Monday, June 28, 2010

Sunday Morning Reverie

You get up with the sun on a Sunday morning. Normally, you'd put on something nice for church. Instead, you get dressed in bike shorts and a jersey with pockets on the back.  You pack up your things and load into the car with a few friends to drive to the start.  You eat breakfast, wondering if this food will provide enough fuel for the day ahead.  You fill your water bottles.  You rub in your sunscreen.  You fasten your helmet, adjust your sunglasses, secure your iPod, and check your bike.  Then you clip in.  And you ride.

Your muscles feel tight from the day before.  You wonder how long it will take your body to warm up and find its rhythm.  You smile at the volunteers on the corner cheering you along the course and pointing out turns.  You thank the officers directing traffic at the busier intersections.  You make note of every sensation in your body, wondering if it is a temporary ache or an all-day companion.  You see other cyclists.  You pass some.  Some pass you.  You read the jerseys of the folks near you and wonder where the teams come from, who started them, how they got their names.  You think how nice it would be if the seventy-five miles you rode the day before were it.

You reach the end of town and see the long line of cyclists stretched out before you like ants, ascending the mountain.  You grab a drink.  You shift once, pedal.  Shift again, pedal.  You shift, shift, shift until there's nothing left to do but grind.  You hear your breathing become shallower, faster.  You find a rhythm for your pedals and hang onto it, pushing one, then the other, and again.  You pass some.  Some pass you.  You feel strong.  You wonder how to become stronger.  You hear a man thirty years your senior say, "Do it for Dannette," as he passes, having read the tag on your back that says, "Riding for:".  And you think, It is a gift to push my body like this.  You feel grateful for this second seventy-five miles.

You feel the morning sun, already high, blazing on your shoulders.  You watch the city stretch out behind you, the mountains before you.  You wipe the sweat from your lip.  You inhale.  You exhale.  You push one leg, then the other.  You near the top and you hear someone say, "It's a beautiful morning," and you think, Yes, it's glorious.

You enter the cool shadow of the mountain as you pick up speed on the back side.  You shift, shift, shift, pedaling, and then you coast.  You grip the handlebars tightly, searching the road for any tiny rock or seam or crack that would take your velocity and redirect it skyward--and then ground you.  You get a chill from the wind as you reach the bottom.  You appreciate it, knowing it won't last long.

You round the bend and shift once, pedal.  Shift again, pedal.  Shift, shift, shift until there's nothing left to do but grind.  You settle in again for another climb.  You move your hands down into the drops of your handelbars.  You bend closer to your legs, willing them to work harder.  You find your rhythm: push, push, push, push.  You feel your lungs begin to fill.  You feel your lungs empty.  You wish you could breathe deeper, wish you could satisfy their demands for oxygen.  You inhale again.  You exhale.  You pass some riders.  Some pass you.  You grab a sip of water.  You feel strong.  You wish you were stronger.

You near the top and see a young woman walking her bike the rest of the way to the top.  You notice her gait is uneven.  You look more closely and see that her right leg is prosthetic.  You glance up and notice her jersey: "I ride with MS."  You inhale.  You feel more reverence and respect for her than you can hold.  You exhale.  You think, It is miraculous what the human spirit can overcome.  You breathe. You pedal.  You swell with gratitude for the blessing of your own health.  You wish you could do more than just ride a bike.  You wonder how much closer this ride moves the world toward a cure.

You reach the top and grab your water bottle.  You drink long.  You shift, shift, shift, pedal.  Shift, shift, shift some more until your speed exceeds your ability to pedal in your highest gear.  You begin to coast.  You straighten one leg on your pedal and bend over the bars, lifting yourself slightly from the seat.  You enjoy the momentary relief.  You watch the road carefully as your speed increases.  You see the rest stop ahead, full of bikes and riders and volunteers.  You see hundreds.  You know there are thousands.  You think, This is better than church.  You revise your thought: This is church.

