Mind matters

My right leg is a mess. Shin scraped raw. Knee swollen purple and scabby.

My instinct is to hide the mess.  It’s what I do with all the messes in my life. Throw a cloth over it and call it good.  But we’re in the grip of a fierce Indian summer; there’s no hiding the legs in shorts and skirt weather. Uncharacteristically, I’ve been showing off my wounds.

I earned these abrasions on an amazing ride. Geographically, it was seven difficult miles. Metaphorically, it was a personal journey of a million light years.

Yeah, I’m still the same old me on the outside, prone to injury and scar-covered to prove it. But under those scabs are the seeds of enlightenment. Seeds so small you’d need a microscope. Nonetheless, they’re there.

This pain is the fruit of a standing date I have with a good friend. We meet on Tuesdays. We do something outside: walk, ride bikes, ice skate. Whatever. I suggested bike riding on this last Tuesday. She named a park — one I’d never visited before — and I agreed. Little did I know what sort of trails awaited at this park.

Within moments of entering the densely wooded single-track, I encountered sandy hills, hairpin turns, exposed tree roots, low-hanging branches, large rocks, wooden bridges spanning water and mud, and gravel, lots of gravel. The first five minutes nearly killed me. I was in the wrong gear and couldn’t gain enough speed to shift. Eventually I got off the bike and began pushing it. Then I stopped.

As I scanned the dense woods for a sign of my friend, I thought about my yard sale hybrid bike, which has never felt sturdy in the grip of my hands.  I thought about the bike shop guy (who calls me “ma’am”) telling me to keep this bike off trails with bumps and holes. I thought about how little I knew about real mountain biking and how the last time I really rode like this I was a child, testing my mettle at a customized bike lot in my Detroit neighborhood. I remember the humiliating trek home, dragging my little blue bike in three pieces after it broke apart going over a gnarled tree root. I remember the punishment that followed the discovery of the bike in ruins. My head buzzed like a jar of angry bees.

I was slipping into a hole of despair, one I’d been working on all my life, digging with a small spoon. I lost track of time and place. My friend, no doubt blissfully navigating the bends and twists far ahead, was out of sight.  It was just me, the woods, and my mind.

My fucking mind.

It’s killing me.

You can’t do this, said the mean girl in my head. You are a lazy, gutless poser. I felt tears building in the corners of each eye. I felt the smack of shame on each cheek.  The logical, bespectacled part of my brain piped in: Excuse me, but this is a one-way, narrow, seven-mile trail, it said. You’d best stop this nonsense and get moving.  Another part, probably the loving, grandmotherly part of my brain, nudged its way to the front:  Hey, hey! it shouted in a motivational way. Look around you, embrace this gift of a day, go find your friend, you have two legs that work and a healthy heart and lungs. So maybe you aren’t rippling with muscle tone.  So what? So what if you are behind? So what if those guys on their fancy bikes with their fancy gear sneered a little as they passed you on the trail? So what if your daddy hated you so much he gave you a junkyard bike? All of these things are excuses for quitting. You are not a quitter or have you forgotten?

Shameless whiner? Yes. Quitter? No. I clamped an open palm on the yapping mouths chattering in my head, jumped on the bike and tried to distance myself from his awful thing that had me in its grip. Something happened. I lost awareness of my feet, pedaling and pumping until my quads erupted in flames. But even that pain felt distant. I lost focus of my hands, which somehow steered the bike around hazards and shifted for the trail ahead. For a few beautiful minutes, I was a multi-colored spirit gliding through shapes, shadows and dimensions.

Then I crashed. Hard.  Both front and back reflectors snapped off my bike. My water bottle toppled into the underbrush. As I lay in the pebbled dirt, panting, feeling the sweat drip from under my helmet, I felt the abdominal contractions of a laugh. I lifted the bike, stood, inspected it for the expected (but nonexistent) damages, looked at my shredded leggings and at the dots of blood oozing from open skin. My eyes leaked. My nose ran. My body rippled with joyous laughter.

My friend found me. Are you OK? she asked. Never better, I said, alternately laughing and panting, swiping my runny nose on my sleeve as I gathered the scattered plastic and brushed bits of rock and dirt out of my open wounds.

My friend offered to trade bikes. Even in the swap she disappeared quickly on the trail as I wobbled around the curves. That’s when I missed a tree and ran into myself. Clarity flowed into that jar in my head, displacing the buzzing bees.

It’s not the bike. It’s not the trail. It’s not my shitty childhood.

It is me.

As if life itself grabbed me by the collar and pushed me face-first toward a pool of still water, forcing me to look into the mirror of my truth, I choked on the clarity.  I carry a backpack stuffed with convenient  excuses for every obstacle. Every bike I ride has a flaw. Every trail is designed with failure in mind. Facing the mirror of truth, I instinctively look away. Instead, I search for the familiar, distorted sketches in my mind. The box is empty.

