Body Talk

The voice comes unbidden.  “Get up, get up, get up!” I must heed.  It is as though this isn’t really me, but some Other; a small, but insistent creature that lives inside me.  I’m not sure it’s there all the time.  Maybe it is.

Sometimes it sings.  Sometimes it speaks.  Sometimes it is just a whisper. Sometimes it makes me do things that really aren’t in the best interest of my body. “More cookies!” “Have another glass of wine!” “Sit.  Read.  You’re tired.”  My body seems to have no voice.  Or rather, my body’s voice is not speaking in words.  If my body could talk, it would probably say, “Move, dammit!  Use it or lose it!”

I am not listening.  Or, I just don’t hear it because it’s in a silent language.  The language is Fatigue. Its nouns and verbs are aches and pains. Fatigue is a hard language to understand.  Sometimes I translate incorrectly. Often I know exactly, but I put my fingers in my ears and say “Lalalalala, I can’t hear you.”

My body fights back. It has its way with me:

It gets heavy.  Sluggish. Gravity insists on pulling down on me.  I keep thinking, if I spent more time upside down, could I reverse the effects?

It gets diseased.  A couple years ago it yelled really loudly: “YOU HAVE CANCER!  HELP ME!”  And now:  “YOU HAD CANCER!  IT COULD COME BACK!  EAT SOME KALE! TAKE A WALK!

I am forced to respond. Ok, ok, ok!  Sheesh. Pipe down, will ya?  You’re scaring my family.  And me too – you are scaring me.

And so it goes.  Vigilance begins. The watching of what goes in, and what comes out.  The worrying.  Am I getting constipated again?  Did I eat too much bread?  Not enough vegetables?  Should I stop drinking wine altogether?

Meals are starting to feel like a chore I must get through.  Working out is feeling like an obligation.  I’m having trouble finding the fun part of all this.  Yes, I’m alive.  I’m grateful.  But this need to make every decision be about my health 24/7 is exhausting.  My body is so demanding!

That little creature who talks and sings to me – I really like her much better.  Her demands are much more fun.  Although sometimes she tries to keep me up late.  If she won’t let me fall asleep, my body takes the heat.  She can be kind of thoughtless, actually.  Why does she do that to me?  Doesn’t she like my body?

Religious and philosophical people often claim we are an integrated unit, a trinity of mind/body/spirit.  I haven’t even gotten into the spirit aspect, but what with all the discord I’m experiencing between the other two, I’m not sure if I want to add a third wheel into this relationship.

Come to think of it, maybe she’s like the mediator, and I need to ask her to get in here and counsel these two past their differences.  Hey, that could be the missing link!  Now if I could just get her to make an appearance today.  She’s a little shy; a little ethereal.  She doesn’t like to hang around in the concrete world.  I should see if she’s hanging around the gym, though.  I’ll let you know what I find over there.

War on Christmas

Jan - March 2012_138

There’s nothing like a massacre at a school to ruin the festive holiday spirit.  In the so-called War on Christmas, I think this Lanza fellow struck quite a bitter blow.  But today I decorated my tree, not only as a way to brighten up this gray, blustery, soggy day, but as an act of defiance.  My festive lights and ornaments will be the signal fires to spread the word of good will toward humanity.  These glittering beacons will say:

I choose light over darkness.

I choose hope over fear.

I choose love over hate and honor over shame.

I choose community over isolation.

I choose trust over suspicion.

I choose triumph of the spirit over despair of the soul.

I choose to pursue happiness over and over again, no matter how devastating the losses, no matter how heinous the crime.  This is the Spirit of Christmas, no matter whether you celebrate it as the birth of a really cool, peace-loving, maybe-he-was-the-Son-of God, even-though-he-called-himself-merely-the-Son-of-Man, guy from Nazareth, or whether you just like the lights and the presents and the decorations and the cookies.

Whether we realize it or not, these horrors are like a swift kick to the head – the wake-up call to the reality of how important we all are to each other.  How important it is to have community, and to be social.  These are the roots of the words communism and socialism.  It’s fascinating to me how we have twisted those words into something to be dreaded.  We profess to love communities, but not communism.  We love to be social, but not socialism.  We like sex, but sexism is on its way out.  (Not gone yet, but dwindling, at least in our country.)  Some of these isms are serious departures from their roots.

I think a lot about words, and how they are used to control the way we think and behave.