No stained glass.  No pastors.  No sermons.  Just three thousand people riding their bikes.  In love.

You pull your brake handle toward you.  You slow down.  You unclip your right foot from the pedal and continue braking.  You guide your bike into a gap in the crowd.  You hear someone singing show tunes.  You stop, put your foot down.  You unclip your other foot and get off.  You set your bike in the gravel and grab your empty water bottle.  You head toward the line of people waiting for the port-a-potties.

And you think, There is much good in the world.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Longest Day of the Year

(Written June 21st, 2010; Posted June 22nd, 2010 at 1:29 a.m.)

Today is the longest day of the year.

Five years ago today, I had my carpets cleaned.  I stood in the kitchen--my belly eight months swollen--enjoying the breeze through the open windows and wondering how long it would take for the carpets to dry and for my feet to return to their normal size and for this baby to come.  I cleaned and put things away and generally kept moving to avoid the stillness that reminded me of my discomfort, physically.  And then the phone rang.  And it felt like time stood still.

On June 21st, 2005, my sister Dannette called after an appointment with a neurologist for a number of inexplicable and sudden symptoms.  I had been waiting for her call, wondering what explanation they would offer for the numbness in her hand and the loss of strength in her leg and the spasming of her muscles.  When I answered, she said hi, and I must have asked her something like how did it go--I don't remember.  What I do remember is her answering, "Not good," so casually it was almost wistful.  "They told me I have MS."

I remember feeling the need to hold it together, to remove any trace of panic or despair from my voice while I asked her for more specifics of the appointment.  I remember sitting down in a chair in the kitchen, staring at the base of the phone on the counter.  I remember her saying they would start her on IV steroids to treat the symptoms and then explaining how the degree to which her symptoms went away or remained would determine which stage of MS she was in.

I remember hanging up so she could make other calls--though I desperately wanted to keep talking to her because talking about it was easier than thinking about the implications--and then weeping with the phone in my hand, wondering how I would ever feel joy again, wondering how I would enjoy the birth of my son.

The only experience I'd had with MS was through a family we knew casually from our former church.  Chris, a husband and a father to three young children, already lived his life from a wheel chair when we met him.  We watched his body deteriorate over the course of a year until he passed away, leaving his family bereft.  When I hung up with Dannette, I didn't know his death was the rare exception, didn't realize the disease takes remarkably different courses in each person.  All I knew was that my sister, thirteen months younger than me, was facing a life far different than the one we had envisioned for her, and I grieved that life like a death.

I called Josh at work, and we cried together.  And then I began hours and hours of research: into the pathology of the disease, into treatment options, into resources and specialists and every piece of information that might offer some hope for her prognosis.

It was the longest day of the year.

Dannette turned 26 the next day.

Benjamin was born one month later, nine days late.  I've often wondered if God provided that extra time to recover from the shock of her diagnosis so that I could feel the exhilaration of his birth rather than the persistent sorrow that lingered for weeks after the news.  Within a few weeks, my body--full of its pregnancy-induced discomforts and inconveniences and frustrations--returned to normal.  Dannette's did not.

To say the next three and a half years were hard is an understatement.  Some of her original symptoms resolved, but she wrestled with new ones, invisible to the eye but ever-present in her day.  She relapsed often, took multiple courses of steroids which, though useful in reducing the MS symptoms, caused unbearable side effects.  She learned that only peanut M&M's could relieve the metallic taste in her mouth.  She modified her car so she could drive left-footed, giving her the freedom to go to work even when her right leg refused to function.  She managed to live life, to maintain her independence which she clung to with fierce determination even in the worst days of her disease, and to remain graceful in the midst of seeming calamity, but she wrestled with her body in a seemingly endless, uphill battle.  She fought hard, every day, for a sense of normalcy, and we who could do nothing watched in awe--and tried to hope.

