Sharing The Road

Once I was struck by a taxicab while biking. I had just returned from leading a 30-day bike tour in the British Isles during which helmets were mandatory. On my first bike stateside, I decided to skip the helmet and enjoy the beautiful summer day, long hair streaming. Two miles from home on the return, I met the taxi. He was heading southbound and decided to turn left in front of my northbound path. I couldn’t stop. Instinctively, I turned with him to avoid a head-on. I can still remember the feeling of impact: hitting the grill, rolling up on the hood, flying through the air. In gymnastics parlance, I ‘stuck the landing’ only because I didn’t hit my head. I accrued a gash, nasty bruises, road rash, and a body twitch that lasted three days, but thankfully no broken bits. My bike was totaled which bothered me most. I was riding two weeks later. I’ve worn my helmet ever since.

Are you a bicyclist? A motorist? Both? Ever sworn at or swerved around a bicyclist while driving? Ever been hit by a car while biking? The latter gains you lifetime membership in the Car Club, providing you live to tell the crash story. The former may validate you’ve had a close call, a cyclist has not acted like a vehicle, or you just like to let it rip on unsuspecting citizens. (The last one I can’t help you with.)

I’ve been a driver and cyclist for over 40 years. Having been at the wheel and over the handlebars when sideswiped by the taxi, I have a few thoughts about the manners and rules of the road.

First up, cyclists. You can’t have it both ways. If you want cars to share the road with you and respect your space and co-create safety, act like another vehicle on the road every time you ride. This means:

-Learn and use hand signals consistently. (This does not include the bird.)

-Don’t ride double or in tight packs. It’s rude and makes it unsafe to pass. You are not in the Tour de France; you’re in Vermont and people need to get places.

– When riding single file, keep a generous car’s distance between you. This allows a car to tuck in, if needed, due to oncoming traffic.

-Respond to stoplights and road signs as if you were a car. It is dangerous and obnoxious not to.

-If a car is patiently driving behind you because of limited visibility or oncoming traffic, when it’s safe for them to pass, slow down and wave them forward. They are typically grateful and often wave back. It breeds good cyclists-motorists’ relations.

-Make eye contact with motorists before crossing the road in front of them or whenever possible. If they see you, they are less likely to hit you.

-Wear a helmet and use a bike light and mirror. The first is a no-brainer (or your potential condition, if you don’t.) Think about it. Helmets reduce the risk of serious brain injuries by 70%. Mirrors and bike lights help with seeing and being seen. Special side note to some parents: Think twice. As the safety net for your children (brain trust+care provider+role model), what’s the mixed message you are sending by insisting they wear helmets, when you don’t? You are protecting their developing brains, while ignoring the value and responsibility of protecting your own.

Second up, motorists:

-See us.

-Look twice. Remember who is bigger. We get it; you’ll always win in a show down of steel. Uncle.

-Please get off your cell phone, radio dial, FAX machine, and coffeemaker. (When did all cars become RVs? Or drivers the ultimate multi-taskers?)

-Give us space, please. If it’s hard to gauge distance, slow down and give a wide berth. You won’t be sorry. The last thing you need is a cyclist adorning your hood or smashing your rearview mirror.

-If you drive a big truck with mirrors, watch out for clipping a cyclist in the head or sweeping them off their bikes. Yup, it happens.

-Also big truckers, remember the draft potential of your weight and length. When you speed by too close, it draws bikes subtlety toward the truck body with a vacuum. We typically stay upright, but it’s really unnerving to feel like you’re riding a toothpick next to a dragon’s mouth, the teeth like 18-spinning wheels.

-Never swat or touch a biker while driving by. (Yes, I’ve had this happen, too.) They thought it was funny, playful, something. Not so much.

-When inside your car, learn to open the driver’s door with your right hand. It turns your body, so you can check for a cyclist before opening your door into busy streets. It prevents door jobs aka ‘getting doored.’

-Observe bike lane symbols and signs and watch for bikers approaching or passing on your right.

With heads-up and helmets on, let’s share the road by acting like mutually responsible vehicles and following the laws of the road and common sense manners. It’s not only sensible, kinder, and safer; it saves lives.