The spin masters of politics and media have ruined certain words by distorting their meanings.  I have a particular disdain for the way they have co-opted the word “brand”.  Everything is now a brand, including people.  One is encouraged to brand oneself, as if people were some kind of marketable product.  As a woman, I find this creepy to the extreme.  It wasn’t that long ago that we were considered a man’s property, along with his animals.  In some parts of the world, that is still the case.  Fathers offer dowries to the men that marry their daughters.  Some require a “bride price”.  Some South Asian cultures, including India, often do both.

OK, so we don’t do that here (thank God, or rather, our Constitution).  But why do people want to turn themselves into products?  What would Brand Mary be?  And would I have to design a box to put myself in?  Would I get shelf space?  Wouldn’t it be weird if we were all some product that we could pick up at the store?  I’m getting an idea for a Sci Fi story now.  The Twilight Zone theme is playing in my head.  Is everything for sale, even us?

This over commercialization of everything we are is the real War on Christmas.  Except it doesn’t stop at Christmas, it just goes on and on and on.  This is the true battle.  How do we find a balance between our capitalism and our capital ideas?  Another distorted ism to add to the list!  What we need is some isms we can believe in – like pluralism, idealism, pragmatism and spiritualism.  And one of my personal favorites – pacifism.    (Does that mean the Pacific Ocean is the Ocean of Peace?)  I’m sure that cool dude from Nazareth would approve.  He was a pacifist.  Some even call him the Prince of Peace.

I’m not sure a lot of these gun nuts who also claim to be Christians, are really aware of how ironic their behaviors are.  Bringing guns into schools is one of the most insane ideas we’ve ever entertained as a country.  I’m pretty sure Jesus would not have owned a gun.  Even if he could have defended himself against the Romans who were coming to get him and nail him to a cross, he wouldn’t have done it.  That’s just who he was.  Or who I believe he was.  That’s the guy I place my faith in, why I am trying to embrace Christmas, not just as a festive time of year and a way to stave off the gloom of winter, but as a celebration of birth.  As a way to honor the innocence and beauty of our children.  All our children: the ones we can hug and the ones we will never know.

This week, find a time to wonder at the beauty and spirit of a child near you.  Smile at them, offer them an assurance that adults can be trusted, that we are full of love and joy, and that the world is a place they can belong to.  Show them the meaning of Christmas.  If everyone did, maybe the War on Christmas would finally be over.

Aside

Give and Take

Blazing Glory

Thanksgiving is right around the corner.  Thanks is something we give away.  We don’t get to keep it.  We can’t take it from someone.  When we say “Thank you” we are usually referring to a friend, a relative, a stranger who holds the door for us, or some higher power we think might be out there directing or managing things.  Writer Anne Lamott says in her book Traveling Mercies, that the two best prayers she knows are “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”  I think this hits the nail on the proverbial head.  And I am so thankful now, as I discovered on Friday during my one year anniversary colonoscopy that I am clean and clear.  No tumors, polyps, or other foreign objects were found.  “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Last year, I discovered that I needed the “Help Me” prayer.  I was frightened, weak, uncertain, confused.  I was living in Cancerland.  I didn’t like it there.  There are a heck of a lot of people in Cancerland, many through no fault of their own.  So many people needing help: medical, physical, psychological, spiritual.  Some able to get it from family and friends.  Some alone, disoriented and afraid.  Oh, sure they got medical treatment.  But the health care community doesn’t do much beyond treating physical symptoms.  Their help stops once they’ve administered the needles, bandages, drugs and wheelchairs.

I recall one day during my chemotherapy treatment.  I was in the infusion center.  It must have been in March, because that’s when it started to feel like it would never end. I felt so bad, I thought I’d rather just have cancer and be done with it.  Maybe this was all the life I was gonna get.  If so, I didn’t want to feel terrible for what remained of it.  I was so demoralized, so tired of fighting. That day I had a nurse that I’d never seen before. She wasn’t Nurse Ratchet, but she was not Julie, my favorite, who was warm and friendly.  I started weeping after she put the needle in my port.  She asked me if I was in pain.  I said, “I’m just so tired of this,” or something like that.  And she said, “Well, we can’t do anything about that.”  My heart sank. “May I please have some tissues?” I asked.

As she went to retrieve them, I thought, this is what’s wrong with our health care system.  There is something she could have done about that, but she was not inclined to do it.  She had other things to do, and comforting was not part of her job description.  She thought all the help she could offer was medicine and a blanket to keep me warm.  But she could have offered me a kind word.  She could have said, “I know it sucks, honey.  You are gonna make it through this.”  She could have squeezed my hand or given me a hug, or offered to bring me something sweet or warm to drink.  She could have talked to me for a few minutes, or told me a joke.  There are many ways she could have demonstrated that she was a caring human being.  And I would have been grateful and appreciative, and perhaps even a little healthier for it.