Then, a year and a half ago, she began a new treatment.  Though proven effective, this drug is not available to everyone since it carries the risk of a devastating side effect.  Fortunately (or not?) for Dannette, the severity of her disease tipped the scales of her risk-benefit analysis in favor of trying it.

And it worked.  Is working.

She has been free of relapse for a year, free of steroids, free of the heavy weight of dread that she might wake up and lose something, like her mobility or her cognition or her freedom.  She lives, now, lighter and less burdened and more inclined to use her body skiing or cycling than to wish it away.

This weekend, while Josh and I ride 150 miles to raise money for the National MS Society, Dannette will ride the 25 mile course on her recumbent trike.  Her three wheels eliminate the problem of balance.  Her clip-in pedals keep her feet engaged no matter how numb they grow or how much they spasm.  This feat was unthinkable a few years ago.  But now she sees the possibility in the former impossibility and seizes it.  With joy.

Today is the longest day of the year.  Dannette and the rest of my family joined us for dinner tonight.  We laughed like children, struck silly by the memory of her training ride a few weeks ago when she rode strong for nearly fifteen miles before bonking, having run out of food, fuel for the body.  She and my youngest sister recalled through giggles how slowly she moved: slower than the little kids on their bikes, slower than the pollen blowing through the air, slower than the old woman with the cane.  We could laugh at this because it wasn't so much about MS and the tragic hold it has over her life.  We could laugh because she is living, and in the living, she is reclaiming herself.  She bikes now.  And eats peanut M&M's on her own terms.

According to Wikipedia, "solstice" is the Latin term for the astronomical event it describes: "sun-standing."  The summer solstice is the day the sun reaches its northernmost position, appears to stand still, and then changes direction.

Five years ago today, while the sun stood still, so did our family as we grappled with the unknown of Dannette's future.  Today, the sun stood radiant, bright, full of promise--and I couldn't help but notice Dannette did, too.  Her course, our course, seems to have changed again, but this time, the future shines with hope.

Friday, June 18, 2010

To the Writers of Room 177

It's funny how a group of people who begin a week complete strangers can feel so familiar by the end.  I bid adieu to my fellow writers this afternoon, feeling a genuine pang of sadness to leave this group I've come to know both through the conversation and through the writing we shared this week.

There's something about the anonymity of getting to know people you'll likely never see again that opens the door for exchanges more intimate than some have with closest friends.  Over dinners and lunches, in always-changing combinations of us, we talked about spouses and religion and sex and family and race and addiction and geography and travel and childhood and war.  We asked questions about writing accomplishments and aspirations, sought out advice from those more seasoned, wondered at those who can spin a tale with seeming ease and grace.  We spoke candidly, freely, feeling no need to censor ourselves for people we'd leave a few days later.

In class, we learned even more--from the words and phrases we selected to convey the characters and places and events we discovered and remembered and created in Room 177.

And somehow, through all this unedited dialogue and coexistence, we came to understand each other, to appreciate each other in all our apparent strengths and quirks.  That which at first annoyed or distanced grew endearing as we waded past first impressions to the layers beneath.

I spent my driving time tonight reflecting on my week's companions and their backgrounds, turning over our interactions, remembering the moments of hilarity and poignancy.  Already, I feel nostalgia for our time together.

As important to me as the writing I completed this week is the time I spent with these people: parents and grandparents and engineers and designers and lawyers and farmers and teachers and students and librarians and comedians and sales folk, some still working and others retired, some married for forty years and others three times, some from the coasts and others from the middle and one from across the world.  But all writers.  And all an unexpected gift to me for the week.

Here's to you, fellow world observers and storytellers.  Thank you for sharing your lives with me.  May you enjoy every success to which you aspire.  

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Where the Real Learning Occurs

In the middle of Iowa City--this fabulous little college town with coffee shops that stay open until (gasp) 11:00 at night, pubs and sports bars with suggestive names like Third Base, and wonderful little eateries of all ethnic varieties--there is a playground full of kids.

