Ahhhhhhh…..the 80’s…..the decade of drug culture, of greed, of the great divide of American television. On the one hand you had Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Murder She Wrote, Family Ties, Cheers…on the other you had Mr. Smith, Small Wonder…and The Facts of Life….yes, I know the last series ran for several seasons…which only prolonged my suffering. God I hated that show. Still do. The wife loved it, though, so I found something else to keep me occupied while it was on. Not hard to do when carrying 20 credit hours, working three jobs…and responsible for three VERY young girls! What I didn’t realize until this week, however, was how philosophical and historical that damned theme song was/is!
Take the good. Take the bad. Put them all together and you have the facts of life. Hmmmm…where have I heard that before? Very similar to the “moderation in all things” axiom attributed to Aristotle, but modern scholars have begun to assign credit to Hesiod (ca 700 BC) and Plautus (Roman) some 450 years later. Or, perhaps the TV show was deriving their inspiration from Rumi, who has said “life is a balance between holding on and letting go.” Or, albeit a stretch, perhaps even Hugh Lofton’s pushmi-pullyu beast in the Dr. Doolittle stories.
Well, regardless, this has been yet another week where I was forced to learn the wisdom of Rumi. The older we get, generally speaking, the more we tend to cling to people and things. As all else in life slips away – career, children, living spaces, physical and mental abilities, and even possessions – we feel a compelling urge to hold fast to that which surrounds us…especially those people, items, or concepts that have strong ties to our past. I covered a bit of this in my very first blog post, “Death Changes Everything, Carl,” but want to revisit that for a bit….not in terms of the death of my spouse, but in my evolution as a human being and as a cyclist.
Last week I was set to go over 1000 miles on the road for the year over the course of the next day or two. I was a bit excited as this was by far the earliest I would have ever crossed that mark. The weather, which has been consistently cold and gloomy, was predicted for near 50 degree temps and clear skies for the weekend! Astonishing for us! We are literally mired in the dead of winter! Although it hasn’t been particularly cold this season, it has been a VERY long season. The day of the annual fundraising ride and 5K run for my wife’s memorial scholarship association – October 13th – it turned bitterly cold (41 degree high temperature) with gale force winds at times (steady 20-25 mph, with gusts of 50 mph and higher). The weather never recovered after that. We’ve had occasional glimpses of the upper 40’s and low 50’s, but a steady diet of upper 20’s and low 30’s with gun metal gray skies. I got myself pumped for the riding last weekend! Then….life happened.
My wife and I were blessed to have some very dear friends. Our youngest children went to high school together. They assisted us in chaperoning field trips for our students – including making all students literally roll in the aisles as they danced to The Commodores’ “Brick House” in the aisles of a charter bus towards the end of a very long day with high schoolers intoning the infamous “Are we there yet?” Our friends were there for us throughout her illness and have truly kept the promise they made to her on her deathbed to keep watch over me….you know, something many promise with good intentions, but life gets in the way, and then they just drop it. These two have not. But we hadn’t seen each other since Christmas, and suddenly a window opened. I was thrilled to see them again. We did dinner and then took in a movie. They knew I had not been to a movie theatre since they joined my wife and me to see “The Greatest Showman” a few weeks before she passed. I refuse to go alone, and seriously the thought of going out to a movie without my wife just felt…well…sneaky or traitorous in some way. Yes, I know I’m being ridiculous, but I can’t deny the feeling.
So we saw “The Call of the Wild,” – EXCELLENT movie, by the way – and had a lovely afternoon and evening of chatting and catching up. A few years ago, the missed day on the bike would have irritated me. Perhaps you may have noticed I am a bit obsessive in some behaviors and traits? If I had been looking forward to anything, and something else pre-empted it, or life got in the way, my entire psyche would be hit…No, I wouldn’t fly off the handle, but my mood was definitely altered for the worse. This is when my wife’s wisdom would take over. Over the course of our marriage she taught me what I have crystallized into four basic lessons. I’ll expand on these in a bit. For now, let us just say that I have been working REALLY hard to grasp her lessons and those of Rumi as well. I knew that it was only February 22nd. Still plenty of time.
