legs, I started to fall asleep, but not before Jim walked in the room and – saying nothing – placed a hand on my shoulder and one on the back of my neck and kissed my head, just above my ear. I felt safe and loved and more than that, I wasn’t afraid anymore.

I woke up at 4 a.m. when again, Jim came in the room.

“Why aren’t you in bed?” he whispered. At some point while I was sleeping, I’d rolled over on to my back, and Jim sat down on the edge of the bed and stroked my hair

“I couldn’t get comfortable and I didn’t want to wake you,” I said softly.

“You can wake me up anytime.”

“I know. But you knew where I was. You came in around 1, remember? You kissed my head.”

“This is the first time I’ve been up,” he said. “I didn’t know you weren’t in bed until just now.”

“What do you mean?” I started to cry. “But I felt so safe. I was finally able to sleep. I thought it was you.”

“No, it wasn’t me.” He moved his hand to my leg, covered in three layers of blankets, and began rubbing the top of my hip. “But someone wanted you to know they cared.”

When I’d crawled into that spare bed, it didn’t occur to me to reach out to anyone – dead or alive. I was entirely alone, physically and mentally. I made no effort to meditate or pray. I was resigned to my fear and went through every scenario I could think of for how – or if – I would walk normally again. I assure you, I was in the throes of self-pity. My mind was all about me. I had no conscious thought to partner with a departed loved one or god or anyone else.

Whoever or whatever touched my shoulder and kissed my head knew better than me what I needed, and gave me the one thing I could not give myself: peace. And even skeptical me knows not to attempt to explain, justify, or otherwise dispute such a gift.

How about you? Have you experienced something like this before? Leave a comment if you’d like to share your story.

Help in the Middle Of Nowhere

Smicksburg  is one of the smallest incorporated boroughs in Pennsylvania. Population: 46. Forty-six “English,” that is. Surrounding the borough is a community of roughly 800 Amish.

If you live in western PA for more than 5 minutes, you grow used to seeing the Amish walking down the road, riding in their buggies, grocery shopping, working on construction sites, or manning vegetable or bakery stands at farm markets, even in the heart of Pittsburgh.

So I was in Smicksburg with the Irishman the other day, buying a birthday gift for my daughter (Smicksburg is known for its quaint shops and killer fudge). Driving the back roads home, we came across this pay phone in…quite literally…the middle of nowhere.

What seems random and a throw-back to 1982, this pay phone is a lifeline for the Amish community. It connects those in need of emergency assistance with the people who can help. It just seems out of place to those of us with cell phones and Wi-Fi.
There continue to be times in my weight-loss and weight-maintenance journey when I need help in the middle of what seems like nowhere. Those times when I feel shame or guilt or self-loathing. You know, the stuff you don’t want anyone to know about. I know I’m in the middle of nowhere when food seems like the answer or I can’t get past a plateau or I need help accepting my body as it is right now or when I just need someone to say, “Lynn, I believe in you” when I don’t.

I’m making this photo my screen saver to remind me that I am not alone. All I have to do is “call,” and my friends and community will be there. My mediation and exercise will sustain me.

What reminders do you keep handy to help you remember that you are not alone when you feel stranded in the middle of nowhere?

The Department of Happiness Has Reopened

I was all, “Look at me doing the advanced class!” last week at the Y, jogging vigorously in the pool and plunging Styrofoam dumbbells into the water, making figure eights. I was feeling the burn in my calves and the burn in my biceps and the…slippage. As in, the bottoms of my bathing suit were slowly creeping down my bum. I dropped the dumbbells and probably looked like I’d peed in the pool. I tried nonchalantly to pull up my bottoms, but my instructor noticed the barbells floating around me and mouthed, “Wardrobe malfunction?” My face turned a million shades of red, and the class, reading her lips, broke out in laughter.

Apparently the bathing suit string is essential. Who knew?

It had come out in the wash (the string) and I threw it in a drawer, like I do with hoodie strings that come out. Everyone knows what a pain in the butt it is to thread those things back through. But what doesn’t seem essential at the time has a way of making its lack of use known (sometimes with embarrassing consequences).