The playground sits right on the main pedestrian mall of town next to the campus's signature cafe, so that all the patrons inside see the wonders of childhood when they lift their heads from their work. The children climb its ladders, hang upside down from its bars, run down its bridge of stairs, play hide and seek in its shade.

I wonder who uses it. Families who happened to settle here after completing their education? Families of grad students raising their kids around the university while mom and/or dad completes their academic endeavors? College students who made it past third base and found themselves with an unexpected companion?

It comforts me: the presence of children in the heart of higher education, the juxtaposition of little ones running with unselfconscious abandon in this place of ever-increasing self and global awareness.  Their play is grounding, brings perspective and context to the intense studying and striving and building of resumes.  It proclaims what I've come to know in these last few years: that children and learning are not mutually exclusive; that children, in fact, inform the other with unparalleled depth and truth.

This playground in the middle of the University of Iowa has drawn me all week--I think because it symbolizes my life: a campus of hopes and dreams and goals and learning and awareness--sometimes painful awareness--of myself and the world around me.  But in the middle, where no one can miss it, springs the playground of my own little loves, where I find them stretching their limbs and laughing in the sunlight.

There, for them and for me, the real learning occurs.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The New Gift of Gratitude, in All Things

Yesterday in our first workshop session, our instructor asked us to introduce ourselves and share briefly why we're here.  When my turn came, I explained that I'm home raising my kids, that I started a blog here in Iowa last summer, and said, "I'm here because my husband is wonderful, as is my mother-in-law who's watching my kids this week so I can be here."  A wave of understanding and appreciation went through the group, acknowledging my fortune.  I am blessed.

I drove 800 miles yesterday from Evergreen, Colorado, to Iowa City, Iowa.  Every summer, the University of Iowa hosts a Summer Writing Festival offering week-long and weekend writing workshops over the course of six weeks.  I attended a blogging weekend last summer on a whim, and when I returned home raving about how amazing the time was, Josh suggested I try a longer one this year.

So here I am.  I spent twelve hours in the car yesterday--in my little red Mini-cocoon of solitude.  I spent the first four hundred miles searching out the road through the rain while thinking, reflecting, processing, and feeling genuine appreciation for a husband who would support this very inconvenient endeavor and for in-laws who would give up a week of their lives to enable my absence on the home-front.  In my long stretch through Nebraska, I saw billboards for the University of Nebraska: a photo of investment mastermind Warren Buffet gracing the corner with his graduation year below, and his thoughts in giant, white letters on a red background: "My advice: invest in yourself."  It seemed an appropriate sign for my journey.  This is a week I've been given to focus on my writing, my passion, me.

But I do hope it is an investment in me that reaps dividends beyond myself, though I don't always know where I'm headed in this investment of time and resources toward an activity I feel compelled to do.  I walk through bookstores and see thousands upon thousands of titles on everything from the state of American politics to organic gardening.  Unless a book appears on Oprah or the tables at the front of the bookstore, how many people actually read most of them?  Publication is not my end-game, or at least not my primary motivation (though I certainly wouldn't turn-down J.K. Rowling's gig).  Earning some money doing something I love certainly would be ideal, but Josh has told me on several occasions that he doesn't care if I ever earn a dime writing--he loves that I do it for writing's sake, or, more accurately, for my sake.  I love this about him.

Still, write I must, for reasons that are beyond my comprehension at the moment.  In some mysterious way, writing quiets the whispers of doubt in my mind.  It heals my soul, this confession and acknowledgement of short-comings and fears.  It renews my hope that all things are being made new.  It helps me cling more securely to the possibility that what I see is not the sum total of what is occurring around me.  Plots far greater than I can conceive are playing out in and around and through and in spite of me. And perhaps this clarity is the gift not only to me but to those around me who have less of my insecurity and fear to wade through and deflect in a day.

