On My Way Back

You guys, I’ve been feeling low lately. For, like, the past few weeks lately. I’m in the middle of a job search and if there is anything that can make you feel incompetent, it’s trying to find a job, especially after not having a steady 9-to-5er for a longer stretch of time. It can definitely cause one to doubt or even forget their value – their worth.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that I just turned 44. The age where a panty liner is as much a source of support to you as your best friends, and if you weren’t lactose-intolerant already, you develop a love-hate relationship with dairy products. And if you’re looking for a job (see above) you begin to wonder if your age makes you irrelevant, and therefore, unemployable.

Throw all of that in a bowl, combined with Robin Williams’ suicide, the events in Ferguson, and the beheading of an American journalist, mix it all up and you can start to see why I’ve been low. But my mom gave me a wonderful gift. Last year she took me to a destination spa out in the middle of nowhere, and because she’s so smart and so kind, she did it again for me this year. God bless her.

So on Friday morning I flew to Chicago, took a drive south and ended up at The Heartland for another restorative weekend. A weekend full of classes, and good food, and spa treatments. But guess what? It was even better this year because I rode a bike.

Don’t feel sorry for me just yet, I learned how to ride a bike when I was little, and I even have a bike at home. About 10 years back, Greg’s parents gave us bikes, complete with that attachment thingy for pulling the babies behind us. I think we used it once and it was so traumatic, for both us AND the babies – they screamed and cried the entire ride around the block – that we never dared do it again.  We finally gave away the yellow attachment thingy to another happy family, and the bikes made the trip from Denver to KC, but we haven’t ridden since.

I’ve been eyeing up my bike lately – like in the past month or so – and thinking that I’ll give it another try as a way to get some exercise. But anxiety stopped me, as it often does. What if I look like an idiot? What if I fall? What if my neighbors see me look like an idiot and fall? As an aside, it probably would help if we (Greg mostly, but I’ll take responsibility, too) hadn’t completely hazed our neighbors when they bought new bikes and rode them around the circle, but whatever.

So when I noticed the row of bikes lined up against the main house at The Heartland, I thought, THIS IS MY CHANCE. I AM GOING TO RIDE A BIKE. But between all the fitness classes, wellness classes, nutritious meals and snacks, and spa treatments, before I knew it, it was just about time to depart and I still hadn’t gotten on a bike.

I woke up on Sunday morning with that this-good-thing-is-about-to-end pit in my stomach. Had I made the most of it? To borrow from Thoreau, had I sucked the marrow out of this experience? Did I work out everything I wanted to work out? Emotionally speaking, more than physically.

When mom went off to the spa and I was left to my own devices, I took off on the walking path around the lake to ruminate on all of that stuff. To really work it out. I walked and I thought and I walked and I thought, and I stopped and sat on a bench. I wrote and I cried and I wrote. And then I was interrupted by another guest, so I got up and walked back to the house angry about the interruption, and frustrated with myself, because that’s what happens when we are stuck inside of our own head.

As I approached the main house, I saw that row of bikes staring at me, almost daring me. I became determined in my anger, so I picked the bright yellow one with the fancy flowers on it and walked it out to the open parking area and threw a leg over. The seat was too high. No big deal, I thought. I can do this. I CAN DO THIS, DAMMIT.

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I had a failed start. It wasn’t pretty, I damn near fell after one push off, but I was undeterred. I propelled myself forward, only thinking of the long, rocky driveway until it was too late. Should I turn back and stay within the safety of the pavement? No, I thought. I’m going for it, and with that, I was off down the drive.

I got about halfway down before a car turned and came toward me. I saw it coming. Oh shit, I thought. Should I pull over and stop, or keep going? What is proper bike etiquette in this situation? What if I fall right in front of them?

The moment was over in a flash, before the anxiety had a chance to overtake me. The wheels carried me forward, the car passed without incident, and within a short minute I was out on the pavement in rural Illinois, passing cows and corn fields and farm houses.

I sped up, felt my hair lift and blow, and the analogy of a dear friend, my corporate trainer at Crate & Barrel, came back to me. What blows your hair back? Do you remember that feeling? And all of a sudden I DID remember it, the sensation of it, and it was fan-f-ing-tastic. So I sped up, down a hill, never once thinking about how I’d have to climb that hill on the way back.

I started to feel really good, and really confident. Confident enough to take my eyes off the road in front of me and look around, and down at the pavement passing quickly beneath me. And then I saw this.

