No More Tiny Boxes

 

I have always tried to be a good girl.

It’s sad, but true. I have always been the kind of person to learn the rules, follow the rules, and even, annoyingly, expect others to follow the rules.  I have been the park ranger asking you to remove your dog from the marine wildlife sanctuary (the Dog Beach is just a mile down the road, after all) and breaking your child’s heart by asking him to leave the shells he’s so carefully collected behind because they belong on the beach. I have been the neighbor who chases you down and offers you a baggie to pick up after your dog when you try to walk away and leave a fresh pile. I have been the cyclist who yells at you to “use your voice” when passing, and then yells my apologies for your rudeness to the person ahead of me as you also pass her without letting her know you’re there.

It’s not that I love rules, it’s that I understand the purpose they serve.  In general, if they make sense, I follow them and ask you to do the same.  (Believe me, I’ve lived in enough neighborhoods with Homeowners Associations to know that not all rules are good rules! If you want to leave your Christmas lights up until Halloween or hang unlined purple curtains with unicorns on them in your twin daughters’ bedroom with the street-facing window, go for it.)

I have to admit that when it comes to some rules – such as social ones – there is also an element of conformity involved, and with others – such as business ones – a fear of failure.

Take writing, for example. I still remember learning various grammar and punctuation rules in elementary school and I still cling to most of them – even though everyone else seems more than happy to throw them out – because they make sense and help make reading an orderly, coherent experience. Then, I went to graduate school to learn the “business” of professional writing: all the how-to’s and the industry standards and the best practices. I wanted to learn how to be a good writer as well as how to maximize my publishing opportunities and how to build a career. I learned how to format a poem vs. a short story vs. an article vs. a screenplay, how to choose which editor on the masthead to send your submission to, how to read a publication to determine whether your style, voice, or subject is a good match, when and how to seek an agent, what to expect from a publishing contract, how to set rates and ask for a raise, how to track submissions and when and how to follow up with an editor.  In more recent years, I’ve read about how to build a successful blog and how to build a platform before you even begin writing your book. 

All the while, I’ve been so obsessed with “doing it right” that I haven’t done anything at all – nothing of consequence, at least.  Even this blog, which I began with such enthusiasm, has been a victim. I write a blog post and happily send it out into the world, then soon after get reminded that a “successful blog” is one that is targeted to deliver a specific kind of information to a specific audience. This causes me to feel anxiety that my blog is about me (I’m supposed to try to fool you into thinking my blog is about you) and not targeted and really random, and as a result, several months pass before I allow myself to forget that my blog is doomed to “failure” long enough to write another post.  So, not only am I failing to build a successful blog, I’m also failing to satisfy my own needs for self-expression.

And, I’m sick of it.  Constantly trying to color inside the lines is exhausting! So, here’s public notice that, from now on, I’m only going to follow the rules I want to follow.  I’m 41 years old and ready to start making it up as I go along and making my own mistakes.  Seriously, what mistakes can I make at this point that I really can’t recover from?  So maybe I don’t maximize my opportunities or chart a nice, neat line to ultimate success.  At least I’ll be putting myself out there and making myself happy.  Entrepreneurship expert Pam Slim likes to say, “Test often, fail fast.”  I think I could learn to love that phrase.

So, the two cliches I intend to keep at the front of my mind going forward:

1. Rules are made to be broken,

and

2. It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission (my husband’s personal favorite).

What I’m really saying here is that there are no “life police” checking to see if I’m following the rules for how to be a good adult or writer or wife or aunt or planetary citizen, and no one else knows me the way I do.  It’s time to stop trying to stuff myself into the boxes I think society expects me to fill and realize once and for all that I’m me and, no matter how I twist or turn or suck in, I’m never going to fit into a box made for or by someone else.  Any role I take on has to adapt to fit me because I’m no longer going to attempt to edit myself to fit into it.

Time to let it all hang out and enjoy doing it my way!  (Sorry! Couldn’t help it – I was a child of the ’70s, after all.)

The Power of Complexity

I have this habit of choosing to do something because it’s difficult.  Then, I find a way to make it more difficult.  Then I blissfully jump in to tackle the big, scary, very difficult thing.  This is great for awhile; sometimes, only for a very short while.  Then problems begin to arise.  Usually, they come one at a time and for the first several that crop up, I will doggedly attempt to find a solution and be quite proud of myself when I succeed.

Eventually, however, the number of problems that have arisen reaches some unforeseen tipping point at which the problems suddenly feel overwhelming.  It doesn’t matter that I have solved several of them and that only one or two problems are present currently, the process of trying to achieve my goal only to be continually thwarted by complication after complication becomes simply exhausting.  At this point, I throw up my hands and declare the complexity of the problem is just too great for me to manage.  And sometimes, I will drop the project completely.  Or at least for several months or even years before returning to look at it again with fresh eyes.