I spent a lot of time with me yesterday as the highway stretched on and on before me.  I'm comfortable with that.  Me, myself, and I dialogued contentedly through the hours--at times absorbing the music I listened to, at times running through imaginary conversations I need to have with people I love, at times wondering about the characters and places around me.  I thought of the usual fountain of questions and commentary that accompanies me most of the time I'm driving somewhere, and I appreciated the quiet while simultaneously appreciating the small voices that are the soundtrack of my daily life for this fleeting season.  I remembered the very first cross-country drive I did when Josh and I were "friends," the drive that solidified our fate as life-long companions, and I wondered what we'd be talking about if he were with me.  But I accepted the time alone as a rare gift, one I accept with open hands.

Last year when I came to this Festival, I needed the time alone like a passenger on a crashing plane needs an air mask.  I was desperate for the break and the time and the stimulation, desperate to catch a breath from the daily demands of life with little ones.  This state of mind is hardly healthy when trying to be a wife and mother.

This year, I am grateful for this time, but I do not grasp for it like a dying person.  Writing has done that for me: brought me balance, brought me to an understanding of who I am in the midst of my circumstances, brought me the ability to accept all, or at least most, aspects of my life--in their challenges and their joys--for the time they are to be, brought me peace and joy.  So this week, life offers 1600 miles of driving, a week of writing and biking and existing alone with my thoughts, and days of limitless possibility.  Next week, life will return to the comfortable chaos of kids and puppy and company and the welcome companionship of Josh.  And today, after a year of musing in this space, I can say without hesitation that I am grateful for all of it.

Perhaps there will be other gifts afforded by this investment; indeed, I hope so.  But if this is all I ever get, it is enough.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Mommy's Helper

Sometimes, Merlot's bladder moves faster than I can.  This can be terribly frustrating.

After she finished her lunch yesterday, I walked into the kitchen to grab her leash so I could take her out, and in the thirty seconds it took me to retrieve the leash, she began "doing her business" on the floor by the door.  THIRTY SECONDS!

This is not really her fault--though she knows she's supposed to potty in the yard, she doesn't yet have the bladder control necessary to hold it when it's full.  And as far as she knows, she did everything she could to communicate.  She stood by the gate to the door and waited, as she usually does to signal she needs to go, and I simply wasn't fast enough.  Fortunately, she'll stop mid-stream if I distract her, so she at least finished her "business" in the yard.

Nevertheless, it is frustrating when I'm in the process of doing the very thing she needs only to be thwarted by time and puppyhood.  I had been cleaning the house that morning and had no desire to clean up another mess, let alone one of an excretory nature.  But I entered the house resigned to the new task at hand--only to find Ben on his hands and knees taking care of it already.  With the spray in one hand and a big towel in the other, he kneeled on the floor soaking up and spraying and wiping until it was clean, my little boy acting so selflessly, so responsibly.  I wanted to squeeze him a hundred times.

I gushed my thanks and appreciation and gave him every accolade I could think of in the moment, and then I kneeled next to him to help with the last bit of clean-up.

"I'm almost done, Mommy," he informed me quite seriously.  "I already got the other side."

The wonderful thing about Ben is that his coordination has caught up to his attention to detail, so when he does a job, he does it well.  I don't have to sneak back later when he's elsewhere to go over his work.  He's old enough now to be able to recognize a situation that needs addressing, to take care of it all by himself, and to be a genuine help.  I didn't ask him to clean up Merlot's mess.  He chose to do it himself.  He left his game to grab the towel and cleaner to help his visibly frustrated mommy.

Oh, the encouragement that gives me!  Because there are days when I wonder what in the world I'm doing as a mother, but then I get these little glimpses of what we're sowing, and I am filled with hope and wonder at the crazy gift of family, of sharing life with two people new to the world and learning its workings.  If he can help his mama at four, how will he be helping the world at forty-four?

Hope springs eternal.



