Friday, February 15, 2013

Raise the seat. Aim for a central point just ahead of you.

I learned something recently from a guy I know.

Wait... that didn't sound quite right, did it?  

Really, this is not a blog entry about that.  

But I did momentarily capture the attention of your inner 5-year -old, didn't I?  (Or, for some folks, their inner 18-year-old... ) 

(Now kindly re-direct your inner kindergartener to something more appropriate, while consoling your inner teenager, that there will be some mention of long legs coming up... oh, and a brief bondage joke.  You have been warned.

Ahem... back to those life lessons. 

I'm referring, of course, to what I have learned recently about riding my bike.  And while I was riding my bike today, I got to thinking about how those lessons could be applied in the rest of my life.  

Lesson 1- Raise the seat

Ok, this one I did NOT learn from a guy, (aren't you relieved?)  but it is something I discovered today on my ride.  I'm 5'10" and most of my height is in my legs.  I was the kid with the high-waters throughout most of my childhood.  And now I refer to my summer collection of "cropped pants" when I can't find the extra-long jeans for my 36-inch inseam. After struggling along with a much-too-short bike for a couple of years, I'd given myself the gift of a right-sized bike last Spring, when I needed to cross-train for my first half-marathon.  But I had never considered whether the height of the seat was properly adjusted to give me enough power in each pedal stroke.  Today, it suddenly occurred to me to raise the seat a couple of inches, and... voila !  More power ! 

I'm thinking that there's a metaphor I need to consider: when I'm feeling like I'm just not making any headway, I need to consider extending myself a bit more, stretching a little beyond my current comfort zone, if I want to experience my full power.  

Lesson 2: Aim for a central point just ahead of you.

This lesson was the one that actually got me thinking about how what I learn on my bike applies to my life.  And it's the one I learned from a guy. :-) 

I had a conversation, a couple of weeks ago, with a friend who is a competitive cyclist, and a pretty helpful guy when it comes to advice.  We were talking about that wobbly feeling that you get when you have to somehow thread yourself and the bike through a narrow place on a ride: gates, a tight overtake-and-pass, or riding in a group. Take a look at the photo above and notice those poles at the end of the crosswalk.  All along my ride on the bike trails around here, I have to ride through those gateways.  Sure, they don't look all that narrow, until, as a newbie cyclist, I try to ride through one, and I find myself feeling wobbly and having to slow way down, which makes me even more wobbly, which can lead to crashing into one of the poles.  They are a kind of Island of the Sirens for a casual cyclist like me: the poles have a kind of magnetic pull, and a swerve to either side can bring me to destruction, or at least bruises and embarrassment.  

And my friend's advice was to aim for a central point, ahead of you, just beyond the narrow place.  I tried it today for the first time, during my 22-mile ride along the Contra Costa Canal Trail.

And it worked !  As I approached the gateway, I chose a specific leaf, pebble, or even a dark spot on the pavement, a few feet past the gateway, and I maintained speed and sailed right through, again and again, gate after gate.  It didn't work as well when I just told myself to "look past the gate".  It seemed like I needed a specific, visible point to aim for.

In my life these days, my own magnetic, crash-inducing, poles-on -the-trail Sirens are guilt, grief, self-doubt, and a kind of paralyzing depression that makes me a lousy mom and a real drag as a friend.  Each time I get "ambushed" either by a holiday, or some kind of family milestone, or something that reminds me of the difference between my life now and where I wish it was, I find myself wobbling dangerously close to these monsters.  (If you've forgotten the story of Odysseus and the Sirens since your junior high school English class, click on the blue text, and you can grab a quick fix.)

So... what to do?  In the story, Odysseus had his crew put wax in their ears and then lash him to the mast while they sailed past the rock where the Sirens were.  But you know, if I'm going to have a bunch of sailors tie me up, it had better be for something way, way more fun than simply ignoring me while we sail past some old rock.  (Of course, I'm kidding... my mom reads this blog...and so do my pastors.) 

But I CAN "aim for a central point" ahead of me. 

If an emotional "narrow gate" on the calendar is looming, and I feel myself getting wobbly, and I'm pulled toward a crash, I can stay aware of those "poles", but keep moving toward a specific, visible point, just beyond that gate.  I have a feeling that the whole "just think of your future" thing isn't going to work.  It's too vague, and frankly, there are too many future scenarios that are not at all cheery, if my mind chooses to go that way.  Instead, I need to identify the possible upcoming narrow spots, and then find or plan a specific event, preferably something involving doing for others, extending myself (see Lesson #1), that will occur just past the opening of the narrow place I have to travel through.   