Sometimes, however – rarely, really – I realize that it is exactly because something is complex and difficult that it appeals to me.  If it didn’t have several layers of problems to solve, I would get bored and probably drop the project quickly.  When I realize this, there is a happy explosion in my brain and I am able to dive right back in and continue knocking down problems.

The most recent case of this comes from the fact that I recently signed up to cycle 200 miles in 2 days with The Ride Without Limits event to benefit Easter Seals – United Cerebral Palsy.  I have been on the email list for this ride every year since its inception, yet I never felt up to taking on the challenge either of fundraising or trying to get back up to that level of cycling skill. This year, however, I developed a pretty bad case of plantar fasciitis that limited my ability to walk far or fast and completely knocked me out of any chance of competing in triathlons this summer.  I have been afraid of cycling in North Carolina since I arrived eight years ago, but had started doing a thirteen mile route last summer to prepare for the two sprint triathlons I finished. Without really thinking through how much preparation a ride comprised of back-to-back centuries might require, I impulsively signed up with only seven weeks to train and raise the $250 donation minimum.  My first day back on the bike was a 52-mile group training ride of which I was able to complete 41 miles.  I was pretty impressed with myself and decided I was definitely in.

The challenges started coming almost immediately: what routes to cycle? how to manage water and bathroom stops when riding unsupported? how to get my stomach to accommodate Gatorade when the temperature was over 100 degrees without making me sick? how to get rid of the foot numbness and pain I experienced around the 30-mile mark?  how to manage the lower back pain I also experienced around the 30-mile mark? how to manage the frequent and numerous saddle sores that made consecutive days of riding especially painful (oddly, a relatively new problem for me)? how to find the time in my week to get in twelve to seventeen hours of training? how to manage my asthma?

I have not been satisfied with any of the routes I’ve tried.  My favorite option, though definitely the most boring, is to ride the same 13 mile loop I used for training last year four, five, or six times in a row until I’ve put in the miles I need.  This route, even though it has no shoulders and uses one road with regular, high-speed traffic, ensures I’m never far from my car and a cooler of water or a soccer field with porta-potties.  I’ve tried the American Tobacco Trail a couple times, but this can be challenging and slow (and actually quite dangerous!) due to the number of walkers, runners, and families who fill its narrow lanes on the weekends.  Plus, driving an hour to the trail and another hour home turns a six-hour ride into an eight-hour day, and I’d probably get more benefit staying closer to home and cycling those extra two hours instead of commuting.  I also learned about http://www.bikely.com and was able to find a “50-mile” route that went right past my house, but the route turned out to be 60 miles and includes stretches of roads that I don’t feel safe riding, so I haven’t repeated it beyond my first attempt.

I got new shoes – two sizes larger than the ones I used to cross the country 12 years ago! – which seems to have solved the foot pain and numbness, and I raised the handlebars in an effort to relieve the lower back pain that made me get off the bike every five miles to stretch after mile 35 but the back pain persisted.  On a long ride on my fourth weekend of training, I realized that one of my basic assumptions – that I could cycle 100 miles simply by staying on the bike 8 to 10 hours – was flawed because there was a very real chance that my core was not strong enough to allow me to sit on the bike that long!  If I had to get off to stretch every 5 miles for two-thirds of the day, I would not have enough time in which to complete the 100 miles, let alone be able to manage the constant pain.  So I immediately found and began practicing core exercises recommended by Active.com and, after only a week, I saw an increase in my strength, a decrease in my pain, and the happy ability to stay on the bike for twelve or thirteen miles at a time during this past weekend’s sixty-mile ride.

The moment I fell apart, though, and nearly threw in the towel came last Tuesday at about 5:45 a.m.  Just the day before I had seen a pulmonologist/lung specialist who said my lungs sounded perfectly clear and questioned my continued need for the daily dose of Advair that has completely changed my life since the prolonged asthma attacks I suffered on The Big Ride.  On Tuesday morning at 5:40 I climbed on a spin bike for an early class and realized I was having an asthma attack!  I nearly cried right there on the bike because I realized how many systems you have to manage in long-distance cycling–feet, ankles, knees, body/seat contact points, back, neck, leg muscles, stomach, lungs–along with the variables associated with heat, hydration, nutrition, and recovery.  It was just too much.  My lungs, apparently, were always going to be a wild card and an asthma attack could knock me out of any event at any point.

As it turns out, I didn’t cry, I just got really, really angry.  I finished the class, spinning at a constant tempo when my lungs prevented me from doing speedwork or climbs, showered, went to my car, called my husband – and cried.  I was so ready to be done.

