Monday, September 20, 2010

It's Not Over Yet

A couple weeks ago I had a troubling conversation with my father about choices. Well, actually, the conversation was initially about road cycling, but that conversation led to a more spirited debate about life, death, and how our choices affect those around us. It was one of those conversations that blindsided me and left me shaking my head. It’s amazing, really, how we can all be made up of the same matter and yet approach life differently.

The conversation started out simply enough. We were having a family dinner and my father asked my sister and I to explain our new dedication to cycling. I bought my road bike last year so my husband and I could do some distance bike events; then, this year my sister followed suit to keep up with her current boyfriend who is a triathlete. At first I thought his pondering derived from that generic, “I don’t really get it” kind of curiosity.

So, I explained to my dad that ever since I decided to stay home with my boys rather than work full-time I have been looking for something to give me a sense of accomplishment. I mean, I have a Bachelor’s degree in English and a Master’s degree in Writing, both of which do nothing for me currently but adorn a wall in my office. Okay. Okay. My degrees do assist me in coaching my sons on their homework, but that’s not much of a payout given the six years and 80-page thesis I put in to earn those framed beauties. And, I guess you could say that it’s an accomplishment raising two energetic and savvy young men. Sadly, however, on many days I feel frustration at my lack of progress. I am trying to bail floodwater with a teaspoon because no matter what forward movement I make the house is still dirty, the laundry pile grows exponentially, and the homework is there again the next day. It’s a wonderful but largely thankless job, which is why I enjoy a truly physical challenge (like completing the MS-150 bike ride with its two 75-mile days of riding) to bolster my shellshocked ego.

As I am explaining this to my father, I see no spark of understanding in his eyes and I realize there is something more to his questioning. He proceeds to tell us about a friend who died not too long ago; while riding his bicycle on a two-lane highway, he was struck by a semi and killed. It’s a horrible reminder of what is always a possible outcome of one of my bike rides. I acknowledge that cycling is not without its risks, but I also note that I am in better shape now than I was at 21 and I believe the benefits of cycling outweigh the calculated risks. Then, my father finally got to his point.

“Sometimes it’s not about you. It’s about the people whose lives would be affected deeply if something happened to you.”

I sat there for a few seconds in stunned silence. What he was getting at was that I should not ride my bike because he is worried about something bad happening to me. I suppose a more feeling-oriented person would acknowledge the fear of pain that my father spoke of and work to reassure him. Unfortunately for my father, however, I am not a person who acts from feelings; I am a person who acts from logic. And, while this primarily intellectual approach to life has caused me my share of trouble, it’s also given me the capacity to live with a fair amount of certainty in my actions. I’ve never once decided to ditch my bike ride just because it could leave me dead. I suppose it’s possible that I will die while cycling, but I also know it’s not really any more likely than dying while driving my car home from the grocery store. I’ve always considered every single thing in life a calculated risk, and I am at peace with that knowledge.

I admit that my annoyance at my father’s comment got the best of me, though, and I acted a bit more emotionally than I usually do. I closed my laptop with a deliberate thud and let loose.

“Listen,” I said with a much louder voice than I had intended. “I’m not going to stop doing something I truly enjoy because it might upset you if I unintentionally die while doing it. If you want to live your life for someone else’s worries, you go right ahead. I only get one go around, and I have no intention of getting to the end of my life only to realize that I lived someone else’s life instead.”

He looked at me blankly from across the table. At which point, his wife took the reins. She began crying about a student she lost years ago during her teaching career, telling us how much it hurt to lose someone in a tragic accident. It was time to let the argument go. Clearly there was going to be no rational discussion under these circumstances. I spent the remainder of the conversation dumbfounded and silent, but the entire incident stuck with me.

Then, the other day I remembered a bumper sticker I saw once. It said: “There are God’s plans and there are your plans. Your plans don’t count.” Isn’t that the heart of life? We can have the best of all possible plans and intentions. We can live with purpose, take care of ourselves, look out for others, and do everything right. We’re still going to die. And, let’s face it, most of us won’t have any control over when that exact moment arrives. So, I have to wonder why anyone would expend energy worrying about how the inevitable might happen. Yes. I might die at 42 in a tragic biking accident as I travel 30 miles an hour down the backside of the dam I ride over weekly. That’s entirely possible. But, then again, I also might be sitting in a home for seniors when I’m 92 like my grandmother and rereading what I’m writing here today. Either way, I won’t be enjoying life much now if I’m preoccupied with concern about things I cannot control. I must keep going forward, making my own way, trying new things, and squeezing out every last little experience I can get from life while that’s still an option for me.