I think it is much harder to ask for help than it is to give thanks.  There is a lot of social pressure not to ask for help.  We are supposed to be self-reliant.  We don’t want to be accused of being a ‘taker’, a slacker, a schnorer. (http://www.translationdirectory.com/dictionaries/dictionary004_s.htm)  One of the complaints of the current Republicans is that we are becoming a society of takers.  The 47% that is looking for handouts, the entitlement society.  Just what is it we are entitled to anyway?  What should we expect from others and from our government? If I have the right to life and liberty, does that mean my society has to help me stay alive and free? When is it OK to say, hey I need more than just the right to pursue happiness?  I’d actually like to find it and hold it, even if it’s just for a little while.

I know there are those who feel they have been asked for too much, and they are tired of giving.  I suspect their resentment stems from not being appreciated enough.  The recipients have not been grateful.  Maybe the askers have gone to the well too many times, and now it is running dry.  That can certainly happen.  I know I have forgotten to be thankful to someone who has gifted me with time or presents.  This debt weighs on me.  The scale is out of balance.  Will a thank you note suffice?  Or do I need to do more?  A gift, perhaps.  How much thanks is enough?

But I have to think:  when I give a gift, do I expect anything in return?  Not usually.  I do it because it is either a gift-giving occasion, or I just felt like it.  I just want to say to that person – when I saw this, I thought of you.  And yet when someone does the same for me, I feel like I am remiss if I do not balance the scales somehow.  I feel as though I am in their debt.  Assistance and gratitude are like two sides of the same coin.  The yin and yang of life.  When we receive help, we give thanks.  When we give help, we receive thanks.  It’s a delicious feedback loop. As long as both sides are in balance.

This year I am whispering the “Thank You” prayer.  And as Turkey Day approaches, I want to send out my thanks again, to everyone who came to my rescue during the “Help Me” prayer days. If I could put thanks into a form, it would be a shining golden light, one that warms your heart and soul, and makes you feel that all is right with the world, even when it isn’t. That’s how your help was for me. It lit up my days, and gave me hope. I want you to know that as I get stronger every day, I am this way because of you. As we toss Help and Thanks back and forth to each other in this life, we weave a luminescent web across the miles.  We make the world a better place.  Thank you for making all of my future days bright and shiny thanks-giving days.

Fall Back

Fall is in the air.  The clouds are gathering.  It feels like rain.  The temperature is dropping, and so is my mood.  Hibernation, snuggling, soup, tea and a warm fire seem appealing.  As the members of House Stark say in the HBO show Game of Thrones, “Winter is coming.”

Tuesday, October 23rd would be my dad’s 87th birthday. He died on September 5, 1987, of a heart attack. It was the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. This was especially tragic timing for our family, as it was the weekend of the Dombrowski Family Picnic, a long-standing tradition put on by my dad’s sister Agnes and her family on a farm outside of Ann Arbor. Lots of family and friends, bringing dishes they made, and the corn freshly harvested from the local field. Lots of kids, a tire swing, pick up games of badminton and volleyball.  I think the picnic was cancelled that year.  It really is all a blur, the memory of those days.

Death does that, I think.  Grays things out.  Makes them fuzzy, hazy, opaque.  Obscures things from view.  We can’t see joy, we can’t find ourselves.  We get lost in space and time. We stumble around, bumping into things, confused, unsure what to do next.  We go through the motions.  Days pass, and suddenly it is the next month.  We look around, wondering what happened.  It is a numbness, a bubble of defensive de-sensitivity.

There are outward signs of grief.  Tears, sleep disruption, eating or losing one’s appetite, slacking off on personal hygiene, withdrawal from others.  We miss our lost loved one so much, we need comforting, but it is so stressful to be out in the world without them, and everything reminds us that they are gone.  We create services to honor them, to bring us all together in remembrance.  And then it is over.  Or so we are led to believe. We are told that time will heal our wounds.  All wounds, even.  But as time drifts on, we realize that only those who have never been wounded like this can even think such a thing.  Our wounds may look healed on the outside.  But on the inside we are struggling to decide whether today we will be raw or we will be numb.