Besides, no one really wants to be in the Car Club.

For more information, check: http://thegmbc.com/VTBikeLaws.pdf

A Ritual of Letting Go

 

There are a collection of beach stones in my home: lining windowsills, filling a copper pot, drawn in a circle around a fragile sea urchin shell. The faded apricot ones from Block Island were acquired at my last attendance of the Block Island Poetry Project, with Billy Collins, as King of the Weekend and Words. There are orange, black, and white speckled ones from Boom Beach on Isle au Haut; the Maine island our family visited annually for a decade plus. These stones and a cache of shells are indelibly linked with the smell of bayberry bushes warmed by the sun and monarchs fluttering around swaths of milkweed. All objects, images, and senses that anchor me to islands and family memories. And then we have an array of grey, black, and white stones from many beaches, including our local one in Shelburne, Vermont. From there, the Adirondack mountains can be viewed across the blue expanse of Lake Champlain, often awash in color rich sunsets or draped in clouds.

The images of these stones arise when ruminating about decluttering our home. I want to gather them up in batches, feel their weight, and disperse them in new ways, for other purposes. In doing this, I could practice renewal, an act of making changes that symbolize the redistribution of accumulated heft and history. I imagine them in the perennial gardens covering spaces created from winterkill. Or lining the boundary between the sweep of lawn and garden soil, supplanting the unattractive, brown strip that marks these borders now. Or simply returned to the homecoming of earth, freed. Freed, as I long to be freed.

For years, I have longed to sift and sort through each room in our home and let go of what no longer serves or brings joy. Perhaps over time, creating space for something fresh or reveling in less. Each time, the urge has been thwarted by the fullness of daily commitments, the difficulty of discerning value and purging.

The urge to let go parallels a similar longing regarding my relationships expressed in work, family, and friendships. I no longer care to do anything out of habit, out of the weight of history or legacy. These stones represent the tension point between beauty and ballast; the former capturing sweet memories, the latter dust covered memorabilia. At 57, I have vested time and energy into various relationships and endeavors. Some of these have nurtured me deeply, carved me open, and infused growth. Some of them have been burdens, caretaking experiments, unconscious recreations of the past, painful reminders of what doesn’t work or serve. The last, hollow or heavy vessels of replication.

Later today, I will gather the stones in a large wicker basket, my palm embracing their cool smoothness, the dust swept away in transition. I will give thanks for their presence, their place-holding. Then I will listen carefully to my intuitive, inner voice. A knowing guide that has sometimes been muted by the endless, external noise, and scraps of self-doubt. And from this awareness, I will give the weight of history and stones new purposes or release them.

Each of us honored; each of us freed.

 

Wrong Number at the White House

Call me a worrywart or crazy, but last week while President Donald Trump was dropping tweet bombs at North Korea and digs at China I was wondering if Easter Sunday was going to be the second coming of Jesus for Christians. Or possibly a nuclear blast for those in Secularland. As I watched tensions ratchet up on various news feeds, I wondered why everyone else seemed so relaxed. Denial? Nerves of steel? Too busy buying last minute chocolate bunnies and pastel eggs? Whatever, I was minorly freaked.
Deciding civic action would be the best antidote, I tried to call state representatives. Quickly, I remembered — never on Saturday. I did the next logical thing. I went to the internet brain trust, Google, to look up how citizens can communicate direct feedback to the president and administration at the White House (the real White House, not the “winter” one in Florida.) Checking out the options, I decided to send an email known as Method 3, noting the encouraging statement: “Democrat or Republican, Windows or Macintosh, email is bipartisan all the way!” Even though it didn’t mention independents, I assumed transpartisan was welcome. It wasn’t like I was asking for a respectful bathroom experience or anything.