I feel a twinge of sadness for my dad and his wife. They are surrendering precious moments of their lives to fear. Wouldn’t it be more productive instead to focus on what we can control -- how we choose to imagine ourselves and with what level of fervor we pursue joy in our lives? I hope they find another outlet for their fears because I have no intention of worrying while I’m pedaling up a beautiful and winding, two-lane canyon road on a perfect fall day. I only get one go around, and if it’s all the same I’ll probably keep going around on my bike. What God’s plans are for me, I can’t say. But, I do know this: whatever they are, I’m not going to worry about them now. I’ve ridden over 1000 miles this season, and it’s not over yet.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


A few months ago I was given the opportunity to accompany my oldest son on a school field trip to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. I enlisted myself as a chaperone simply because I adore an excuse to spend a day at a science museum and because I thought it would be fun to hang out with my son and his friends and see the museum through their eyes.

A few days after the original news of the field trip came out, however, the official flyer about the trip came home, and I started to wonder if I should go. The museum tour would be hosted by BC (Biblically Correct) Tours, which meant that the kids would be seeing the museum from a purely biblical standpoint. It didn’t surprise me that the school would choose this tour group because my sons attend a wonderful, non-denominational Christian school where they are taught to see the world from a Christian perspective. While we are a Christian family, we are not as traditionally Christian as many of the families that send their children to Hope Christian Academy. Truth of the matter is that we’re a bit lax with regard to our church attendance. Beyond that, if we had to label ourselves, we would fall firmly into the category of evolutionists.

Our oldest son is an unbelievably curious boy who has asked tough questions about life from an early age. He never stops seeking answers. At the age of five he actually told me, “I’m not all knowing yet, but I am knowing.” To help Joe on his quest to become all knowing, we encouraged him to watch educational DVDs created for the Discovery Channel and the BBC. We sat with him and watched documentaries, pausing to answer his questions. We used the scientific programs he watched as a springboard for discussion about the world. We presented both the creation story and Darwin’s theory of evolution to Joe. Both my husband and I took turns explaining what we believe about how life came to be on this planet. All the while we’ve repeatedly told our sons that they are free to choose whatever they want to believe and that we will actively work to respect their beliefs. More than anything, we want to raise children who are capable of critical thinking and who realize that people don’t always view the world the same way but that our differences are actually useful and not detrimental.

Still, I hemmed and hawed about the field trip for about a week after that flyer came home. I wondered if I could successful practice what I preach during the field trip so that I could hear the tour guide with an open mind and consider a different viewpoint. I have to admit that I was about 50/50 in my confidence in myself. Ultimately, though, I knew I had to go. For starters, my son gets his natural curiosity from me, and I didn’t see how I could miss the opportunity to learn something new. I also knew how he viewed creation versus evolution and I wanted to be there for him if he had questions about what he heard that day. And, beyond that, my greatest fear was that if I didn’t go my scientific son would raise his hand and tell the tour guide that he was wrong and that the dinosaurs actually existed 65 million years ago and not ever at the same time as humans. I was certain I would not want to deal with the aftermath of such antics.

The day of the tour, I tried my very best to put on my open-minded brain. I talked to Joe on the way to school about how he would likely hear some things he had not heard before about the dinosaurs he loved so much and had studied so diligently over the years. I reminded him that he was to listen and respectfully consider what he was hearing just as I would be doing, but I also told him that he was not obligated to change his viewpoint or mimic his classmates if he couldn’t make sense of what was being said. By the time we arrived at the museum and met the tour guide, I was fairly confident that I could follow through on what I requested of my son, and I was relatively secure that he would listen and behave as well.

It wasn’t five minutes into the tour guide’s presentation, however, when I started to struggle. It caught me off guard, actually. I noticed as I was listening that my heart began to race a bit when I heard things I questioned. I scrutinized my son to see if he was struggling, but he sat there quietly, arms crossed, revealing nothing. So far so good. At least he was paying attention. Then, about ten minutes into the tour I noticed that my hands were shaking slightly. I began taking copious notes as a distraction, figuring that I would still be getting the guide’s message but that the act of note taking itself would take me to a zen place. Nope. It didn’t help. I texted a friend for support. So much for paying respectful attention. I was losing it, spiraling out of control into the abyss of closed-minded ignorance. Needless to say, by the time the tour was nearly over I found myself actively not listening as a protective mechanism.