Sunday was also a beautiful day. For moving. Our oldest daughter and son in law had a new home built for them and their boys. Moving day was last Sunday. Best day of the winter. Record high temps (mid and upper 50’s) and the prettiest blue skies. But they REALLY needed help, and I was supposed to take some of their furniture home with me. The day was a great deal longer than any of us anticipated, and we ended up pulling the moving trailer into my driveway at 12:15 am on Monday. This meant, of course, that the furniture could not be unloaded at such an ungodly hour, and would have to be unloaded in the morning, reassembled, and the trailer returned to the rental facility. By the time this was all finished on Monday it was nearly 6 pm. Oh, did I fail to mention that Monday was also a nice day for riding? Upper 40’s…lighter winds…then we got smacked with a winter storm for three days….snow, very heavy winds and temps in the upper teens with wind chills below zero. Visibility very low due to blowing and drifting snow. So, no, I haven’t been out riding after all since my last post. But, tomorrow is still February!
Seriously, however, it has been…ok. I know my children were a bit worried I would be upset about missing the ride time. And, to be fair, in the past I would have been. Again, I forced myself to truly focus on those lessons this week, and I have not been affected by the loss of ride time at all. There were other things that surprisingly shook me in the interim.
Seven Christmases ago, I took my wife out furniture shopping for our living room. She had a blast. I think a part of her was considering a future as an interior decorator after she retired from teaching. God knows she watched enough HGTV to have a Master’s Degree in Home Improvement! I only wish I was kidding! Anyway…..guess which furniture went to make room for the new (to me) stuff this week. It was just furniture. It shouldn’t have hit me so hard. But it did. I got a lump in my throat as I helped a former student excitedly carry it out to his borrowed truck. I know it’s going to be appreciated and cared for, because he knew both of us. This would make her happy. But, again, Carl…one more thing of hers walked out the door of the house this week.
Finally, two days ago, my home theatre popcorn machine finally gave up the ghost and died. My wife and kids bought that machine for me on Father’s Day in 2003. I’ve replaced the kettle on it twice, the switches once. We are popcorn fanatics in this house! Fresh popcorn was made every day when the girls were home. It is still made at least four times a week. It was the first place our oldest grandson learned to walk to in our house! The dogs as well! With each batch, our dogs would gather at the feet of the cart, waiting for the first kernels to be expelled from the popper, beyond the opening, and onto the floor…boy, has THAT been a hard adjustment over the past month! Ginger had popcorn before going to bed her last night on earth!
We’ve had a true home theatre system since 1997 with Bose Surround, and the last 17 years a minimum of an 82 inch screen. Friends, family, the girls’ dates, neighbors, colleagues, and even students would come to enjoy the theatre experience at our house. Yes, students. We would hold rehearsals sometimes in our house on the river during the summer and breaks would include canoeing and paddle boating, volleyball in the side yard, etc. After rehearsal was over, we’d feed them and they would gather in our rec room to watch a movie and munch on popcorn. Don’t know that I would do it today, in this anti-teacher climate, or even if I’d be allowed to, but it meant the world to our inner city students. A lot of great memories in that machine. It was picked up by the trash company at the curb today.
As a cyclist, this entire last year has been a study of learning to let go and hold on. What events are important enough to me to hold on to as a participant? Are there any left? The truth of the matter is that, as I mentioned a few blog posts ago, the water has moved on. I don’t feel valued by most of the people in the clubs I belonged to for years anymore. Understandable. As a tree ages, younger shoots are always springing up, ready to take its place. What isn’t acceptable to an old hippie like me, is when I participate in so many fundraisers and events, but others that seemingly care about me do not reciprocate by taking part in the benefit for the Angela Dallaire Bruce Memorial Scholarship Association. I’ve never been very tolerant of selfishness. So I am frankly becoming a lone wolf, in a manner of speaking.
The same goes true for mileage goals, PRs, and the like. What I am learning here is to not allow myself to panic too early, to not get upset with others who simply want to avail themselves of my time. I am alone so much of the day/week/month, I truly need that human interaction! Summer is coming – so the rumor goes – and my days will be filled with extended hours in the saddle. I know now what kind of mileage I am capable of once the calendar turns to green and warm instead of white and frigid! Holding on to my overall mileage goal keeps me grounded to her…everything else is just noise.
Those lessons she taught me? Here they are in reverse order of when she tried to get them through my thick skull!