Using the first address, comments@whitehouse.gov, I wrote a simple note: Dear President Trump and advisors, Please immediately stop the threat against North Korea, which is escalating tensions and creating a perfect storm for a nuclear crisis. This is risking the lives of many people in South Korea, creating the opportunity for a larger scale war, and escalating the possibilities of retaliation against other countries in the region, and America and its citizens. Thank you, Deb S., Vermont. The address didn’t work and the email got stuck in my outbox. Then I tried the other address listed, president@whitehouse.gov, and had the same problem. Apparently bipartisanship wasn’t really a factor. I had hit some kind of tech wall, perhaps not unlike the quasi-real wall about to be built on the southern border whose message is: “You can’t get in and we don’t want to hear about it.” Or maybe the new administration didn’t just take down information on the whitehouse.gov website about civil rights, the environment, etc. Maybe the information only flows one way these days, 140 characters at a time.

Always one to persist, I decided to try Method 4 and call. The first number gave me a similar voicemail message as the state representatives, call Monday to Friday, 9 to 4. I tried the second number provided, the White House switchboard. The woman who answered could have been a fresh hire and post-United Airlines’ employee (or maybe Kellyanne Conway got re-assigned?). Let’s just say neither customer or service were in her vocabulary. Her barely civil tone turned to icy impatience when I tried to explain the purpose of my contact, and she replied frostily: “You have the WRONG number.” I held back two retorts: “Well, it was listed on the contact website,” and “No, we have the WRONG president!”

Now it’s post-Easter weekend. At some point in the fray, while tweeting threats to North Korea and China, President Trump recounted the story of his authorization to bomb Syria in a Fox News interview. He had been having dinner with the Chinese president at the “winter White House” (Mar-a-Lago) and was gushing about the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake he had ever seen. However, in the interview, he said he had authorized the bombing of Iraq and had to be corrected by the interviewer: “You mean Syria.” Oh, yes, Syria. (So many bombs, so little time. Or in golfing parlance: Fore!) Thank goodness that cake was memorable.

As for me and my alter ego, Chicken Little, I was too busy to check any news feeds today. And honestly? I needed a break. Whether I was appropriately concerned or not, one thing is clear. There was no getting a peep into the White House. Maybe, I should have tried Florida after all. Or just called the switchboard back and ordered some of that Mar-a-Lago chocolate cake, given I’ve already paid for it. Ah, the sweet life of Making America Bake Again, while not mentioning the consequences of war acts with any sense of gravity and responsibility. How “da bomb” is that?

in it together

img_2934Pausing for beauty is a practice, one part pleasure, one part healing, with other bits, too, that live beyond the realm of first awareness, like dreams become a portal to our souls in morning light.  

One day as I was leaving Healthy Living, a health food store and home of my guilty pleasures, I spotted a stand of dahlias in their final autumn blush. The pink and yellow blooms were colorful splashes in the otherwise sober landscape of rain and asphalt. I stopped to look more closely, in keeping with my family MO as a beauty junkie or sunset geek.  Sometimes this is noted fondly, other times not, as I pause to admire or take photographs (yet again.)

At the center of one dahlia were two bees doing their instinct-driven work. There was no sign of competition or stress. Just a task and a moment, the flower as flower, the bees as bees, a relationship complete. Each one was whole, separately and together.

As humans we have travelled so far from the simplicity of instincts, natural rhythms, checks and balances, every moment imbued with its own completeness. Instead, many of us rush and toil, a little or a lot displaced in the scheme and balance of nature, at times detached or displaced from our true calling and purpose, writ small and large in the inner and outer landscapes.

As I observe the bees at the heart of this blossom fresh with raindrops, I want to stop time. I long to find my way forward into a place where timelessness and wholeness are expressed in the steady, worthy task before me. Then I remember. This is what I experience in the presence of others engaged in growth and healing work. It’s a form of awareness and grace as natural as observing and absorbing beauty. And we’re in it together.

Santa and a Blue Heart

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Our suburban neighborhood is dotted and bedecked with Christmas lights and holiday decorations, all festive signs that life has moved on since the presidential election. As I walk-jog in the dark past my neighbors’ homes, these figures and lights evoke comfort and reflection.