Mildly disgusted with myself, I approached my son and asked him how he was doing. He shrugged. I tried again to get him to open up by asking him what he thought of what he had heard. His reply was a concise: “I understand what he’s saying, but I’m still going to believe in evolution.” In that moment, I realized that my son had succeeded where I had failed. He had done exactly as I asked. He listened. He paid attention. He made up his own mind. I was proud of him. I secretly wished I’d reacted as calmly and intellectually as he had.

Tolerance, I’m learning, is something we achieve through practice, lots of it. We are conditioned early to fight for what we believe in. It is noble to defend what matters most to you, yet I have to wonder what we lose by closing ourselves off to the opinions of others. I don’t claim to have the “right” answer to the evolution versus creation debate, and I’m willing to agree to disagree. It might be idealistic but I believe that everyone has a right to their opinion. I keep this quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald with me at all times: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” On that day at the museum, my ability to balance two opposed ideas was challenged, but I’m somewhat proud of myself for knowingly putting myself in an uncomfortable situation for the sake of greater understanding. I figure if I keep working at it, maybe someday I’ll be like Joe; I’m not all knowing yet, but I am knowing.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Climbing Lessons

Recently, my son delivered a 10-minute oral presentation about rock climbing to his 2nd grade class. As I watched from the back of the classroom in one of those kid-sized chairs, I was guardedly optimistic. We certainly had practiced enough. I was impressed with how well he knew the speech and how calm he seemed. Honestly, though, most of what I felt was clouded by the sheer shock of how well it was going. If my son had been reporting on Jesus and ended his speech with a walking-on-water demonstration in the classroom, it would not have made a greater impression on me than his climbing speech did. That may seem like a bold claim, but it’s true. A year ago, I could never have imagined what I was witnessing in that classroom. I sat there smiling at Joe as he looked up from his 4 x 6 index cards at me, thinking the entire time about the colossal difference a year can make. Funny how 365 little days can add up to one huge year.

Last year at this time, Joe was struggling mightily in first grade. He was a bright kid who hated school. We battled every night over the homework that took most kids in his class just 15 minutes to complete but on good nights never took Joe less than an hour. He was barely getting passing marks in reading. Each night we worked on his studies and each night one (if not both) of us either cried or had a full-scale tantrum. Our home was a den of stress and friction. I could not comprehend how he could recall every character name and story line from six Star Wars movies but he could not remember our 10-digit phone number. He could not tie his shoes or complete one-step commands to put his dinner plate on the counter or put his shoes on the stairs. His handwriting was nearly illegible. When Joe was nervous or excited, he would flap his hands as if he could simply take flight to avoid the situation. He would repeatedly do things I had asked him hundreds of times not to do and that he knew were wrong; when I would ask why he was doing them, he would frustratedly answer “I don’t know.” Yet through all this, I still spied a boy who was capable of drawing correlations between complex subjects and who spent time philosophically pondering evolution and God. Although he was just 7, he was my “deep thinker.”

Despite his intelligence, Joe just could not convert his knowledge into practice at school. And, because I had never struggled in school, I could not understand what that felt like. The situation was ruining our relationship, killing Joe’s self-confidence, and making me feel as if I was getting the worst employee review I’ve ever earned at a job. It was breaking my spirit, and my disappointment was readily registered by my sensitive son who wanted nothing more than to make me proud. We both wanted to make the other happy, but neither of us had a clue how to do it.

We had noticed early on that Joe wasn’t quite like other kids, but we kept thinking he would catch up. He was born prematurely, so in the beginning we used that as an excuse. Then, as he grew older, we explained that he was a late bloomer. In kindergarten, his teacher suggested that he might have sensory processing disorder, which means that he can’t filter out outside stimuli so everything in the world is overwhelming. We took him to a pediatric therapy service that specialized in helping kids learn to cope with sensory processing disorder. The owner of the service administered tests and noted he was years behind in simple things we all take for granted, like balance and motor planning (knowing how to make the body do things like climb up ladders or catch a ball). At last, we thought we had found a pathway to help him catch up and achieve the way we knew he could. And, he did make strides for a while. Then he hit a wall again and we were stumped.

Along the way, a few people had suggested to us that perhaps Joe had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). We scoffed. We fought it. Maybe denial isn’t just a river in Egypt? But, we were running out of possible ways to help him. What if Joe had ADHD and we, in our intense aversion to the idea of medicating him, eliminated the one thing that would help him reach his full potential and remove his immense frustration? I talked to a few close friends about the situation. A couple of them reacted negatively to the idea that we would willingly medicate Joe. Their fears reminded me that a positive ADHD diagnosis would carry with it a stigma. Finally, after discussing my dilemma with another friend, I finally heard the encouragement I needed; he simply said, “take whatever help you can get and don’t look back.” It was good advice.

