Wednesday 20 August 2014

Lessons from my big bike ride: tough it out, and be kind.

Lately I've been noticing that I'm starting to do some things differently. It's not that I'm more patient. But I'm gentler with myself, so at the same time I can be supremely impatient, and a little bit amused with myself about it. I think this is a big part of feeling things as they happen, moving through the tough stuff and not getting caught in it.

Last week my partner and I did one of our regular summer bike trips. Every summer we ride up to visit his parents, a one-day ride that involves distance (about 120 kilometres one way), mountains (360 metres up from sea level at the highest point, and there's lots of up and down), and ferries (a chance to rest and enjoy the scenery, but then the ride starts at sea level and goes straight up for the first few kilometres). It's super hard, but it's always fun. For me it's a always a big physical challenge and an enormous psychological challenge.

This year, we rode up on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year. There were times on the ride--this always happens to me when I'm doing something difficult--when I thought I couldn't keep going. I was too hot, the hill was too steep, or the way just seemed too long. But every time I hit this mental hill, we stopped for a few minutes, sipped some water (or ate a little fruit), and then I was refreshed enough to keep going. By the time we made the second ferry (with just 10 minutes to spare!) I was covered in a sludge of salty sweat and road grime and sunscreen, my face was about as pink as pink gets, and I was panting like a dog on a hot day. There is no glamour in this kind of travel. But I felt pretty darn fantastic!

On the way home we decided to take a different route, one that's a bit flatter, but the ferries take longer and cost a little more, so it's an even longer day of travel. And it rained. Not just for a few hours, as we'd expected, but for 110 of the 120 kilometres. We hadn't brought full raingear with us, because it's usually too hot to wear in the summertime, so we were wet after the first 10 minutes, and we stayed wet for the whole trip. Every now and then, a new channel of water would start pouring in from somewhere. My shoes were filled with water--when I wriggled my toes, they squelched. Water leached up through my jacket from my wet shorts and dripped down my neck, so my whole body was wet. Part of the charm of this alternate route is that it mostly stretches along the ocean, but it was so socked in, and my glasses were so wet, that I had to remind myself that the grey blur on my left was the usually lovely strait. I really didn't think I could do it. After the first hour or so I was near tears, and I had to say out loud that, if it came to it, we might have to rent a car (I don't even know if that's possible there) or hitch-hike. But as soon as I admitted that I may not be able to finish, I felt better.

The thing is, you don't ride 120 kilometres. You ride one at a time. That may sound like cheesy inspiration talk, but it's also true. Over and over, I would get overwhelmed by the enormity of what we were doing, and then I'd break it down into doable chunks. Five more kilometres and we can stop for tea. Another ten and we can stretch for a few minutes. Stop at the top of the hill and take a sip of water. The full distance seemed too much, but riding those smaller chunks, I was able to do it.

On a long ride, there's a lot of time to think, and you really can't spend that much time feeling sorry for yourself or hating the weather or worrying. One thing I noticed was that needing a way out is something I always do when things are hard. I was never even remotely athletic as a kid--I was that chubby kid who always pretended she forgot her gym kit so she could sit reading during gym class--but as an adult, I've come to enjoy the challenge of hard physical tasks. I love being strong and fit enough to do things I never thought I'd even try. But I get scared. And when I'm scared, I frantically try to find a way out. So my panicky plans to rent a car, to flag down a pickup truck and convince the driver to take us plus bikes as far as possible, these connivings are very familiar to me. (I even thought we could stop until the weather cleared and rent a motel and call work to say we'd be a day late coming back, though "It's raining" didn't quite seem like a convincing excuse, and I knew I wouldn't pretend I had an injury, though I had a fleeting moment of considering even that.) But along the way, I noticed I was gentler with myself in my fear and panic. I was able to say, yes, if you need to you can get out of this, but what are the other options? Stop for tea? Drink some water? Stop and look at the ocean, because it's there and the rain has slowed for a few minutes and if you clean your glasses, you might even be able to see it.

Is this a skill or an attitude? Maybe it's both. Whatever it is, I'm getting better at it, and I know it's important to me. In a few weeks, I'm about to start grad school, which has me super intimidated. I worry I can't do an interesting project, or I can't cope with the workload, or  million other things. But I think it will be like the bike trip. Just break it down into smaller bits, and even if those bits are tough, they are doable.

I'm glad we did our trip. When we finished that rainy ride, as we were waiting for the ferry, I realized, all day I had been thinking, "I will never ride in this weather again" and "This is horrible" and a whole lot of other complainey thoughts. But as soon as we arrived, I was exhilarated. I was cold and wet and shaking with hunger, and my legs and back hurt, but all I could think was, "Man that was fun!" I mentioned this to my partner and he laughed and said he was thinking the same thing. The hard parts didn't matter once they were done, and we both felt great.