When my dad died, I see-sawed between rawness and numbness, sometimes several times a day.  It was so unexpected, so tragic, so devastating to me.  My dad was my greatest champion – the one who told me I could be anything I wanted to be (a lawyer or a judge, preferably.  He did have his biases.).  We shared a love of reading, the spoken word, music, singing, skiing, sailing, the beach, travel, politics, Ireland and baseball.  He encouraged me to write, and even though I’ve always been intimidated by the competition in the field of the written word, his encouragement lodged itself in my subconscious.  Its foundation has allowed me, now in my 50s, to embrace my desire to write.  To allow myself the time for it, even if something else needs to get done.  To believe it when someone tells me I write well, that they enjoy reading what I have to say.  This gift from my father is something I cherish.  It helps keep him with me to this day.

It’s been 25 years since he died now.  25 years is a very long time.  I don’t cry very much any more when I think of him. I remember the laughter in his heart.  I remember when he played the harmonica, when he ran a marathon, when he climbed the Matterhorn, when he sailed the solo Pt. Huron to Mackinaw race. I remember his silly sayings, like “Wobo it about a bit.” Or “There ain’t many of us perfect guys left.”  The former he would say if we were lollygagging or not moving fast enough; the latter if we were complaining about our own or others’ failings.  He was the kind of guy with a twinkle in his eye.  He was shy, but had many admirers.  He was well-respected – a rare thing in the field of law.  We used to love watching Perry Mason together.  We watched a lot of TV in those days.  He loved All in the Family, The Streets of San Francisco, and Columbo.  He loved a good mystery novel, and introduced me to Agatha Christie, for which I am very grateful.  I thought I might even want to become a detective some day. As I grew up though, I realized that I couldn’t handle the world of crime.  I’ve discovered I have to limit my exposure to the dark side of humanity.  It drags me down too much.

My father’s death was the most profound thing ever to happen to me.  I was unprepared for it. For a long time afterward, I beat myself up thinking I could have saved him, even though the doctors told us there was nothing we could have done.  I agonized over it:  if I’d only known to administer CPR!  We didn’t realize he was having a heart attack at the time.  He’d dived into the pool, and hit his head, and when my mom, who was with him, started screaming, I came rushing down the stairs to find her dragging him toward the steps.  We thought he was passed out from the head injury.  We didn’t know.

When autumn comes, blowing the scarlet and umber leaves down from the trees, I am reminded of those days. The chill in the air goes straight to my heart. Over the years, I have built up defenses.  I push myself even harder to exercise, to combat the urge to retreat.  Even my job as a teacher is, in some way, a method of distraction from the gloom that fall signifies to me.  It keeps me busy helping others, so I don’t have to think about how I couldn’t help my father stay alive.

It is ironically apropos that I discovered my cancer in the fall. As the anniversary of my fateful (yet lifesaving) colonoscopy came and went, it was warm here in Sacramento.  It didn’t feel like fall yet.  But this week, the skies have changed, the rain is looming and the darkness of the mornings seems to linger all day. In a couple of weeks I will have to have another colonoscopy. It will be an annual event for three years.  It was very hard to make the appointment.  I kept putting off the call.  I’ve never been comfortable with making calls to doctors or other service providers, actually.  I have some bizarre phone aversion that has been with me since I can remember.  Someday I’ll have hypnosis and get to the bottom of it.  Or not.

Maybe we can’t know all the reasons why we are the way we are, or why bad things happen to good people.  Or why it seems like some of the bad people seem to have way too much power.  Or why there is cancer, mental illness, or birth defects.  Although it feels a lot like someone might be punishing us, I think it is only our internal self that does the punishing.

The upcoming round of holidays have always been tough for me to weather.  California’s relatively mild climate (except in the mountains) fools me into thinking it really isn’t time to prepare for winter celebrations.  And then there they are, staring me in the face while I’ve been hunkered down with a book and pretending I have plenty of time to buy pumpkins, candy, costumes, turkey, stuffing, presents, cards, chocolate coins, candles and wrapping paper.  I think I find it hard to celebrate this time of year, because it holds such loss for me.  Even though these festivities can be seen as an act of defiance, a raging against the dying of the light, I have often found them offensive in some way.  Too many people ignoring their pain and sorrow – or maybe – MY pain and sorrow.  Too many people not understanding how tough it can be to try to make happy times for your family, when it is an effort just to feed yourself healthy food, or go for a walk, or call a friend.  That even after years of functioning, of healing, of forgetting; a sudden glimpse of someone who looks like my father, can reel back the years.  I think of all the things I didn’t get to share with him.  How much he would have enjoyed being a grandfather.  How I can never again call a man “Dad.”   And yet…I am lucky to have had the privilege of having him for 28 years.  He was a great father.  I suppose this is why I miss him so much.