Before second grade started, I filled out myriad forms and mailed them off to the psychiatric section of Children’s Hospital in Denver. We set up several appointments with different psychologists and a psychiatrist. During those meetings, Joe’s behavior was downright painful for me to witness. He wouldn’t look at the therapists. He refused to answer questions. When he did talk, he was curt and borderline disrespectful. He wandered the room nervously, flapping his hands the entire time. He crawled under furniture. He was distracted by every possible sound and item in the room. I cringed. Three mental health professionals spent time with him and all three said they were certain that our sweet son was struggling with ADHD.

Dr. Lippolis, one of the incredible psychiatrists at the hospital, explained in simplest terms to Joe what was happening in his brain. She told him that in the front of his brain there was a little man who was responsible for making choices and that right now that little man was asleep on the job. With the right medication, that little man would wake up and Joe would be able to do all the things he wanted to but couldn’t. Joe told the doctor he would like to try the medicine. And, for our part, we had exhausted every other way of helping him, and he’d gone through his entire first grade year miserable, frustrated, and hopeless. We couldn’t imagine an additional 11 years of having Joe return home at the end of the school day saying, “I’m the dumbest kid in my class.” If the notion of medicating him made us nervous, the mere thought of him going through his entire life with low self-esteem and no feeling of personal success was downright terrifying.

Joe started on Concerta, the long-lasting stimulant that was meant to wake up the little man in the front of his brain, during his first week of second grade. We saw a difference in him nearly immediately. Within two weeks, his handwriting was neater and he was writing stories on his own. Our child who had refused to draw or color was suddenly sitting and happily doing art projects. He was following multiple step directions. He was bringing home papers with A and B grades on them. He could carry on a prolonged conversation without distraction. His reading skills improved exponentially overnight. We heard a lot less “I can’t” and a lot more “Let me try.” His nervous hand flapping ceased. He was smiling again. In short, he was the Joe we knew he was meant to be. When I ponder how he must have felt as he tried valiantly to pass along what he knew but couldn’t, my heart hurts. I wish hindsight, with its flawless vision, sold tickets for time travel so I could go back 365 days and show more patience and compassion to my son as he struggled with that little man asleep at the wheel. All I can do now, however, is follow my friend’s advice, take the help I can get, and try not to look back and question the choices I’ve made.

Most parents hope to impart some wisdom to their children. I must admit, though, that I have probably learned far more from Joe in his time with us than he has learned from me. It's appropriate that he chose climbing as his speech topic because climbing is what he has been doing since the day he showed up seven weeks early in June 2001. If the past year is any indication of where his climbing will take him, I’m fairly certain not even the sky will be his limit. As for me, I'm going to follow Joe's example, look ahead, and start climbing too. I think he might be on to something.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Learning To Yield

Given the title of this entry, you might be expecting me to prattle on about my vehicular pet peeve #1: people who cannot comprehend the distinct difference between “yield” and “merge”. Indeed, I could compose an entire dissertation on that topic and walk away feeling as if I’d done a great public service seeing as how at least 75% of the population blatantly ignore the entire concept of “yield”. Instead, my brain is fixed today on an entirely different type of yielding: the yielding that must occur when the universe, in its relentless way, keeps steering you towards something that challenges you to move beyond your comfort zone, like making a career change or overcoming an addiction or trying on a new swimsuit.

Anyone who has spent any time around me knows that I am fairly incapable of sitting still for protracted periods of time. I percolate with nervous energy. If you manage to catch me sitting still, chances are my brain is going a million miles an hour over an idea or two or twelve. While I fully embrace my squirrelly nature, my mother (for one) hasn’t been quite as keen about it; for as long as I can remember, she’s told me that I should take up yoga to quiet my spirit. And, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been telling her that her tree was missing more than a few acorns. Seriously? Me? Trapped inside a hot studio with suburban hippies, listening to “earthy” music, putting my body into pretzel poses, and focusing on deep breathing? Had my mother even MET me? I am completely incapable of that level of inner peace. While I love to exercise, I’ve forever known that long walks or bike rides outdoors are the sole method of feeding my spirit. Nothing clears my head and revives my embattled soul quite as thoroughly as a vigorous 5-mile walk.

Yet, through the years the universe has sent many unfortunate souls to steer me toward yoga. My sisters-in-law have been dutifully practicing yoga and promoting it for over seven years. They are six years older than I am and are more fit now than they have ever been before; while their fitness levels alone should have convinced me to attempt yoga, I would not relent. Friends have shared their yoga experiences, and the moment the dirty “Y” word was mentioned my brain went into an immediate (albeit childish) version of “lalalalalalalala...I can’t hear you.” Isn’t yoga for mellow folks with earth mother tattoos who eat vegan diets and refuse to wear leather? What part of that fits me?