As the holidays steam ever-closer, these in-between days feel as precious as they are numbered. Most vested and voting Americans are anticipating the inauguration of Donald Trump with denial and trepidation or excitement.  There does not seem to be much in-between when it comes to Trump and his pending Trumpdom. Many either love or hate him, or are perhaps mysteriously asleep, descendants of Rip Van Winkle, who plan to wake in 20 years to a different reality. (If there is any chance of joining this clan, I may be interested, as Canadian immigration seems unlikely, crashed website and all.) 

The air cools my cheeks despite the effort to jog and only the twinkling lights, bright Santas, reindeer, and the occasional glowing windows dispel the dark. I want to sink into the familiar, return to something past that feels safe, more trustworthy, illusory or not. As others have said, some voters believe they woke up post-election day to another America and feel displaced, even if the dusty decorations drawn from neighbors’ basements and closets are the same as last year’s.

Honestly and sadly, America didn’t change.  It is just newly visible. As if a portion of We the People had been sitting in a 3D movie without the glasses, filling in around the fuzziness based on our individual demographics, ideals, and delusions; then someone said, “From now on wear these…Things will start coming toward you like beasts and crashing buildings, (credit to J.K. Rowling), but at least you will have a clear perspective.” Whether Trump is an Obscurus, (an evil, destructive force emerging from repressed inner forces), or something more benign or inane will be the reveal of the next four years. The only predictable thing is his trademark unpredictability.  

In the midst of wondering what will be, it is difficult to settle into what is.  Never much of a shopper and ambivalent about calendar driven consumption, I feel even less inclined to participate with the weight of the unknown occasionally swamping me with angst. Scratching down my shopping list and checking it twice feels evermore irrelevant and selfish.  

While questions of unequal import, what are the opportunities in this holiday season or pending administrative run?  By nature and habit, I am an optimist. That said, never in my adult life have I felt such dread about the ascendant presidential leadership. Never. And I’ve been voting since Reagan’s first term and lived through a couple of Bushes, the second “a comedy piñata,” according to the late and great Robin Williams. However, piñata or not, even G.W. with his infamous record of war and torture publicly declined to vote for Trump.  Imagine. 

Returning home, I gathered the trellis that supports morning glories in the summer and the blue lights that live year round on our thriving ficus tree. In these days of confusion about what’s sacred and what’s for sale, (including elections,) and the ever-pressing wonderment about life beyond Trump’s inauguration, I was inspired to fashion a blue heart, a gesture of love and sadness wrapped in one.

For all that is unknown, 2017 promises to challenge love and invoke sadness, of this we can be sure. The rest will have to be revealed.  

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In My Bones

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My father and I were lost to each other at young ages. He was 49 when he died suddenly of a heart attack. I was six, leaning into seven. Although it has been fifty years since his death, I miss him today. In the midst of a blue-sky, cool-air New England day, he is here, a crooning, invisible ache, and a presence forever gone missing.

I realize how odd this must seem. I imagine the perplexed question: How could you possibly still miss him? I really don’t know. It’s just true. I feel it. Perhaps this is an experience one must live to fully understand, like alcoholics know alcoholism and the urge to drink. Or artists know the endless drive to create.

I know it as a loss grown into my bones, the marrow grief-soaked. For months, I breathed it upon first waking and ate it with my breakfast cereal. Every year, inch-by-inch, my rising height became a testimony to what grows beyond and what’s invisibly absorbed, like growth rings in trees. Grief was an ache that initially blared, then numbed and muted, but never fully dissipated. In rare moments, it still rises unexpectedly, startling me, afresh, familiar and unwelcome. Oh, yes, you again. Yes, I know. I miss you. Still. Now. Forever.

Maybe it’s equally true to say it has taken 50 years to befriend and claim my experience. As a child and young adult, there was never anything more awkward than to acknowledge my father’s death, let alone the underlying grief. It was its own peculiar form of being outed. Awkwardness fully defined the parameters and I became competent at redirecting conversations when I saw them headed into the realm of family history. One minute, we’d be talking about their parents. In the next minute, gosh, what a surprise, we’d be talking about skiing, biking, or music, whatever the current passion, the easy deflection.