It won’t be long until we set the clocks back. So the mornings won’t be quite so dark, but the evenings will be early and long.  Many people have trouble remembering which way to turn the clocks, but it’s simple really: Fall back, Spring forward.  This fall back strategy makes it harder to want to venture out at night.  It’s almost as if our national priorities conspire with the weather to keep us home, to entice us with football games and TV shows, to eat and drink and be merry, to put up lights to stave off the creeping dark.  This is my favorite thing about winter though, since I don’t get to have snow anymore.  I love Christmas lights.  I may have to put them up early this year.  I usually wait until after Hanukkah, to honor my husband’s traditions, but I may need them sooner.  I need lights to stave off the gloom, to warm my heart; as a fire in the hearth can warm my bones. This has always been my defense against the dark:  staying warm.  I have no potions or spells but this.  I hope it will be enough, again.

Motorvation, Part II

So two weekends ago I started my journey into the world of motorcycling with a training class.  It had some scary moments, but after it was over, I was, um…transported.  (Sorry).  Seriously though, the whole experience was a perfect exercise for overcoming my fears. Or, at least facing them.  I still actually have some fears.  More like concerns than fears, since I know that even after passing a motorcycle training course, I need oodles of practice before I can feel comfortable on the street.  And I really don’t want to get too comfortable, because you need to be pretty vigilant if you are going to ride.

Safety was stressed time and again during the class.  After all, we were in Safetyville.  http://www.safetycenter.org/safetyville/Default.asp The Rider Coaches were very firm about being safe at all times.  The videos we watched to show us what to do before we actually got out there on the bikes were crafted to be sobering reminders of what could happen if we didn’t follow safety protocols.  Then after scaring us, the voice-over guy would say, “So, have fun out there!”  Ok, sure.  Right after I unclench my teeth and remember to breathe, and after I figure out how to downshift with my left foot, while coming to a quick stop, braking with both my right hand and foot.  And then put my left foot on the ground, so I don’t tip over.  And squeeze the brake firmly, but not too fast, and make sure you look forward.  And don’t brake hard while the front wheel is turned.  Despite this memory challenge, I passed the riding test. Rider Coach Vince asked me if I wanted to know my score, and I said No.  I passed, that’s good enough for me. I used to care more about scores and grades, but all I wanted to do was get out of there.  It was stressful, exhausting and so darn hot.  The whole thing might have been easier when I was younger and my brain and body were more nimble.

Whatever, I can’t go back in time, only forward.  Much like a motorcycle, actually.  They don’t go in reverse.  If you need to back up, you have to put it in neutral and walk it backwards.  Dave calls it duck walking.  It’s not a lot of fun, because these bikes are so darn heavy.  Even the light weight ones are around 300 – 400 pounds.  It used to be that this weight was considered a middle weight bike; not anymore.  Like the American population, what is considered normal now, used to be large then.

We are a nation of large things – SUVs, Big Gulps, big box and warehouse stores like Costco and Home Depot, Super size items, and all-you-can-eat buffets.  Our average human is getting larger and larger.  Have you noticed that, especially in men’s clothing, some manufacturers don’t even make a small?  They just start with medium and go up to XXL.  In women’s clothing they actually changed the dimensions of the sizes, so what used to be a size 12 is now a 10.  I kept thinking how weird that was, however it’s a psychological trick to help clothing sales.  It doesn’t help us stay healthy and fit, unfortunately, because we are tricked into thinking we are smaller than we really are.

We seem to think bigger is better.  Look at our houses:  the average home size has gone from just below 1000 square feet in the 1950s to up to 2300 square feet in the 2000s.  And getting back to motorcycles, I am finding that anything much over 400 pounds seems really, really heavy.  Dave’s Kawasaki ex-police bike is 650 lbs and I can’t even lift it off its kick stand.  Maybe I need to work out.  It will be a while until I can ride the bike he bought for me, a Suzuki Intruder, which weighs 535 pounds.