Enough.

What if I dropped the load? What if I let go of myself long enough to ride the current? What if every day could be as exhilarating as this one?

Since that ride, I attempted another trail with little success. My still-throbbing knee sent a message to my brain that said: Soon, but not today. This week, I bought a better bike.

My leg is healing. My head is somewhat clearer. What will the next ride deliver?

 

 

 

 

 

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Letting it go

image by bink_d via creative commons

Bikes have been on my mind all year. Riding. Shopping for a new model. Joining a biking club.

I let a casual acquaintance know and she said, coincidentally, that she was selling her bike.

We arrange a time and day for me to come to the Victorian-era duplex in Detroit where she shares space with a half-dozen folks. After a bit of small talk, she leads me out to a big wooden storage shed. She wrestles with the padlock, throws open the wooden doors, and stands there silently for an awkward amount of time. I stare at her as she stares inside at the array of rakes, brooms, and garden implements. She squints. She clicks her tongue a few times and continues to stare.

Then, as if waking from a trance, she shakes her head, sighs with a big huff,  and pushes closed the wooden doors.

“What’s going on?” I ask, because what just happened here?

“Well, I guess I don’t have a bike to sell you.”

She laughs, latches the lock with a snap, and turns toward the steps.

I follow. I wait. I don’t say anything.

It isn’t easy. God’s truth is I’m wondering why she isn’t getting mad, or firing off rhetorical questions about the missing (stolen?) bike, or looking for her housemates to ask them questions.

Instead, she pour us cups of ginger tea and leans against the Formica countertop, scanning the recipe books on a nearby shelf.

While I stew in silence she contemplates stew for dinner.

I know her well enough to know there really was a bike in there at one point; she isn’t messing with me. But what I didn’t know about her until now is how well she handles life’s sucker punches.

Although it hasn’t happened yet, I know as sure as the sun will set  in the west that I’ll go home and rant about this to my husband. For at least 10 minutes. I’ll vent and pitch a million unanswerable questions out of the ball park. Then I’ll remember (because it’s always just around a dark corner inside my head) the one that got away.

In 2001 my mountain bike was stolen from our garage in rather dramatic fashion. There was ruckus and a brief police chase. I was at work at the newspaper and heard it on the police scanner. My husband called excitedly to tell me about the drama in our neighborhood. He called back a few minutes later, his voice much quieter, to say it was my bike that starred in that show. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over the loss of that bike. I’ve had inexpensive replacements, but they were never the same. One thing I know: I had no idea what I had until it was gone. You’d think international spies had kidnapped my precious firstborn. It’s embarrassing, really.

It’s taken me a decade (that’s a lot of obsessive thinking, folks) to recall the make and model of that stolen bike, for when it happened I went blank. I had a mental image of letters in a pattern but I could not put them together to form words at the police station.

During an Internet search for high-quality used bikes, I found a picture of that bike. The color, the logo, the lettering, all unlocked a dusty box of memories. It had been an indulgent Mother’s Day gift from my first husband after the birth of our daughter. It was an expensive Band-aid to a hemmoraghing marriage. I thought about all the places I rode that bike. How I rode it hard to work off stress and heartbreak.  How on that bike I dreamed of escape. That bike traveled with me away from that marriage, into single motherhood, and then into the garage from which it would disappear forever.

I wonder what I’m really holding onto in this unresolved anger over a hunk of metal and rubber? Is it the inability to replace what’s lost? Is it the shock of realizing how attached I am to material objects? Is it that I am unable to forgive?

I’m working on this one.

What keeps you stuck in a rut on the road to self-improvement?

 

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Me,myself and I

Helmets up the dork factor

A few weeks ago, I rode my bicycle 30 miles with 3,000 other people.

It’s an annual fund-raiser to support a Detroit neighborhood and to help establish more bike paths within the city. I’ve never done anything like it before and I’m proud that I only stopped once for a bathroom, water, granola bar break.

I’ve wanted to do something like this for a long time. I have a long list of “things” I want to do. Most of them just sit passively on paper, trapped as hopes and wishes.

When I learned of the bike tour, I felt an energy building inside, the kind of thing that cannot be ignored. I considered: We didn’t really have the money to pay for the entrance fee. I didn’t have a bike helmet. My bike was in the basement, bolted onto a CycleOps. Since Girl from the East came into my life, I’ve only rode at the gym or in my basement. I longed for the wind in my hair and the open road.

Determined to make this happen, I accepted the entrance fee as an early birthday present. I found a bike helmet on sale. I hauled my husband’s neglected bike into a local bike shop for a check-up. I teamed up with one of the moms at Girl from the East’s school and we made it happen. I practiced long rides for weeks.