But somewhere along my 75-minute commute to work, it occurred to me that I had chosen long distance cycling–just as I had triathlon–because it was a complex problem and one I had little assurance of mastering.  If it were easy, I wouldn’t bother with it. By the time I arrived at work, I was nearly giddy for having figured this out and completely dedicated to seeing the challenge through.  That evening in the 6:00 spin class, I had another asthma attack but instead of getting angry and frustrated, I remembered that I could up my dose of Advair from once daily to twice, dose with my albuterol inhaler every four hours, and try nasal lavage to decrease my chances of future attacks.  Realizing I had a plan I could follow–or the resources to find one–when a problem arose was comforting and has given me more confidence in the last week of training.  With ten days left to prepare for the ride, I am extremely proud of what I’ve accomplished with my training to date, but I know that on some level my ability to finish 100 miles two days in a row will be out of my control.  I’m going to show up, make a valiant effort, and be as surprised as anybody at how it all turns out.  I need a good surprise right about now!

As I have considered my penchant for taking on complex challenges, it occurred to me that maybe it’s time for me to create my own complex challenge with which to wrestle instead of accepting challenges defined by someone else.  I don’t regret for a moment having agreed to cycle on behalf of those with physical disabilities, but I do wonder if I don’t bounce from event to event in part to distract myself from the reality that I am not pushing myself hard enough in other areas of my life that matter most.  Is the challenge I really want to take on too complex?  Am I really not ready for it? Or am I refusing it simply because I am so emotionally invested in its “outcome” that I can’t bear to fail at it?  (Or maybe I can’t bear to succeed?)

What about you? What level of complexity do you find appealing? Do you experiment with different levels or find that there’s a fairly consistent level of difficulty in the challenges you set for yourself?  And, like me, is there a challenge sitting in front of you that you have yet to accept because it is one of your own definition and it somehow scares you more than others?  If so, I’d love to hear about it!

One Last Push

I went ahead and signed up for the Lake Royale Sprint Triathlon this Saturday, despite the long list of reasons why I didn’t think it was a great idea. 

I’ve been out on the bike twice this week and I’m stronger than I was in my first race–I’m working in my big chain ring now, anyway. 

Plus, I bought new shoes and a new pair of compression shorts, and Hans drove out to check out the lake with me last Sunday and it’s much less scary than Lake Washington was.  It’s smaller and friendlier!  Mary and I are going together to packet pick-up tomorrow night and we’ll have a chance to get in the water to see how cold seventy degrees really is.  I’ve spent lots of time visualizing myself being relaxed and purposeful in the water and successfully completing the swim.  I’ve also spent a little bit of time feeling the panic rise in my body and mind and visualizing how I will calm myself down if that happens for real on Saturday. 

I’ll be starting in the last wave, composed of all women age 35 and older.  I would have preferred to have the race waves ordered from older to younger the way Danskin does, so that I wouldn’t be the slowest racer AND starting in the last wave.  I wrote to the organizers to tell them I think I’m likely to be the last finisher and that I would prefer they not hold the awards ceremony on my account, but one of them wrote back and said, “don’t worry about it; just have fun.”  Yeah, like having 299 participants and all the organizers, support, and families  waiting for you to finish is fun! 

But we will see.  Maybe I won’t be last.  Maybe I’ll surprise myself.  Maybe I’ll remember to keep my body relaxed and efficient.  Maybe I’ll keep my breathing more controlled at the beginning of the swim and maybe I’ll stick to my run/walk schedule instead of allowing myself to walk whenever I feel discouraged.  Maybe I won’t feel discouraged.  Maybe I’ll speak to myself (in my head and out loud as may be needed ;)) in supportive, encouraging ways.  Maybe, I’ll choose to have fun.

I think I can choose that.

To Tri Again?

I don’t plan to bother you with this kind of thing often, but if no one minds, I’d like to use this public space to ask for the collective wisdom of my readers.

I am having a small dilemma that I need to resolve quickly–several weeks ago would have been the appropriate time, but here I am still stressing and stuck. 

When I did the triathlon in June, I met Mary and learned that she lives in my neighborhood.  A few weeks later, she was driving by and recognized me out walking the dog and stopped to chat.  We have since pointed out our respective houses to each other and spoken less than half a dozen times, but in that time I told her about the open water sprint triathlon I was considering doing October 3, she looked it up online, and the next time we saw each other, we agreed to do the race together. 

Yay!!  Training partner! 

Yay!! Race day buddy! 

But, it hasn’t quite worked out that way.  We haven’t exchanged contact info and unless we cross on the street, we don’t see each other.  We agreed to go look at the lake where the tri is taking place a few weekends ago, but the weekend came and went without us catching up with each other and actually setting a time.  So we haven’t visited the lake together.  Even worse, I haven’t visited any lake at all.  And worst of all, I haven’t even signed up for the race–which I was informed tonight in an email from the race directors is 78% full and closing this weekend.