There’s been much talk since the government shut-down about what and who is “essential.” It’s gotten me thinking – especially since my bathing suit debacle – about what essentials I’ve “laid off,” essentials I need to…keep employed. And I’ve decided that the essential department I need to reopen in the government of Lynn is the Department of Happiness.

There are a lot of things that are essential in my life: eating right, exercising, relationships, love, “Call The Midwife,” “Downton Abbey,” the Pirates. But when I sort through the food and the gym and Netflix stuff, what is most essential to me is to be happy. And how I mean “happy” is that I don’t expect to have a smile on my face 24/7. What I want is to be happy with what is. What is now. This moment. This body. To notice what’s right in front of me and appreciate it for what it is. To read something I don’t agree with and not get all pissed off, or if I do, to read the words more objectively and reflect, not react.

Happiness isn’t all laughter and balloons and candles on a cake, nor is it limited to a perfect sunset or a first kiss. It’s seeing the rain outside and knowing you have to go out in it and that your hair will get all goofed up and yet…you can take in the disappointment that it might create. It’s that moment just before you drift off to sleep and the one you love kisses your shoulder, perhaps the first time the two of you have touched all day because of busyness or disagreements in between sleeps.

Choosing to be happy is a new concept for me, as is learning to be vulnerable. In a recent talk, Tara Brach asked listeners to reflect on these questions: “Do you experience happiness much? And when you’re feeling happiness or well-being, are you aware of it? Is it something you’re mindful of? And do you have a sense of what gives rise to happiness when it happens?  What is it between you and really being happy, being contented? Can you feel the life that’s right here in your body and sense nothing is wrong? Nothing is missing?”

The core teaching of the Buddha is that what we want most is to change the source of suffering, that we want what is to be different, whether it’s ourselves, our circumstances, our health, our parents, our lover, traffic, the price of gas. We think forward and forget now. We plan and we want. And there’s a place for those things! Goodness, without want and desire, we’d never get anywhere! But it’s where we place those things in our lives that matter. It’s in how we think about what we want to be different and how we crave things to be different.

2013 is the Chinese Year of the Snake. Until recently, it was mine as well. I’ve slithered through a lot of issues this year, circled a lot of decisions, and hissed at the changes and decisions I’ve had to make. I was happy only when happy presented itself. Now, instead of gracing me with its presence and throwing out crumbs of joy, happiness is a verb. It’s something I do, not something I wait for.

Happiness is as essential as the string that holds up my drawers in a pool. And, at times, as complicated and aggravating as threading that dang string through my drawers when it falls out. But still…

I choose presence. I choose awareness. I choose happy.

Vulnerable Much?

I’ve been listening to the audio version of Brene Brown’s book, “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead,” for the last few weeks. Halfway through the 7-disc book, I knew I had to have a hard copy. “Daring Greatly” is a book that screams, “Write in my margins, people! Highlight! Underline! Reread!”

Embracing vulnerability is a new concept for me. While I credit my training in mindfulness for helping me to not fall completely over my feet as I stumble my way through this new way of thinking and living, embracing what I usually ignore/avoid/run away from (fill in your own coping mechanism) is like stopping a freight train and then putting it in reverse.

When I look back at the times I’ve felt most vulnerable, many of them were appearance focused. When I was obese, I felt most vulnerable in a crowd of people who could – and sometimes probably did – judge me.

I can recall only a few times I didn’t let the vulnerability of obesity win. One was on a May day in 2001 when I gave out the Tony Fabri Memorial Scholarships at the Clarion High School auditorium in front of hundreds of teenagers – in my imagination, the worst audience of all when you’re feeling vulnerable. But Tony was a best friend to both of my daughters, and I loved him like a son. When he died, an entire community went into mourning, and my daughters’ lives changed forever.

When Tony’s parents asked me to present the scholarship awards, I was both honored and scared to death. But I kept in perspective what they were asking me to do: honor their son. They also asked if it would be OK if someone videotaped my presentation because they couldn’t bring themselves to attend. I didn’t hesitate to consent. I have a Ph.D. in grief. I know how caring for yourself while grieving means sometimes not touching the hot spots. Wait til they cool a bit, then lay your hands on them.