#1 – Don’t over react – Anger is a known root of disease. As I posted in “Sometimes You Just Know,” we were each other’s sounding board. However, my temper got the better of me far more often than hers got the better of her. Seriously, this particular lesson has been the hardest for a person of passion to learn. Especially a Scots Irish! We tend to carry grudges like they were the freaking Congressional Medal of Honor! Three years ago on April 1st, I discovered an app called Insight Timer. Her chemo wasn’t going well. I was raging against everyone and everything – except her. This included the divine. I used the app to meditate that day. Every time I felt stressed I found a corner and did a quick 10-15 minute guided meditation. It wasn’t an everyday thing, but when June 1st came and I almost had to make the decision to terminate care, I turned to the app for meditation to begin and end every single day. Two days ago, the app notified me that I was celebrating my 1000th consecutive day of meditation. Am I still angry at the surgeons who botched her care and their oath? Yes. Am I still angry at a health “care” system that is geared for profit instead of care? Yes. But I have learned as a cyclist and as a human that my anger and frustration does not affect just me. This is the essence of what she was trying to teach me. She was never frightened by my anger…but it affected her deeply none the less. My anger and her reaction to it may have caused her gall stones, which in turn caused her cancer, which in turn killed her. Similarly, my angry outbursts at ignorant motorists may not cause problems for me, but who knows how that motorist will react the next time he/she encounters a cyclist? Will that next cyclist pay the price for my screaming and accompanying one fingered salute? Sometimes, you have to breathe, go to your root, and let it go. And so, in order to let go, I hold tight to that app and my meditation practice.
#2 – Always be mindful and considerate of others. But expect nothing from anyone. Obviously this is one I am also still working on. I will also state that she admitted a few weeks before she died that she obviously had not truly bought into this lesson. She was forced into early retirement by her cancer. For years she had played the political game with our district administration…bowing to their every whim, doing the extra things with a smile…never questioning their judgement or authority. She noted that they had allowed her to run her program – unlike me – and felt that her demeanor had earned their respect. When the district did not recognize her as a retiree or invite her to the end of the year retiree dinner, she was hurt. Deeply. She cried for days. On the other hand, I frequently questioned administrator’s judgement when it flew in the face of research, or when it went against best practices and what was in the best interests of my students. This, of course, meant that I was frequently called to the principal’s office for meetings that consumed my travel and lunch time. I got angry, as I told her, primarily because my students were bringing honor and distinction to the district, that I was working far and above the expectations of the contract, and was not requesting large capital outlay – simply logistical and curricular support. When that wasn’t forthcoming, it exacerbated tensions even further. As a cyclist, this translates to every single ride. Whether it be on an invitational, where the Tour de France wannabes can’t be bothered to call out “On your left” as they pass in a pace line at 25 mph, or to the ignorant motorist who passes you with 250 feet left before the intersection and goes to make a right turn. Or to the club member that feels it’s ok to expect you to drop over $100/year for club dues, ride fees for the big club invitational, and t-shirt, etc., but obviously doesn’t care enough about you as a club member to attend an invitational (or participate as a virtual rider) for a deceased former club member that benefits at risk kids. But I’m not bitter or anything. I SAID I’M STILL WORKING ON IT!!!!!!
#3 – Live with grace, but don’t grow old gracefully. If I had $1 for every time she said this, we could have funded a cure for gall bladder cancer and saved her. She believed it. She lived it. This is why she was such a brilliant elementary music teacher…and would have been at the junior high level, given time. She WAS a kid, at heart. She told me once that I was an old soul…that I acted and carried on like I was a great deal older than my physical age in a lot of ways. She also noted the child in me…mostly childish stubbornness, but still… In her absence, I would like to feel that I have begun to live with grace far more frequently…my bouts with anger are far fewer…I am not as judgmental of others as I used to be…I am more conservative in my language and online footprint. However, it is far more difficult for a retiree on a fixed income, living totally on his own and at least 85 miles from grandchildren to act in a manner not consistent with his age. I have to settle for doing that on my bike. So some things I really do have to hold on to…like my plans to do a solo bike pack tour across the Northern Tier of the United States this summer. That’ll show ‘em! My grandkids anyway!
#4 – Happiness is a choice you HAVE to make every day. If she were buried, this would be on her tombstone. She said it to me from day one. I wasn’t happy about being farmed out to a junior college by my major university to sing in an opera because they didn’t have anyone capable of singing the title role. And I let her know it, because she played my daughter. She snapped back at me with that line. I kind of felt like Lou Grant listening to Mary Tyler Moore – “You’ve got spunk! I like spunk.”
I have this quote taped near the head of my bed. It is the first thing I look at in the morning, and the last thing at night…right next to her picture. Some days it is a relatively easy choice to make. Some days it isn’t. Some days it is easier to just wallow in self-pity and grief. But I have to remember that it is not just my soul that I am bargaining with. I truly believe that we forged an “Abler Soul” as John Donne put it (see Nov of 2019 Abler Soul post), and I am responsible STILL for her growth and happiness to an extent. So, when it is within my means to do so, I ride and release those endorphins! I hold on to that addiction. When weather, or life gets in the way, and riding becomes a pushmi-pullyu proposition, I let it go and live in the moment, looking for the happiness that I trust is hiding there.