The Whole, Big, Whiny List of Reasons Why I Don’t Want to Do the Race 

After the last triathlon concluded, I said to myself, “see, you CAN follow a training schedule!”  Then I said, “But if you don’t want to finish last in your next triathlon, you really need to rock on the bike–your true strength–and shore up the running–your biggest challenge.  So let’s create a NEW training schedule!”  And I did.  I created a beautiful, dare I say perfect, training schedule and posted it on the refrigerator so I could see where I was every day and proudly check off each workout as I completed it.

The problem with perfection is that it has no place in my real life, which this summer included: finally finding someone awesome to create the website I need for work, trying (in my weird way) to get geared up to publish the book, writing some, drawing some, trying to figure out how to keep an art gallery open, and trying to buy a new house.  It doesn’t sound that horrible until you take into account that the training schedule I created included three swims, three runs, and three bikes per week PLUS a 30 minute walk each day (I have to walk the dog, anyway, right?) PLUS five days of circuit training, even though most serious triathletes only lift weights in the off season.  If rocking at this triathlon were my only goal for the summer, I might have been able to approximate that schedule – but the truth is, the plan and I were both doomed to failure the moment I printed and posted it.

I did a few of the workouts for the first few weeks, then I got discouraged and busy with other more pressing things and I stopped going to the pool altogether.  I haven’t been on my bike for several weeks–even though the last two times I rode I was finding new gears and getting excited about my progress.  Running, oddly enough, has fared the best, maybe because I can do it in the dark before anyone is up to see me chugging along and because it requires the least amount of prep time.  But now I’ve been having problems with the knee I injured prior to the Big Ride, I know I need new shoes, and I’m reluctant to get back out there.

And since I’m whining, I may as well post ALL of my excuses: I need new shorts for the race–at the last triathlon I had to keep pulling my shorts up in the water!, as well as new running shoes; I haven’t been in open water since 2002 and without some practice and mental preparation I might seriously not survive the swim; and the weather has turned cold and the thought of doing a lake swim does not turn me on (although the water probably won’t be any colder than Seattle lake temps in the summer!).  And the really big one: if I enter the race, I probably will finish the race, but I will likely finish last–potentially by a much bigger margin than I did earlier this summer. 

So, to Sum Up:

Doing the race means spending at least $200 on race fees and gear three weeks before I’m going to close on a new house, potentially dying of panic-induced drowning in COLD open water, and (provided I live) holding up the award ceremony by half an hour as all other 299 participants wait for me to drag my butt to the finish line.

What I Could Do, if Mary Weren’t Part of the Equation:

I would skip the race, simplify my training schedule to something like swimming two mornings a week, doing two long bike rides a month, and walking five miles a day until I can get new running shoes, then transitioning into training for the half-marathon I’d like to do in March.

What I Could Do, Take 2:

Because Mary is part of the equation, I feel obligated to do the race.  I could sign up tomorrow, get out to a lake this weekend for some open water experience,  do a thirty mile ride on Saturday, buy a new pair of shoes (and plan on holding my shorts up while I swim?), and at the race try to get in the water in a middle wave so I’m not finishing every leg dead last.

What I’d REALLY Like to Do:

NOT sign up for the race but knock on Mary’s door and offer to be her training partner for the next 10 days–I’d be happy to do some open water swims or get out on the bike with her–and be her chauffeur and cheering section on race day.  Parking is two miles away from the race start, so she might really appreciate having someone drop off her and her gear so she doesn’t have to deal with shuttles.

The question that arises from that scenario, however, is: if I’m going to do all of those things (lake swims, bike rides, going to the race), why not race?  And I think the answer is that I just know I’m not trained, which means the race has a really good chance of being no fun at all.  Bottom line: I just don’t want to do it.

Opinions?

So, what do you think?  Do I power through, make good on my promise to Mary, lay out the cash for new gear and race fees, do my best, and suffer all the physical and emotional consequences of this summer’s poor time and expectation management?  Or, is it okay to ask Mary to do the race alone and offer to do everything short of crossing the starting line of the race to support her?

 

 

A Path Is Made by Walking

I am failing.

Seriously.

I have committed to publishing electronic versions of my manuscript, Your Mileage May Vary, about a cross-country bicycle trip I participated in with the American Lung Association in 1998.  I was 29 years old, overweight, asthmatic, and a novice cyclist who didn’t even own a bike when I signed up for the 48 day journey.  I was also in search of adventure, and through that adventure, some lasting sense of who I was and what my life was about.   I’ve decided to publish now not so much because I think my account of the trip will change anyone else’s life dramatically, but because the trip changed my life so dramatically that I have been obsessed with it for the eleven years since.  Many people helped me achieve the goal of participating in that event and many people helped make the event what it was – and I have not adequately thanked any of those people, nor have I followed through on my commitment to share my writing about the event with them.  Publishing the book will help me repay a karmic debt I feel I owe and, hopefully, also will help me gain greater clarity and move on to new projects.