Well, this past December, my sisters-in-law did the unthinkable. Sick of telling me how good yoga would be for me, they simply gifted me at Christmas with hours of yoga classes at a nearby studio. Great. Just what I always wanted. Can you see me rolling my eyes? The gift was sizable enough that I would feel guilty just ignoring it. I also knew that they would ask me about it, so now I was truly accountable. To make matters worse, when I opened the gift my wonderful and well-meaning sister-in-law saw the curious mix of disappointment and resignation on my face and said this to me: “Well, we just think that yoga is so important, especially as you get into your 40s.” Gasp! How dare she bring my advancing age into this? That was a low blow. Accepting my midlife status had been hard enough to swallow, but admitting that my body was going south (some parts more rapidly than others) was even more difficult to face. Still, I knew she was right. I wasn’t getting any time back.

So, I caved. Okay. Okay. I get it. I am supposed to try this. Like it or not, good or bad, it had been thrown in my lap too many times over the past twenty years to ignore any longer. I needed to yield to the will of the universe and just try it, even if just to prove to everyone this was not for me and get them all off my back.

On one Sunday afternoon in January, I decided to attend a beginner level vinyasa flow class at a nearby Corepower yoga studio. There was no way I was going to go through this experience alone, so accompanied by my youngest sister and with yoga mat, water bottle, and towel in hand, I resolutely went to class to prove everyone wrong.

Instead of being miserable and bored as I had expected, however, I nearly immediately felt comfortable. The instructor spent the first couple minutes putting us into the right mindset. She assured us that yoga is a practice, not a competition, and that we shouldn’t judge ourselves too harshly. She couldn’t have uttered more appropriate words to encourage this perfectionistic and highly self-critical Type A personality to give it an honest effort. After she had started us in Child’s pose and had us practicing our ujjayi breathing, she began talking about our intention for the class; she suggested that we attempt to surrender and find a balance between strength and control and the grace to let things go and be at peace. Dang. Did my mother call this woman and tell her about me? I got teary eyed on my mat listening to the instructor describe in detail one of my greatest personal weaknesses, my inability to acquiesce with grace.

As we went through the yoga flow during class, I tried to yield to the full experience despite my inner reservations. I was shocked to notice I was actually sweating. It was more physically demanding than I imagined it would be, requiring balance, strength, and flexibility. I was relieved not to be standing still, embracing each movement as it built upon the previous pose and flowed into the next one. Just when I was opening up and feeling a bit more optimistic about yoga, however, she called us into Supta Badhakonasana for abdominal crunches. (Did I mention I am learning Sanskrit?) Crunches? Nobody said nothing about no stinking crunches. I hate crunches. See. I knew I would find a reason not to like yoga. I was still trying to maintain the mental illusion that yoga was not winning me over when the instructor demonstrated the Crow pose arm balance and I felt my anti-yoga resolve start to melt. This is the yoga that you see people doing and swear you could never do, but my overachieving self desperately wanted to do it. I wanted it so badly that I went home after class and practiced it. Yes. I am that annoying person. Maybe I could actually use this whole yoga thing to dial down my Type A to maybe a Type A-minus?

It’s been two months since that first Sunday afternoon class, and I can’t believe how much stronger I am already. I’ve seen postures that were extremely challenging for me that first afternoon become increasingly less uncomfortable. I’ve watched my biceps and triceps return without the use of free weights. I’ve found my waist again. My clothes are looser. The biggest change in me, however, has been in my mental state. I am learning to live in the moment more, to trust myself, and to surrender when I need to. It’s definitely a practice and not a destination, but I am happier. I’ve found myself seeking new experiences and being ever-so-slightly-less hard on myself. For once I know I am completely present in my life, at least for three to four hours a week when I am on my yoga mat. Yoga has become something I look forward to. And, don’t tell anyone, but I’ve even ditched previous appointments because I have learned I honestly do need yoga and I don't want to miss class.

Did I tell my mother that she was right? Absolutely I did. I surrendered my ego and told her I was sorry I hadn’t yielded to her suggestion years ago. Surprisingly enough, the admission didn’t make me feel weak but instead brought me greater peace. My surrender on this one topic doesn’t mean I’m entirely changed, though. Don’t expect to find me burning patchouli incense, chanting, or turning vegan anytime soon. The universe hasn’t called me to least not yet.