Fortunately for me, my weight was pretty much the only reason I felt vulnerable that day. I really don’t mind public speaking, at least when I’m prepared. Throw me out in front of a crowd with little or no warning and ask me to say something intelligent? I’m pretty sure I’d rather pass kidney stones. But that day, I was more than prepared. I was eager to talk about Tony and the legacy of his short-lived life. Only a few times did I worry about what people thought of my size, hidden as best as it could beneath a flowing top and long skirt.

What I’m seeing as I read “Daring Greatly” is that vulnerability is there, up front or in the background, from the moment I wake up until the moment I fall asleep. Sometimes it visits my dreams. Last night I dreamed Eddie Vedder was sitting on my kitchen counter. I asked him if he liked sautéed mushrooms and he said he loved them. I remember feeling tense. I used all my best lines trying to be cool and then I hyperventilated when I realized I only had vegetable oil and no butter in which to sauté the mushrooms. That’s when I woke up.

What the hell did I eat before going to bed?

Anyway, after waking from the Eddie Vedder dream, my vulnerability went straight to the morning activity on my mind: going to my first-ever aqua aerobics class. Not only would I be trying something new, I would be wearing a bathing suit in front of a dozen or more people. Yikes!

As I should have predicted, but didn’t trust, was that the outcome of my first excursion into aqua aerobics was the same as when I plow through most of my other vulnerable moments. It was worth it. I had fun, and I met people who wear bathing suits in public and don’t seem to mind. I also changed my attitude about aqua aerobics being easy (my arms are talking to me this morning about this) and I walked from the pool to the locker room with a little more belief in myself and with a little more love in my heart for who I am – vulnerable and imperfect, but usually hopeful.

I’m learning that being my own best friend is about opening up and being receptive to vulnerability, rather than caving in to my nemesis self who, in the face of a challenge, yells in my ear, “Oh please, please, PLEASE can we not think about this? Can we just pop popcorn and eat Hershey Kisses and watch the first season of ‘Mad Men’ for the third time? Please!?”

Every day we’re “out there,” whether we leave our homes or not. (The Internet is a breeding ground for vulnerability!) Vulnerability is present when we start a new job, go out on a first date, break up with someone, get fired, go to the doctor…. Heck, vulnerability’s present in a restaurant! I always feel bothersome when I ask a server, “Can you please hold the capers and bacon and add a few more tomatoes instead? Oh, and can I get the dressing on the side?”

Online or in person, our faces, our bodies, our personalities, our cars, our houses, our coffee order at Starbucks, our sandwich order at Sheetz, and even the books our children and grandchildren want to check out from the library (“Ummm…OK… ‘Captain Underpants and the Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People’ is fine! Yes! Just fine…ugh!”) make a statement about who we are, and in those moments, we’re open to judgment by the outside and the inside. That’s right. We judge our own vulnerabilities!

I know this isn’t rocket science and that many of you have already figured this out, but wow…. Clarity is creeping up on me like the spider that walked up my calf on Saturday while I scrubbed floors. Not wanting to kill it, I let it creep while I walked outside and set it free, all the while fighting the urge to sweep him away like he wasn’t real and move on with what I was doing. Sort of like the times when I feel most vulnerable and I want to crawl in a hole and shut my eyes and hope no one wants anything from me.

My audio copy of “Daring Greatly” is due back at my library on Friday. While I now own a hard copy, I was hoping to finish the book on CD. When I tried to renew it, I was told I couldn’t because someone else has reserved it. That’s OK. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one trying to stop the freight train and throw it in reverse.

My new anthem: Sara Bareilles “Brave”

"Things"

When I was packing to move to my apartment three years ago, my ex-husband and I divvied up the kitchen property and discovered that we had enough pots, pans, crock pots, utensils, glasses, coffee mugs, cookie sheets, and baking dishes for two kitchens. Of course, some things you don’t need two, three, or ten of, so he got the toaster and the bread maker and I got the immersion blender and food processor, but all in all, there was little either of us had to buy for each of us to have a more-than working kitchen.