I am trying to be as professional about the publishing as I am able and have found, I believe, a travel editor who is interested in helping me polish the manuscript.  Before she undertakes the editing, however, she wants to know that I am serious and that I have done all of the thinking I need to do to be able to launch the book in the world once it’s ready.  I think she’s also gauging whether the manuscript is worth bothering to edit based on how I describe it.

And this is where the failure comes in.  I am failing to define my audience well (I used to think I had a wide audience – as most novice writers do – and have narrowed my target audience considerably, so much so that she has actually suggested I widen it again) and failing even more profoundly to define the benefits my book will convey to readers.  When you ask, “why should I read your book?” I’m supposed to have an answer beyond “because it might be fun.”

Okay, before I get much farther along this path, I need to stop here and say that even though I claim to be failing, and it really does feel like that, I don’t really believe in failure.  I don’t believe in mistakes.  Every action and its consequence, every experience shapes who I am becoming.  If I changed anything about my past, I would not be who I am at this moment, and, despite my sometimes claims to the contrary, I do like who I am and what my life has been.  Even if it were possible to erase painful memories or eradicate pieces of my experience à la The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, there is nothing I would give up. (That reminds me, I also need to do a post on Unknown White Male.) My struggles now, my temporary “failures,” are doing what they are supposed to and making me decide whether a) I’m going to abandon, once and for all, this project that I’ve loved for so long or b) I’m going to get stronger and clearer and carve a path for it in the world.  I’m sure there are editors out there who wouldn’t force me to go through this process first, but would gladly accept my payment and do the work I asked them to do and move on to the next project without investing personally in the success of this one.  But I know this is work I need to do and it’s easier (really? maybe not so much easier!) to go through it with someone else than to go through it alone.  It’s difficult, it sucks, and I have allowed my indecision, confusion, and fear to grind the process of getting the book out to a near stand-still.

Which brings me to the idea of forward motion.  A few weeks ago, Hiro Boga posted a comment on this great post about personal responsibility by Chris Guillebeau that began with the words “a path is made by walking.” This was the first time I’d heard the quote from the taoist Chuang Tzu and I LOVE IT! So often I feel I should SEE the path laid out before me and I get frustrated when I see nothing but trees and thick undergrowth and don’t know which way to go. I forget that I chose to walk my own path, which means I must create my own path.  Which means I have to take the next step, whatever that step is.  I can stand and stare into the forest, and be scared or stall or look for diversions, for as long as I want, but those are moments I lose and moments in which I lose momentum.

Which is not to say that I have to move quickly, only that I should aim for consistency. One small step per day may be all I can manage and that’s okay. Today I took a small step (that, because it was the culmination of several other small steps, felt like a giant leap!) that did not land me where I thought it would. Instead of moving me forward fast and far, it turned me around and insisted I start again.  This evening I have made an attempt to start again, and tomorrow I will get up and make another attempt. That’s how fear and inertia are defeated. I have them on the run! Do you feel it, too?

Results of the Lifestyle Test Drive – Part 1

I am on day 6 of 9 of my summer vacation.  If my plans had gone as intended, I would be writing this happily from a location a few dozen yards from the Atlantic Ocean on a beach or a pier or a bench on Ocracoke Island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  But, plans being what they are, I am writing from my couch in my living room instead.

Lessons Learned:

#1: DO NOT go to the beach in North Carolina in the summer.  EVER. You will just get sweaty and sticky, your pores won’t be able to breathe through the 50+ sunscreen, your hair will get tangled  and always be sticking to your skin or blowing into your eyes, and you’ll be oxygen-deprived from the high humidity content of the air while you bake in the wind-whipped, outdoor sauna.  You will not feel sleek and sexy.  You will feel bloated and lumpy and grimy and will spend the majority of your time dreaming of standing under one of the cold water, outdoor showers just to feel a little relief.  Do not be fooled by weather reports that always promise it is five to ten degrees cooler at the beach than anywhere else in the Piedmont.  They are not taking into account the high humidity that will make your experience one of true misery.  Do not listen to the stories of fellow Carolinians who claim they go to the beach in the summer and love it–they are insane or flat out lying.  And, most importantly, do not forget that a summer Outer Banks beach experience is similar to childbirth: if you remembered it accurately, you would never do it again.  Tattoo it on your arm or your forehead or backwards across your six-pack abs so you can read it in the mirror: Do NOT go to the beach in North Carolina in the summer. EVER.

#2: DO NOT CAMP on Ocracoke Island! You will suffer all of the above, plus you will be under constant attack from the millions of mosquitoes who reside at the beach regardless of the high winds and the high heat.  I am not joking or exaggerating when I say you will kill two or three or more mosquitoes with every slap of your hand against your own skin between the hours of 8 p.m. and 10 a.m.  Go ahead and cede the island to the mosquitoes now.  There is no need for further bloodshed.  The mosquitoes can have Ocracoke Island during tourist season.  Go to the mountains (where the weather report always promises the temperature is ten to fifteen degrees lower than in the Piedmont) or the North Woods and let the Ocracoke Island bloodsuckers feast on someone else.