That was last week. Today I'm making soup stocks and reading, hanging out at home and enjoying a much less challenging kind of day off. I'm glad I took the time to write about this. First I wasn't sure what it had to do with not drinking, if anything. But more and more I see that, having stopped drinking, I don't look for the easy way out of tough stuff. Instead, I'm getting better at facing it, and breaking it into smaller bits that aren't quite so threatening. And I'm being kind to myself as I do it. That's the big one. It's taken me almost five decades to start learning that, but man, is it worth it.

Thanks for reading. Here's wishing you peace and love, and the strength you need to face the tough stuff, and plenty of kindness.

Tuesday 5 August 2014


Lately I've been transfixed by the wonder of everyday moments. It's been sunny and hot for days. At the library where I work, we turn on huge ceiling and floor fans and then we stand working in the hot wind yelling that we can't hear each other but isn't the breeze from the fans lovely and sure it will rain soon enough and then we'll be wishing for the sun again. I find this exceedingly funny. It makes me happy to be part of this strange cavalcade of living.

The other evening, I made a special dinner for my partner for his birthday, and then we walked out to a local artisanal ice cream store we'd heard about and waited in a crazy long line for our sweet cold treats. (My lovely partner had a salted caramel cone, one scoop. Slightly greedy and not quite able to narrow down the options, I had two scoops in a bowl--strawberry rhubarb, and butter-pecan. Yummy goodness for everyone!) On the way home, we walked through a community garden, where sunflowers nodded their smiley heads over us and spindly green plants with huge leaves lay splayed out on the dirt like they'd had a big day and were done in for now. A neighbour noticed our ice creams and asked how long we'd waited in line--he hadn't been to the place, but he'd been in awe of the lineups since the heat kicked in. I said the lineup was the cheeriest thing, a couple of hundred people, mostly dewy cheeked beautiful young couples in breezy sundresses and summer tops and sandals, all come out of their homes in the late evening waiting for ice cream, not out lined up at bars drinking their heads off and getting in fights, they're waiting for ice cream and some of them are even buying extra containers and taking some home for their mothers, and if that doesn't cheer your heart, what would? And the neighbour laughed and said he hadn't quite seen the lineup that way but yes, maybe he'd give it a try some day after all.

So I'm on a bit of a blissful spree here. Maybe it's the long sunny days. Or time off--I'm only working part time for the summer, as I prepare for grad school in the fall. I've figured out some of my plans for next year, and they might even include some longed-for travel. I still have my out-of-sorts moments, when I'm tired and don't know what to make of what's happening and I assume everyone hates me or I'm just overwhelmed by the noise or some seemingly impossible task like washing lettuce or chopping parsley for a salad that should have been made an hour earlier and so dinner is late or I'm leaving for work late because time has somehow once again managed to pass more quickly than I expected and I feel like I will never catch up. My living room still has too many towers of books, and I just made it worse because I wanted to pull out a poem to share, keeping my promise to fellow blogger more to me than this that I would share more favourite poetry, so I had to make yet another stack of books to get at the bottom poetry shelf. But these moments, when I'm overwhelmed or trampled by whatever it is that tramples me, are passing more and more quickly, and even now I can look around at the book towers and feel awed that there are so many wonderful things to read, and yes it's a mess but how lucky I am, we are, that we have words to read and write and share and think with.

I really do love being sober. It's a clearing, after what now feels like years caught in some sort of tangled underbrush. So I'm sharing this poem by fellow Newfoundlander Agnes Walsh, which I love. (It's from Going Around With Bachelors, Brick Books, 2007.)  I'm only small, but I see us all as what Walsh calls fireberries, standing together tall in the clearings we're making in our lives and proclaiming ourselves wild and alive. These days it's hard not to be a little bit intoxicated in the beauty of life, straight up. That's my kind of sober.

Peace and love and big fields of fireweed to you all.


 (for Bridget Peegan Kelly)

No, Bridget Peegan, fireweed isn't the colour of fire
and it isn't purple either.
It's purplish-pink, and yes, it's delicate looking.
The petals look like they'd avalanche, like
to touch one would cause a riot.
The stalk is tough as seasoned leather;
I could make a clothesline out of a string of them.
They grow, like blueberries, where there's been a fire.
Fireberries. They stand tall in fields and proclaim themselves wild.
Of savage origin. Beauty's breathless rampage.