Three weeks ago, Ron and Red (his dog) moved into the apartment next to mine. I’d mentioned that my daughter, Carlene, was having a garage sale and Ron asked if she was selling any pots and pans. No, I told him, but I’d ask around.

Friend Debbie said she didn’t have any to spare since the one and only set she owned was given to her by her mother for a wedding gift 29 years ago and they were still in perfect working order. My daughter, Cassie, didn’t have pots and pans to spare either, as her old set went to Carlene.

When I went to Carlene’s to help set up for the garage sale, she told me she’d rearranged her kitchen and showed me where she’d moved everything. While she received a lot of new kitchen items when she got married last year, she kept many of the items I’d given her over the years: loaf pans, Tupperware, a pizza stone, and dishes that I used when I was a kid living with my parents.

In my little pots-and-pans hunt, I was struck by the connections we have to our kitchen stuff, particularly how we acquired certain items. For instance, I inherited my Grandma Katinka’s lefse stick and roller when she passed. Her name is still imprinted in permanent marker on the stick. I use it every year when I make lefse, along with the ricer I bought specifically to rice boiled potatoes. I still have a smoke-colored Pyrex bowl that was once part of a set of four I received at my bridal shower when I got married 31 years ago. I don’t know what happened to the other three, but I still have the Black and Decker hand mixer I got at that shower, along with the Fannie Farmer cookbook my sister gave me. Cassie recently bought a new stand mixer and gave me back my stand mixer that had become a permanent fixture on her counter since Thanksgiving 2009 (Although she “graciously” allowed me to take it home for one day last year so I could make Christmas cookies. One day. No more.)

I won’t part with these and other things until: 1) I no longer have a kitchen or; 2) I am no longer breathing. Whichever comes first. At least…I won’t part with them intentionally.

I’m sure the folks in Colorado (and New Orleans and Mobile and New Jersey…et al) who lost their homes to flooding had lefse sticks and Fannie Farmer cookbooks and pots and pans they acquired in special, meaningful ways, too. I heard one woman from Boulder say in an interview that she’d lost “things,” and that (as she said quite graciously) she was just grateful to be alive.

Put into perspective, as this woman did, “things” are just that. Things. But losing things we love, rely on, or give us historical perspective can be painful. It’s OK to grieve the loss of the cookie molds you inherited from your great aunt because she cherished the Sundays when you’d go over to her house and make cookies with her; the cast iron pan your grandfather used to fry trout in during family camping trips; the Number Thirty Hamilton Beach malt mixer you bid on and won at your first country auction; the monogrammed apron your husband bought you when you “graduated” from a six-week Asian cooking class.

Can we live without these things? Of course. But “things” enhance our lives in many ways, and when we see people suffer their loss, it offers those of us who haven’t a chance to reflect on and appreciate our own impermanent, often ethereal things. We still have the good fortune of being able to touch, look at, and use them.

Is Grandma’s green depression-era measuring cup tucked away somewhere in a buffet collecting cobwebs…as mine was? Get it out! Use it the next time you’re measuring broth for soup. Do you save the “good dishes” for special occasions? Use them the next time you serve sloppy Joes! Dirty the fancy linens. They’ll wash up. Using them or passing them on to people who need them allows “things” to do what they were meant to do: enhance lives, and when they’re gone, to offer comfort in the memory of how they were used.

Ron found a set of pots and pans through a friend of a friend, and I know they are being used because sauteed garlic has a way of penetrating walls, and last week he gave me a jar of honey he recently pasteurized. “Things” have a way of keep giving…
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And speaking of “things,” Cassie’s Christmas give-back project is to host another “spinathon” and to seek donations and items for three Pittsburgh-area families in need of assistance due to declining health or financial issues. Last year, she and her daughter, Claire, raised over $3100 in money and donations for the Animal Rescue League. If you’re looking for a holiday “cause,” please consider reading Cassie’s blog, “Wishes,” for more information on how you can help. Thank you!