#3: When you are test-driving the new lifestyle you want to create for yourself, test-drive the parts that will comprise the biggest percentage of your time–not just the parts that seem most fun. For example, the lifestyle I am working toward is one of writing, traveling combined with ecological/environmental (most likely volunteer) projects, some teaching, and a handful of clients of some kind–people I can help with writing or marketing or editing or social media & Internet skills or increasing their creativity or creative productivity.  Of course, the part that seems the most exciting–and that I can visualize most clearly–is the traveling part.  So for this vacation, I decided to camp for 3 nights on Ocracoke Island and do my own personal writing retreat–to see if I could keep my hand moving across the page, to get some new creative pieces started, to break me out of my routine, and to seriously test-drive the kind of writing and traveling combo I envision.  Since I am writing this from my couch instead of the beach, you probably have guessed that I spent 7.5 hours traveling to Ocracoke Campground where I spent 14.5 hours in almost constant and complete agony and then spent 7.5 hours traveling back home.  During the 29.5 hour “adventure,” I wrote only half a page in longhand in a college-ruled notebook while I was waiting to board the ferry that was going to get me the hell off that god-forsaken island.

My point: if writing is the goal (and it was the primary goal of this week, although the travel part was running a very close second), then write. If a lifestyle–and an income–is going to be built around writing, you better be willing and able to write anywhere, especially at (or very near) home.  Instead of test-driving the travel part of my dream lifestyle, I should have test-driven the “can I get up and write for 4 to 12 hours per day at home” part of the lifestyle because that is the biggest component of what I’m aiming for and it is also the most difficult.  The upshot: I will spend the last four days of my vacation testing this component.

[Side note: prior experience has shown that while I am able to write in my journal and start new projects while traveling, most of the writing I do for public consumption takes place after a trip is over, from home.]

#4: Plans don’t have to work out as expected to be of value. Even though I had to cut my camping trip short and I wasn’t able to write much while I was away, the adventure did serve several purposes.  It got me out of my every day routine and away from clocks and computers and cell phones.  I reminded myself I was on vacation and had no schedule, and just knowing this freed me of stress (while I was traveling, not while I was besieged by bugs) and allowed me to follow the rhythms of the day.  I met people I wouldn’t have otherwise; I faced my fear of bridges six times and was almost relaxed driving over the three I crossed on the way home; I introduced my dog Kaija to boats and got to see how happy she was to be running and playing on the beach; I got sunshine and blue sky into my eyes and saw two shooting stars; I got to say hello to the lighthouses I love so much; and I got to think thoughts my every day life probably wouldn’t have produced.  Plus, I got to test my fortitude (I can survive one night of anything, right?) and my flexibility.  Turning disappointment into something more positive (I can go home and write in air-conditioning all day and all night–alright!) and being able to “go with the flow” have not always come easily to me, so I am grateful for opportunities to practice those skills.

And now I’m home, unpacked, surrounded by temperature and humidity-controlled bliss and sitting happily on the couch next to the sweetest (and bravest!) little dog in the world. (Would you have wanted to spend the night in a tent (followed by the car) with a crazy person who turned on a flashlight every two minutes and slapped the walls and ceiling with great force?) Not to mention, my writing hand has been moving continuously for one hour and twenty-three minutes.  Life is good!

What New Language Are You Learning?

Since finishing the triathlon–and receiving those super lovelyprofessional race photos in my inbox (I especially love the one, taken seconds after I hauled myself out of the pool, of me pulling my shorts up while simultaneously pulling my bra-tank down, all while running toward my bike–how’s that for transition efficiency?)–I have been counting Weight Watcher’s points and trying to be more conscious of what I eat, when I eat, and why I eat.  I have decided that if I’m going to eat “treats,” they need to be really good treats that are worth the calories, sugar, and fat.

The other day I was craving chocolate and decided to stop at Weaver Street Market, a cooperative grocery store that specializes in gourmet and specialty foods, to buy an organic brownie with walnuts from their bakery.  (We are talking about a seriously good brownie–good enough that I was able to stop after only two bites and save the rest for a later craving.  Totally worth the hit my “diet” took!) 

Before I found my way to the bakery section, however, my eyes landed on an endcap featuring progressive and alternative magazines.  The first one I saw was Yes! Magazine whose tagline is Supporting you in building a just and sustainable world.  This magazine focuses on positive stories surrounding some of the world’s most challenging issues–climate change, globalization, health, social and racial justice, peace–and I was psyched because I hadn’t seen a copy of it on a newsstand since I left Seattle six years ago.  The cover headline read, “The New Economy Starts Here: why this crisis might be our best chance.”  My hands grabbed the last copy of the magazine without waiting for my brain’s permission.  (You can get your own free, trial copy here!)