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And all of the anxiety flooded back in. What was I thinking? I’d left without a helmet. Do they even offer helmets? If not, isn’t that a liability issue? Wait, did I sign a release? What if a car comes and hits me and drives off leaving me for dead? I start to imagine this scenario in great, graphic detail. Images of me, bloody and bruised, with a broken, twisted leg, crawling back to the main house.

But I kept going.

And then I get to about the 2-mile point, the turnaround – I know this because The Heartland has carefully marked the roadway – and a car approaches me. As it passes, I see a scruffy-looking guy, alone, sitting low in the car. He pulls into the parking lot of what I now know is government-approved hunting ground, and backs into a space. I start to imagine him grabbing me and doing all kinds of unimaginable things to me, things that only someone with anxiety or a warped sense of the world can imagine being done. I turn that bike around as quickly as I can and tear off back down the road, only slowing up when I feel a safe distance away from the creepy guy and within sight of the turn back to The Heartland.

The point is, though, that I KEPT GOING. Back up the hill I whizzed down minutes ago. Back up the gravel drive I worried over in the beginning. And as I turned the bike toward the main house, with legs weak and sweat dripping down between my boobs, I had the most amazing sense of confidence and accomplishment wash over me. So confident that I took one hand off the bar to wipe the sweat from my forehead. And THAT, folks, was just what I needed to complete my trip.

But then I realized, oh shit, I forgot how to stop.

My takeaway:

  1. Oftentimes the small things have the biggest impact on us, like a panty liner or riding a bike.
  2. It’s okay to be afraid. Keep going.
  3. You never forget how to ride a bike, but once you get going you sometimes forget how to stop.

Tremendous amounts of love,

Carmen

 

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Letters To A Young Poet & Missed Opportunities

This past week, while Greg had most of the kids with him in Arizona, I partnered with my mom to re-decorate and re-define an unused formal living room in our traditional home into an office/work space for me and the girls. More on the transformation later, but here is a preliminary picture.

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The room had become a cemetery for everything – pictures, computer equipment, kid art, furniture – we didn’t know where else to put. I hate when that happens, especially when it happens in a room right off the front entry. But the good thing about these home improvement projects is that it gives you a reason to get organized and clean things out and HOT DAMN that feels good.

Image Credit: Mary Kate McDevitt via Etsy.com.

Image Credit: Mary Kate McDevitt via Etsy.com.

I’ve spent the past couple days going through boxes of miscellaneous items, one of which contained a group of books I have collected over the years and kept on my work desk – when I had one, that is. One of the books is Letters to a Young Poet, a moving collection of ten letters written by poet Rainer Maria Rilke to a young military cadet over a five or six-year period. My copy is extra special, though, because it was given to me by a dear college professor, Dan Daniels, during a pivotal time in my life; a time when I was writing a lot – free writing/journaling/poetry – and struggling to find my creative voice, my purpose.

I opened the book and read the notes Professor Daniels left for me on the back of the cover and in the margins, finding myself inspired and comforted again, both in his words and in the words of Rilke, as I struggle with many of the same questions I had then, a young college student. Out of curiosity, I went to the computer and googled “Dan Daniels Southwestern College” only to be directed to a nice article about him written by Dave Seaton for the Winfield Daily Courier.

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Professor Dan Daniels died December 13th, 2009.

Ouch. My heart hurt, reading the article and learning of his death several years back. He was a friend and mentor to me at a time when I needed encouragement, direction, and a no bullshit talking to about frittering away creative talent to appease the masses. If only I’d taken the opportunity to reach out and tell him this the last time I opened the book, when it sat on my desk all those years. But I didn’t, and what it comes down to is this.

When am I going to stop watching opportunities pass me by? Opportunities to express myself in whatever form. Opportunities to say thank you. Opportunities to tell someone how much they mean to me, how much I appreciate them. Or what about the opposite? It’s just as important to tell people when you don’t agree, when their actions have hurt you, or caused you harm in some way, or when they are no longer welcome in your life, right? I mean, what am I so afraid of?

I’m sure Professor Daniels could, and would, help me figure that one out.

Love, Carmen

 

Listen To Your Mother, Listen To Yourself

I entered an original essay for consideration as part of the local Listen To Your Mother show.  While it made the initial cut, and I was asked to audition, the piece was not selected for the live show.

Poop.  Sad face.

The good news:  I can try again next year.  And so I shall.

Here it is, for your reading enjoyment.