Saturday morning we drove down to South Sacramento to check out a bike Dave found that ended up being just right for me.  At only 300 pounds, the Honda Nighthawk 250 is a great starter bike.  There were some of them at the SafetyvilleTrainingCenter, although I didn’t ride one of them.  Yet this one seemed manageable.  Then later that afternoon, we went out to shop for a helmet and a jacket.  I opted for a modular helmet, where the jaw section flips up.  When closed it feels like I might be in astronaut training. From the outside it looks more like one of the Storm troopers from Star Wars.  Or Iron Man.  Except it’s not white or red.  It’s silver.

Although I did get a white jacket.  It’s not leather, it’s a synthetic fabric that is very durable, and water repellant.  Not that I plan on riding in the rain or anything.  The lining zips out, and on the inside it has hard plastic pads on the shoulders, elbows and spine. It feels a bit like some kind of armor, which I guess is the point.  I wanted white because I am determined to be as visible as possible.  The bike is black, so that’s no help in the visibility department.  I am starting to get excited about going out there and giving it a go.  Luckily the weather has started to cool down a bit.  It can be brutal riding around fully clothed in 90 degree weather, which was what most of September was.

My Certificate of Completion of Motorcycle Training just arrived in the mail as well.  Now I need to study for the written test, which I will take as soon as I can at the DMV. It’s truly stunning that I can get out there on the road after passing it.  If I feel unprepared, what kind of other bumbling riders are out there?  I need to keep my eyes wide open. Scan the road ahead.  But I’m motivated to continue this journey.  Yep, I’m getting motorvated.  Gonna have fun out there.  Gonna enjoy the ride.

Motorvation

Cancer is a very personal journey.  No one can do it for you. The fatigue and nausea from the chemo, the relief over good blood counts and the re-growth of your hair, and the nagging worry that it may return someday, no matter how well you take care of yourself, are just some of the feelings that are yours and yours alone.

In fact, there is a naïve belief that this is only about you.  It didn’t happen to most of your family or friends, so they can just breathe sighs of relief and go on about their business. Lucky ducks, you think.  No fair, but hey – everyone has their own issues.  This one was mine.  Ok.  I owned it. I got through the hard part.  And I have been working on myself ever since.

But, as self-focused as I have been, I didn’t notice that my illness was spilling over into the lives of my family and friends.  They rallied round me, yes, but what I didn’t realize is how much it would affect them, and alter the way they feel about their futures.  There is nothing like a life-threatening illness to shake things up, to wake you and those around you to what you want to do with what remains of your life.  They were thinking some of the same thoughts as me: Am I doing the things I love?  Because you never know when something may change.  And change it will.  Like the guy from The Men’s Wearhouse, I guarantee it.

So about a month ago, my well-meaning and adorable husband decided to surprise me with something he thought might be fun.  He bought me a motorcycle.  Now, I have never indicated any interest in riding a motorcycle.  The closest I have ever come was about a billion years ago, when I rented a moped on Martha’s Vineyard with a high school chum.  It was fun, what I recall of it, although we ventured a wee bit out of the approved zone, and I think I ran out of gas and we had to get picked up by the rental agency.  They admonished us for not following their rules, and we probably had to pay a fine.  I don’t remember all the details.  It was the 80s, for Pete’s sake.

Most of the reasons I have never been interested in riding a motorcycle are actually my husband’s fault.  He rode when he was young and wild, and spooked himself with several accidents.  Was he a careful rider?  I doubt it.  It was the late 1960s.  He may have been careless with both his body and the weather.  But this was BM, Before Mary, so I don’t know for sure.

Another thing he would tell me is how motorcycles are referred to as “donor cycles” in hospitals, because so many people in bike accidents do not make it. He told me bikes are hard to see and hear – car drivers don’t notice them, and bam.  According to statistics from 2007, per vehicle mile driven, motorcyclists are 35 times more likely to get in an accident than auto drivers.  And Dave had stopped riding at the age of 28, because he said he made a pact with the powers that be, that if he could ride for 10 years without permanent injury, he would give up riding.  He actually thought he wasn’t going to live past the age of 30 anyway.  At that time, those 30 and over weren’t to be trusted, so no sense living that long, right?

OK, so he’d instilled in me a healthy fear of motorcycles from the beginning of our 22 year long marriage.  (Even longer, since we met 24 years ago.)  I had zero interest in getting on one of those deathtraps.  So you can imagine my consternation when he brought me out to the garage one day in August, to show me the “surprise” he had for me. When I think surprise, I think: a trip, a dinner, a soft or sparkly thing I can wear, or even – good chocolate. Not a Machine of Doom.

My response was not favorable.