Before I could flip through the magazine’s pages, however, my eyes landed on another magazine I’d never seen before: EnlightenNext: the magazine for Evolutionaries.  The word Evolutionaries was in red.  I was intrigued.  What was an evolutionary? The cover text read, “Envisioning the Future: what today’s brightest minds have to say about the road ahead.”  Again, the magazine was immediately in my hands.  I scanned the bottom of the magazine cover, a green bar that listed the articles inside and their authors and recognized a few of the names, Ray Kurzweil, Jean Houston, Duane Elgin.  My left brain forced my eyes over to the right corner where the price was listed–a steep $7.50–before my right brain overrode it and decided both magazines were going home with me, despite the cost.

I started reading EnlightenNext first, but I haven’t read far.  I’ve been savoring it, determined to read it from cover to cover, even taking time to study the ads to get a feel for who this magazine’s readers are.  On the inside of the front cover I was already confronted with a phrase I hadn’t heard before, “integral theory.”  My brain began to tingle.  A few pages later, in the magazine’s mission statement printed on the masthead, I found mention of “the emerging field of integral and evolutionary spirituality.”  Now, my whole body was tingling!  I was holding a portal into an “emerging field” that used language I did not know.  How exciting!

It has been a long time since I felt the thrill of being slightly over my head in a piece of writing, when I felt that I was on the brink of a whole new way of thinking, when a whole new language was about to open up to me.  That’s why the desire to savor it, to let the words unfold slowly, to let the mystery linger as long as possible.  I love new things, but I especially love totally new things and I had clearly stumbled upon a treasure.

For most of my time in public school, I felt like I was simply relearning things I had already learned before.  The first time I really felt over my head was in a freshman honors seminar at the University of Michigan titled “Imagination.”  A handful of us sat around a big wooden table for an entire semester discussing how humans create the world in which we live using our imaginations, both individually and collectively, and the mechanisms by which we “change the world” through shifts in our collective thinking.  For most of the class, I felt I was running at full speed to catch up, unable on most occasions to put together a single coherent sentence to contribute to the discussion, trying desperately to create a nice, sane, neat understanding of what was a complex, unwieldy subject.   It was totally delicious!

The next such class occurred in my senior year, a class taught in the engineering department by a professor who had a knack for turning students away from engineering, Dr. Henryk Skolimowski.  It was called “Ecophilosophy.”  We discussed the nature of life on earth and the relationship between humans and nature.  We read Teilhard de Chardin’s  The Phenomenon of Man–a book that stood my world on its head–and I was asked to summarize it in two sentences for the class.  (Skolimowski pounded it into our heads that you only have two sentences to get your point across, people won’t listen longer than that, and he had us practice summarizing our ideas in this manner throughout the semester.)  I was fabulously immersed in a new world, a new way of thinking and being, and I was in love with the entire experience.

I have encountered few things so completely new to me since my years at Michigan; nothing that has forced me to change the language I use, and therefore my world view, to such an immense degree. 

And, even as I savor EnlightenNext, hoping it will upend my experience of the world in some dramatic way, I already have seen beacons in its pages pointing me back toward familiar terrain.  For example, on page 20, I found the name Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in bold type.  What 21st century magazine has the name of a Jesuit priest who’s been dead for more than fifty years printed in it?? (Well, apparently two: this one and a recent issue of the scientific magazine Discover.)  So, this magazine may not send me into completely new territory as I had hoped, but may instead deepen my exploration of spiritual and philosophical ideas I first joyfully encountered twenty years ago–and that’s an exciting prospect in itself.  There are new words to learn, new concepts to wrap my brain around, new voices with whom to acquaint myself.  New challenges to face as I ask myself if I am living up to my ideals and according to my moral compass.

When was the last time you immersed yourself in something completely new?  Are you learning new words and new ways of experiencing the world as frequently as you’d like?  Is your life, as mine all too frequently is, already so full of other busy-ness that you close yourself off to new possibilities?  What about old passions? When was the last time you abandoned your schedule and let yourself sink into something you absolutely love but don’t often indulge in?

The next time you get a craving for a bite of chocolate, follow it.  You never know what serendipitous portals it might lead you through!

Why I Tri

I finished my first triathlon in seven years today.  It was a hard race for me, and I was undertrained and overweight.  I finished last, fourteen minutes behind the next slowest racer.   I had a hard time regulating my breathing during the swim because I was nervous, my legs were Jell-O when I got off the bike, and I walked almost all of the uphill sections of the run.  When it was over, I had pains in my right calf and my left shin.  I’m still coughing from the asthma attack I had afterward.  Still, I had a great time and I’m looking forward to the next race!

So why would a forty-year-old woman who weighs more than 200 pounds and has asthma put herself through the torture, and humiliation, of participating – in Spandex, no less –  in a triathlon, in public, surrounded by other fitter, faster, more sculpted athletes?