I never met anyone comfortable with the young child, dead parent conversation, until I was 24 and befriended someone who had experienced early parent loss. Prior to this, the twin peaks of awkwardness and ignorance provided fertile ground for woeful insensitivity. Over the decades, people have said unintentionally hurtful things in flailing attempts to say something or in a bumbling exit out of the conversation. Every failed, painful encounter only reinforced my desire to quickly redirect or abort such conversations.

Amongst the responses, there was/is the standard, “I’m sorry,” the ‘go to’ in death parlance. However, when you say this to a child, it doesn’t translate. At least, it didn’t for me. I would think to myself: “What are you sorry about? You didn’t kill him.” Or, “It’s not your fault.” “I’m sorry” was something you said when you had a made a mistake. It implied culpability, something for which you had responsibility or ownership, but had failed. It felt wrong and inadequate to me. I have only begun to say this to others who are grieving, but never as the only thing I say.

Then there was the inner circle of awkward to downright thoughtless responses. “It’s God’s will.” “He’s in a better place.” Sometimes followed by the query: “How old were you when he died?” And then the follow-up: “Oh, then you didn’t really know him well, did you?” Implying? Oh, ok, we both know what you were implying. Ouch. Fuck you. I wanted to scream: “Can you hear yourself right now?” My smile a frozen mask. I wanted to tell them all: “My God did not will this. And if there is anyone’s God that did, I have a word or several for them.” Or, “If my father’s in a better place, I’d like the address and please share mine. He is still very much needed. Here. Right now.”

Finally, I knew my father and I didn’t, the latter only to the extent it was all too fleeting. However, he was the stay-at-home parent, and when he was gone, first through divorce and then through death, my world shook, then crumbled. But mostly, you do not say such things or ask such questions, simply because you are uncomfortable. If you don’t know what to say, say it: “I don’t know what to say.” I could have lived with that. In fact, I would have appreciated the sheer honesty and the relief of it. Believe me, I didn’t know what to say either. Loss is like this. Ineffable. However, (see the red flashing lights) do not fumble into the most sensitive part of the loss: How much I knew him, wanted to know him, had time to know him, cutting right to the bones. Can you hear yourself? Really? Slow down. Be thoughtful. Or better yet, please be quiet. Be present. Hold sacred space, the kind with or without anyone’s God. This, too, would have been greatly appreciated, the simple offering of a heartfelt silence for profound loss.

*****

Every year, I grow Heavenly Blue morning glories on our picket fence. I tie the delicate new vines to each post, so they can grasp and climb, up and onto the wisteria arbor. My father grew them near our front door, and like the lilacs of my childhood home, these two flowers always hold his essence, provide a visual memorial. Each year when they blossom, I take great pleasure in their depth of blue, so like the sky, twining and rising toward the vast beyond some call heaven. Sometimes when I water them, I talk to him. I smile and say hello. I share some small bit of my life, I wish I could share in person. I tell him I miss him. In those moments of remembrance, living reverence, I feel my love and my loss for him, forever intertwined. In the presence of ever-blossoming life, I have created an annual ritual of balm and mercy.

My father’s death taught me inevitable lessons. We do not outgrow or “get over” our losses. We grow despite, because of, and through them, incorporating whatever meaning or wisdom they offer, both universal and unique. Death can be surprising and inexplicable. No one will ever take the place of another person in your life. So love them up. You’ve only got so much time, as there’s an invisible expiration date for each of us. Grief is a life-long journey, which ebbs and flows, and matures. It is not a prescribed year that ends tidily with “closure.” Grief carves “holes into you and you get to choose what you fill them up with.” I heard a variation of this quote and its sheer depth of truth brought solace. We can choose bitterness, denial, deification, vilification, or compassion, grace, understanding; just imagine the voluminous list. Choose consciously.

Finally, my father’s death taught me that in the midst of others’ losses, a caring, quiet presence is often better than “I’m sorry” and to never assign one’s God the responsibility for causality. Trust me, S/He doesn’t want it and neither do the living. Instead, offer a hug, look them in the eye and see what’s there. Be vulnerable. Be fully present. It’s always more than enough. In fact, companionship and love are the only things that make grief bearable.