 

Into The Forest

It’s so humid you could uncork wine bottles with my hair. The sticky air is stacked in layers and feels like jelly on the skin. The breeze rolls around like a lead ball, banging into the stereo, the furniture, the dogs’s fur. Nothing dries all the way. The towels hanging in the bathroom are still damp from yesterday’s shower.

There’s a clump of glue on my forehead where I smacked it into the corner of my desk yesterday. Stitches or glue, the doctor asked. I washed my hair carefully this morning. Dried it patiently. But in this humidity, it doesn’t matter. My hair will do what it does. Curl.

This afternoon, I sat on a rock on the west bank of the Clarion River just north of Belltown, a place most tourists don’t know about. I ate chèvre blue cheese, 10-grain bread, marinated artichoke hearts, and pistachios, and drank Pinot noir from the bottle because I remembered a cork screw, but forgot a cup.

I’m going to a play tonight at a theater in the middle of Cook Forest. The theater is enclosed, but the outer wooden walls open like pocket doors, and during a performance it’s not uncommon for bats to fly in and eat mosquitoes above the audience.

I love this place. It’s where I do my best thinking. The first time I ever saw a black bear in the wild was in these woods. The first time I went canoeing and rode a bike after losing 150 pounds was here. My daughter was married on an overlook over the river.

I just checked into a motor lodge attached to a bar/restaurant. The place is encased in hemlocks. The smell of grease wafts through the walls every once in a while. But I’m sipping Chardonnay from a paper cup and I’m typing, propped up by ancient pillows that I leaned up against a wall from which I wiped away spider webs before lying down. I am thinking of my aunt, who only has a few months to live, and her daughter and her sisters whose hearts are aching. I’m thinking about the civilians in Syria, who breathed in toxic air and died. I’m thinking about my brother, who struggles to remember anything day to day. And I’m thinking about how lucky I am to be sitting on this bed with the anticipation of a night with bats and friends and stars I can’t see in the lights of Pittsburgh.

My brain is taking a big breath and melting into what I know to be true in this moment:  It is humid. And my hair is curly. And the world is uncertain and cruel and beautiful beyond comprehension.

Pray Help

One middle of the night a few months ago, I was half awake, tossing and turning, trying to run away from the incoherent thoughts racing through my mind. After an hour, no closer to sleep, I did something I haven’t done in years. I folded my hands and I prayed. I talked out the fuzzy thoughts and feelings with the one I know now as little G god, and the next thing I knew, the sun was up and I woke with a light heart and a calmed mind.

I stopped big G God praying several years ago and began a mediation practice, which is like prayer, only not a conversation with a deity. I find staying mindful and staying present for all feelings – good and bad – has brought me a greater sense of peace and understanding of who I am. But always in the back of my mind, I missed the deity. I missed the comfort of the one thing that got me and my brand of crazy.

After some thought about how I might reconnect with that deity, I realized how talking to big G God had often made me feel small and afraid to speak my truth. This wasn’t big G God’s fault. It was a simple matter of spelling. Stripping big G God of that big G did not diminish its greatness, but it brought it eye level with me, to a place where I would be heard and I could listen, even if both of us whispered.

I’m reading Anne Lamott’s book, “Help, Thanks, Wow,” a gift from a friend who I’m convinced is in cahoots with little G god because she is as close to understanding me without running away as anyone I know. She offers me shelter without judgment and honesty without making me feel wrong or ruined.

Praying Help, writes Lamott, is like saying, “Here. You deal with it,” and then waiting to hear back.

“The willingness to do such a childish thing comes from the pain of not being able to let go of something. The willingness comes from finding yourself half mad with obsession. We learn though pain that some of the things that we thought were castles turn out to be prison, and we desperately want out, but even though we built them, we can’t find the door. Yet maybe if you ask God for help in knowing which direction to face, you’ll have a moment of intuition. Maybe you’ll see at least one next right step you can take.”

Too often in my cries for help, I have already devised a solution. And so my intention now when praying Help is to sit in the quiet – of meditation, perhaps – and allow clarity to find me and work with the answer provided.