Why I Tri

Reason #1: It gets me out of bed in the morning and off the couch at night.  I get bored trying to follow the advice  “walk every day and eat sensibly.”  It’s easy to skip a walk.  It’s easy to skip several walks.  But if I’m training in three different sports, I don’t get bored.  I feel guilty if I miss workouts because all three sports are still challenging to me and I know I’ll improve only if I follow a plan and a regular training schedule.  All three sports leave me feeling invigorated, too – even a run session, which I don’t particularly enjoy, usually leaves me feeling a full-body sense of satisfaction for having met my goals for the workout.

Reason #2: I like seeing myself in a different light, even if it’s only for thirty minutes at a time.  When I’m training, I feel strong and light and lean, even if I’m not really any of those things yet.  I am able to enjoy what my body can do instead of only being aware of how it looks or what it can’t do.  I get to challenge what I “know” about myself and I get to challenge other people’s assumptions about me.  Athlete is not a word most people would jump to when trying to describe me, and, yet, I am an athlete when I am training or participating in a triathlon.  I look in the mirror and I see muscles and firm skin and a woman who cares about herself.  For a few moments, I carry myself taller and feel strong and powerful, like the athletes I see on the covers of running, biking, and triathlon magazines.  I am a competitor.  Which leads me to…

Reason #3: Challenging myself and my identity in one area of my life allows me to challenge myself and my identity in other areas of my life.  I have already discussed on this site a little of how this works.  I think it’s about momentum and the avoidance of stagnation.  If I can see progress and change in one area, I can begin to hope for and work toward progress and change in other areas.  If I can change the way a person views one aspect of who I am, I can probably change the way a person views other aspects of who I am.  All of my limitations, those I impose and those imposed by others, begin to shift and melt when I defy expectations and push boundaries no one, including me, expected me to push.

Reason #4: Triathlon has much to teach me about managing my body.  I don’t have the body of a typical athlete, but I do have the spirit of an athlete.  I want to learn how to take fewer strokes per lap when I’m swimming, how to spin faster on the bike, how to increase the tunrover rate of my legs when I run.  I enjoy practicing drills that help me approximate better form.  I enjoy reading about each sport and learning as much as I can about what makes a person more efficient or able to go farther.  There is an unlimited amount of learning to be done in each sport as well as in figuring out how to do all three sports well in one race.  There’s also plenty to be learned about how to incorporate training safely, and sanely, for three sports into a life in which triathlon is only a hobby.  My mind doesn’t get bored and, hopefully, my body gets better and better.

Reason #5: Triathlon has much to teach me about managing my mind.  When I started the swim this morning, I had butterflies in my stomach.  I had made a race plan and had been following my pre-race plan to the letter.  I knew I was not going to drown in the pool,  something I have seriously feared in each of the three previous open water swims I completed.  I wasn’t worried about times per se, as this was a baseline race to help me get a feel for where I’m starting, and there was absolutely no threat of me finishing well enough to place.  I was a little nervous about crossing the finish line last and what that would feel like, but I really had very little to fear. 

Still, the anxiety I felt at the beginning of the race meant that I swam the 250 meters one minute slower than I could have because I couldn’t regulate my breathing.  I couldn’t focus on long, efficient slides on my side or on front-quadrant swimming and a patient hand because all I could think about was getting air into my lungs.  I swam with my arms and my legs, as I am conditioned to do, rather than with my core, as I am learning to do, and it cost me.  Managing anxiety is only one example of what sports training can teach a person.  I also have much to learn about positive self-talk, about focusing on efficiency – regardless of what comes up, because something always comes up – rather than perfection, about flexibility, and about meeting myself where I am in each moment.  If I can practice these things in triathlon, they will inevitably spill over into my every day life.

Bonus Reason #6: It’s fun and it enriches my life in lots and lots of ways!  It’s hard to explain why something so difficult is so much fun, but triathlon is lots of fun.  People come to it from all kinds of backgrounds and with all kinds of reasons for competing, and somehow manage to respect and support everyone else in the field.  I was amazed at the number of racers who took time to offer me encouragement on the course today.  I was really amazed when Jody, a runner who could have blown right by me, slowed down in the last half mile of the run so I wouldn’t have to cross the finish line alone.  I have met great people at the pool where I train, I met Mary and John K. during a pre-race training ride, I met Mary L., who lives in my neighborhood, in the hour leading up to my start.  Becoming a triathlete – at any ability level – is a wonderful way to become part of a community, to meet people who are willing to go out and have a good time and accept you exactly as you are. 

It’s also an opportunity to practice your one-liners, as it’s always fun to have something clever to say to the person passing you or the volunteer pointing out the next turn. 

Triathlon is an excellent way to practice laughing when what you really want to do is cry.