March... no problems that I see...April / Easter... I think that one's pretty well covered.  A celebration of the victory of life over death, of resurrection, renewal, redemption... I think that one won't involve too much Andre-loaded wobbling. 

May... a bit more challenging.  That one is going to require some spotting of specific pebbles on the pavement.  I've got a birthday in the month, and then there's what would have been our 19th wedding anniversary, a week later, on the 28th.  I've got a bit of time to spot those pebbles, I guess.  One possible "pebble"  might be my half-marathon run with the American Brain Tumor Team Breakthrough, on June 16.  (If you click on the blue text, it will take you right to my fundraising page.  How's that for shameless self-promotion?  It's for a good cause, though.)

June...maybe I'll still be running off the high of the half marathon for part of the month, but I'll need a pebble to steer for as I approach my eldest son's birthday on the 25th.  

July brings us to the one-year mark, and it might take more than steering toward a pebble to keep me from wobbling.  But that's where my amazing friends come in.  Somehow, I'll get through it... or maybe somebody will round up a crew of sailors to do that lashing-to-the-mast thing...No, wait...I didn't say that, did I?  (No worries, Mom, I really am kidding...

Hebrews 12:1-2 
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

I'm thinking that will make a pretty good-sized pebble, in addition to any of the other ones I might need to line up.  

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Roses and Ashes

When I was an unathletic, chubby, awkward 3rd grader, there was only one boy in my class who DIDN'T call me fat, didn't try to trip me in the hallways, and even laughed with me over things that we both found funny.  So, when Valentine's Day that year came around, and we all put our little hand-addressed Valentines in the pink and red paper-covered distribution box in Mrs. Dolcetti's classroom, the only boy who got a Valentine from me was Donnie S.  I found out, years later, that the gesture was a bright spot for a lonely little boy who was going through a rough patch himself at the time.

Years later, when we bumped into each other at a summer resort where I was working, between sophomore and junior years of college, Don (no longer "Donnie") greeted me with "Val!! You were the only person who sent me a Valentine when we were in 3rd grade!  I'll never forget that."  Many years after that, at our 30th high school class reunion, my 3rd-grade buddy reminded me, yet again, of that Valentine's Day so long ago.  Funny how some gestures take on a life of their own.

Over the years, I've found myself desperately wishing that someone special would, just once, make a little effort, with no hinting from me, and surprise me with a rose, or a poem, or a card... something a little romantic, something that showed a little thought for me.

And as I've gotten to know the men in my life: a couple of boyfriends and then my husband, I've realized that I need to have some compassion for the way guys feel this time of year.  I've come to understand that Valentine's Day, in that Hallmark card/Kay Jewelers/1-800-Flowers frame is a pretty intimidating thing for them: high expectations, unfamiliar "stuff", and the looming possibility of screwing it up.

Of course, it's not the "stuff" that I was wishing for, it was that sense of being thought of, valued, loved.

During my years with Andre, I learned to just roll with whatever happened or didn't happen that day.

There were many "oops, I forgot" years, a few last-minute dashes to the store at 10 p.m on the 14th, and one year when I was presented with an Alan Jackson CD....yup.  And then there's the story that's still told among the sales staff at a local lingerie boutique.  It seems that one February, Andre decided that I needed a few lacy nothings and went into Sarah's Bare Necessities to find them.  He told the sales clerk my size and had her pick out a few things to show him on the hangers.   He then took the items one by one, and threw them on the floor, nodding approvingly.  When the woman demanded to know what he was doing, he reportedly grinned his rascally grin and quipped,  "Oh, I just want to know what it's going to look like once I get it home."   To his credit, it does reflect some degree of thought and effort.  It was one of the better years.  Another year, it was clear that his wait-til-the-last-minute strategy made the search for "just the right card" a little challenging.  I got a card that year from the Hispanic collection, entirely in Spanish.  And it was actually a pretty romantic card.  My Spanish is pretty good.  Since Andre's command of the language began and ended with the Taco Bell menu , I don't think he chose the card for its message, but for the fact that it had what appeared to be sentences of some kind of text, some pictures of roses, and a decided lack of Tweety Bird or Power Rangers on it. (See above, re: "possibility of screwing up")  Again, looking back, I'd give him points for at least trying.