Monday, June 7, 2010

Riding the High

The cloud passed.  Josh arrived home that night after reading my blog and talked some sense into me.  I thank God for him.  We all need someone who can see through the muck of the day-to-day to the truth of the matter, the reality.  I'm learning what triggers these moments of doubt and, little by little, identifying how to see my way out.

In the meantime, I'm enjoying the high from the spin class I taught earlier.  The rec center has decided to start an intro class as a stepping stone for beginners to enter the program, and I am the instructor.  The first Monday of the month is a free orientation where we spend more time on set-up and the basics of position, form, and self-awareness on the bike.  We had seven people tonight, five of whom had never been on a spin bike before, and I realized as I left that I love teaching: first-time spinners, high school students, my kids, Merlot...  I love taking something previously unthinkable and making it accessible.  I love introducing a principle that illuminates everything around it in a new way.  I love clarifying an idea that was once fuzzy or nebulous.  I adore seeing people grow in confidence and the belief that they can, indeed, do--or understand--something they were certain was too hard.

I think some part of me was made to teach.  In spite of the many admonitions I received not to become a teacher when I grew up, I did, and for a few years, I felt every single facet of my being was exercised and utilized and challenged and stimulated in the classroom.  As a parent, it feels much the same; the subject matter has simply shifted from Shakespeare to sharing.  Raising a puppy adds to the fun.

We have all been created--and equipped--with the strengths and temperaments and personalities to do something, to feel a deep exhilaration as we utilize the minds and bodies and hearts we've been given.  I felt it tonight--the rush of contentment and joy in exercising my particular set of attributes.  Like Eric Liddel, the Olympic gold medal runner of Chariots of Fire, I think we've been made to "feel God's pleasure" when we're living out of the truth of who we are and what we excel at and how we're designed to complement this world.

My great blessing is that Josh recognizes those strengths in me, gives me space to nurture them, encourages me to use them.  He generously provides not only the freedom to explore what I might be capable of but also the resources to make a legitimate go of something.  He trusts me to know myself and what I want and then makes a path to its existence.  I have often thought how different my life could be if I hadn't met a man with such faith in and love for me.  He is amazing.

I hope Ben and Abby find their exhilaration-maker one day.  I hope we can recognize and encourage it as it unfolds.  I hope Josh and I together can help clear a path to its existence, whatever "it" may be.  I pray one day they walk out of an office or home or restaurant or gym feeling God's pleasure because they are doing exactly what they've been designed to do.  

It's a great feeling.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

My Prayer

I can feel the cloud moving in, but I'm trying to push it away.  Still, I find myself searching for some evidence that I am helping more than harming, making things better rather than worse, raising these kids in love and joy and acceptance rather than the fear and frustration and blame I sometimes feel I project.

Perfect love casts out fear.  Perfect love casts out fear.  Perfect love casts out fear.

My love is not perfect.

Perhaps that is not the point.

God's love is.  Do I trust him with my children?  Do I trust him to redeem my mistakes?  Do I trust him?

It is human nature to want to quit what we cannot do well.  As a parent, I feel constantly confronted by my failure.  But it's not like I can quit.

Maybe surrender is the alternative.  Can I surrender?

The short-term remedy when I'm questioning my role, my relationship with them, is to connect.  Solid, undivided attention is in order.  Play time of the highest magnitude is called for.  I know of no better way to communicate their value than to show them they matter to me.  To look them in the eye when they're talking, listen with my whole heart, and enter into the moment.  

I've been here before.  Will I ever move past it completely?  Two steps forward, one step back.  I hope.  Sometimes it seems more like one step forward, two steps back.  But it is only by grace that I step at all.

This is my prayer: that I can surrender these steps--in all their faltering and seeming futility--to a rhythm of Love so that this pilgrimage feels less like slogging and more like dancing.  Every day.  No matter how rocky the terrain or steep the ascent.
Blog Widget by LinkWithin