I have been praying Help all morning after learning that my Aunt Ethel is dying. Help that she be free from suffering, Help that her daughter, my mother, and Ethel’s family and friends find strength. Ethel dictated a note to her daughter that I wanted to share here because, to me, it exemplifies what it means to pray Help.

To my wonderful friends and relatives –

This is the most difficult letter I’ve ever had to write because it is my final one. I have been informed that I have 1 to 6 months to live. All of the medical issues I have been having are related to the metastatic lung cancer recently discovered.

Your wonderful cards and prayers have helped me through this difficult time. Now, however, rather than focusing on my getting well, I ask you to focus on a peaceful transition to my dwelling in the house of the Lord forever.

I’m sure I will be allowed to take my memories with me – and I have many with all of you.

I will love you forever, Ethel

I, too, will love Ethel forever, and I will honor her wishes and pray Help that she has a peaceful passing. A difficult thing to do, to be sure, because we prefer so much to pray for healing.

Pray Help. Breathe. Crying is OK, too.  And may you find your way out of those prisons you thought were castles, and calm the obsessions that became your new normal.

My aunts and mother, circa 1936. Clockwise from top left: Mavis, Ethel, Doris, Ardith (my mom), and Helen

The Hope of Impermanence


There’s a smell in the countryside of western Pennsylvania that I’ve never smelled anywhere else (and it’s not the smell of fracking…yet). It’s the smell of hardwoods and evergreens, lichens and fungus, and leaves rotting on the forest floor. On summer mornings, whether I’m taking a walk or riding on the back of the Irishman’s Harley, I want to continually inhale as it blows through my hair and bathes my skin in its cool familiarity.

That smell is as grounding as a cleansing breath in meditation. It reminds me that home exists inside myself and that it’s possible – and preferable – to be comforted with something as simple as a smell.
Strangely enough, I am also comforted by the truth of impermanence, the Buddhist teaching that – put simply – everything organic and emotional will change, decay, and die. Understanding that truth and, more importantly, reminding myself of it (I have a really bad memory sometimes), I am better able to accept and live within painful body states and emotions.
This understanding didn’t come easy. For most of my life, I’ve clung to the hope of permanence and rebelled against change I didn’t create or welcome. I’ve moved so many times in almost 50 years that when I moved into the duplex I live in now, I promised myself I’d never plant another perennial. I’d never again leave a piece of me behind. Then, after growing tired of looking at the empty space between two day lilies, I bought two coreopsis plants, something I grew in my most recent former gardens in my most recent former house. They make me smile now, in this moment, and one day I hope they make the people who will live here after me happy, too.
It is my trust in the teachings of impermanence that I have decided it is time for another change, one

Al, left, with her sister, Willow

that I don’t like, but is in Alice’s best interest. The precarious nature of my knee means I don’t know when it will go out next, and I’ve been struggling lately to give her adequate exercise. Alice can’t live with me for a few months after my knee replacement surgery in September anyway, and so her sister Willow’s family has generously offered to foster Al while I attend to my knee now and after the surgery.

Of course, Alice doesn’t understand impermanence, and that’s what grieves me most. My sweet dog, with whom I’ve worked so hard these last four months – who walks perfectly on a lead, understands “No jump!” and runs like the wind (especially when fetch is involved), stands patiently while I bathe her and clean her ears, and earns her “good girl” treats every single day – will not understand why I’m not there to walk her or feed her or play with her or scratch her belly and call her Alice Tiberious Dog. She won’t be able to find me when it storms. I’m pretty sure I’m her best friend. She’s definitely mine. And letting her go is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.
But…this, too, is impermanent. Her feelings, my feelings, my physical challenges…they will morph and change and mutate into something different, most likely better, because I’ve put the best people in place to give these transactions their best shot at success: Willow’s family, my family, my doctor, and my friends.
I will not bury the sadness I feel today. I am allowing it to bathe me with its urgency, just as I let the smell of the Pennsylvania countryside wash over me this morning when I took Al on her last (for a while) walk around our neighborhood. I am comforted by the hope of impermanence, that this, too, shall pass.