On the day of the tour, as I pedaled along the city streets, through historic neighborhoods, past abandoned factories, high school football games in progress, and along the breezy shores of the Detroit River, I felt the stress evaporate from my heavily saturated psyche. With each turn of the wheel, I felt lighter, freer, like anything was possible on this brisk morning.

When the tour was over, I stood in a food line braced against gusts of frigid air, my leg muscles twitched and my hands turned a little blue (I was severely underdressed for the day). I vowed that I would do something for me, something challenging and fun at least once a month. I’m really bad about pampering myself. I’ve never:

* had a full-body massage (I had a foot and leg massage in Beijing in one of its famous massage houses.)

* had a manicure or pedicure (I’m a DIY girl, but maybe just once I could splurge and let someone do it for me.)

* purchased anything indulgent just for me, such as a bouquet of flowers or an expensive piece of jewelry

Here are some things I want to do (notice full body massage is not on the list):

* skydive on my 50th birthday

* go storm chasing in tornado alley

*visit Alaska

* really learn Mandarin (I started lessons, but let it drop due to the cost.)

* attend a writer’s workshop and learn how to write what’s really inside

* Spend a few days alone in a non-haunted cabin in the woods to do whatever the hell I like

If I live to be 90, I am more than halfway there now. If I don’t make it that far, my life is three-quarters over. I’m not trying to sound morbid, but the dark circles, fine lines, and other signs of aging made me realize if not now, when?

I’ve led a fairly predictable and safe life so far. So much of what I’ve wanted to do with my life I’ve put on hold.  If I keep putting myself at the back of the line, I’ll never get my turn. And that’s how I’ve felt for some time now, at the back of the line. The kids need shoes. The roof is leaking. The car tires are bald. Insurance rates went up. On and on it goes.  Time is running out.

Now, I’m vowing to take time, maybe just a day, maybe three or four if I can get away with it, to reclaim “me” time in my life.

In two weeks, I’m unplugging for at least five days and going on a silent retreat. I’m both excited and terrified to do this. It will be hard, but I know I’ll emerge stronger and better for having done it.

What’s on your list?

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Hell on wheels

Photo by Infomatique via Creative Commons

I hit a guy on a bike today.  Just a little bit, like a nudge.

The front bumper of my car tapped him as he pedaled into my path. I was stopped at a corner. I wasn’t looking forward when I lifted my foot off the brake. I was looking to my left, gauging oncoming traffic and how I could gun it to merge into the flow. I was tired and I was in a hurry.

Traffic opened.  I lifted my foot off the brake.

In a split second I turned to see this man on a bike at the front end of my car, pinwheeling his arms and mouthing obscenities. In a split second my foot jumped back on the brake.  My hands flew up to my mouth.

ohmygodohmygodohmyfuckingod

I sat there, hands held palm-to-palm in prayer, pleading his forgiveness. I watched as he jumped back on his bike, leaned forward, grabbed the handlebars, locked eyes with me and shouted words that rhyme with hunt and witch.

It could have been oh-so-much worse, I thought, as he rode away. He seemed OK.

He appeared to be homeless, a street person, with his tattered clothing, salt and pepper wild beard and skull cap. Several stuffed-to-the-brim bags dangled from the bike’s handlebars.  I didn’t ask him if he was OK. I said it aloud inside the car but not to him so that he could hear me. I didn’t pull over to verify anything. I just went on my way, shaking and feeling like dirt.

My Girl from the East was strapped in her car seat in the back. We were on our way to a group playdate.

“Mama, he needed to be more careful,” Girl from the East said in her matter-of-fact way. Of course, she assumed this near-accident was his doing.

It occurred to me that she had no idea what almost happened. She has no idea how her entire life and safety were in my hands. It occurred to me that I have no idea how dangerous I am when I am tired.

As I continued on my way, I felt my heart beating in my chest, beads of sweat gathering on my temples and under my arms. I looked in the rear view mirror at Girl from the East. I thought again of the man in tattered clothing. One means everything to me; the other is a stranger. Yet both lives are so fragile, both hold equal value.

Whenever I’m on the road with children in the car, I worry for their safety. I think of the dangers as being outside of the car.

I need to be awake. I need to get some sleep.

It’s all a vicious cycle. I was distracted and careless because I was tired.

I was tired because I stayed up well past 1 a.m. getting caught up on things I didn’t get done the day before.

I was tired that day and behind because of lack of sleep the night before that.

On and on and  on.

I need sleep.

Sort-of hitting someone on a bike is a big two-by-four across the temple.

Sure, I could argue the guy looked homeless and maybe a little drunk or high.

So what?

Sure, I could defend myself and say I was at a busy intersection, trying to merge into traffic, and he pedaled right in front of me. Doesn’t he know to make sure the driver sees him before going in front of a car?

So what?

If someone else was the driver and the bike rider was one of my children, would I accept those lame-ass excuses?

No.

I need to get some sleep.

I need to be awake.

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