Love, Carmen

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Although the route we take to school remains the same, the fifteen minute drive can look wildly different from one day to the next.  There’s no telling whether the car will be filled with screaming, laughing, crying, singing, or dead silence.  The equation for determining that outcome involves a complex mix of variables including, but not limited to, lack of clothing or hair accessory options, uncooperative hair altogether, an overnight skin eruption, 84 pairs of unmatched socks, a forgotten homework assignment, the fact that someone had the audacity to eat the last two granola bars leaving only the empty box for the next person.

Such is life with four kids.  All girls.

Emily, my fourteen year-old, first born, overachiever, bears the full weight and responsibility of her permanent place in the pole position, with three impressionable pairs of eyes fixed upon her.  To her credit, she does a good job of being a positive role model for them.  Until she doesn’t.

I don’t blame her, though.  It’s damned hard to be a teenager in this world.  The lofty expectations.  The rigorous school work and testing.  The immense social pressure, and moral bombardment.  It amazes me that they emerge from these years with direction and a healthy sense of self, much less alive at all.

After dropping off her younger sisters at the elementary school the other morning, Emily says to me, “Mrs. Ritter says you need to have a solid plan in high school if you want to get into college.”

“Hmmmmm.”  I contemplated that for a bit, perhaps a bit too long for her liking.

She rubbernecked, her wide brown eyes boring into the side of my face.  “What does that mean?”

“Just thinking about it,” I explained, sensing her frustration.

Truth is, at 43 I am, in a way, still picking a major.  I started my life with what I thought was a good, solid plan, but I’m so far off that plan I don’t even know who that person was.  After all I’ve experienced and with what I know now, I am not sure anymore what the right answer is.  It’s the sum total of these thoughts and experiences I am desperately trying to summarize in a concise and cogent way for her.

She presses me for an answer.  “Well, don’t you agree?”

“I don’t know, Emily,” I said, which of course only signaled to her that it was time to lay out the factual basis for that statement.  It was time for her to prove its truth.

She took a deep breath, and then let out a thread of words that started with, “Mrs. Ritter said that her daughter took enough AP classes and college credit classes that she entered college as a sophomore.  Wouldn’t that be awesome?  I mean, I know I have to go seven years if I want to go to vet school but if I was able to get some of those classes out of the way…..”

Her words faded out as the wheels in my head turned, a solid opinion on the matter beginning to formulate with every revolution, under the pressure of what was only a fifteen minute drive between the two schools.  I am positive there was more back and forth between us, more debating the merits of AP classes, college credit classes, keeping a high GPA, scholarships versus the cost of college.  But I didn’t really hear anything else she said.

I wasn’t listening to her, and I am pretty sure she wasn’t listening to me.

Before the car door closed on this conversation, though, I was able to spit out these words of advice:

“Stay in your lane.  Focus on yourself,” in response to what classes her friend so-and-so is taking Freshman year.

“Don’t make decisions in a vacuum.  Talk to a counselor,” as general advice about making life-sized decisions.

“The only thing you can control is how hard you work,”  in response to whether or not the college of her choice would accept her.

Fast forward a couple hours and I am sitting in the warmth of a local coffee shop, chatting with Julie, my accountability partner, about our progress in reaching our writing goals.  It very closely resembles a business meeting, sprinkled with bits of our private lives, war stories shared between good friends, words of wisdom and encouragement.  We weave through the usual topics, the mention of word counts, queries, and freelance projects.

We rarely talk specifically about what we are writing, or share the details of our stories.  It isn’t about plot, character development, genre.  That isn’t the point of the meeting.  Our focus is always on results, day after day, week after week.  It is about accomplishing our goals and, of course, holding each other accountable.  Where are we going?  And are we moving in that direction?

Today our conversation stalls around an article that suggests a writer must query an average of 84 agents before they can expect to sign with one.  And despite the fact that we’re both well-educated, professional, smart women, and we’ve heard this kind of crazy nonsense before, this very broad generalization sparks a number of emotions in the both of us – panic, discouragement, exasperation, to name a few.

We begin to admonish each other with all very true, very valuable things to remember about creative pursuits, but writing specifically.  Things like how you have to have thick skin, how you have to get used to hearing “no,” that persistence is a key ingredient in a writer’s success, and how important it is to actually enjoy writing, to be passionate about it.

Then, right out of my mouth pops, “The only thing you can control is how hard you work.”

Bing.

There it was, like one of those conversation bubbles escaping my lips.

I laugh out loud at myself, then brief Julie on my earlier conversation with Emily.

“Gee, wouldn’t it be great if we actually listened to ourselves, and took the great advice we were always giving out?” Julie said, sharing my amusement.

“Yes.  Yes it would.”