When Dave had started talking wistfully about riding again, during my illness, I never dreamed he’d want me to go with him.  I figured he would just do it by himself or find a buddy to do it with.  If he wanted me to ride with him, why didn’t he ask me if I was interested?  I don’t know how to ride.  I would have to get a license.  Plans would have to be made.  Didn’t he understand this?  Why was he doing this to me?

My brain and emotions were all mixed up.  I had just stared death in the face. I was feeling very cautious. I was just starting to feel strong enough to take walks, do yoga, and go back to my part time teaching job.  This was plenty of activity for me. (And it has turned out to be exhausting, both physically and mentally.)  I was not ready for a challenge that wasn’t even my idea.  I felt like I was being asked to go past where I was ready to go, and I was not happy about it.

After a few days, my fury and fear subsided a bit. I thought long and hard about the idea of riding a motorcycle with my husband.  I started running into people who rode. A couple of them were women I trusted. They were very encouraging.  They helped me see how to approach this.  They were a bit concerned about the bike Dave had purchased for me.  From what they knew about bikes, it seemed awfully powerful for a beginner.  Since I have no experience with or much knowledge of motorcycles, I was grateful for their input. Dave insists that it will be fine, but he has a tendency to overestimate my abilities and enthusiasm for new experiences at times.  An unfortunate “no trail, just bush whacking” cross country skiing incident in Vermont comes to mind…

I decided to do what I always do when confronted with something daunting: take baby steps. I made a commitment to take a class to learn how to ride.  If, after that I was still unhappy with the idea, then Dave said he’d sell the bike, and probably make money on it too.  You see, he’d had to buy it.  It was too good a deal to pass up.  Thankfully, he does know his cars and motorcycles (also, trains and planes – most vehicles, actually), so that doesn’t worry me.  I also insisted that Dave take the training class with me.  Misery loves company?  Not really, but I am intimidated, and I think it will help to be there with someone I know.

The training course runs over a weekend, and begins tonight.  It’s a total of 15 hours: 2 1/2  Friday night, 7 1/2 on Saturday and 5 on Sunday.  I’m a little nervous. I’ve always been somewhat risk aversive, so this is way outside my comfort zone. I don’t like driving fast, don’t enjoy roller coasters, and have no interest in extreme sports like bungee jumping.  About the only semi-hazardous thing I like is downhill skiing.  A couple years ago I hurt my hip in a fall and it caused chronic back pain and numbness in my leg and foot from a pinched nerve.  It still bothers me. So I am trepidatious. Is that even a word? Microsoft Word doesn’t think so. But I looked it up, and Merriam-Webster says it is. I really don’t know how to end this, because if I stop writing that will mean that I really have to go soon.  It’s only an hour until we leave for Safetyville, where the training course is being held.  The course claims it is “designed to teach motorcycle riders the basic and advanced skills that may save their lives while riding on the street.”  That’s it.  I’ll just stay in the parking lot then.

Divine Forgiveness

If to forgive is divine, I have not yet reached divinity. It’s not that I can’t forgive people their trespasses. Some trespasses are easy to forgive. Like forgetting to send thank you cards, for instance. It’s not that I don’t love mail that isn’t a bill, but I don’t need a card for every special occasion, or in return for every gift I give. A verbal thanks, a hug, a smile or an email is good enough. I do love a good card though, so don’t hesitate to send me one, any time.  It’s just that I would forgive you if you forgot.

And I find young people, like my students, are easy to forgive. I actually expect them to make mistakes, to need guidance, to be so busy striving and learning about themselves that their transgressions of courtesy don’t bother me. I don’t take their behavior personally.

I suppose this would be a good policy to extend at all times to everyone, the young and the post-young. Gurus and prophets have been preaching this for years. One of the Four Agreements (a book by Miguel Angel Ruiz which has been popular among Seekers lately) is Don’t Take Anything Personally. This level of detachment, while making your life much less stressful if you can achieve it, is very challenging to do with adults. I would venture to say it is more difficult to achieve the closer someone is to you.

Behaviors that affect you, such as when a male member of the household leaves the toilet seat up and you sit down without looking, perhaps in the middle of the night when you don’t want to turn on the light and you are half-asleep anyway, can seem to be passive-aggressive attempts at control or punishment. More likely they are just forgetfulness or absentmindedness, distraction or laziness. Or a bad habit in the making. Whatever the reason, according to Ruiz, one must not take this personally. But after it happens more times than you can count, the resentment builds up. It begins to seem like they are doing it on purpose, leading to the following thoughts: “What the hell is wrong with him? He always used to put the seat down, now I have to check every time? Is he mad at me? What did I do to deserve this?” Etc. It is very difficult to avoid taking it personally.