And today, it's the 13th of the month (Andre died on July 13), and tomorrow is Valentine's Day, and I'm feeling a little fragile.  If there ever were a day to make sure that there's kleenex around every corner, it's been today.  There won't be any romantic gestures for me tomorrow, or even any failed attempts at one.  I could give in to feeling sorry for myself.  In fact, there have been moments all day when I have done just that.  (Investment tip: Kleenex Corporation is a buy and hold stock for a while.)

But today is also Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a season of reflection and repentance that leads up to Easter.  This evening, I'm wearing on my forehead a reminder of a gesture of love that was planned before I was even a twinkle in my parent's eyes.  Tonight, I participated in a service that reminds us that the love of God begins with a declaration that we are beloved creations, created in the image of our creator, declared, "very good" ... and that with our free will, we have the capability, indeed the propensity to screw up, AND that our screw-ups are forgiven: now, tomorrow, next year, and on and on forever.

Tonight's service included the writing of short anonymous confessions on little pieces of paper and tucking them into the "stones" of a replica of the Wailing Wall (I love the creative worship team at my church--never the same thing twice)  and the imposition of ashes --the burned and ground-up remains of last Palm Sunday's palm branches--on our foreheads, in the shape of a cross, a reminder of the length to which God goes to prove how loved we are.  As I struggle with my inevitable guilt--over Andre's death, over feeling relieved that the nightmare of life with him is done, guilt over moving on, guilt over not being the 100% wonderful mom I should be... it's a great relief to be given time to write down the worst of it, fold it up on a little slip of paper, and let go of it, and to do so in the community of people who have supported me every step of this journey, people who translate God's love into gestures of love that are far too real, far too thoughtful to have ever come from a card store or a florist stand.

In a frame that is way, way bigger than Hallmark, Kay Jewelers, or 1-800-flowers could ever be, I think I've received my love note for this year.  It's just not the red/pink/sparkly one I might have been wishing for.  But, once I dry my eyes, re-apply the mascara, and get over my self-pitying self, it really is way more than enough.

Oh, and I actually did get surprised with a rose today.

Even though I pruned my rose bushes mercilessly in preparation for the winter, months ago, I guess Somebody  knew I'd need one rose, right about now.  I found this one on the bush this morning, and brought it inside before the cold air at night zaps it.

Yup, I think I'll get through the day ok.

“A new command I give youLove one anotherAs have loved you, so you must love one another.    John 13:34

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Art of Living with "CRAFT"

I've been fretting lately... well, more than fretting...try, "obsessing" and "apologizing ad nauseam" about how my short-term memory is just trashed.  If it isn't written down, and even sometimes when it is, I'll forget whatever I just promised to remember.  I look at even the simplest form to fill out and my mind goes blank. I survey the piled-high jumble in the room that was once my husband's office and sanctum sanctorum, intending to get started on the cleaning-out, and I freeze, and close the door.

It's been over 6 months, after all, and I keep thinking I should be farther along than this.

My experts tell me that my foggy brain is actually normal for this part of the journey, that my mind still just has too much noise in it;  noise generated by grief and post-traumatic stress, to be able to keep thoughts organized, to remember that there's a form I'm supposed to fill out for the Kindergarten book sale, and another one to update for the Middle School ministries, and one for the high school Band Boosters, and there's some carrots in the fridge that I'd meant to make into a shredded salad, and a 40lk that I need to start the rollover on, and the dog hasn't been out to pee for HOURS... and did I forget that I put the kettle on to boil to make a french press of coffee?

And it seems like I've forgotten how to cook.  No, really.  Most of the time, I simply can't face the prospect of cooking, but lately, when I've tried, the end result is not as good as I've usually been able to produce in the past.  And often, lately, it's downright awful.  It's as if I can't stay focused on any one task long enough to avoid making mistakes.  So, I'm letting my older kids work on their kitchen skills, and nobody's starving. I've stopped asking "what can I bring?" when I'm invited to a party.  That used to be an excuse to show-off my cooking creativity.  But now I just breezily offer, "how about I bring some drinks?"

But as seems to be the case so often, in this blessed life of mine, filled with wise, generous, loving, and hilarious people, I've gotten some help from a friend.  This friend has given me a very handy label to hang on my condition, a diagnosis.  And you know, don't you, that once you have a diagnosis for those annoying symptoms, you can relax and focus on treatment.

Last Sunday afternoon, I was sitting on Dave and Kelley's cozy couch, savoring a plate of Dave's amazing red beans and Carolina-style pulled pork, watching the 49'ers get whupped by the Ravens, and silently giving thanks that I'd re-connected recently (well, 2 years ago, when we bumped into each other in the lobby of Davies Symphony Hall) with yet another of my college friends who now lives in the Bay Area.  Given my current status as a failure in the kitchen, I was especially appreciative of Dave's culinary gifts (and post-college chef-training).  Seriously, those beans were a work of art... I remarked that the kids and I hadn't eaten this well in weeks, because I'd forgotten how to cook, and forgotten a bunch of other things... I started in on my obsessive litany of what my unreliable brain couldn't do.

And Dave stopped me.

"It's called 'CRAFT', dear, 'Can't Remember A Fucking Thing'.  We all have it now.  It's part of being old",  he said

And now I have a diagnosis.  I have CRAFT.

And since I can't remember a f*cking thing, it's time to accept the diagnosis and start working on the treatment.

 While I do my healing work with my therapist, and perhaps do some investigation into better-living-through-chemistry, I've got to find a work-around.  I'm working on hiring a professional organizer to create some CRAFT-proof  paperwork-handling systems, so the bills get paid on time, and the tax-related documents are all findable at tax time... and she'll need to create a household chores rotation for the kids, so I can stop being the screaming meanie mom who assigns three different kids to load the dishwasher, about 3 minutes apart, and then watches the kids shrug and wait to see who's really going to end up scraping away Rhys' un-eaten macaroni and cheese.  It might put an end to the endless fights over whose turn it REALLY is to clean the kids' upstairs bathroom, affectionately (or is it "infection-ately" ?) dubbed, The Swamp.

So, I've been thinking lately about what I might want to do with my trembling wild-bunny mind, once the scramble to keep the paperwork, the wetwork, and the work that requires a rubber gloves, a strong stomach, and a big bottle of Kaboom, is managed.

And I've decided that for now that I'll keep writing, keep living in "The Now" (if you haven't read Eckardt Tolle's The Power of Now, get it, and devour it, please)  and I'll see what sense memories I can store, and see how long I can store them.

You see, when I'm old and really forgetful, it won't really matter so much that I failed to get the permission slips signed until the very last minute, or that the boys' long-sleeve white shirts for school chapel had to be sponged-off at the last minute, because I forgot to get that load of laundry done before Wednesday morning, or that I cooked the ham too long, or forgot the salt in the biscuit recipe. But I will want to remember:

*the plane-landing sound that my 6-year-old makes when he swoops in on me, suddenly, for a "hugga"

*my daughter's homemade cafe au lait, first thing in the morning, and her smile of accomplishment when she hands me a mug of it.

*the slow-growing spicy hotness of Dave's amazing red beans (like, seriously, Dave, publish the recipe or make a YouTube instructional video or something...), and the feeling of being cared-for that comes from someone else cooking for me and my kids.

*the French horn imitation of Canadian geese over Newhall Park as the sun rises during my early morning walks.

*the feel of cashmere and superwash merino yarn as it slides through my fingers when I knit

*the perfect cartoon-character parentheses formed by the corners of the smile of a certain blue-eyed friend

*the delightful, contagious, cackling laugh of another friend, a laugh that carries over the conversation of dozens of people.

*the eccentric street-theatre of my neighbor across the street, meticulously sweeping her sidewalk after dark every night, by the light of her handheld flashlight--and the barely suppressed laughter of a friend who sat with me in my front yard one autumn night, sipping wine and revelling in the strangeness of suburbia.

*the pride in my 10 year old's face as he shows me how he took the "guts" from a broken toy helicopter and turned it into a mobile weapons system to be mounted on the back of his remote-controlled toy monster truck.

*the happily repetitive plunk-plunk-plunka-plunk of my 14 year old, teaching himself to play acoustic bass in every spare minute he has.

I have faith that, eventually, my CRAFT symptoms will calm down, while I train a less-flighty part of my brain to handle the things that must get done.  But while Life has handed me this moment when I can't control my CRAFT, I've decided to focus on the Art, the here-this-moment-gone-the-next work of Art that is my life right now, a life that consists of an endless parade of "nows" that I may or may not remember, 5 minutes from now.

2Peter 3:8  "But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day"

Hmm...With God,  a thousand years=one day, so if I do the math... that means (calculating furiously)'s a lot of "now" s to live and enjoy, and God is with me, and keeping track of me, in every single one.  I guess I can relax a little and just live the moments as they pass.

...Now, what did I come into this room for again?  (That's called, theologically, "thinking about the hereafter", as in "what in the world did I come in here after?" )