I’m not saying that this is happening in MY house, by the way. I’m just using it as an example of a very common household irritant. There are plenty of them recounted in the talk shows, self help books and ladies luncheons of the world (toothpaste tubes squeezed from the middle, tops not put back on, empty cups or socks left all around the house). I’m sure I do things that my family members find aggravating, like leaving unfinished piles of things around – the evening dishes, laundry partially folded, unpacked suitcases, or mounds of mail needing to be sorted (Why is this my job, exactly?). But I swear it isn’t meant to intentionally bother them. It is my own mishegas. I think they forgive me. I think they just know that this is how I am. I get to it all eventually. Every two weeks when the cleaners come, I am forced to tidy things. I hate it, but I love the way it looks later that day. I should invite people to dinner every other Wednesday, when the house actually looks clean…

Ok, so the small things are easy. But what about the big ones? Some transgressions are so upsetting and hurtful that it has taken me years to get over them. Some incidents I thought I had forgiven and forgotten, until some little trigger – a gesture, a memory, seeing it happen to someone else– brings it back again and I realize that I am still processing it. “Crap. I so wanted to be over this now,” I think to myself. But I am not. And I have to search within for some peace. For a letting go. For forgiveness. It’s hiding in me somewhere, I just know it! Like the proverbial car keys. I just have to remember where I put my Forgiveness.

There is forgiving others and then there is forgiving ourselves. Each is a challenge in its own way. But I think they are intertwined. Women are used to saying, “I’m sorry” about all sorts of things. We want to be forgiven. We don’t want people to be mad at us, so we learn to smooth things over. We are trained to be little apologizers: “I’m sorry I forgot your dry cleaning”, “I’m sorry dinner is late”, “I’m sorry I forgot my appointment, but the dog threw up on the carpet and the baby has an ear infection, so I was a little distracted.” I haven’t read a lot about this particular aspect of socialization, but it is my experience that women apologize easily and often, even for things that aren’t their fault. It can get ridiculous. It’s almost as thought they are apologizing for just being there. For God’s sake, ladies, let’s stop this type of sorry behavior immediately. Forgiveness does not mean we have to be door mats.

But therein lies the dilemma – how do we forgive those who have trespassed against us without becoming door mats? If Pride is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and it “goeth before the fall”, then how do we find enough self esteem to be in that zone where we have enough self respect and pride not to accept being treated poorly, but to forgive the people who treat us poorly?

I think this is an important discussion for our society to have. There is so much vitriol out there, on talk radio, in politics, the blogosphere, the Twitterspace and Facebook world. All this anger and meanness swirling around is hard on the psyche. If everyone is outraged and righteous all the time, I doubt seriously that we are, as some extremist Republicans often claim, a Christian nation. What a silly idea that is anyway, especially as the founding fathers wanted a clear separation of church and state. It hadn’t been working well in the Old Country then, and we can see how devastating it is in the Middle East now. When religion takes over the government, all hell breaks lose.

So how do we forgive these people who do us wrong? These angry, aggressive, arrogant assholes? These rude, nasty, pigheaded barbarians? These greedy, selfish, ignorant swine? Are they people too? They don’t always seem like you and me, do they? They were raised by wolves, or with silver spoons, or are two sandwiches short of a picnic. They don’t even know how to say, “I’m sorry.” Maybe because they aren’t. Or maybe they just don’t know how.

So, wow. Did no one teach them how to apologize? Do they feel like it is some kind of weakness or something? Are they suffering from mental illness? I suppose any or all of these are possible. Do we need apologies first before forgiveness can flourish? Can you forgive someone without them knowing or caring? Can you let it go inside you, regardless of whether they ever understand what they have done to you? So very difficult, so very challenging, so very powerful if you can manage it.

The hard part, the very hardest part, is that it really never ends. It is like laundry, dishes and the mail. The transgressions grow like grass and we have to keep trimming the blades before they get out of control. Forgiveness is forever. Forgiveness is fumbling and recovering the ball. It is stumbling and righting ourselves. It is pulling the weeds, feeding the dog, wiping the counters, brushing your teeth, changing the oil in your car. It is the work of our lives. And if we can find it, there with the misplaced car keys, we can breathe a sigh of relief. And inch a little closer to that peace we all claim we want so much. And maybe a little closer to divinity as well.

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